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“Tarnation” Documentary by Jonathan Caouette Essay

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Updated: Jan 25th, 2022

Tarnation is the autobiographical documentary of Jonathan Caouette, who is the main hero and the producer in one. Practically all his life he is hunting in couples with the camera. By means of the camera, we can watch all his difficult life, the spite of family quarrels, the row of foster families, the adolescence crises, the drugs, the suicide attempts, the underground film shows and the parties. His lifestyle was as free as it was possible in Houston in the eighteenth. He had certain problems with his psychological state. The movie is overfilled with cruelty, homosexuality, mental illness and fear. All the scenes of the films are arranged chronologically. By means of the camera, the filmmaker without any doubt opens his inner world to us. Camera for Jonathan is not only the device of filmmaking; it is also the instrument, with the help of which, he tries to collect all the pieces of his life together. Camera is the way of self-knowledge for Jonathan.

In accordance with the Renovs first thesis, that “the very idea of autobiography reinvents the very idea of documentary” (First-person Films: Some theses on self-inscription 42), Tarnation represents the unique way of watching and perception of the documentary films. This movie differs in a significant extant from the traditional concept of a documentary film. It is achieved by the bold sincerity of the movie. The difference of Tarnation from the traditional documentaries is in its inner truthfulness. As Renov puts it, in the “private truth and inner realities” (Theorizing Documentary 54). In comparison with the documentary films, which are based on the different facts and the different sources, aiming to emphasize the presented information, the autobiographical films are more audience oriented. In traditional documentary fiction, there is always the narrator, who explains all the facts and the events. In his autobiographical documentary Johnathan gave us the opportunity to make our own conclusion, paying more attention to the vision on the screen.

From the point of view of Renovs historical thesis, which asserts that “filmic autobiography is nothing new” (First-person Films: Some theses on self-inscription 42), the autobiography is a true form of the avant-garde rather than of the non-fiction. Tarnation is the obvious example of it. This movie can hardly be considered as traditional documentary film. The sense of immersion is achieved by means of the home movies, the photographs, the voice records. Jonathan recorded his movie several times, combining all the mentioned means of expression.

The next thesis, proposed by Renov, is that “filmic autobiography comes in many forms” ( First-person Films: Some theses on self-inscription 44). By Renov, it means that autobiographical documentary is apt to variation. On the example of this film, it may be seen that Jonathan uses different forms of his story telling, such as the simple narration, the essay film, the family photos, the self-shot video footage, the answering machine, the cassette recorder tapes.

The last Renovs thesis is “the autobiographical embraces and is inflected by the political” (First-person Films: Some theses on self-inscription 47). Renov argues that autobiography and politics are not necessarily connected. He accepts that his last statement may marginally be applied to the all the examples of the autobiography. As for Tarnation, Renov insists that “it enacts a politics of the body” (First-person Films: Some theses on self-inscription 48).

In a certain extant Tarnation may be considered as innovative film. On the first sight, the scenes of the film are rather chaotic and are not well structured. Different scenes mix to each other; sometimes they are repeated, in such a way conveying the sense of anxiety and even fear. However, by the multiple usage of cutting scenes, the producer presents its chaotic life. The music in the film is also worth mentioning. It helps to set the mood and underlines the whole character of the film.

Works Cited

Renov, Michael. “First-person Films: Some theses on self-inscription”. Rethinking Documentary New Perspectives, New Practices. Ed. Austin, Thomas and Wilma de Jong. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2008. 39-51. Print.

Theorizing Documentary. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.

Tarnation. Dir. Jonathan Caouette. Prod. Stephen Winter. Perf. Jonathan Caouette. Wellspring, 2004. DVD.

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