Tarnation is 32-year-old director Jonathan Caouette’s debut film, a harrowingly poetic documentary self-portrait that chronicles his traumatic childhood and adolescence growing up in a severely dysfunctional Texas family. But “personal documentary” is an anemic description of what this fractured, emotionally wrenching digital diary ultimately captures, namely Caouette’s slow-motion nervous breakdown and subsequent psychic rebirth after reconnecting with his mentally ill mother, Renee. Tarnation is also a visually stunning artifact: a high contrast, decaying, glitch-filled fever dream of disparate footage Caouette shot of himself and his family over two decades on Hi8 video, Super 8 film, Betamax, VHS, and mini DV, as well as audio from answering machines, clips from ‘70s kids shows, and a torrent of photographs.
In the film, Caouette grows up before our eyes, from a precocious 11-year-old performing a mesmerizing southern gothic drag routine to a damaged but resilient 31-year-old, weeping on hearing news of his mother’s lithium overdose. As with Capturing the Friedmans before it, Caouette’s archive of home movies yields a portrait of a family that is beyond intimate: a hallucinatory narrative of suffering, loss, psychosis, and survival, all cut to a sublime sound track that includes songs by Nick Drake, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan and The Magnetic Fields. And in a paroxysm of do-it-yourself inspiration, Caouette assembled his film on a desktop computer using iMovie, the consumer editing software that comes installed on every Macintosh computer. The budget for Tarnation was a mere $218.32, the price of the material it was shot on. Confidently inhabiting the same aesthetic terrain as JT Leroy’s novel Sarah, Harmony Korine’s Gummo, and Sadie Benning’s black-and-white PXL vision diary tapes, Tarnation has also been compared by critics to the experimental films of Stan Brakhage. But, in many ways, Tarnation shares more with present-day-hyperactive-blog-sifting consciousness than with the formalist rigor of early experimental film practice. Tarnation premiered at the 2003 MIX Film Festival, where it was championed by festival director Stephen Winter. Soon thereafter, both John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant signed on as executive producers. It is slated for release in fall 2004.
Christopher Wilcha Most of the story of Tarnation is told in the third person through the use of very spare and economical onscreen text—
Jonathan Caouette I wanted the text to be its own character, this kind of distant voice.
CW Yet as counterpoint, the visual texture of the film is so dense and complex and the editing style is very inventive and assured. How did you develop the editing style?
JC It was a completely organic process based on these unusual, psychological experiences I’ve had in my adult life—these strange, trancelike experiences, similar to sensations I remember from childhood when I had a very high fever. Where I’m half asleep and half awake, just on the cusp of dreamland. And right as I’m about to conk out, this whole plethora of information comes from my own awareness and rushes into my mind’s eye. It’s like a story, or a poem, or a series of images . . . It only makes sense for a moment and then it dissipates. It’s like this weird waking dream. I wanted to lucidly mimic that in the form of a film and transpose it cinematically.
CW Can you access that state at any given moment?
JC Well, it just lives inside me subconsciously. I don’t know if it’s because of this thing I’ve had called depersonalization disorder, a dissociative disorder that was brought on by accidentally smoking angel dust as a child. It has actually subsided quite a bit over the years.
CW So the incident that you talk about in Tarnation, smoking marijuana at age 12 that, unbeknownst to you, had been dipped in angel dust, caused this disorder?
JC It was a direct result of that, yeah. It had immediate consequences and nobody I talked to could really put it into words until I was able to come to a place myself where I could articulate the experience and some of the problems I was having. About a year after it happened I went to a doctor and he diagnosed me with depersonalization disorder. There is a whole slew of people who have it, it’s mainly brought on from smoking pot or something at an early age. I don’t know if the disorder necessarily has anything to do with the way I’m hardwired now, or the way I see things. From what I remember prior to that incident, though, I used to see things a little bit differently: my perception was different.
CW So Tarnation is an attempt to give your depersonalization disorder filmic form?
JC Yes, the high contrast and brightness of the images, and all the Rorschach effects and the choppy editing style. And the third person narration is definitely to lend expression to the depersonalization disorder.
