By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
“I’m having the time of my life,” Caouette says at one point during the Toronto dinner. As well he might be. After all, Toronto is but the latest date on a whirlwind Tarnation world tour that began at Sundance in January and has since included appearances at Cannes, at Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival and at the Los Angeles Film Festival (where the film won the top prize in the documentary-film competition). More important, a work that not so long ago might have been relegated to showings in underground cinemas and gallery spaces has been bought by independent distributor Wellspring (whose adventurous 2004 release slate also includes Vincent Gallo’s The Brown Bunny and Jean-Luc Godard’s Our Music), which will release it to art-house theaters in more than 30 top markets over the coming months. Not bad for a movie with a reported budget of $218.32 made by a self-taught filmmaker who some doubted would ever live to see his 18th birthday.
With Mitchell (top); with Renee
(Potos by Mickey Cottrell, above,
and Wellspring Media)
Born in Houston in 1972, Jonathan Caouette spent much of his childhood careening from one foster home to the next — in some of which he was physically abused — while his single mother, Renee, drifted in and out of mental hospitals. Though he eventually ended up in the care of his elderly grandparents, Jonathan’s adolescence was nevertheless a wildly undisciplined affair that saw him frequenting Houston gay bars and nightclubs, sometimes in “petite Goth girl” drag so as to appear older than his barely teenage years. Drink and drugs were hardly inaccessible, leading to an episode in which a 12-year-old Jonathan smoked two marijuana cigarettes that, unbeknown to him, had been laced with PCP. The aftermath left Caouette with a self-diagnosed “depersonalization disorder” that caused him to feel like an outsider looking in on his own life.
“It was as though someone had dumped a vat of Novocain on my brain,” Caouette explains to me over lunch on one of his last days in Toronto. “It marred my senses and just really messed me up for a long time. I don’t know if it has completely subsided, but it’s definitely something I’ve been able to get a handle on. The worst thing it does now is to give me a hard time concentrating.” (Caouette conceived of Tarnation’s attention-deficient, Proust-on-acid editing style — as well as its use of third-person onscreen text to narrate the story — as a way of replicating for viewers the splintery, distancing effects of depersonalization.) Caouette never experimented with drugs again, turning instead to another addiction. Constantly and compulsively, he filmed himself, his family and his friends — at times capturing situations as benign as an afternoon drive with his grandmother, at others staging impromptu short films with titles like Ankle Slasherand Pig Nymph. Seeing those snippets incorporated into Tarnation, it becomes clear that, for the young Jonathan, turning the camera on himself and his surroundings was more than mere escape. It was a means of survival. “The camera was a kind of weapon,” he says. “It allowed me to keep a sense of control over what was going through.”
If the confident yet self-effacing Jonathan Caouette seated across from me on this particular afternoon has come to regard his camera as more of a creative tool than a defense mechanism, the change was by no means quick in coming. Before his fateful encounter with Mitchell, Caouette had toyed for years with other, less directly autobiographical uses for his footage, including one idea for a “parapsychological horror film” that would have employed the home movies as flashbacks and flashforwards in an otherwise fictional story. “I was in a sort of safety zone where I didn’t want to give myself away personally,” Caouette tells me. “I was trying to think of safe ways of using this footage without saying, ‘This is me, this is my mother, et cetera.’ But I wanted to justify myself as a filmmaker, and this was the closest, most available material I had to work with.” Not that Caouette’s apprehension about putting himself and his family on public view was eased any in the weeks leading up to the MIX Festival premiere. “I brought my mother with me to the screening,” he says, “and not only was it the first time she’d seen the film, but it was the first time I’d come out to her, by way of showing her the film. During the screening, I peered over at her and kept thinking to myself, ‘What have I done here? What am I trying to prove?’”
When Caouette talks about Mom, which he does often, his voice softens somewhat, his eyes grow distant and you get the impression that he is wistfully imagining a happily-ever-after scenario in which his film serves as an exorcism for Renee’s epic demons. (Though Renee had been re-hospitalized just prior to the start of Toronto, Caouette made no mention of this during our interview.) And there are many moments at which Tarnation seems to be speaking in some alien language understood by only two people in the entire world: Jonathan and Renee. Yet, despite that — or perhaps because of it — the intensely private film has connected with public audiences far and wide in a way that its own maker never imagined possible. “Even after Sundance, I still wasn’t convinced this film was going to be accessible to more than just a handful of people,” Caouette confides. “Then, at the Roger Ebert festival, 75 percent of the audience members were these 70- and 80-year-old women. I thought for sure they were going to walk out, that they weren’t going to get it. And lo and behold, a good half of them came up to me to embrace me and start a dialogue about their nieces, nephews, daughters and sons who’ve suffered from mental illness. It was just a bizarre and beautiful way to start talking to somebody. That’s when I knew this film was hitting people in a very specific place.”