Steers and Queers: The Southern Gothic in Jonathan Caouette’s "Tarnation" (2003)

Curator's Note

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.


Thanks for the post. Tarnation is problematic for varying reasons, but I think you've really pinpointed the main problem with Caouette's film. Originally, I was impressed with the quirky editing tricks and the abundant footage from Caouette's childhood, but (and you're absolutely correct in pointing this out) Caouette doesn't explore the truly interesting part of his film: the queering of Southern Gothic storytelling. 

What is particularly interesting in this film is the depiction of his Queer-American family. Jonathan and David take on Rene almost as an adopted chlid as she comes to and fro from New York and Texas for her extended stays. I wish Caouette would do a sequel to this film. Have you heard of any subsequent work by Caouette that further illustrates the multifaceted modes of American families or disabilities?

I only saw an early cut of Tarnation years ago, so my memory is thin.  But I really enjoyed and was struck by the combination of two key things that you note in your post: one, that Caouette's childhood was in the suburbs and two, how Southernness is rendered as both "backward" and as antithetical to idealized queer life.  In many ways, despite its numerous cities and suburbs, the South is also often equated with the rural and juxtaposed to cities in the North.  (And I can't help but mention two new books that nicely intersect to discuss this: Karen Tongson's Relocations: Queer Suburban Imaginaries and Scott Herring's Another Country: Queer Anti-Urbanism.)  I'm also curious how he might have taken a queer look at "mental illness."  That seems to have been a potentially compelling direction but I simply don't remember the piece well enough.  I will say, though, that I do remember not finding it as formally innovative as others' did, despite its impressively extensive visual archive.  Thanks for the post!

Nice reference to Tongson, Christina! I saw her speak last month in London at NECS and her work really resonated with me as I wrote this piece. I spoke with her after her very interesting presentation and asked her if she had any thoughts about Tarnation; she rightly referred me to her book.

The longer article that I'm writing on Tarnation focuses on how mental disability is pictured in the film, but I'm reading it through a Disability Studies lens (Rosemarie Garland Thomson) rather than Queer Studies per se. (Sneak preview: the film doesn't succeed in that goal either.)

I enjoyed the formal gymnastics of the film when I first saw it, and I do find that the iMovie editing feat is both impressive and warranted given the intensity of the subject matter. But the All About Jonathan narcissim of the film chafes upon multiple viewings--especially given the ostensible subject of the film as his mother's disability, not his cinematic genius. A.O. Scott called it "narci-cinema" and "moi-cumentary."

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