CW Did telling the story in the third person make it easier to catalog all of the accumulated traumatic incidents?
JC Yes. In the original version, a lot of vérité was taken out of the last scene, this really long segment in which I’m filming my grandfather in the forefront, with my mother on the couch in the background. I’m trying to get at which of their versions of the past is true and when I can’t get the answer, the movie starts to shudder. You see a little bit of that in the final version. What happens is the movie itself has a nervous breakdown and can’t go any further. Then the text starts coming out and you can’t rely on the words anymore to tell you anything that is necessarily true or not. The film itself starts throwing out these sort of Dada things and then we hurl into the future because there’s nowhere else to go, and it becomes this impressionistic hodge-podge of madness, which I may utilize for Tarnation Two.
CW So you pulled back from that strategy?
JC I pulled back from it because there was a way of telling the truth and showing other footage that would evoke a sense of truth. But, you know, hurling into the future is not the truth.
CW You don’t narrate the film, and we rarely hear your voice off camera. And yet one of the most powerful moments near the end of the film is when you address the camera directly, as an adult, in the present tense, for the first time. Did you purposely withhold that moment until the end?
JC It was a way of showing myself and showing other people how I’ve come full circle with everything. It was a way of making peace with things, I think, and realizing that I didn’t need the camera on myself or my family any longer as a way of disassociating or having a sense of control, as I had been doing for the past 20 years.
CW Your inarticulateness in that scene is so moving because of everything that has preceded it.
JC (laughter) Thank you.
CW The movie itself demonstrates such control up to that point and then we see you losing it. Was it hard to do that kind of confessional scene, to give up control?
JC It was! It was so hard that I couldn’t even do it all the way. I just thought, “I can’t do this anymore.” I shot that scene three days before we went to Sundance.
CW John Cameron Mitchell was an early supporter of Tarnation. Did you meet him by auditioning for his new film, Short Bus?
JC I had sent in a headshot, a resumé, and a letter. It was weird, but the letter wasn’t even about his movie. I wrote something like, “Aside from your movie, there is a very special and specific reason, in almost a psychic way, that I need to contact you. And I don’t know why it is.”
CW I had heard he was auditioning people for Short Bus who would be willing to have sex on screen and that he also wanted to script the movie around improvisations between the people he cast in the film.
JC Yes. He ended up calling me back to audition for the film five times, mixing and matching me with various actors. There was a voice in the back of my head that was saying, I don’t know if I necessarily want to do this . . . but it was actually one of the most amazing and interesting audition experiences I’ve had in my life.
CW And you also sent him a tape of some Tarnation footage as part of your audition package?
JC I did. Just for fuck’s sake at the beginning of the reel I did this very frenetic, MTV style edit of me and my boyfriend having sex as if to say, “Here, I can do this! I’m an artist!” Then the video kind of morphed out of that and went into a question-and-answer, get to know me, who I am. I said, “I’m making this film and here’s an excerpt.” I showed the scene where I’m 11-years-old in quasi-drag, half imitating my mother.
CW That scene was amazing. The level of performance for an 11-year-old was so refined and powerful.
JC I don’t even know where that came from. I would love to be able to pull something like that off as an adult in some form or fashion. But looking back on it, I almost don’t remember doing it which makes me believe that there was a possibility that I was channeling something. As crazy as that sounds.
CW Do you think the self-consciousness that comes with age buries impulses like that?
JC I think we’re less inhibited, more apt to take risks as kids. I was essentially just mimicking my mother.
CW There was such a purity to the performance. You never broke. It wasn’t like you came in and out of character—it’s intense.
JC I know, it is scary. Basically, I had watched this episode of The Bionic Woman where Lindsay Wagner gets cloned. It was called “Deadly Ringers.” Sort of a Stepford Wives episode where she gets replaced by this other person, and they locked the real Jamie Summers in an asylum. My mother reminded me of Lindsay Wagner somehow, because Lindsay Wagner was this very emotional, over-the-top actress, really underrated for prime-time TV. And she just did this kick-ass performance. I watched that during the day, it was on in syndication. Then that evening, on PBS, I saw Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, an American playhouse production with Alfre Woodard. Alfre Woodard is staring into the camera, and I don’t remember it verbatim, but she says something like, “I’ll kill that bitch!” So, I took both of those elements and I fused them into this fictitious character in which, as I said, I’m essentially imitating my mom. What you see in the film is a result of that.
