If movies help us make sense out of the world, they can also help the world make sense out of us. Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation, which he's been compiling since he was old enough to hold a video camera, is such a movie. To call it autobiographical is to miss the point. Caouette isn't trying to tell his life story - well, he is, but that isn't all he's trying to do. He's also trying to figure out what his life story is. And he's trying to convey how it feels to try to figure out your life story when your life has been messed up since the day you were born. Using scrapbook photos, home movies, audiocassettes and Macintosh editing software, Caouette takes us deep inside his shell-shocked psyche.
The effect is kaleidoscopic, sights and sounds continually splintering and forming new patterns. But somehow we're able to follow the flow, piece together Caouette's story. And, truth be told, it's a bit of a freak show - Southern Gothic, Texas-style. When Caouette's mother, Renee, was 12, she fell off the roof of her parents' Houston home and, for reasons that not even Caouette seems to understand, was given electroshock treatments every three weeks for the next two years. Thus began an endless series of hospitalizations that didn't prevent her from marrying and having a child. Caouette was sent to foster care, where he was abused, then to his grandparents, who don't seem altogether there themselves. That he survived with his own mind reasonably intact seems a miracle. And what appears to have saved him was his video camera.
Among other things, it served as a therapist, silently sitting there while Caouette tried various personas on for size. There's a fascinating video clip from when Caouette was 11. Dressed up like a housewife, he/she "recalls" the beatings administered by an abusive husband, and it's hard to tell whether he's acting or acting out. The preteen drag queen could be one of the Warholian superstars hogging the spotlight in Chelsea Girls. Indeed, it wouldn't be long before Caouette was both hanging out in gay bars and planning his first underground films. Meanwhile, Renee was in and out of his life, serving as both dark cloud and bright ray of sunshine. Caouette includes so much footage of her that you feel like he's exploiting her. Nevertheless, we've been given a front-row seat inside her mental illness.
At one point, Caouette himself claims to suffer from depersonalization disorder - a tendency to stand outside one's life, experience it as a dream. And he's incorporated that into the movie, too. Bits of text, set against a swirl of images, give us the facts of the case, as if culled from Caouette's psychiatric file. But it's hard to believe, given his ability to organize the scattered fragments of his life into such a coherent and touching work of art, that Caouette isn't as personable as the next person. "I'm not crazy," he says on some long-ago audiotape that most of us would have thrown out by now. And although it's always sad to hear someone profess his sanity to himself, out of such sadness has Caouette forged an artistic identity of his own.