20 JULY 2, 2004
www houstonvoice.com HOUSTON VOICE
I cover story
Tarnation' gets special showing in Houston
TARNATION, continued from Page 1
"Tarnation," the documentary of his troubled life that he shot, produced and edited
for a total cost of $218.
Honors at Los Angeles were preceded
by an 8-minute standing ovation at the
Cannes Film Festival and the label "masterpiece," given the film at Sundance.
Along the way, Gus Van Sant and John
Cameron Mitchel, the star, writer and
director of the cult classic "Hedwig and
the Angry Inch," signed on as executive
producers. Critic Roger Ebert made
"Tarnation" the centerpiece of his
"Overlooked Film Festival."
Part documentary part Punk-Rock-art-
house-stream of consciousness, Tarnation follows Caouette through 2 decades of life experiences that would have killed most people.
The film is dominated by a bizzaro
world filled with his mother's struggle
with mental illness, his adopted parents
(Adolf and Rosemary, actually his grandparents) surreal day-to-day life and his
own brush with insanity caused by smoking two PCP-laced joints.
"Tarnation" is a raw. ravishing, funny,
sad and painfully honest walk in someone else's shoes. Every moment is right
there: his tearful reaction to his mother's
lithium overdose, his search for his
unknown father, his mother's years of
shock treatments and her rape by a
stranger that he witnessed, his meeting
and falling in love with partner, David
The audience at Aurora, many of them
friends, watched stunned, realizing they
knew someone, but they didn't really know
him at all.
Insanity overwhelmed the audience.
Some were unsure whether it was OK to
laugh at such tragic images.
They needed only to look at Caouette,
who howled at times as he watched the
insanity that was his life.
"Tarnation" is a diary splayed open for
all to see, a scrapbook of memories
The Houston Voice had the rare opportunity to sit down with Caouette and his
friends after viewing the film, set for a fall
release across the United States.
When he sat down to talk about his film,
he explained that even though he had 20
years of raw, real movie footage, his first
thoughts were of producing a fictional
account of his life.
Caouette: Originally I had written this
97-page screenplay which was me, my
boyfriend, David, and my mother, Renee,
under these completely imaginary circumstances living in our New York apartment. The structure of the film was basically "Rosemary's Baby." It was going to
be an elongated "Twilight Zone" episode.
I was in a place where I was in a real safety net zone about it. I wanna use all this
footage I have but I'm really scared to give
myself away. I don't know if I want do
this, to go on this cathartic, exorcism
journey So I wrote the screenplay and I
wanted to incorporate all the things you
see in "Tarnation" now as flashback and
flash forward sequences.
HoVo: You were looking to do that as
Caouette: Completely. I was going to
show the 11-year-old-me, but he was a character based on me, and a character based on
Renee, and I was going to cut it in a way
where I used the actual footage of us, but
our names were never referenced. Then I
got really fatigued with the idea and then
realized one day that the screenplay and the
footage were two totally different entities.
God forbid if it had turned out that way
HoVo: Would you trade those life experiences, and therefore this experience for just a
nice, normal life with your mom growing up?
Caouette: No. I'm really glad I went
through everything I went through
because this wouldn't have happened. If
anything, at the end of the day, this is a
great film that's going to hopefully change
some lives. Even if this movie can allow
people to have more empathy for the mentally ill, and not simply round them off to
the nearest scumbag or drug addict.
HoVo: Something most people seem to
take away from your film is that it's a love
Caouette: It is a love story
HoVo: How do you edit your own life?
How did you go through 15 or 20 years of
your own life and decide, well this scene
Caouette: That's where the filmmaker
overrides everything else.
HoVo: The filmmaker in you?
Caouette: The filmmaker in ME. That's
where the really disassociative aspect
comes into play I don't know how I did it, I
was able to step back and objectify everything. I have always disassociated myself
from my nuclear family, whether I was half
listening or tuning them out or, most
importantly, by videotaping.
HoVo: By being behind the camera
rather than in the moment?
Caouette: Yes! By being sort of scared,
or realizing this is so freaky and crazy, I
HAVE to videotape this! This is gonna
come in handy one day.
