Everything in Tarnation is true.
Sadly, terribly, joyously, chaotically true.
For 20 years, Jonathan Caouette recorded his life on scratchy Super 8 film and fuzzy video.
Everything was filmed: Caouette’s tours around Texan foster homes while his mother, a free-spirited model, was subjected to years of electric shock treatments in the 70s only to emerge with a permanent schizoaffective disorder; his adoption by his grandparents; his wild days coming out in Houston and finding true love in New York. And then his mother’s tragic lithium overdose and her slow recovery.
At 31, he sat down at his boyfriend’s computer, clicked on the iMovie icon and began a new chapter in his life. There was just him, the computer and 160 hours of home movies, family photos, an archive of answering machine messages and clips of his favourite TV programs from yesteryear.
Making this film as an adult with the footage became a tremendous catharsis and once I started I really couldn’t stop until it was done, Caouette said.
Psychedelic, scratchy and intimate, Caouette’s first draft stream-of-consciousness outpouring caught the eye of Hedwig And The Angry Inch director John Mitchell Cameron who immediately encouraged Caouette to finish the documentary.
But even then I wasn’t thinking about making a -˜documentary’, I was just making my film, Caouette said.
Tarnation snowballed after this first push -“ the godfather of queer film Gus Van Sant came on board along with Cameron as executive producers -“ and the film ended up sending audiences into raptures at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals. It went on to collect several major film festival and critics awards. Part memoir, documentary and music clip, Tarnation has been called the new face of documentary.
Jonathan Caouette is still pinching himself. Is it all a dream? And how is he to know?
When Caouette was 16, he scored a couple of marijuana joints. The joints were laced with PCP. Caouette flipped out and wound up in hospital with an acquired psychiatric disorder called depersonalisation. Its net effect is to render his waking hours in a dreamlike haze.
Living with depersonalisation is like constantly adjusting to a pair of glasses with the wrong prescription, Caouette said.
Reality takes on an unreliable quality. Did I dream this -“ or did it really happen?
I conceived Tarnation as a new way of looking at documentary, as though it was imitating my thought processes, giving the audience the experience of seeing what it was like to be inside my head. I was trying to evoke memories of that place we go to when we’re between sleep but not quite awake.
The flip side of that is that I am so hyperaware of mortality and reality, I really appreciate and adore everything I experience and the people in my life. I love my mother and my boyfriend, my friends and my dog, and everything so, so much. So much that it hurts.
Caouette has just arrived back from a trip to Bogota, Colombia, where he met his boyfriend David’s family -“ people he describes as wonderful, fascinating, brilliant.
There was great acceptance of his and David’s long-term relationship.
Caouette’s homosexuality was never an issue for his own family either.
We were very poor growing up so the primary concerns were what are we going to eat, how will we survive, rather than our son is gay, he said, adding that he only ever felt love from his family.
Being gay wasn’t something that defined me -“ being a wild street child was more on the mark.
Caouette left the miniDV camera at home for the Colombian trip. In fact, the camera that was so much a part of life before Tarnation has seen little time outside of its box.
I never shoot myself or my life at all any more. Making Tarnation it seems got all that completely out of my system. I feel more centred and at peace than ever in my life.
It’s time to move on with the rest of life, although Caouette is still buzzing from the attention the film has garnered -“ calling Tarnation the most incredibly unpremeditated thing that ever happened to him.
And if Tarnation had a legacy, it would be bringing out the story of his mother’s time in Texas’s archaic mental health system during the 1970s and 80s.
Amplifying my mother’s story so she can be heard all over the world is undoubtedly the best thing I have ever done in my life.
I didn’t want Tarnation to be sugar-coated and whitewashed like most Hollywood movies are with mental illness issues. There needs to be a stronger empathy and compassion in our society with the mentally ill.
I never really came out officially in the sense that one day I was closeted and the next day I told everyone I was gay. I always just kinda was what I was and that’s pretty much it.