CW That brings up another thing you captured in Tarnation, which is how much popular culture shapes our consciousness and infects our memories.
JC I know, isn’t that frightening? It intimidates me when I get around people who are super intellectual and literate and who have read all kinds of stories. That’s not really what I was exposed to. It’s more about The Krofft Supershow and Zoom.
CW Those fragments of footage and bits of sounds you include in the film, like the Jamie Summers bionic sound and the Zoom kids running around, conjured such a specific era. It triggered memories of the texture of the corduroy Levi’s I was wearing in 1976 (laughter).
JC Yeah, exactly. That use of popular culture references is to hopefully evoke something emotional and familiar within people. And to remind us, and maybe I’m not saying this quite right, of what we are and where we come from, getting back to the familiarity and innocence of childhood.
CW So what happened next, after you showed the film to John Cameron Mitchell? How did you actually start editing the random collection of Super 8 film, Hi8 videotape, mini DV footage, and answering machine tapes you’d been shooting and collecting for the previous 20 years?
JC Soon after I met John and I had auditioned for his film. I had to break away from everything in New York to go rescue my mother in Texas where my grandfather was, one could say, inadvertently allowing her to overdose on lithium. I had to go out there to be their saving grace. After I nursed her to health. I brought her back to New York with me, documenting everything. When I came back, I met this guy who was an intern at the MIX Film Festival. I showed him about 45 minutes of the film I had been making, which had three working titles at the time. “Lucid,” “The Day I Disappeared” and “Tarnation,” and he said, “Whatever this is, you should finish it because there’s a deadline for this film festival coming up in three weeks.” So I took my vacation from Mikimotos, where I was working as a door-man, and I went on this crazy editing marathon and got the film in right in the nick of time. I got it into the hands of the then festival director, Stephen Winter, who is also really good friends with John Cameron Mitchell, and that’s how everything exploded.
CW You needed that application deadline to prompt you to actually make the film and assemble the material.
JC I needed that deadline. Once it was accepted into the MIX Festival, Stephen Winter became the producer, championed the hell out of the film and made it the centerpiece of the festival. Between me and Stephen and the co-editor, Brian Kates, we all got together and figured out what the main gist of the film should be, because there were about four different subplots at the time: one that involved my grandfather losing his memory and his mind, and another subplot about my son—I have a nine-year-old son—all kinds of stuff.
CW Really? I didn’t know you had a son.
JC It’s going to be for Tarnation Two. Right before Tarnation premiered at MIX it was two-and-a-half hours long. When it got into MIX, we all got together and cut it down to two hours. We eventually showed the two hour cut to John, who was in Portland, Oregon, at the time working on his script for Short Bus. John passed it along to Gus Van Sant and Gus called me two days later and said. “This is one of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen.” Basically, John and Gus came on as executive producers, in the sense that they endorsed the film with their names. I don’t know that the film would have necessarily catapulted to the level that it has if it wasn’t for them.
CW Those are extraordinary champions to have.
JC The best! And I have to say, thank God for people like Harmony Korine, too, you know? Because he really did something with Gummo, casting exclusively non-actors and combining different types of film footage and sound material, that I think made way for other styles of documentary, even though that was fictitious. The world is ready for a new kind of cinema, and I would love to see something with a more hyper-real element come back.
CW Was that a reference point for you, Gummo? Were you conscious of the film when making Tarnation?
JC I felt inspired when I saw Gummo because I was like, “Here is a guy who is making movies about this kind of world that I’m from. I’ve lived and breathed in this world. And if this guy can do Gummo, I can do it. I got the real McCoy here.”
CW Did any specific documentaries or experimental films inform the making of Tarnation? Or was it more the whole stew of your lifetime of film consumption?
JC Just me as a film consumer. It was a whole conglomeration of influences, I’m sure, that were present on a subconscious level. Everyone from Paul Morrissey to Alejandro Jodorowsky to David Lynch.
