Jonathan Caouette’s self-portrait is a queer take on the mental illness that affected his suburban Texas family. Initially, Tarnation presents Southern gay culture as a healthy influence, a positive haven, and even an angelic escape from his dysfunctional family. Houston’s underground gay clubs offered community and inspiration that artfully queered his suburban upbringing. So it’s not surprising that the documentary premiered at MIX: The NY Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film and Video Festival, was later executive produced by Gus Van Zant and John Cameron Mitchell, and went on to win multiple awards at LGBTQ film festivals.
Ultimately, however, Tarnation is a Southern Gothic tale of Caouette’s escape from his Texas roots. The film trades heavily on the “Southerness” of his dysfunctional family—but then, “Southern” and “dysfunctional” are synonymous in American film. “Tarnation” is never defined by the film; Northern and international viewers often report that they had no idea what it meant and had to look it up. (Says the OED: “a Southern euphemism for hell.”) Indeed, the film indicts multiple hellish institutions, including the mental health system and the foster care system.
But more than the mental health system, it’s the Southern family that Tarnation renders freakish. Menacing closeups frame Caouette’s toothless grandmother smoking, coughing, swearing, and bizarrely laughing. Cue the Deliverance “Dueling Banjos”? Thankfully, the soundtrack avoids that cliché—either with campy 1970s songs or underground alternative songs that conjure New York more than Texas. But the contrast renders Texas grotesque and NYC as The Way Out of his horrific Texas family life.
Tarnation mentions NY at least nine times in its short 85 minutes, usually via intertitles that could not be more explicit: “Jonathan figured out a way to get the hell out of there” and “I should be in New York.” Caouette’s cool, queer NYC is the halcyon escape from Texas, which surely appeals to the film’s target audiences of the Californian and Northeastern film set. Writes Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor, “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the Northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
Tarnation unflinchingly wields its Southern Gothic stereotypes; they structure the film’s shock value. Unfortunately, in depicting yet another crazy Southern family, Caouette abandons his more interesting queer project. Tarnation could have employed its artistry and its emotional power toward far more progressive ends.