4 min

Gut-wrenching memoir

'Reality TV has not prepared you for this'

CRI DE COEUR. Jonathan Caouette turned 20 years of old photos, video diaries and audio recordings into a documentary almost too personal to watch. Credit: Michael Alago

Most people like to collect something. It might be snow globes or fridge magnets or rare vinyl recordings by Japanese punk bands. We’re all hunter-gatherers at heart. Jonathan Caouette is no exception and his pack rat tendencies are truly impressive. Over the course of 20 years, Caouette amassed a collection of personal photographs, home movies, audio recordings, video diaries, answering machine messages, Hollywood movie clips and excerpts from his own short films. Using the editing program iMovie and his boyfriend’s Apple computer, he turned 160 hours of this recorded material into Tarnation, a completely gut-wrenching depiction of his chaotic and often painful life. Trust me, reality TV has not prepared you for this.

Tarnation tells the disturbing story of Caouette growing up in a troubled family environment in Houston, Texas and his mother’s slide into mental illness after being subjected to electro-shock treatment as a child. Their relationship is the centrepiece of the film, even though for most of his life, Caouette was raised by his grand-parents while his mother, Renee, suffered decades of institutionalization in more than a hundred psychiatric facilities. The film begins in 2002 with Caouette learning of Renee’s lithium overdose. As he prepares to return home to Texas from New York City, he descends into swirling, psychedelic memories of abuse, neglect, drugs and self-destruction. Part autobiography, part punk rock opera, Tarnation is a feverish montage of distorted imagery and raw emotion that pushes the boundaries of documentary.

Many of the sequences are highly experimental collages of images, text and sound that will challenge the casual viewer. But it’s the actual content that makes the film hard to watch at times. Caouette is unflinching in his editing choices and the film is so painfully honest and uncomfortably personal that at times it’s tempting to look away.

“The first time I saw it with an audience, I brought my mother to see a rough mix, and, as we sat there in the dark, I could feel us both having minor coronaries,” says Caouette on the phone from San Francisco. “It was frightening and beautiful all at once. I had such mixed emotions and I thought, ‘What am I trying to prove?’ But once the smoke cleared, I knew that what I was doing was important. I think it’s something that people need to see.”

The film world agrees. Tarnation arrives at the Toronto International Film Festival having been embraced by audiences and programmers and championed by TIFF regular Roger Ebert. The film debuted at the MIX Festival in New York in 2003 and after Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell came on board as executive producers, it took Sundance by storm at the beginning of this year. A nearly 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes followed in May. And in June, Caouette was awarded the Target Documentary Award for Best Documentary Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Not bad for a sometime actor and former doorman.

“It’s been overwhelming,” says Caouette excitedly. “I’m so grateful to the universe and any guardian angels that are looking out for me. There has been so much magic the way this film has come together. It’s been a miracle and I don’t use that word very often, but it’s been supernatural.”

Tarnation grew out of a short film project that Caouette was working on and once he decided to submit it to the MIX Festival, the self-taught filmmaker soon found the film was taking on a life of its own. He always knew he was going to tell this particular story; he just didn’t realize it was going to come out of his collection of home movies.

“The deadline for the MIX Festival was the kick in the butt that I needed to get it done,” he says. “And this sounds weird I know, but as I was making the film it told me what it needed to be.”

For Caouette, the love affair with film began early at the age of three or four when his grandfather would take him to see movies. He loved everything about films and he wanted to be a filmmaker as far back as he can remember. He first picked up a camera at age 11 and his love for the horror genre was demonstrated in his early films with drive-in ready titles like The Ankle Slasher. In his teenage years, the local rep theatre served as both a great means of escape and ultimately as his film school, introducing him to the underground and avant-garde films which would influence his later work. Caouette immersed himself in this world and his love for music and pop culture also shape Tarnation, which includes extended clips of 1970s TV shows like Wonder Woman.

Caouette credits film with helping him survive the complex circumstances of his childhood and the traumatic relationship with his mother that is on display in Tarnation. He is onscreen for almost the entire film which, at times, makes it narcissistic and even self-indulgent.

But it is Renee who is at the heart of the film. Even when she is not onscreen, her presence is felt, her madness casting a shadow over the family. Caouette’s love for her is clearly un-conditional and the rekindling of their relationship in the second half of the movie is touching. They have managed to survive both the years of dysfunction and the making of the film.

“Renee loves the film,” Caouette says. “She loves that her story is getting out there. She endured being a victim of the Texas state mental health system and she has overcome her past in her own way.”

Ultimately, this is what Tarnation accomplishes as a film. It documents the deterioration of a family and the subsequent regeneration of the connection among its members. Much has been made of the film’s production budget, a mere $218.32, as if a great deal of money assures a good movie. Anyone who suffered through Catwoman this summer knows that isn’t true. Caouette’s true achievement is in capturing authenticity in a way that can’t help but resonate with an audience greater than he could ever imagine.

“I really only saw the film playing one or two screenings at the Anthology Film Archives [in New York City],” he says. “But I knew in my heart that there was an audience for this film, even if it was only two or three people. Now that people have connected with it, I have a feeling that the film is going to have a really long life. I think it might even gain some cult status. But then again, that might just be me being delusional.”

* Jonathan Caouette will attend the Canadian premiere of Tarnation at 10pm on Fri, Sep 10 at the Paramount.