Extreme Close-up

Columbus Alive | February 3, 2005
Many filmmakers would love to be in Jonathan Caouette’s place right now, given the rave reviews and media attention his autobiographical documentary Tarnation has received. But none envy what he went through to get there. Caouette’s film combines videotape footage he started shooting at age 11, borrowed pop cultural landmarks and the full range of colorful, shape-shifting effects available in iMovie for a dizzying, fascinating evocation of the abuse, mental illness and familial love experienced in his 30-odd years on Earth.

In the film, his mother Renee’s accidental lithium overdose unleashes a flood of imagery and stories from his family’s past, beginning with her time as a child model, the accident that affected Renee’s demeanor, and the two years of shock treatments and countless hospitalizations her parents consented to.

Caouette shares with the viewer the emotional weight of these decisions on the entire family over time, along with personally formative factors, laying out the basic facts on title cards that cover everything from his foster care abuse to his triumphant high school musical theater version of Blue Velvet.

Before critics started ladling praise on the film, Tarnation gained attention through the filmmakers that signed on as executive producers, Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell (Caouette had sent Mitchell a rough-cut segment as an audition tape), and a couple of unique quirks. The feature-length work is the first put together entirely in Apple Computers’ pre-loaded home editing software, which helped keep the final production budget at an unbelievable $218.32.

When contacted by phone for this interview, Caouette had temporarily moved from New York back to the family home in Houston. He was dividing his packed schedule between promoting Tarnation, starting a new acting job as “a lascivious gay musical theater teacher” on the Dallas-based feature production Fat Girls (co-directed by Blossom heartthrob Joey Lawrence and his brother Matt), and seeing to his grandfather’s living situation.

“Long story short, the state of Texas is attempting to come in and liquidate my grandfather’s house and put my family away,” Caouette explained, sounding resigned to a fight. “It’s just one of those things.”

At the end of the film, your mother is living in New York. Is she still there?

No, she’s back here. Not in this house, but she has an apartment right around the corner. She came back to Texas about six months ago, and I drove her back because I just didn’t think the quality of life in New York was the best scenario for her.

Where did the $218.32 budget figure come from?

That is a real, swear-to-God factual figure of what it cost to make this film. The figure was derived from the amount of tapes it took to digitize it. It was 10 or 11 Hi-8 tapes that I imported from the camera into the iMovie program. But all the cameras, all the previous videotapes I’d used, even the computer, were all gifts. You could round it up, but it essentially cost nothing to make.

What got you started with videotaping yourself?

I think it was really just having, first and foremost, a love for cinema. A lot of it had just started out of innocence, wanting to emulate horror films, and then by the time I was 13 I decided there was more of an urgency about it. I became really cognizant of the fact that I was being subjected to some pretty unusual sets of circumstances, and I needed to deal with it somehow and document it. A sort of “Pinch me if it’s really happening” kind of thing—that’s what started that obsession. But I haven’t been documenting my life to the magnitude that people may think by seeing this 88-minute film. It wasn’t as obsessive as it may appear.

As the tape was accumulating, did you ever have an ultimate purpose in mind?

I was always a die-hard packrat, and I always knew somehow subconsciously, almost psychically, that this stuff I was accumulating would come in handy one day.

I read that you were making another film when you started going through the old footage.

Right, it even had a working title. It kept changing as I kept getting older. I just kept saving it, thinking, this is the film, and then this is the film. When my mother had her accidental overdose, that’s when I decided to cap everything and quit doing this.

There were so many different reasons why I could’ve conceivably been doing this for the rest of my life, but I was just sort of in the right place at the right time when the MIX Festival [the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film/Video Fest] came along and I submitted it. That’s when Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell discovered it and everything just ignited and catapulted to a whole ’nother level. And now I’m so tired [laughs].

You’ve been praised for covering fairly new cinematic territory, but I was wondering if you had any guideposts, any influential filmmakers in mind?

You know, a lot of people are comparing me to Jack Smith and Kenneth Anger, and I don’t even know their work. I just recently discovered Maya Deren, who I adore. I do have to say I really love Alejandro Jodorowsky, from El Topo. I’m really inspired by the psychedelic epics he did in the ’70s, and I love David Lynch, of course.

All in all I wasn’t setting out to invent a new genre, and I never even called this film a documentary. There was a really keen sense of urgency to get a story out there. I was a doorman, I had no money—well, I still have no money—and I just had to take everything that I had that was within arm’s length to get the movie made.

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