‘Tarnation’: 20 Years in the Making, 10 Years Puncturing Our Hearts

A young Jonathan Caouette with his 8mm camera.

It’s been ten years since Jonathan Caouette released his personal docu-essay Tarnation, and now a decade later, it’s not only the emotional resonance of his story that gives the film life, but how distinctly it marks a particular time in American independent cinema. As a feature 20 years in the making, Tarnation helped usher in a new DIY style of filmmaking, creating a fragmented portrait of his life by culling together countless home movies, early short films, video diaries, answering-machine recordings, digital videos, and pop music that spans nineteen years—from when he was just a child trapped in the harrowing circumstances in Texas, to his life as an adult living in New York. Caouette guides us through a cut-up journey through his mind, his relationship with his mentally ill mother Renee, and how that challenged and shaped his life to make him into the artist he is today.

Famously cut together for just $218 on an old Mac computer, Caouette melded his love for psychotronic old horror films, cinema verite, and art house cinema to create a stunning visual narrative that expresses the confusion and pain he’s felt throughout his life. Told with candid honesty about everything from his abuse and the absence of his father, to the difficulties of being a gay man growing up in a community that doesn’t accept you, Tarnation is a totally raw and admirable work of art. It doesn’t only feel like an account of personal history, but like peering into his soul, with voice just screaming to connect with the world.

And with filmmakers Gus van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell attaching their names to the film and lending their support back in 2004, Caouette’s piercing and homespun documentary was able to gain world-wide distribution, garner a cult following, and still elicit a visceral reaction amongst its viewers today.  “[Caouette’s] is a life in which style literally prevailed over substance,” said Roger Ebert in his original review of Tarnation, “he defeated the realities that would have destroyed him by becoming someone they could not destroy.”

And to celebrate the anniversary of Caouette’s film, tomorrow night (Friday, April 18th) BAM will host an screening of Tarnation,  followed by an introduction with the filmmaker and John Cameron Mitchell and an informal meet and greet afterwards. So before heading to Brooklyn for tomorrow screening, I caught up with Caouette while he was working from his Astoria, Queens home to chat about the process of documenting his life, how it feels to watch the film now, and what filmmaking has brought to his life.

Looking back on when you were making Tarnation, did you ever imagine that a decade later you’d still be discussing the film? How does it feel to have its anniversary celebration at BAM after all this time.

I was spending most of the morning with my loving, sweet sweet friend who was a producer on Tarnation, Stephen Winter, and he was the real sort of sweat equity, helping really shepherd the film out there in a way that I could have never fathomed doing in a million years. We were just reminiscing and crying and many things. It was such an emotional journey to put the film out. It’s weird, when something happens in somebody’s life, whether it’s good or bad, whether it’s something traumatic or making your first movie that happens to make a  bigger splash than you’d anticipated, time becomes askew from that moment onward. Because the movie is really a life imitating art imitating life imitating art, living this everyday, it’s definitely a precious moment in time for me personally that’s never gone away.  I’m so grateful that the film seems to transcend time and effect people now ten years later.

I’m so happy that BAM is doing this. Ryan Werner was really the spearhead for this, and he was one of the original executive producers. DVDs are going away anyway, but I always had a fantasy of putting something together to create a definitive ten year anniversary edition of the film that would be on something tangible, like a DVD. I’ve even thought about making a documentary about the documentary. I probably have enough footage to probably make it—not just fly on the wall going around to festivals, but there are so many stories and magical nuances of things that had culminated together to make this film. There was something very, very special about the universe being aligned just in the right way for this film to happen. For so many reasons the film shouldn’t exist—not just logistically, but also technically. I lost the film about six or seven consecutive times making it on iMovie.

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From such an early age, you began documenting your life and recording your own version of this fractured world around you and the person you were becoming. What is it about this process that you’ve always been so drawn to and does turning your world into a performative space always you to shape your own life story in a certain way?

I’ve always had a big love for cinema. I was very drawn to seeing films. I loved the mechanics of film, I loved watching film, I loved the reel changes, the pops, the sound, the dirty film—every single aspect of the experience of going to a movie I was just obsessed with. It’s still one of the more definitive mediums that we have that’s as close as it comes to dreaming or revisiting dreams. It’s so prevalent  in our culture now to take pictures of our food when we’re out eating and post it, but it was sort of the same thing back then, but, for me—it was just done on VHS and Super 8.

