Forty years ago, Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising juxtaposed pop music with visions of sex, kitsch, cruelty, and death, and the result was transcendent in its potency; for good or ill, we wouldn’t have Scorsese, Blue Velvet, or MTV without it. Had Anger been a child of the digital age, he might have made a film like Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s painfully beautiful autobiographical kaleidoscope. Caouette took several decades’ worth of his home videos and photographs and edited them together, with a hallucinatory zeal worthy of Anger or Natural Born Killers, on his home computer. Layering in songs like Glen Campbell’s ”Wichita Lineman,” he turned his life into a feature video where images from his past could glide and collide and dance together.
Watching Tarnation, we’re not just staring at a life; we’re inside the emotional flow of Jonathan Caouette’s memory system. The movie is a holy technological poem, a collage of suffering, revelation, and perseverance in which Caouette tries to make sense of the torments that shaped his existence. His mother, Renee, a child model of the ’60s, received electroshock treatments after she fell off a roof, and there followed a modern nightmare: She had a family, the family fell apart, young Jonathan was abused in foster homes, his mind damaged by tainted dope, and so on. As Caouette lays out events in storybook fashion, what pulsates through Tarnation is that life, even at its most hellish, is a thing of perilous and desperate rapture.