Friday, March 04, 2005
Jonathan Caouette never expected to find himself staring a new film genre in the face. A video store geek obsessed with David Lynch and John Waters, he never attended formal film school, and never considered himself much of a filmmaker. But after the debut of his first film Tarnation, critics are suggesting quite the opposite by praising him for embarking upon new cinematic territory.
Caouette’s film splices videotape footage he began shooting at age 11, as well as family photographs, phone recordings and other various forms of memorabilia he had collected throughout his life into a full-length feature. The film illustrates the story of three generations of a family bound together by a series of unfortunate events and a sense of bittersweet love.
Caouette’s tale begins with his mother Renee’s accidental lithium overdose. The news of her hospitalization releases a surge of memories from the family’s past, including Renee’s brief career as a child model and her accident that led to two years of shock treatments and repeated hospitalizations. As Caouette backtracks through his past via brief video segments, he reveals his life’s most significant occurrences caught on camera, including his experience while in foster care, coming out as a teenager, meeting his first boyfriend, and his mother’s continual mental deterioration.
Caouette with his mother Renee circa 1975
Since its release at the MIX Festival (the New York Lesbian & Gay Experimental Film/Video Fest) Tarnation has been proclaimed as the rebirth of the documentary, but Caouette never intended to fill such influential shoes. Despite any visionary planning, his original goal to create an impressionistic film with a completely fictitious ending ultimately became a living, breathing family photo album.
“It was never (meant to be) a documentary. It’s crazy that I’m being hailed for reinventing the documentary,” Caouette said. “It was definitely supposed to be something else.”
While the final cut is not what he had originally expected, Caouette knew he had done something right when, to his surprise, big-name filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and Gus Van Sant signed on as executive producers. As the film seemed to set itself up for fame, Caouette stood aside, amazed at Tarnation’s growing popularity.
“I always knew there would be an audience for it, but I was thinking a night at a coffee shop or something in Williamsburg, Brooklyn on a film projector,” he said.
Caouette as a teenager Renee and Caouette, present day
The 88-minute film is the first composed entirely in Apple’s iMovie software, which kept the total cost at a sparse $218. Caouette assures the remarkably low figure is valid, because most of his materials – cameras, film transfer material, and the computer – were all gifts. His biggest expenses were 10-11 Hi-8 tapes he imported from the camera to the computer.
“It’s sort of a gimmicky thing to say, but it’s true,” he said, somewhat sheepish about the minuscule budget.
While the lack of a Hollywood blockbuster’s budget may cause Caouette to blush, his ability to transform his family’s rocky story so eloquently and accurately into an up-and-coming underground film proves his future as a filmmaker won’t be short lived. He hopes to further explore the idea of splicing video clips – more of his own, as well as cult films he considers influential – into feature-length films. Could his success spark a new wave of personal documentation among the masses?
“I sure hope so,” Caouette said. “I really think all the tools are there hovering under our noses. We just have to pick them up and do it.”
Caouette said he hopes he could be of any inspiration to filmmakers who feel like they never had a voice, whether they were intimidated by the film industry or the distribution works or requiring money to make a film.
While the process of transcribing one’s life onto film may seem inexpensively worthwhile, Caouette is proof that it’s anything but an easy task. He quit his job as a doorman and sacrificed his sleep so that he could fully dedicate himself to the film. After three weeks of nonstop work, a three-hour version of Tarnation emerged from Caouette’s computer. What followed proved even more difficult: cutting a three-hour version of his life down to its current 88-minute length.
“It’s really hard editing your life. I went on an editing rampage. Sometimes I would stay up for three weeks at a time just trying to get it done, smoking, drinking loads of coffee,” he said.
Tarnation inevitably became more than an experimental project for Caouette long before it surfaced at film festivals. Since the movie’s early stages of production, the process of layering segment upon segment into a dream-like recollection of his most controversial memories became his way of dealing with Renee’s condition and its continual affect upon his life.
“It became therapy over and over again. At the end of the day, I’d really like people to take away, that inevitably there’s always hope at the end of the tunnel.”