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What in Tarnation 

Will success spoil filmmaker savant Jonathan Caouette?

Thursday, Oct 14 2004
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Whether or not there ever is a T2 remains to be seen, though in an age when DVDs have made retooled and reconfigured versions of movies more of a rule than an exception, it’s easy to imagine that Tarnation, like Ken Jacobs’ eternally-in-progress Star Spangled to Death, might continue to evolve and resurface. (Even now, the prints of the film being used for Tarnation’s general release differ slightly from the Sundance version. For legal reasons, certain film clips and music had to be changed, as did some of the onscreen text concerning Jonathan’s relationship with his father, Steve, who now comes across as slightly less of a deadbeat than before.) “I would still like to do my four-hour boner cut of the film,” Caouette says, “but it would veer more along the lines of a video installation, which was one of my initial ideas for the film — to incorporate it into some sort of mixed-media thing where there would be LCD screens everywhere and people would be free to walk in and out as much as they wanted to.”

In the meantime, just what exactly Caouette will elect to do next has been the subject of much discussion wherever and whenever Tarnation has surfaced. In short, when you make a film that is, as Winter puts it, “the perfect closure of the first 31 years of a life,” what do you do for an encore?

“I think it’s a good question, but not a loaded one,” says the William Morris Agency’s Mike Lubin, who signed Caouette as a client following Tarnation’s Sundance premiere. “I think if you see the film and you really pay attention to his influences, you see that Jonathan’s someone who could potentially be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. There’s an incredibly sharp, fascinating mind there, not unlike a Tim Burton or a Spike Jonze — great visual, experimental filmmakers who are doing things in their own vernacular while still working within a commercial realm. I don’t think those two things are mutually exclusive. I’m desperate to see what Jonathan would do with a studio thriller or a children’s fantasy.”

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As it turns out, Caouette himself is bubbling over with ideas, some for more conventional narrative projects (he has a horror script he’d like to do) and some that are every bit as experimental as Tarnation. In fact, what he’d like to do right away, “just so I don’t disappear,” is to make a film entirely from someone else’s footage — specifically, to cut together scenes from three films of the 1970s, all starring the same high-profile Texan actress, until it seems as though we are watching the journey of a single character. In other words, while Tarnation may be Caouette’s Drugstore Cowboy, audiences shouldn’t necessarily expect to see his Finding Forrester anytime soon.

“There’s a terrible goal that permeates Hollywood,” says Lubin, “the idea that you should get bigger and bigger, and in the process give up your independent roots or your video-art roots, just to make money and make bigger films. Given what I know of Jonathan, he’s going to find a way to make films that are unique to him — films that can be made under incredibly meager circumstances — and to balance that with larger, more complicated productions. I don’t think he’ll ever give up the grassroots, underground aspect of his work.” “He’s a person who is able to tell the truth,” seconds publicist Mickey Cottrell. “That reminds me of Cassavetes. The self-awareness he has is so large that he cannot ignore it — he knows who he is in a way few 31-year-olds do. So many people have talked to him about so many projects, but as far as I know, no one has come to him and said, ‘Here’s a script, a studio project.’ The power of his personal vision is so apparent that it scares away all those superfluous people. The people who come to him are the ones willing to ask, ‘What do you want to do next?’”

If, as Delmore Schwartz noted, in dreams begin responsibilities, then it may be that with the realization of those dreams — let alone achieving fame — those responsibilities grow larger and ever more demanding. “He’s so busy all the time,” Caouette’s longtime boyfriend, David Sanin Paz, tells me by phone from their New York apartment, a faint whiff of exhaustion in his voice. “It’s hard, but things are good, and I’ve been able to travel with Jonathan a bit. And I always knew from the day I met him and I saw his stuff that this was going to happen someday. He never gave up.” Indeed, rather than spoiling Caouette, his unexpected success seems to have given him a new lease on life, made him comfortable in his own skin in a way that he hasn’t felt in decades, if ever. “It’s really helped him to let go of all that he’d been holding on to for so long,” suggests Joan Williams, who plans to move to New York with Josh so they can be closer to Jonathan. “When I met him, one of the very first things he told me was that he hadn’t cried in eight years. He’d forgotten how. It took him a long time just to get back to that point, and I have to say I was really proud of him when he did.”

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