During the entire 18 months I lived in New York City, I saw only one off-off-off Broadway play: a low-low-low budget Notes from the Underground by Dostoevsky held in a dusty, musty basement on or in the vicinity of St. Marks Place, Astor Place or Avenue A.
Let's get one thing straight: I'm claustrophic. My dislike of extreme crowdedness and small spaces was made even worse that night by being forced to sit for hours in a tiny underground space lit only by candlelight that was crammed to overflowing with hot, sweaty, smelly people made even more hot, sweaty and smelly by the absence of air conditioning. Even worse, my companion and I arrived late and were forced to sit, along with some unlucky others, on stacks of books located smack in the middle of the "stage," an area that amounted to little more than a clearing on the floor.
So there I was, trying to balance on a stack of books in a 120-degree basement lit only by candlelight and filled with hot, sweaty, smelly people while quickly becoming one of those hot, sweaty, smelly people as "actors" buzzed by me so closely that I felt a rush of air with their passing.
Watching Tarnation brought me back, for a while, to the uncomfortable, almost unbearable place from which I fled that night. Pieced together like a patchwork quilt, Tarnation is a whole composed of many parts that include snapshots, Super-8 home movies, answering machine messages, video diaries and early short films sewn together using on-screen text and haunting and frenetic effects (think Twin Peaks), all recorded and filmed by Jonathan Caouette, the star of Tarnation, a documentary that is his life.
The film opens with footage of Jonathan's grandparents and of his mother, Renee LeBlanc, as a baby and small child in Texas. The family story went something like this: Renee, a beauty in her younger years who became a child model, jumped off her parents' roof one day and was never again the same person. At the beginning of the movie, Jonathan showed the jump as the turning point for her, an incident that led to shock treatment after shock treatment, hospitalization after hospitalization, anti-depressant medication and a stroke.
Raised in foster care and by his grandparents, Jonathan suffered abuse and found a great escape in moviemaking. He started capturing images on film at the age of 11. A precocious child, Jonathan had already acknowledged and accepted his homosexuality by that age.
In his first short film, he played a battered woman. Rife with homoerotic overtones, later films and footage become filled with images of constructed violence and drug abuse and chillingly capture his intense anger. At soon as he was able, he moved to New York City where he met and moved in with current partner David Sanin Paz, also in the film. A struggling actor and doorman, Jonathan had time to heal away from his family and later reconnected with his mother, met his father for the first time, captured the decline of his grandparents and got some answers regarding his mother's psychological illness.
It seemed fitting that I watch Tarnation on my laptop computer after finding out that Jonathan edited the film using iMovie on his boyfriend's iMac at a production cost of $218.32 for videotape and materials. That low dollar figure shouldn't deter anyone from watching the film, however. With executive producers like Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho) and John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and original instrumentals by Max Avery Lichtenstein, Tarnation is way, way better than any avant-garde film to come out of Andy Warhol's factory.