One man's life

Fractured, frantic Tarnation finds salvation in pop culture

In the last 10 years, a handful of films have been made that testify to the transcendent, soul-saving properties of pop culture. The music, movies and fashion that some write off as trite can prove meaningful to the lives of alienated kids, particularly alienated gay kids. Worlds of fantasy and imagination, documented in films like Velvet Goldmine, Hedwig and the Angry Inch and now Tarnation offer hope for something bigger and better than the here and now.

Tarnation is a chaotic, moving and sometimes histrionic autobiographical memoir of Jonathan Caouette that suggests pop culture — whether cult movies like Liquid Sky or a Houston new wave gay club — offered him an escape from his grim home life in a Texas suburb.

We see Caouette stage a musical version of Blue Velvet at his high school, perform drag in elaborate Super-8 movies and imagine that his own life story will one day be told as a rock opera starring Robby Benson.

Caouette recounts his life in what feels like an extended purge made up of family snapshots, audio scraps and home movie footage that, amazingly, Caouette began to shoot at the age of 11. Without a stable home life, the film appears to have offered Caouette the companionship and confessional his troubled soul needed.

Made for the astoundingly slim budget of $218.32 and edited on Apple iMovie software, Tarnation is an admirable, radical gesture in concept alone. In an age when $1 million qualifies as a bare-bones budget, it is a small miracle that through such humble means, Caouette has woven the tatters of his childhood into a rich, telling — if imperfect — tapestry of his life.

Tarnation begins, in true rock opera fashion, as a fairy tale, with the story of a happy husband and wife, Rosemary and Adolph, and their beautiful daughter, Renee. But almost as soon as the perfect status quo is established, a wormhole in the apple is revealed. A traumatic fall or leap from the roof sends Renee into a doomed spiral. She undergoes two years of weekly shock treatments, gives birth to Jonathan, and in the flypaper litany of horror that seems to make some people magnets for tragedy, has soon involved her young son in an equally ill-fated life course.

Abandoned at a painfully vulnerable age, Caouette emerges as a Texas Oliver Twist whose brain is fried on a lethal recipe of foster homes, abuse, drugs, proximity to violence and a disastrously unstable Southern gothic home life.

Tarnation is billed as a love story of a boy and his mentally ill mother, although the degree of intimacy Caouette reveals may be too painful and public to qualify as love. Caouette seems more interested in interrogation and evisceration of his mother, which may be some sort of unconscious payback for maternal abandonment. In one of the film's most gruesome moments, Caouette holds his camera for a disturbing length of time on his mother's post-lithium overdose soliloquy, a creepy, childlike stream of consciousness. But the filmmaker has already given us ample details of what his mother has been through. Showing the ravages of Renee's mind seems a last, undignified invasion of his mother's already thoroughly assaulted life.

One is left with the most troubling, indefinable kind of malaise after watching Tarnation. If the film reveals anything, it's how brutally some suffer while others are spared. It is a marvel that Caouette was able to make something artful out of the ruins of his childhood.

It is only natural that a film this centered on the myriad traumas of youth can come across as unbearably overwrought and self-indulgent. Tarnation is inflamed with the grandiose drama of a teenager playacting in front of the mirror or camera, which at times upstages the unimaginable traumas Caouette and his mother suffered. Tarnation is emotionally baroque, from the frenzied, jagged editing that splits a single photograph of Caouette into a hundred to the montage of him in his Super-8 home movies smearing his face with what looks like blood and vamping with an intensity that seems entirely appropriate to the boiling horrors of his life.

Drunk on extremity in every form, the film leaves us with the feeling that what his family couldn't offer him, Caouette found in music and movies and creativity, but also in his high school boyfriend and his grown-up lover, David, who appears in the film's second half. On several occasions, it seems that hope intervened in the form of other people, but also in film, which has given expression and definition to Caouette's life.