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Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Awards: Driving the Auto-Documentary to a New Level: Jonathan Caouette

By Tom White

Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Awards: 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 --a dazzling kaleidoscope of home videos, on-camera confessionals, music videos, improvised monologues, snippets from movies and TV shows and vérité 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 happy about."

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 thought process."

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."

As Tarnation 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."