Tarnation (2004): Jonathan Caouette’s Reality as Painfully and Weirdly Entertaining Confessional Family Saga

A truly iconoclastic visionary, Jonathan Caouette has been acting and making films ever since he was 8 year old.  In 2004, he starred in, directed, and edited Tarnation, his striking feature debut, which was executive produced by indie icon-directors Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell.

A highly personal, emotionally touching film, “Tarnation” was widely praised as a revolutionary work, and not just because of its no-budget.  It represented a new type of movie and a new process of filmmaking.

Combining genres and formats and conventions, Tarnation is part documentary, part narrative fiction, part home movie, and part acid trip, in which he charts a psychedelic whirlwind of snapshots, super-8 home movies, messages from answering machines, video diaries, early short films, snippets of 1970s and 1980s pop culture, and dramatic reenactments of episodes and people of his life.

The end result of this original mélange was an in-depth portrait of an American family travesty that was insightful and revelatory, cinema verite as gruelling therapy.

Premiering at the Sundance Fm Fest, Tarnation then played successfully at Cannes, after which it won many awards, including Best Documentary from the Los Angeles Indie Film Fest, the National Society of Film Critics, and the London Film Festival.

Admittedly, Caouette’s confessional saga of his “crazy” family is painful to watch, but it’s often moving and at times even entertaining in a weird way.

The film was released theatrically in major cities, where it continued to develop cult following, raising expectations of Caouette’s next work.