Tarnation (documentary)

Our modern world of camcorders not only makes everyone a potential filmmaker, it also means that for anyone making a documentary about a particular person, there is probably ample footage of him or her lying around somewhere.

We saw this with “Capturing the Friedmans,” where the Friedman family became involved in a legal scandal, and when someone came along wanting to make a film about them, hey, look, we happen to have hours and hours of video tape, 8-millimeter film and audio recordings. They’d already documented their own lives; all they needed now was an editor.

Jonathan Caouette, a 32-year-old would-be filmmaker and actor, encountered the same kind of serendipity when he set out to make “Tarnation,” a film that serves as both his autobiography and the biography of his mentally ill mother. He’d been shooting his own home movies for years, and his family had hundreds of snapshots and other film footage. What little he still needed could be shot cheaply with his camcorder.

People have had home-movie cameras for decades, of course, with very little of that footage being used as raw material to make documentaries. What’s changed is that people in the 21st century are far more eager to have their lives put on display.

And so here is “Tarnation,” a haunting, riveting film that’s as self-serving as it is revelatory. It’s movie-making as therapy, and I hope it worked. In terms of functionality, Caouette’s family makes the aforementioned Friedmans look like the Cleavers.

After a few moments of exposition that were obviously staged and that feel embarrassingly fake, the film begins in earnest. There is no narrator; instead we get on-screen titles telling us the early life story of Jonathan Caouette’s mother, Renee LeBlanc, with family photos and home movies comprising the background. Renee was born in the early 1950s to a Texas couple, Adolph and Rosemary Davis, making a perfectly happy little Eisenhower family. Renee had an accident at a young age, however, that left her partially paralyzed for several months. Thinking the paralysis might be psychological, the Davises enrolled her in shock therapy. Jonathan contends this is what ruined Renee’s personality and made her schizophrenic.

As an adult, Renee was married long enough to get pregnant, though her husband didn’t know that when he left her. Jonathan was the result, and after witnessing his mother being raped, he wound up in an abusive foster home while Renee bounced around in jails and mental hospitals. He was eventually adopted by his grandparents, the extremely old and ghastly (but apparently loving, I think) Adolph and Rosemary.

Jonathan seems to have known he was gay a very young age. A disturbing home-movie clip of him at age 11 has him in drag performing a monologue about a woman caught in domestic abuse. The creepily close-to-home content of the scene is unsettling enough, but Jonathan’s convincing histrionics make it even more so.

By age 13, he was going to a New Wave gay club (this was the ’80s), disguised as a Goth girl in order to hide his under-agedness. Through his teen years he was often frustrated, angry and suicidal, facts conveyed in the film with frenzied collages of images and sounds that put the viewer into a frame of mind that must approximate what Jonathan felt. (I assume this was the intention.)

His knack for editing and composition is noteworthy. In many instances the film is lucid and single-minded, and the music he uses to enhance the various moods is extremely effective.

Much later in life, Renee moves in with Adolph (Rosemary having died some time ago), into a house ripe with squalor. Jonathan visits with his camcorder. There is a reunion with his long-lost father, too. All of this is captured and launched at us without mercy: Renee’s insane ramblings, her startling mood swings, Jonathan’s still-screwy mindset, it’s all there. For as captivating as “Tarnation” is, it’s hard to take sometimes, too. It’s all so personal, so intimate, that I feel voyeuristic even watching it.

B+ (1 hr., 28 min.; Not Rated, probably R for a lot of harsh profanity, some brief nudity, disturbing images.)