Photo: Robin Holland (c) 2004
Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Awards: Driving the Auto-Documentary to a New Level: Jonathan Caouette
Tarnation arrived in 2004 without much initial fanfare,
premiering in the Frontiers section of the Sundance Film Festival. But
after the first screening, the buzz was on about a mind-blowing,
genre-defying work of art that was made for $218.32 on Apple's iMovie.
The next two screenings were packed, and by the end of the festival,
Jonathan Caouette was anointed The Next Big Thing of 2004.
Then there was the 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes, the Jury Prize
for Best Documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival, the packed
audiences at the Toronto, New York and Chicago Festivals, the feature
stories in major publications across the country...And now, at year's
end, Jonathan Caouette has earned a share of the Jacqueline Donnet
Emerging Filmmaker Award.
Tarnation takes the personal documentary genre to a feverish
dimension. A troubling, often harrowing tale of Caouette's upbringing
in Texas, the film takes an unflinching and surprisingly forgiving look
at his grandparents, who had had his mother institutionalized and
submitted to shock treatment, and who placed Caouette in a series of
foster homes. His mother also appears throughout the film, struggling
with her bipolar disorder and, in the opening scene, overdosing on
lithium. The narration, on cards, lets the viewer know matter-of-factly
that Caouette witnessed his mother being raped when he was six, and was
hospitalized at age 12 for smoking a joint that had been secretly laced
with PCP and formaldehyde.
This Southern gothic nightmare might, in less capable hands, lapse into
the clichés of the memoir form--self-pity, recrimination, resolve,
rejuvenation, etc. But it's the look of Tarnation
dazzling kaleidoscope of home videos, on-camera confessionals, music
videos, improvised monologues, snippets from movies and TV shows and
footage, rendered on just about every consumer shooting format
introduced over the past 20 years--and its sound--an aural montage of audio
tapes, answering machine messages and an eclectic range of music from
Glen Campbell to Nick Drake--that give the film its unique power.
"The original idea was to tell this story as a narrative," Caouette
explains. "The second incarnation was that I was going to utilize this
footage as flashback/flash-forward sequences for this completely
fictitious script I had written. It was going to be kind of like an
elongated Twilight Zone episode that was loosely based on the structure of Rosemary's Baby,
and it was even going to talk about the notion of my mother's mental
health by way of some sort of supernatural occurrence. Right after I
wrote it, I just decided that that screenplay and this footage were two
totally separate entities. That's when I started exploring this footage
as its own thing and decided to make it what it is now."
Filmmaking came to Caouette at an early age--about when consumer video
cameras began to flood the market. But cinema grabbed him at an even
earlier age. "I've always known I wanted to be a filmmaker, ever since
I was six," he says. "I would go to the cinema with my grandfather, way
before VCRs. I would always go with a tape recorder and record the
audio. I was fascinated with everything about the cinematic experience;
I would take all these audio recordings of the films, and we would go
to Walgreens and get a bunch of drawing paper with markers, and I would
start drawing out the movie frame by frame."
"My first love was horror films," he continues. "I think art films
inevitably replaced horror films. I was exposed at the very
inappropriate age of 11 to Paul Morrissey and John Waters. The reason I
was so attracted to that is because some of them were sort of
heightened caricatures of people that reminded me of my own family."
He would make his own horror films with the consumer technology of the
time, but given his difficult surroundings, the camera served a
different purpose. "When I was about 14 the camera morphed into this
other thing to sort of validate what was going on around me and make
sense of things," he reflects. "It just became this third arm, a
dissociative tool to sort of shield me."
While his passion for cinema drove him, Caouette never went to film
school. As part of a Big Brothers/Big Sisters program that he
participated in when he was 12, however, he had the fortune of being
paired with Jeff Millar, the film critic for The Houston Chronicle.
Over the next four years, Millar would take him to press screenings and
discuss each film in great detail over dinner afterwards.
Among the documentaries that have made the deepest impression on him, Caouette cites Streetwise (1985, Martin Bell), Titicut Follies (1967, Frederick Wiseman), Paris Is Burning (1990, Jennie Livingston), Hell House (2001, George Ratliff), Crumb (1995, Terry Zweigoff) and Grey Gardens
(1976, Albert and David Maysles, Muffie Meyer, Ellen Hovde). "I think
with all these films they just have to do with lovable outcasts," he
explains. "That's a world I'm very, very aware of. My grandmother was
Little Edie and Edith Beale all at once!
"I really love the idea of the aesthetic of a documentary, but
seamlessly trying to augment that into a narrative," he continues. "The
original cut of Tarnation
had a fictitious ending because I was still in a sort of safety zone,
where I didn't want to give everything away fully and sort of leave the
ending ambiguous and the truth ambiguous. But thank God it had to be 90
minutes for Sundance, or it would have never been a documentary. It
sort of inadvertently became a documentary, which I'm really, really
He described to the audience at the Los Angeles Film Festival that the
sensation that he wanted to convey in his film was that of being "half
asleep and half awake, where everything makes sense for a second." He
elaborates: "I think my intent was really more about evoking a feeling
about conveying a series of bits of information. I was sort of
mimicking those experiences that I had when I had walking pneumonia or
a high fever, when the whole plethora of information kind of rushes
into your mind's eye, when you're in that borderline place between
being half asleep and half awake, just really exploring the dream
world. The whole movie sort of plays like a dream or mimicking a
Whatever the intent, Caouette never anticipated the impact that Tarnation
has had on audiences. "The Q&As are like be-ins," he says. "The
people just come up to me without saying a word, and they're in tears
and embracing me. They begin dialogues with me about their sisters and
nephews and whomever. Some are attracted by the subjects of the film
because they're mentally ill themselves."
winds it ways through theaters, courtesy of Wellspring Media, Caouette
is well into thinking about his next project: "I'm taking three major
motion pictures, all made in succession from 1973 to 1977, and all
starring a very famous Texas actress who actually assumes the same
aesthetic throughout all of the films," he explains. "My fantasy is to
get all of these films free of underscore and music by just utilizing
split track dialogue that's derived from the master, and I want to
re-augment and remix them to evoke a completely different story."
Caouette is a child of the digital revolution of the mid '90s, when the
tools of the trade were suddenly affordable and accessible, thereby
lowering the barriers to entry, democratizing the documentary form and
opening up a plethora of possibilities. "I think through the
proliferation of new, easy and inexpensive technology there is going to
be a revolution in the way films are made, seen and appreciated," he
says in the press materials about Tarnation.
"People and subjects that have never been explored before will be made
by filmmakers who wouldn't normally be able to tell their stories. I
love the idea of anybody in the world being able to pick up an
inexpensive camera and editing software to tell their own stories."