Performance and Play: Mental Disability and the Class Character of Tarnation

Curator's Note

 Jonathan Caouette’s 2004 experimental documentary, Tarnation, tackles the uncomfortable, taboo subject of mental disability. Famous for its (pre-licensing) $218 budget, DIY aesthetic and eventual production by gay cultural icons John Cameron Mitchell and Gus van Sant, it illustrates the ugliness of poor, rural Texas as well as uncontained mental illness. In Tarnation, we can trace class positions that travel in opposite directions: the nearly-static class position of mental illness, and that of a rising DIY auteur. 

The film’s focus on Jonathan’s mother, Renee, is sobering, providing a glimpse of the mental illness as a place to “get stuck.”  Her tragic story includes the horrors of years of shock treatments and other abuse, culminating in more than 100 mental hospitalizations, schizophrenia, and a lithium overdose.

Yet the weight and burden of disability from which Renee will not recover could have turned the film into a victim’s tale, ala Jerry Springer. Indeed, Renee’s performance during a manic episode nods to a life that looks a bit out of control, without order; its inclusion here suggests Jonathan’s acceptance of mental illness as a permanent part of Renee’s identity, even while Adolph (Renee’s father) ignores her and reads his paper ambivalently. Adolph refuses to exert effort, to rise above the trappings of his class location—he appears mired within a so-called “white trash” construct, unwilling to attend to his own needs (and Renee’s), and cannot accept his proximity and attachment to the illness that defines his family.

Jonathan’s camera stays fixed on Renee for several minutes as she continues to perform; her discomfort is finally voiced as she worries about “lapsing into an attack.” The duration of this sequence has made some critics uneasy, accusing Caouette of exploitation. Yet I would argue that Caouette wishes no harm in filming. It is a compulsive activity for him, one that makes Tarnation possible in the first place. The film portrays mental illness not as obstacle that can easily be defeated, but just one aspect of a life that refuses to be pinned down by class domination and revels, instead, in performance, play, and acceptance. 


This documentary is new to me, but it looks like a fascinating text.  I especially like the way your post complicates "mental illness" and how we try to locate it:  Renee is "obviously" the  mentally ill one here, but your analysis captures the degrees of health and unhealth that challenge our binaries, e.g. Adolph's denial and detachment, and even what you describe as Jonathan's "compulsion."  When these degrees of wellness intersect with degrees of class privilege and disenfranchisement, it forms a powerful lens for understanding how relational our definitions of mental disability are.  It would be grossly oversimplified to say that that's what separates, say, Ratso Rizzo of Midnight Cowboy from Mark Zuckerberg of The Social Network, but such lenses do help make visible some of the cultural work that class performs on ability/disability, and vice-versa.  Thanks for your post.

I'd like to second Bill--this film was not on my radar, so thanks for the  introduction.  With some hesitation about commenting on a film I have not seen in full, I nevertheless offer a reaction.

As I watched, I thought about a child at play.  If Renee were a child, her behavior would be considered indicative of an exceptional ability to entertain herself with the simplest of objects.  Her laughter that is too hard, too aware, would be seen as a child developing a sense of humor, trying to engage as the adults do.  

Of course, Renee is not a child, but I nevertheless view this clip a bit differently than I think the film instructs.  The rising music connotes a rising tension, foreshadowing the impending "attack" to which Renee refers.  Instead of a racing heart, I echo the father's calm.  

Seeing him in the background, I am reminded that this is this family's normal.  People that live with mental illness may find ways to temper the effects of the illness, but our society has found countless ways to mark them as abnormal nevertheless (the taint on the medical record, the visible marker of the medicine bottles, the cost of the hospitalization, even the over-enthusiastic laughter).  We police the normal constantly.

As such, I'm intrigued that you examine the marks of class that become complicit with normalization.  I had not thought about the implications of economic capital beyond access to services that render one more "normal."  Thanks for adding this important new layer to an already complicated issue. 

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