CW In Tarnation, the density of the imagery and music seem to prioritize emotional intensity over documentary clarity. Do you think that’s true?
JC I think Tarnation functions as a documentary and as a narrative at the same time, which I can hardly believe because it really wasn’t either initially. It has always had a documentary element and a narrative element, but there was also another dimension, this other more abstract world that was controlling what was happening.
CW The way you assembled the material, the image and sound relationships and many of your editing choices seemed to capture what memory actually feels like. For instance, the way you layered and collaged still photos of you and your boyfriend could instantaneously summarize a whole era of your life.
JC Capture a whole decade, in a moment. (laughter) And what a thought process is like and what thoughts are. I don’t know if it’s my thought process, or everybody’s thought process, but my brain operates like a hyperlink; I’m all over the place.
CW I felt that the music in the movie was more dominant than the text.
JC It is. Sometimes I think it’s more dominant than the movie itself. I would start with a song and literally work my way out of it. I would try to figure out what image I was going to put on top of this cello sequence, or with this Glen Campbell song. When I’m listening to “Witchita Lineman” I feel like my heart is being pulled out. What do I want to put on top of that?
CW So the songs drove a lot of the image choices and editing decisions?
JC Completely. I thought to myself, if I’m going to make a story about my life out of footage I’d been shooting over the past 20 years, what should the first song be? What would I want to open this movie with? And it was “Witchita Lineman.” I wanted to start out with this ironic, sort of cheesy wedding-video style, as if in some garden party somewhere, once upon a time, and then slowly reveal these very intense shock treatments that my mother has endured since childhood. Then I just went from there. The movie essentially told me what it wanted to do because it was already this available footage, like, This is what you have to work with. I’d shot 160 hours.
CW So you edited Tarnation on a Mac using iMovie, the software that comes bundled with the computer, right?
JC I know, people are like, “You did it on iMovie?!” It’s almost laughable. but the cool thing about it is it’s something that any ten-year-old can pick up and do because it’s so easy to use. I like it because you really do get instant gratification from it and you can render things very quickly. At the end of the day if you have a good story to tell, and as long as you can assemble it, you don’t need effects and you don’t need Adobe to do it.
CW The film totally triggers that DIY inspiration: the notion that with such simple tools and minimal means, you can make such beauty and magic.
JC I never would have believed this movie could have gone from my iMac desktop computer to a 35 millimeter print in a matter of eight months. It’s a miracle.
CW Was there an instance, like at the first MIX Film Festival screening, where you thought, “Wait a minute, this is a lot different than I expected,” in terms of the intensity of audience response?
JC Oh, God, yes. I had been showing this footage for such a long time. The footage had gone through so many incarnations prior to MIX. I had shown it to various friends and acquaintances and film-savvy people, but nobody in the film industry. When I first showed the film in public, I was with my mother, and I must have had a small heart attack. I was like, “What in the fuck have I unleashed? What have I done? What am I doing? I’m exploiting my mother. I’m exploiting my family, oh my God!” But I wasn’t. That was more my initial fear.
CW Was there a moment of terror when you realized this thing that you made in solitude and in private was going to actually be out in the world?
JC It’s scary as shit, because one of my biggest fears was that I was going to be exploited once it got into the hands of the people looking at it, who were going to say. “Look at this found art that we have found.” You know? But thank God it isn’t.
CW So everyone has had your back in a way?
JC Everyone! I am around so many wonderful people who are really, truly protecting me in a way that I don’t know necessarily happens in this industry. Between Wellspring, my distributor, and Stephen and John and Gus, everyone has been wonderful.
CW Putting this film in the world has really changed your life. I need to ask you about a photo I saw online. It was from a film festival awards ceremony and it was a photo of you and Halle Berry.
JC (laughter) Yes. Oh God. You know what happened with that? Can I tell you?
