Tell It To The Camera

Film still for Tell It To The Camera

Jonathan Caouette's Tarnation is the ultimate one-off, an audacious autobiographical disgorging that draws on 20 years of footage of the film-maker's life, edited at home using iMovie. But dwarfing its no-budget achievement is its emotional honesty in exploring the traumas suffered by Caouette's psychologically damaged mother and their effects on his family. By B. Ruby Rich.

A year ago buzz was circulating on the streets of Park City, the kind of buzz to which people pay attention because it emanates from audiences rather than from a paid publicist (though in this case there was a little push from that maligned profession). Word was that a newcomer, Jonathan Caouette, had made a powerful debut film about his painful life and his mother's near-destruction in the Texas mental-health system, produced for no money flat, to spectacular effect. An adrenaline-fuelled mix of documentary and performance related a tragic autobiography through home movies, purloined television footage and a mix-master full of sampled tunes. Even the most ignorant press and industry folk would safely pronounce the film genius, given that the names of Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell appeared on the screen as end-stage executive producers. Caouette, who had quit his day job as a jewellery-shop doorman to finish in time for Sundance, had grabbed the golden ring.

Where, though, could Tarnation go next? That was the follow-up buzz. Its emotional bravery and stylistic audacity made an intoxicating combination, but as one distributor pal confided: "It would take $2 million just to clear the rights." As it happened, it would cost just a quarter of that. By then, Tarnation had nabbed a distributor, gone to Cannes, won a prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival and penetrated the shrine of US cinephilia, the New York Film Festival. Not bad for a digital movie edited from scraps recorded by Caouette himself beginning in his early adolescence.

According to the apocryphal yet true saga, Caouette had burned the midnight oil on his boyfriend David Sanin Paz's consumer iMac, with nothing but its built-in iMovie software to edit the melancholia out of his system on to the screen, like some sort of latter-day digital Goethe. Editing to music, a VJ without a club or show, Caouette channelled his way into a format and style true to the subject matter. The total cost – just over £100 – has proved as fascinating to the press as the autobiography itself. "Yes, now I have a William Morris agent," admitted the slightly transformed Caouette when he passed through San Francisco recently to promote his movie.

Matter-of-fact queerness

The focus isn't fair. What's significant about Tarnation has little to do with either its iMovie genesis or its lunch-money budget. What marks Caouette's film as important is its originality and emotional courage, its formal approach to depicting mental states and wrenchingly unanticipated stories on screen, and its matter-of-fact queerness. It's the creative amalgam of subject and style that makes Tarnation worthy of the public's attention now that the party's over and the judgements of folks who actually pay for their tickets begin to kick in.

Hit the rewind button. Back up 20 years or more. On screen there's a young boy, already battered and bruised but clearly a survivor. The boy has enough spunk to busy himself dropping breadcrumbs that will one day show him the way out of his Jewish white-trash Houston existence, out of a netherworld of foster homes and drug overdoses and mental hospitals and into the magical universe of movies and clubs and... New York City. But wait.

Tarnation is first and foremost an autobiography. Texts pop up on screen early on like graphic tattoos, detailing the life and history of one Jonathan Caouette, his mother Renee, and his grandparents Adolph and Rosemary. As in a fable, the on-screen titles tell of terrible things that befell our heroes, rendering them damaged in the world. The opening words? "Once upon a time in a small Texas town in the early 1950s a good woman met a good man. Rosemary and Adolph got married. They had a beautiful daughter, Renee. Everything in their lives was bright, happy and promising." Ah, we viewers know to brace ourselves when a narrative starts out like that, especially when the film has already opened with a flash-forward to the present, revealing Renee felled by a lithium overdose and Jonathan, her son and chronicler, ill with worry and guilt.

Hordes of voyeuristic documentaries have been made over the years about the powerless or victimised, from such early cinéma vérité classics as 1963's Happy Mother's Day, Mrs Fisher to Nick Broomfield's pair of Aileen Wuornos docs. Unlike these, Tarnation is suffused with a compassion and tenderness virtually without precedent. Its spotlight of empathetic love bathes its sinners in forgiveness and redemption. And that's true even for the film-maker himself. Indeed, Caouette is on screen nearly non-stop, emoting and performing and finally even mugging for the camera, saving himself in life by preserving himself on film. He records "testimonies" repeatedly and, as cheerleader, persuades his kin to do the same, delivering star turns aimed at salvaging their lives and making sense of it all, just this once. Tell it to the camera!

At his San Francisco screening and interview sessions Caouette proved to be a seasoned pro already, yet with his touching enthusiasm not yet sucked out of him. Rumpled, short on sleep, he sucked on cigarettes and blinked into the sun. He still couldn't quite believe how far Tarnation has taken him, but there's no doubt he sees film as his life's calling: "I was always a die-hard packrat. I always just held on to everything. I accumulated 160 hours of stuff. I always wanted to be a film-maker, since I was four years old. I always wanted to tell a story about my life, by way of a narrative, utilising actors. I never realised I was inadvertently making this movie for 20 years. That is one reason I wanted to use text, to invoke personality disorder. It sufficed as a kind of frame because the movie is going off in so many weird places anyway."

