Jonathan Couette’s Tarnation is an astonishing, heartbreakingly beautiful film. It’s autobiography transfigured, and life as performance. It’s a survivor’s diary, and it’s a love letter without hope, yet unquelled by the absence of hope. It’s a psychedelic, avant-garde, experimental film, and yet it’s a pure documentary, concerned with the Real, only the Real.
Jonathan Couette’s mother Belle was and is crazy: after an incident of (what Freud would have called) hysterical paralysis when she was 12, she was given hundreds of shock treatments, which unhinged her for good. She gave birth to Jonathan when she was 19; his father was already gone from the picture. Jonathan remembers seeing Belle raped in front of him when he was three. She got even crazier after that, and he was taken from her; after a few years in foster homes (where he remembers being abused), he was raised by his grandparents (Belle’s parents), while Belle herself spent years going into and out of various psychiatric institutions. Growing up, Jonathan suffered from “depersonalization disorder” (a sort of dissociation that leads to one’s viewing oneself and one’s body affectlessly, as if from the outside, and being tormented with a continuing sense of unreality). But he also discovered that he was gay, and found in his gayness, and in his passion for acting and filmmaking, ways of escaping the familial horror that nonetheless continues to haunt him.
Tarnation is about — no, Tarnation is — Couette’s self-healing and self-overcoming, together with his infinite love for Belle, the mother who was literally never able to be “there” for him. The film contains some reenactments, but mostly it’s composed of the Super-8 films (and later the videos) of his own life that he started shooting when he was 11 years old (he is now 31 or so). Footage of himself and his family and his real-life dilemmas; and parallel footage of his acting, his trying out of different personas. On the one hand, we see him at 11, in drag, putting on the role of a Southern belle with a young child, who was raped much like he remembered his mother being: there’s incredible nervousness in this performance, but also an over-the-top melodramatic flair, as if such role-playing could exorcize the pain by some sort of homeopathic ritual. On the other hand, we see him as an adult, in the present, trying to interview his mother, trying to make some sense of her mood swings, her inconsistencies, her bitterness and anger, her inability to focus or to make anything of herself.
But Tarnation is not a film of pathos and victimization. It’s quite harrowing in parts, depressing and devastating and overwhelmingly sad; but it’s also a powerful act of reimagining and reinventing, the creation and projection of a new sensibility, a new subjectivity. And as such, there’s something exuberant, even (dare I say it?) exhilarating about it.
A formalist would call it a triumph of montage. The film is a swirl of fragmentary images, unexpected leaps and associations, and soundtrack music that both intensifies and distances the material being presented on the screen. Couette mixes his personal, archival footage with bits and pieces of movies, TV shows, and pop songs; he cuts his images up, sometimes playing them out of sequence, or repeating them like musical motifs or dividing and multiplying them on the screen. A lot of the recorded speech is barely audible, while crucial details of his life story are distanced by being narrated only by terse third-person printed titles.
In all these ways, the form of the film matches the content. Not just in terms of schizophrenic disintegration, but much more importantly as an act of reconstruction. For Tarnation doesn’t try to restore a “normal” life, to establish a straightforward (or straight) narrative; it doesn’t offer consolation. What it does do, beautifully and astoundingly, is produce a subjectivity (for the film, and hopefully for the director/protagonist as well) that is capable of enduring (of living through, of not just surviving, but persisting in the face of) the traumas and tribulations of its history. Tarnation expresses and embodies a mode of being-in-the-world that is absolutely singular, rich and strange, yet at the same time completely comprehensible and recognizable to the spectator (watching the film, I find myself utterly captivated by and immersed in its alien and unsettling world, while at the same time understanding that this world is not all that strange and alien after all, since it is also my own, the very same world that I myself inhabit). It’s something about the third person titles, the acting and role-playing, the interweaving of personal footage with media footage, the continual metamorphoses of images in the frame, the rush of events punctuated by moments of stillness.
The emotion that makes it all work, and that is embedded deeply in every frame of the film, is Couette’s love for his mother: a love that is absolute and unconditional (as any true love must ultimately be), at the same time that it is impossible (and recognized as impossible): impossible for anybody, in any circumstances, of course, but all the more so with a mother as unstable, unavailable, unreachable as Belle. Tarnation is, you might say, a melodramatic fiction: not fiction in the sense of illusion, however, but a fiction that is entirely actualized, wholly present, in Couette’s own life, and that also becomes actual for us, as we watch the film.