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.