In this modern world of instant gratification, rarely does onecome across a finished work of art that has taken nearly 20 yearsof development to complete. Even rarer is it for the piece of workto be the sole testimony of the creator’s personal life.
Neither an abstract reality nor a complete picture of the maker,”Tarnation” is a retrospective exploration of 32-year-old filmmakerJonathan Caouette’s self-documented past. Caouette has beenshooting film since the age of 11.
Most of what the audience sees is Caouette, his mentally illmother and his abusive and severely dysfunctional grandparents.
Caouette’s mother and father split before his mother knew of herpregnancy and before she was forced into schizophrenic states ofdepression caused by severe and prolonged exposure to shocktherapy. This therapy was administered to her in the hospital withpermission from her parents, convinced she was faking the paralysiscaused by a 20-foot fall from a roof.
After a series of foster homes, Caouette finally returns to thecustody of his grandparents where he, now in his pre-teens, beginsacting for himself in front of the camera as a variety ofcharacters, including one where he portrays a battered house wife.This comes off comical until the realization that the personplaying the part has not reached high school and already has acomprehension of his own homosexuality.
But the central idea is not the premonition, obsession or desireof one person who needed to have film as a constant presense in hislife. In the flawless and perfectly timed process of piecingtogether twenty years of film, Caouette shows us that, in the wordsof Tolstoy, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family isunhappy in its own way.”
Originally edited entirely on iMovie with a budget of $213.36,for major release the budget quickly rose to $400,000 with asoundtrack including Low, Sigur Ros and the Magnetic Fields.
After getting a three hour version of it into MIX film festivalin New York, a shorter version was entered in both the Cannes andSundance festivals with great help in part from writer/directorJohn Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Portlanddirector Gus Van Sant.
“He’s a guy who is truly, to me, the first true, great, outsidefilm artist who was never part of any system or any training,”Mitchell said. Mitchell came across Caouette when he auditioned forMitchell’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 usewhat was at his disposal – his home videotapes and his ownimagination – to make something, that is really inspiring to me,”said Van Sant.
As part of a fundraiser evening for the No on 36 campaign,”Tarnation” premiered at a $100-a-person red carpet screening atthe Guild Theater last Saturday night, where Mitchell and Van Santboth introduced the film and gave a few strong words about the needto oppose Measure 36, which would deny gay and lesbian couples therights that heterosexual married couples enjoy.
“It’s really a film about family, chosen and given. So, I thinkthis film has a lot to do with the amendment that is trying todisrupt that,” Mitchell said.
In Caouette’s film, instead of bringing his own sexuality intothe open, he barely touches on it at all, except to vocallyrecognize he was gay.
“I still argue with the notion that people are calling me adirector because I see myself more as a crazy artist who assemblesthings,” Cauoette said in an interview with Independent Film andVideo magazine.
At the end of a very extraordinary evening, John CameronMitchell made it to the stage with Sleater-Kinney and the PortlandHedwig, Wade McCollom, to play “Angry Inch” on stage.
“It’s the sort of film I always thought you would see comeabout,” Van Sant said. “I guess this year is the year we get to seea small movie, made on a home computer, finally reach thetheater.”