Rarely, in the modern world of instant gratification, does one come across a single, finished work of art that has taken nearly 20 years of development to complete. Even rarer is it for the piece of work to be solely a testimony of the creator’s personal life.
Not an abstract reality, nor a complete picture of the maker, “Tarnation” is a retrospective exploration in the self-documented past of 32-year-old filmmaker Jonathan Caouette, who has been shooting film since the age of 11.
Most of what we see is himself, his mentally ill mother (Renee LeBlanc) and his abusive and severely dysfunctional grandparents. Caouette was the child of young Steve Caoutte.
Steve Cauotte left Jonathan’s mother before she knew of her pregnancy and before she was forced into schizophrenic states of depression caused by severe and prolonged exposure to shock therapy. This therapy was administered to her in a hospital with permission from her parents, convinced she was faking the paralysis caused by a 20-foot fall from a roof.
After a series of foster homes Jonathan finally returns into the custody of his grandparents where, now in his pre-teens, begins acting for himself in front of the camera as a variety of characters such as a battered house wife. This comes off comical at first, until the realization that the person playing the part has not even reached high school and already has comprehension of his own homosexuality.
But the idea is not the premonition, obsession or desire of one person who needed to have film as a constant part of their life. In the flawlessly done and perfectly timed process of piecing together twenty years of film Caouette shows us, in the words of Tolstoy, that, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Edited entirely on iMovie and on a budget of $213.36, for major release the budget quickly rose to $400,000 with a demanding soundtrack including Low, Sigur Ros, and the Magnetic Fields.
After getting a three hour version of it into MIX film festival in New York, a shorter version made both the Cannes and Sundance festivals, with great help in part from writer/director John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Portland autere Gus Van Sant.
“He’s a guy who is truly, to me, the first true, great, outside film artist who was never part of any system or any training,” said Mitchell. Mitchell came across Caoutte when he auditioned for Mitchell’s not yet released, “Short Bus” and included a portion of “Tarnation” on his audition tape.
“[Caouette] is this amazing character to me. To be able to use what was at his disposal-his home videotapes and his own imagination-to make something, that is really inspiring to me,” Van Sant said.
As part of a fundraiser evening for the “No On 36” campaign, “Tarnation” premiered at the $100-a-head red carpet screening at the Guild Theater last Saturday night where Mitchell and Van Sant both introduced the film and gave a few strong words about the need to oppose Measure 36 – a measure which would deny them and other gay or lesbian couples the rights that other married, heterosexual couples enjoy.
“It’s really a film about family. Chosen and given. So, I think this film has a lot to do with the amendment that is trying to disrupt that,” Mitchell said.
In his film, Caouette does not bring out strongly or use his own sexuality as a blank sketch, barely touching on it at all, except to simply vocally recognize he was gay.
“I still argue with the notion that people are calling me a director because I see myself more as a crazy artist who assembles things,” Cauotte said in an interview with “The Independent Film and Video” magazine.
At the end of a very extraordinary evening, John Cameron Mitchell made it to the stage with Sleater Kinney and the Portland Hedwig, Wade McCollom, to play “Angry Inch” on stage.
“It’s the sort of film I always thought you would see come about,” Van Sant said. “I guess this year is the year we get to see a small movie, made on a home computer, finally reach the theater.”