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
For his part, producer Winter views Tarnation’s appeal in more primal terms: “Everyone has a mother. And every family has a story of something that went wrong that defines that family as much as its achievements. People know what it’s like to go through all of that and still have love and still have hope for yourself and for your family. There’s that, and the fact that the filmmaking is dazzling.”
Where in tarnation does a Tarnation come from? Can you pinpoint it on a map? It is with such questions in mind that, immediately after Toronto, I’m on a plane bound for Houston, Texas, land of Bushes and barbecues, where everyone really does drive a pickup truck. But it is also, lest we forget, Caouette country, where a precocious kid from the most dysfunctional family this side of the Friedmans was able to find a support network that helped him to come of age as both a person and an artist. So it may be that, among its many other virtues, Tarnation provides an antidote to retrograde stereotypes about the Lone Star State, capped by a marvelous sequence in which we see excerpts from the musical version of Blue Velvet that Caouette wrote with a friend and managed to stage at his high school.
Navigating Houston’s congested highways and byways in my own shiny silver quad cab, I make my way to the home of Jeff Millar, probably best known as the co-author (with Bill Hinds) of the long-running satirical comic strip Tank McNamara, but who, from 1964 until his retirement in 2000, was also the lead film critic for The Houston Chronicle. A jovial beanpole of a man whose bad back requires him to lie prostrate for the duration of our interview and who tells me he gave up criticism “once the movies started getting stupid on purpose,” Millar, in 1984, volunteered for the Big Brothers/Big Sisters of America program, where he found himself paired with the 12-year-old Caouette. “Here I was a film critic, and there was Jonathan making Super-8 movies, so it was sort of a no-brainer,” says Millar. “The excursions that we had were right up his alley. We went to movies, critics’ screenings. Afterwards, we’d usually sit down and talk about what we’d just seen. We hit it off pretty much from the beginning.” Also from the beginning, Millar was keenly aware of Caouette’s difficult circumstances. “I was told that he was a troubled kid, and I saw abundant evidence of that around his house,” he says. “He had just smashed the whole house apart. The first time I showed up, the venetian blinds were in tatters and, inside, the furniture was broken, and he’d punched holes in the Sheetrock.” Millar, who Caouette calls “an amazing, sweet emulation of a father figure,” ended up seeing Jonathan on a regular basis for about three years, at one point even paying for the film and processing for one of Jonathan’s shorts.
They remain in close contact today — which, where Caouette is concerned, seems to be par for the course. Over the three days I spend in Houston, perhaps the most vivid impression I take away is just how intimately connected Caouette remains with so many of the people here, as though some large, surrogate-family tree stretched all the way from Houston to New York City. Of course, it’s hardly uncommon for star actors and directors to attract entourages of admirers and Johnny-come-lately best friends. What makes Caouette’s case different is how deeply and genuinely his friends seem to have invested themselves in his life, and he in theirs. It doesn’t matter a lick that he’s suddenly become famous — that’s just gravy. To cite but one example, take Eve Kleinman, a former counselor at the Jewish Community Center day camp that Jonathan attended as a boy. “There was just an instant rapport,” Kleinman says over coffee at the enormous Starbucks location adjacent to the Houston Galleria that I am using as a makeshift office. “We just gravitated towards each other. And I remember going home and begging my mother, ‘Please can we adopt this child?’ I wanted him for myself!” Caouette was 5 years old at the time. Kleinman was 16. “I really worried about him his whole life,” Kleinman continues, “and when he was very young I just wanted him to live, to grow up. I didn’t know exactly what his circumstances were, but I knew they were not good.”
Nobody I talk to in Texas, however, seems to know Caouette quite as well as a whip-smart San Antonio woman named Joan Williams, who happens to be the mother of his 9-year-old son, Josh. “He was 16 and I was 18,” Williams tells me. “Someone that I went to school with met him at an after-hours club and said, ‘You guys are really going to like each other.’ So, this friend took me up to Jonathan’s house to meet him and it was weird — it was like an electric handshake. It was like we both instantly knew that we were soul mates.” Then, in 1994: “I was living with my mother and going to a trade school — kind of poor, barely eking by. And Jonathan kept calling me and saying, ‘We need to go to Woodstock, it’s the 25th anniversary.’ I said I’d love to but couldn’t afford a ticket. Then one day he called me and said he’d bought the tickets. So I said okay. I was planning on going up there and then taking a bus back, but during the course of the three days we were camped out in the mud, he convinced me to just stay in New York with him. He didn’t really want to be by himself, and he said, ‘I can’t think of anyone better to be here with than you.’ And I couldn’t really say no to that. We went on into New York City and stayed in this really seedy hotel on 17th Street off Union Square and lived there for about eight months. Then, out of the blue, he said, ‘I can’t take this anymore, I have to go back.’ And it was right around then that I found out I was pregnant.”