Jonathan Caouette's autobiographical documentary reportedly cost him just $218.32 to make, as it is essentially a montage of his own home movies and various found footage that he edited together on his boyfriend's computer using Apple's free iMovie software. Of course, the movie you actually see cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more - not just for the 35mm blowup and the stereo remix, but also for all the expensive legal fees required to clear the rights to the countless film, TV, and song clips used throughout.
Because Caouette originally made the film only as a form of self-catharsis, it's hard to call Tarnation a "brave" work, since its director literally had nothing to lose: self-indulgence is fine when you are literally making something only for yourself. However, thanks to Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell - who discovered Caouette at an audition and quickly hooked him up with Gus Van Sant (both of whom signed on as Tarnation's executive producers and helped Caouette cut the film down from three hours to 88 minutes, then helped him get into Sundance) - this film has been made public, so now the public gets to bear witness to this self-indulgence.
Caouette claims to suffer from "depersonalization disorder" - apparently the hippest mental illness to have, as it means something like having trouble separating dreams from reality. But I actually think he suffers more from good old-fashioned narcissism. While it's to the film's benefit that Caouette started pointing a video camera at himself (and, to a lesser extent, at his dysfunctional family) as a child, in that he amassed an impressive amount of material to work with, I suspect it was less self-expression than pure vanity.
For instance, early in Tarnation, we sit through an extended monologue Caouette performed for his camera at 11, impersonating an abused Southern housewife. It's an astonishingly mature, developed performance for such a young age, but I get the feeling that Caouette includes it just to show off how precocious he was. Ditto the film's one big laugh: the teenage Caouette's high school musical version of Blue Velvet, with songs by Marianne Faithfull. It's original, but there's still this underlying message of "Look how cutting-edge I am and have always been!" It put me off the guy.
I gotta give Caouette credit for the massive amount of time it took him to piece together his film, and the sequences where he interacts with his mentally ill mother - a former beauty who lost her mind after years of unnecessary shock therapy - carry the poignancy you'd expect, though even these scenes smack of self-absorption.
Caouette's manic editing style may put many people off - I noticed several couples leaving the theatre less than 30 minutes into the film - but if you give it time, the film's pace settles down, especially during the interviews with Caouette's mom.
I'll accept Tarnation as an offbeat portrait of a troubled family made by an enthusiastic young director/performer, but I can't help wonder if I'd be more impressed with Caouette as a person if an impartial documentarian had made Tarnation, instead of Caouette fashioning it as a tribute to himself. The soundtrack, however, is fantastic. If it ever comes to market, I highly recommend it over the actual film.