JC Let me tell you. I hadn’t slept in a week. I was so fucking nervous because I was accepting this film festival award. The award ceremony had just begun, and Halle Berry had just won some sort of IFP achievement award, and the award was this beautiful little lucite square. I was looking at her and I turned to David, my boyfriend, and whispered. “That’s Halle Berry!” She had placed her award flat on the podium, and then she called me up to accept the award for best documentary. She announces my name, “Jonathan Caouette!” (laughter), and I walk up to the podium and shake her hand and she points at the podium to where I had to stand and read my speech—I think they had something written for me to say, some sort of transition speech before my acceptance speech—and there was her award on the podium. I didn’t know what she was pointing to, so I looked up and the whole film industry was there and everything is in slow motion and I pick up the award, which is her award, and I caress it. I’m holding it like I’m cradling a baby. And I do my acceptance speech with it because I didn’t know what the deal was. And out of my peripheral vision, from the wings, comes this woman carrying this red, glowing, phallic-looking trophy, which looks like a bong slash lava lamp. So I’m holding this award, and it was this very out-of-body experience, and I see this other thing coming, so I grab that—so now I have two awards! (laughter) And I’m like “blah, blah, blah, blah,” thinking, “Am I done, am I done?” I walk off the stage embracing two awards because I thought that the lava lamp was a consolation prize from Target, which sponsored the event. This thing couldn’t possibly be the award, but it was in fact the award. So I go back stage and then Halle Berry chases me and she was like, “Hey, Tarnation-boy! Bring me back my award. I hold on to all my awards!” (laughter)
CW Getting back to the making of the film, it seems like the camera allowed you to confront these painful situations with your family and this volatile investigation of your past. The camera almost protected you.
JC It did protect me. It’s one of those things where you’ve had this experience and it’s so overwhelming and daunting that if no one is with you, you have to prove that you were there, that this was actually happening—to me.
CW Do you think you might have been less persistent in questioning your family members about the past if you hadn’t been filming them?
JC It was a way of making sense of everything. I felt like if I did it long enough, something would click. There would be this revelation and all the information, all the cards, the truth and the sense of it, would be laid out on the table and I could come to rest with it. But I’ve realized that that’s not ever going to happen because there are as many truths as there are people. Everyone has his or her own truth. Now, I can just go on instinct of what I think the truth is and play with the idea of that based on my own experiences and my own point of view. But I’ll never know the truth and that’s okay. It’s not going to kill me if I don’t really know everything at this point.
CW As a viewer, I didn’t feel a need for you to answer every question you raised, to resolve everything. The detective work you’re doing in Tarnation is more abstract. Instead of a journalistic, factual truth, you discover this incredible emotional truth.
JC There was no need to resolve anything. I suppose I could conceivably have been working on this film for the rest of my life. I still could, if I really wanted to. But now that the film has put me on the map as a filmmaker, it’s time to move on to other things.
CW So you’re obviously buried under this movie now in post-production, but you said that you are working on a music video. Does that mean you are also getting to think about new projects?
JC Yeah. I’ve written about four screenplays that I’m talking to people about now and that I wrote when I was the doorman at Mikimotos. I wrote them all on yellow stick-it pads. I’d write like the whole screenplay and stuff it into my pocket. But there is one film I’m going to be doing, as soon as the dust settles with Tarnation, in which I’m taking three major studio films from the ‘70s that were produced consecutively. It all involves this one actress who is the lead in all three films and who assumes the same aesthetic throughout each film, right down to her hair length, even her accent. So, I want to take all three of these major films and remix them and augment them in a way that’s going to evoke a completely different story. So, that’s my next thing.
CW How has the completion of the movie and the recognition that’s followed affected your relationship with your mother?
JC She’s really happy and proud. She always knew that at the end of the day we had a very poignant story to tell. My anticipation was to do a fictional narrative and I never realized that all the stuff I’ve been doing all these years that was right there under my nose could become the film. It was for something. It is also a little strange because my life and her life, all of our lives, have essentially become this different thing from what they were. I think the beautiful thing at the end of the day is that you can come from such travesty and take something that’s so dark and make something really beautiful out of it.
—Christopher Wilcha is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. His first-person documentary, The Target Shoots First, is currently being broadcast on the Sundance Channel. Second Hand Stories, Wilcha’s 10-episode documentary series about the thriving shadow economy of used goods across the United States, is scheduled to air on PBS in fall 2005.