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What in Tarnation

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.”

 

“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 Slasher and 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.”

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.”

While Williams acknowledges that the openly gay Caouette was also actively dating men during their time together, she hastens to add that “I never met any of them. He would do that away from me.” Still, after they’d split and Josh was born, “There was a period of a couple of years when we weren’t really close. When Josh was 2, that was when Jonathan finally moved to New York for good, and over the next little while we finally resolved our problems with each other. It’s been great since then.” Yet, curiously, not one mention of Joan or Josh survives in the final version of Tarnation, even though Josh appears briefly onscreen cast as his father in a re-enacted sequence that depicts Jonathan’s foster-home years. “We were in the original version,” Williams says, “but when Jonathan showed that to Stephen Winter and John Cameron Mitchell, they felt like the story of me and our son was too big to be just another subplot. Jonathan’s been telling me that I’ll be in Tarnation 2,” she laughs. “I’ll be the star of that.”

 

 

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.”

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.”

 

On my last day in Houston, I discover that something else has changed in Caouette too. “He doesn’t hold the camera anymore,” says Stacy Mowlery, a friend from Caouette’s club-going days who also appears in the film. “The weirdest thing was for me to see Jonathan recently, for a couple of days back to back, with events happening, and nothing was being recorded. But he’s still Jonathan. He’s beautiful. And he has the most amazing spirit.”


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