Heroes of the Zeroes: Tarnation
Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.
Watching 2003’s “Tarnation,” Jonathan Caouette’s autobiographical documentary, felt like being seated at his brainstem’s base while his psyche expanded, contracted, inverted and distorted into crude stroboscopic nightmares and kaleidoscopic fever dreams of color, shape and sound.
Much has been made of “Tarnation’s” miniscule production budget of $218.32, its footage mostly culled from home videos and edited using iMovie. But that doesn’t include intangible costs of anguish, estrangement, insecurity and fragility — without which “Tarnation” wouldn’t exist.
Caouette’s mother endured permanently destructive shock therapy as a child, was later raped in front of him, and became absent after more than 100 psychiatric-institution stays.
Eventually, Caouette was taken in by his grandparents, who enabled his flamboyant, transgender, multiple-personality melodrama upon buying him a video camera.
Caouette flourishes creatively and romantically as an adult, but he’s forever haunted by his mother — to whom he’s essentially now a parent — and hindered by his own brain damage, brought on by unknowingly ingesting formaldehyde and PCP at 13.
“Tarnation” is as unsettling to the senses as the most intense horror film — a poisoned stream of consciousness with sound cutting out and butting in beside footage that feels ready to unspool into nothingness.
It’s film as blog, but this microsite movie is a major achievement — in which even a font’s size connotes a life’s dreams and regrets.
As performance art born of personal pain, “Tarnation” stares teary-eyed into how genetics, culture, environment and susceptibility conspire to trigger mental illness — a documentary more to be experienced than simply viewed.