Fussing repetitively with a lock of blond hair, nervously flashing an incomplete set of front teeth, the figure on screen begins to cough up her “testimony” in the accents of a Southern trailer court. The story that spills from her sounds all too familiar–the boot in her stomach while she was pregnant, the gun muzzle shoved against her head, the sound of her husband shouting, “I’m gonna kill you, bitch!”–but the speaker herself is a novelty, and is perhaps more devastating than any incident she relates. “Hillary,” as she calls herself, is actually an 11-year-old Houston boy named Jonathan Caouette. You are watching a scene he improvised in 1984 before a home videocamera.
Few boys his age would have chosen this character for their role-playing, or could even have conceived of her. What’s heartbreaking about Jonathan–and impressive–is that he turned himself into Hillary with true conviction. How did a kid get access to such emotions? By the time this scrap of footage comes up in Caouette’s sensational film-memoir Tarnation, you know the unfortunate answer, having experienced the beginnings of his story and his mother’s.
A New York-based actor and filmmaker who is now in his early 30s, Caouette put Tarnation together from some twenty years’ worth of his home videos, plus scrapbook photographs, audiocassette diaries, saved answering-machine tapes, favorite pop songs, clips from movies and TV shows and a few sections of recently shot footage (both documentary and staged). Emerging from this assemblage–which is more collage than montage–are three stories in one: Caouette’s tales of the calamities of a lower-middle-class household, the education of a Texas gay boy and the formation, at last, of a redemptive new family.
The original family, it turns out, was Jewish, which puts Tarnation into a category with Capturing the Friedmans as a demolisher of stereotypes. Caouette’s maternal grandparents, the Davises, appear to have been presentable enough when young, but throughout Tarnation they come across as toothless, impecunious, crotchety and ignorant–so ignorant that when their only child, Renee, suffered an ill-defined sickness at the start of her teen years, they turned her over to psychiatrists for a prolonged course of electroconvulsive therapy. Softened up by the experience, and also (no doubt) by the hippie drug culture that had reached Houston, Renee entered her 20s as a disaster-prone single mother with a long record of hospitalizations. She was unable to hold on to Jonathan, who began his career in foster homes at the age of 4 and would eventually go on his own tour of mental hospitals, thanks to some PCP-laced reefers and his grandparents’ willingness to sign forms.
I don’t hesitate to put all this into writing, because you would have to read it anyway in Tarnation. The film’s information–or the part of it that can be paraphrased–generally takes the form of texts, projected on a plain background or, more often, superimposed on the images. Although these words show up less frequently as Tarnation goes on, they also help pull together the other two parts of the film: Caouette’s memories of gay teen life in Houston, which he lived as a punk-rock boy (and sometimes a Goth girl); and the real-life drama of his assuming responsibility for his mother and bringing her to live in New York, in the household he’d established with his lover, David.
The stories you get from the texts are crucial to Tarnation; they explain material such as the Hillary videotape and allow you to feel its impact. But even though the texts often dominate the images and sounds, they also have a way of merging with them, so that the written words become yet another element in the collage. In the first section of the film, for example, the texts have a fairy-tale quality, with their account of a beautiful young princess betrayed and brought low. They allow you some distance from the film’s most harrowing material, which through them becomes almost dreamlike. (In fact, Tarnation begins with a staged scene in New York, in which Caouette tells David that he’s just had a strange dream about his mother.) In the final, most hopeful section of the film, by contrast, the texts are terse. Their effect here is rhythmic more than informative; they punctuate the scenes, repeatedly bringing them back to the matter-of-fact.