Jonathan Caouette, for all the torment of his life, is kind of lucky. His mother was abused as a child, sent to mental hospitals and given electroshock therapy for no real reason. His father was gone when he was in the womb. His grandparents raised him after several years of abuse in foster homes. He grew up gay in Texas. Did the drug thing (once), the masochism thing, the punk rock thing, the lip-synching to Dolly Parton thing. Suffered from depersonalization. Had a strange and loving relationship with his grandmother. Reconnected with his mother when he was a little older, when she was, well, an altered woman. Moved to New York. Met his father. Watched his mother fall apart. Confronted his family on what it had done to itself.
He's lucky because he caught it all. On High 8, videotape, in photographs, audio diaries, answering machine messages. In bits of conversation, in late-night confessions in half-lit closets, dyed portraits and stills. With Apple's iMovie, he wove it all into Tarnation, a documentary, I guess, though it's more fitting to call it a testament. This is Jonathan Caouette's life, the life given to him (like a criminal sentence) by his mother, Renee. Because he always had a camera with him throughout his life, he has it all down, like stenography.
It's an hour and 25 minutes, but it captures the disintegration of a small family over decades. Real stuff mixed with staged stuff mixed with camera trickery. It's like Jonathan knew since he was 10 that he would make this movie. And then, as an adult preparing it, he confronts the material he recorded over his adolescence. It's difficult to watch, especially when he puts the camera on his grandfather and asks why he mistreated his mother. In all ways, Tarnation is an exhumation.