Where in Tarnation?
If it seems a bit premature to be asking “Where are they now?” about the Sundance class of 2004, one particular case triggers a special curiosity. From its first screening at that year’s festival, Jonathan Caouette’s made-for-$218, edited-on-an-iMac Tarnation created a stir among critics and audiences alike, not just for its startling originality, but for the confessional, sometimes disturbing and often emotionally overpowering way in which Caouette used cinema to reckon with a complex personal history of sexual abuse, mental illness and other familial dysfunctions. Watching it was like having Caouette’s entire 31-year life downloaded into your nervous system in an adrenalizing, 90-minute burst, and when you left the theater, you couldn’t help wondering where such a restless young talent would go from there: Commercials? Music videos? Gallery installations?
At the time, Caouette seemed eager to strike while the iron was hot and spoke of a couple of potential projects, including an avant-garde work in which he would reconstitute scenes from three different Sissy Spacek films — Badlands, Carrie and 3 Women — into one new, seamless narrative. But after more than a year spent going to festivals and participating in an exhaustive U.S. publicity tour, during which he graced the cover of seemingly every alt-weekly newspaper in the country (including this one), Caouette retreated from view, his moment in the indie-film sun ceded to a new crop of flavors-of-the-nanosecond.
“It kind of freaks me out how quickly time goes by,” Caouette told me when I reached him by phone at his New York apartment earlier this month. “When you make a movie and people are this interested in seeing it, you want to say yes to anything and everything. Can we screen your film in this college? Sure. Can we screen your film in this prison? Okay. I was so excited to share the movie with people that I would have shown it in a high school cafeteria; the venue didn’t matter. I think that’s why time went by very quickly. Then I just woke up one day and two years had passed.”
The good news, Caouette says, is that “I’m working on so many things right now that my head is about to roll off my shoulders.” One of those things is a music-festival documentary, which he has already been shooting, that Caouette says will focus as much on the audience as on the performers, “using the festival as the backdrop and bringing these individual stories into the forefront, and then at some given point we’ll segue into a great song.” Another is a dramatic feature he’s developing with a New York–based screenwriter that could be in production as soon as April. Says Caouette: “It’s about this feral, wild-child kind of kid who comes from this very ambiguous, very troubled past, and he hops across the fence of one of those very safe, gated communities in Anywhere, USA, adopts this new persona and proceeds to manipulate his way socially through the neighborhood.”
As for the Spacek project, it’s off the boards for now, though not for lack of trying — Caouette tells me he edited together about 45 minutes of scenes before realizing that what sounded great in concept worked less well in practice. “It didn’t resonate the way I imagined it would,” he says. “Just to cut her together that way didn’t work, because you would see a scene from Carrie followed by a scene from Badlands, and any film-savvy person would be pulled out of it. I think the way to do it, if I had the money, would be to pull her out of the scenes and paste her into different places.”
Recently, much of Caouette’s time has also been taken up with caring for the family members who figured prominently in Tarnation’s story. For a while, his bipolar mother and elderly grandfather were even living together with him, his boyfriend, two additional roommates and five pets, all in the same New York apartment — fodder, he jokes, for a Tarnation sequel. “My grandfather is still here, actually, but is, God bless him, finally going into an assisted-living program at the beginning of February,” Caouette says with a sigh of relief. “So, we’re all going to be happy and we’re all going to be safe and I’m going to be able to just aggressively go after my next movie now, which I’m really excited about.”
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.