I saw one of the more curious films of recent years this week. Tarnation is a documentary of sorts by a young man whose mother suffers from severe mental illness. I say "of sorts" because this is obviously more personal to the filmmaker than perhaps any documentary has ever been. Jonathan Caouette had an early interest in filmmaking, thus resulting in lots of footage of his life and family from his early years. The story, as he presents it, begins with the marriage of his grandparents and the borth of their only daughter, Renee. Renee turned out to be quite a beauty and had considerable success as a child actress and model. One day in her adolescence, though, she jumped, for whatever reason, off the roof of her house and landed on her feet without bending her knees. Renee was paralyzed for 6 months though the doctors said that it was a psychosomatic condition. The doctors recommended shock therapy, which her parents agreed to. Every week for 2 years. Mr Caouette reported that nothing of her original personality was left after this experience.
Renee remained a beuty throughout this period and eventually met and married a travelling salesman and became married. The marriage did not last long and the husband left, unaware that his abandoned wife was pregnant. Thus the filmmaker is born.
At age 4 Jonathan's mother, in a psychotic state, took him to Chicago from their home in Texas, without any money contacts or apparent plans. Someone took them in off the street and raped Renee in front of her son. Renee called her father who wired money for bus fare. A short while into the bus ride Renee was removed from the bus for "disturbing the other passengers". She was taken by the police and jailed for a time before being sent to a mental hospital. Jonathan was sent into foster care.
As is sadly too common, Jonathan was abused quite a bit by his foster families. Eventually his custody was assigned to his grandparents in Texas and he continued to live with them until he was 23 (iirc). Jonathan did occasionally visit his mother and on one of these visits met a drug dealer who game him two joints which Jonathan duly took home and smoked. The joints were laced with PCP and induced a disorder known as "depersonalization" where he felt like he was a spectator of his life rather than a paricipant. During this time he started developing his acting talents, some of which are showcased. Jonathan made short films where he would play young women giving monologues about their very troubled lives.
In his teenage years Jonathan became active in the gay community where he was fortunately able to make some friends. As you might expect, this was still an exteremely troubled period for someone in such a difficult family situation. Jonathan reports that he quite often broke furniture in his grandparents home and staged frequent suicide attempts.
The remained of the film is not nearly so dark. Jonathan, follwoing the death of his grandmother, went to New York where he found acting work and a stable (gay) relationship. His mother, still quite psychotic, comes to visit him occasionally and he has also established a relationship with his fther whom he had never met earlier.
The whole film is made up of film clips from his life, photographs, interesting graphic pyrotechnics, and, from end to end, his favorite songs. I learned from Roger Ebert's review that he was able to do all of this for only $218. The producers did have to spend money to get all the song rights and print it.
So, I was quite impressed with the film. It was a startling yet open and unadorned look at mental illness and its effect on a family. After watching it I checked rottentomatoes to see how the critics had scored it. Unsurprisingly to me, it got a 91% favorable score, as well as a 100% score from site visitors.
Here's what is very interesting to me though: checking the Netflix reviews, most of the viewers only gave the film 1 or 2 stars. The most frequent epithet used was "self-indulgent". I'm not entirely sure how one could make an autobiographical film which could avoid that charge. It seems like a lot of films I have enjoyed have gotten that word tossed at them. I guess for me I consider it a good thing when a filmmaker fills up a film with things she or he find interesting. Maybe "self-indulgent" is just the opposite of "pandering", which would perhaps set up the flip side of the critics versus popular reviewers dichotomy.