Doing all that was a hybrid between trying to justify, in my head, being a would-be filmmaker and idealizing about the idea of becoming a filmmaker, but also there was a sense of urgency about what’s happening around me. What was happening in the dynamics of my nuclear family were so unbelievable to me that I felt I had to do something with it. I didn’t know what that was yet, I didn’t know that I was making this film for 20 years necessarily,  but thought maybe someday, someway this would come in handy. I was always filming things, and a lot of what you see in the film are half-attempts at making films that would never get finished, experimental things I was doing with friends, or these early self-performative things that I love. The ones that were done on Super 8 were permutations of these psychotronic horror films I would see late at night.

Were those the kinds of films that initially influenced you?

Horror was first and foremost genre that affected me—these crazy, strange, atmospheric films. But later on, when I was 12 or 13, I discovered the films of Paul Morrisey and John Waters and those kind of films began to replace and override my interest in horror and became my new favorite genre. I guess I discovered art films around that time with David Lynch and Jodorowsky. It’s weird, because seeing Paul Morrisey films made me feel like I had permission to maybe delve in that kind of territory in some way. There was always this duality between just finding myself as a filmmaker, while trying to sever my emotional attachment to what I was filming.

When revisiting the film now, do you find that you’ve become a different person over the last decade?

I don’t feel like the same person. It came out into the world when I was 31 and I’m 41 now. I don’t know if now I would have actually ever made a film like that ever, it was definitely of its time.

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Making a film in such the way that you did, where it was totally DIY and in your own hands, that’s certainly something that would be more difficult to recreate today.

If I was to make the film today, exactly the same frame by frame, pretty much the way it is, with the same music, and the same champions and enablers, even with that, I don’t know if the film would have resonated in the same way today as it did in 2004. It needed to come out when it came out, and it seemed to make this indelible impression on a good handful of people. I remember the original cut of the film, which was a lot longer and a little more abstract in some sections, thad all these impressionistic things happening in between it. A good handful of scenes were just a lot longer and more slower burning. I remember somebody ran out of the theater screaming, “How much can a person take?!” really loud and really emotional. But there there was a lot of love from the other half, and it definitely told me that I needed to cut the film down a little bit. But going from my clamshell Apple computer to a world-wide distribution deal that was sold in 30 territories across the world, it was by far one of the most bizarre and emotional things that’s ever happened to me, and still is.

The first time I watched the film I had a very strong emotional response, as I’m sure many people have. Do you find that fulfilling as a filmmaker and a person to know that all of these things you’ve gone through and were able to capture were able to connect on a strong level with so many other people?

For me, at the end of the day that was the most important aspect of having made the film. I was able to delve into subject matter that was, and still is, candy-coated and often has a big taboo surrounding it—especially today when everyone is editing their lives online and deleting all the bad parts of each other. So it was a good time, and there was definitely a sense of catharsis about putting this story out there and doing it for the sake of myself and my mother. Going through life until that point, as I got to know people in my relationships, even way before making this film, there would always come a point in the relationship where I felt the need to talk about my personal life.  I think also having made the film became a time saver for feeling the need to explain my family and the entire situation, so it was like, here, take this movie I made. It will tell you more or less everything in a nutshell in 88 minutes.

I have a very different world view from most people because of the circumstances that I’ve personally gone through. The way I’ve communicated it to people is like, you almost have to think about it like being brought up in a religious cult. You’re growing up in a family where everyone, respectively, is clinically mentally ill around you, and I say this with love and much respect, but that’s the reality. Then there is this significant world-view that gets superimposed onto you and you can either deprogram yourself somehow or not from that world view.  It was what it was but it was a very challenging world to grow up in. So the whole thing is, once you step away from that, you go into the real world. You’re forced to deal with people, and you realize that the way people are communicating is fundamentally different than the way you’ve been communicating in your close-knit family.

You either have enough insight to reprogram yourself from it in some way shape or form—the difference between this is the way the world is and this is not the way the world was inside house that you grew up in. So there was definitely a transitional thing that I had to go through for a very long time until I understood things better and had more persecutive on how the world functions.

Did filmmaking as a passion, and making Tarnation in particular, allow you to process your past and get through these aspects of your life that you might now have been able to without?

Looking back, needless to say it was very, very intense, but I feel very fortunate to have survived it and very fortunate that I was hard-wired in a certain way that allowed me gravitate towards something like cinema. Had I not had an interest in cinema, or anything remotely artistic, I have no idea how I would have processed half of it, to be honest.

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