By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo (top) by Jay Muhlin|
In the spring of 2001, Abbas Kiarostami told me, “I think the best writers truly are the ones we have come to know over the last hundred years, but the best filmmakers are not necessarily the ones we have come to know.” Kiarostami and I were speaking in Durham, North Carolina, on the occasion of the world premiere of ABC Africa, the first of the Iranian director’s works to be shot entirely on digital video — a medium he has continued to use since then. And it was video, Kiarostami felt, that was about to transform the moviemaking landscape for the better. “Because of the financial requirements of the 35mm camera,” he continued, “there were a lot of people who couldn’t afford to use it. Now, the digital camera is possible for everyone to pick up, like a pen. If you have the vision, and you think you’re an instinctive filmmaker, there’s no hindrance anymore.”
Cut to last month and a crowded Toronto restaurant, where a private dinner party is being held in honor of one of the most buzzed-about movies in this year’s Toronto Film Festival. The film is called Tarnation, and it is possible to see, in the person of its 32-year-old writer-director, Jonathan Caouette, the fulfillment of Kiarostami’s prophecy — no matter that Caouette’s weirdly beautiful, cubistic act of self-exploration was shot on a variety of film and video formats, or that it shares more with the avant-garde auto-portraits of Stan Brakhage and Jack Smith than it does with The Blair Witch Project, Open Water and other high-profile harbingers of the “DV revolution.” Compiled from three decades of still photographs, home movies and video diaries; marbled with clips from movies and television and scored to a parade of pop-rock perennials; condensed using Macintosh’s consumer-grade iMovie software into an 88-minute package with an atomic weight approaching that of plutonium — Tarnation isn’t merely the latest in do-it-yourself filmmaking, it’s something of an apotheosis. And if Caouette strikes you as a tad too old to be deemed a wunderkind, reserve judgment until you’ve seen his movie. A macabre family album excavated from the deepest recesses of memory, Tarnation is Caouette’s personal history reconstituted as a maelstrom of images and ideas about mental illness, mother love, homosexuality and other ties that bind, exploding across the screen like pieces of the dream that we struggle to reassemble upon waking.
“He’s the first true outsider filmmaker, in this time, who is actually getting to a more mainstream audience, the way Daniel Johnston did with music, or Henry Darger with visual art,” says Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell when I catch up with him in Toronto the following afternoon. As the story goes, it was Mitchell who pressured Caouette to complete the editing of his 100-plus hours of original footage when excerpts from it — including the much-ballyhooed monologue in which an 11-year-old Caouette assumes the persona of a battered Texas housewife — turned up on the aspiring actor’s audition reel. “In early 2003, Jonathan wanted to audition for my film Shortbus, which is a film in which the actors all have real sex,” continues Mitchell. “He missed the deadline, and he wrote this impassioned letter about his mom, about his acting, about his influences. It was handwritten, and it was so intense that I was like, ‘Of course I’ll take a look at your tape.’ He stayed up all night to edit it and then delivered it to me in the morning by hand. And he said, ‘Can I watch it with you?’ So we watched it in my house, and it was stunning.”
From there, Caouette fretted feverishly to prepare a feature-length version in time for that year’s edition of the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival (a.k.a. the MIX Festival). Nearly three hours long and substantially different from the final cut — and including a staged ending in which Caouette’s grandfather shoots and kills Jonathan — this proto-Tarnation was still more than enough to convince Mitchell (and later, Gus Van Sant) to sign on as an executive producer. Meanwhile, MIX Festival director Stephen Winter took up the producing reins himself.
“Even at almost twice the length it is now, Tarnation was absolutely riveting and unlike anything I’d ever seen before,” Winter tells me by phone from his New York office. “It was the work of someone who’d been making films for decades, whose instincts were right on and whose creativity was off the charts.” Another early viewer of the film, veteran independent film publicist (and sometime actor) Mickey Cottrell, was similarly impressed. “This movie fucks you until you bleed, and then it flips you over and it kisses you so deep,” he e-mailed Mitchell before offering his services to the production free of charge. With Sundance on the horizon, Caouette, Mitchell and Winter — now also joined by film editor Brian Kates — set about further shortening and reshaping the film, while taking pains to stay true to Caouette’s original vision. “It was always all there,” notes Winter. “But there were five or six other stories there too. So, after struggling with it for a while, I suggested to Jonathan, ‘Look, this is a film about you and your mother. And if that is the guiding principle, everything that’s not about you and your mother goes away.’ It was really just a matter of listening to the film and letting it tell us what it was all about.”