HoVo: Is that why you started taping? If
you have it to look back on it you can figure
Caouette: Well, it's a diary, why do you
keep a diary? It's to look back and reflect
and hope to make some sort of sense of it.
That was my sole objective when I started.
HoVo: In the same vein, how do you edit
the actual soundtrack to your life? You use
Low, Nick Drake, Marianne Faithful and
all these amazing pieces of music. How do
you put the final stamp on it and let it go?
Caouette: I literally started with a song
and worked my way out, cutting to the
emotional resonation of the song.
HoVo: Do you hear songs in your head
Caouette: All the time...I'd think OK,
what needs to go over the cello, because
when I feel like my heart is being pulled
out and stomped on, what do I need to put
up there to make that work and match that
up? That's the whole idea of "Tarnation."
Jonathan Caouette (left) and his (partner, David Sanin, were in Houston recently for a special screening of the
documentary, 'Tarnation.' (Photo by Dalton DeHart)
HoVo: Whats up with that title? It's not
said in the film.
Caouette: Well it's implied...I almost
wanted to have my mother say it. You
know it's a form of damnation...hellfire
and tarnation. It was never said organically so I never manipulated it to happen. It's
also the name of one of my favorite bands,
a band that never got the attention I
thought it deserved, so I thought it'd be
great name for the film.
HoVo: Some people have called you a
gay hero. As much as that is a compliment,
the film transcends sexuality
Caouette: Well, let me tell you, there
was some hoo-hah at the Roger Ebert
Festival. One of the first questions I got,
some guy stood up and said, "What do you
think about this being a gay film, and you
being gay and introducing yourself to the
entertainment industry as gay...and don't
you think that being gay is a disease?" And
Roger Ebert stood up and shredded the guy
It is so besides the point.
HoVo: In "Tarnation" when your father,
whom you have sought out, asks you on the
phone, "Are you Gay? You sound Gay... .you
don't have AIDS do you, cause I don't want
anything to do with you if you do..." That
was rough, very gripping and sad.
Caouette: And that was in the first 5
minutes of our conversation.
HoVo: Yet, you were big enough to ask
him to visit you at your home with your
partner David and Renee
Caouette: I just really wanted the
opportunity to be around my parents
together in the same room after 19 years.
HoVo: And watching the film, clearly
the love of lip-syncing & performing really
runs in your family. Your mom loved to lip-
sync...even some of your earliest shots.
Caouette: I know. It must be in the genes.
HoVo: The lip-syncing part of the film
is so amazing, to actually see Visions
again. Do you remember the other clubs?
Caouette: BJ's, Nitecage, Visions,
HoVo: The lip-syncing wasn't gender
Caouette: And it was not about drag
HoVo: It was something else entirely
Caouette: We were like the third sex or
something. Wow! It was like this window,
this vacuum that existed for a brief period
of time, did what it needed to do to everyone, everybody got what they needed...
HoVo: And then it disappeared!
Caouette: I don't know what it's like
living in Houston now, but that time was
probably one of the only times, when
there was a window when you could be
anybody you wanted to be. You could be
gay and 12 years old and be in drag and
getting into these nightclubs as a Goth
girl, or whatever. It was such a free
time...brief but free. I mean 1986 & 87?
HoVo: A movie like "Tarnation" is powerful, raw and really touching. Even if
someone didn't know you before, it is devastating in a way Is that why you put the
text in the film in the third person?
Caouette: That's why I had to separate
myself. The text in the original version
was actually a character, along with Renee
and I. You know I made the film in sequential order, from beginning to end, just like
you see it. Totally organic. And in a way,
the film has its own breakdown.
HoVo: What do you see when you're
watching the film for the 50th time?
Caouette: This is my mother and me
having a good time. It's precious and
sacred and I know the film can occasionally be dark and insane, but my mother and I
really are having a good time.
(It is at this moment that an important
call comes in for Caouette,).
Caouette: I have just won Best
Documentary at the Los Angeles Film
Festival over "Fahrenheit 911!"
(The room erupts in applause.)