Electroshock blasts

Caouette began Tarnation at the age of 11. No, that's not quite right. He began consciously performing for the camera at that age. No longer a mere participant in home movies, he stands alone in front of the camera speaking in a first-person address. But he's not exactly himself, as if we know what that is. Instead, in drag and distraught, the young Jonathan offers up an impersonation, presenting a "testimony" about her child Caroline and her husband who drinks and does dope and beats her, fidgeting with 'her' hair, weeping. Who is this? Whether his mother or a neighbour or a fantasy of a movie star, she's a show-stopper. And so are the texts that interpolate and structure the narrative, an intelligent device for conveying the unrepresentable. For instance, continuing the fable: "In 1965-99, Renee was treated in over one hundred psychiatric hospitals. Records now indicate there was nothing initially wrong with her." She was sent for help by Adolph and Rosemary after a fall from a roof left her paralysed. Today she'd get therapy and anti-depressants. Back then she was given electroshock therapy, twice a week for two years.

If much of Tarnation's exposition is delivered in an electroshock blast straight from the screen, the texture of the lives it explores shares that graphic intensity. Renee and Rosemary vamp for the camera, Jonathan delivers confessions alone in the night, and peril lurks between the reels. Caouette's brilliant grasp of the visual clearly goes way back; at moments Tarnation plays like a catalogue of consumer video effects of the past 20 years, some cheesy, some poignant, some both. The screen splits along with Jonathan and Renee's mental anguish and institutionalisations, images mutate and multiply, the wholeness of the screen becomes fractured and subjective states swamp all objective stability.

His mother Renee is central to Tarnation and to Caouette's life, to the point that we witness him driving back to Texas to rescue her and bring her home to him and boyfriend David in Brooklyn. Renee is what Divine was to John Waters, what the Factory stars were to Warhol: a larger-than-life presence who eats up the camera and rewards all attention with unique performances. She claims links to Elizabeth Taylor and tells her own tales of tragedy – and indeed life has been cruel to her. The difference, of course, is that she's Jonathan's mom, and he never stops loving her or paying her attention. It's his intoxication the audience picks up, a passion made manifest by the subjective eye through which we are thrust into her and his story.

Some pundits have forged links for Tarnation through scandal, claiming it's what Capturing the Friedmans would have been if directed by the sons themselves rather than first-timer Andrew Jarecki and editor Richard Hankin. For others of us, an entirely different documentary comes to mind: the Maysles brothers' Grey Gardens (1975), an indelible portrait attacked by critics of its time as exploitative but publicly defended by its subjects, Big Edie and Little Edie, who came across as just as nutty as Caouette's grandmother, grandfather and mother do – and just as thrilled to be documented.

Except when they're not. To his credit, Caouette includes several scenes in which his mother or grandparents tell him to turn off the camera; notably, all occur towards the latter part of the film, when he clearly knew he was on to something and had begun working for "my movie". (In one scene Adolph even tries to call the police to stop his grandson's shooting of him.) If these moments disturb the loving harmony that otherwise prevails, they're a necessary reminder of the power relations that lurk behind the surface of most documentaries and contribute to their shape and direction. The difference is that here Jonathan is son, grandson, director, cinematographer and co-editor (helped by Stephen Winter, producer, and director of the MIX festival where a three-hour Tarnation premiered).

By now Caouette has seen Grey Gardens and loves it. But he doesn't regard his film as a documentary: "I prefer to call it a DIY," he says. Asked to name film influences, he bypasses any reference to docs in favour of an excited litany: "David Lynch, Mulholland Dr., Derek Jarman, Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo, Sidney Lumet." Months later, he expands the list: "There's so many, it's hard to choose. I was as inspired by acid-trip animated madness like Dirty Duck as by My Beautiful Laundrette, Love Streams, Do the Right Thing or Rashomon. I'm very equal-opportunity when it comes to movies and there's still so much I haven't seen that I can't wait to get a chance to."

As a Texas kid, Caouette had joined a Big Brothers programme that paired fatherless boys with role models; he was matched to Jeff Millar, film critic for a Houston paper, who took him to screenings and obviously changed his life. The clips from childhood and adolescence that cycle through Tarnation favour the horror and splatter genres; they alternate with the hyperreal encounters with his family and his poignant narrative of his own _travails, from childhood trauma to his-and-her drug overdose and mental-health interventions. Throughout, he maintained his particular brand of creativity. One of the rare scenes videotaped outside the home is a record of his highschool play, co-written with an old boyfriend. Off the charts, it's a musical based on David Lynch's Blue Velvet. With songs by Marianne Faithful.

I'm not waiting till I'm dead

In cinematic terms Tarnation is poised at a complex intersection of trends and lineages. In spirit it harks back to the euphoric days of New Queer Cinema, suggesting nothing so much as the Pixelvision masterpieces of that earlier wunderkind Sadie Benning. Like her, Caouette is a master of the late-at-night-in-my-room-with-cheap-technology ode, a bard of adolescence coming into being, but with Texan sensibility and a touch of Tennessee Williams decay shifting the balance. Long after the marketplace took over the New Queer Cinema label and film-makers began to opt for deals over discoveries, Caouette brings it all full circle.

His queerness marked him from an early age and informs Tarnation, though he has also gone in other directions. His club-kid immersion in a counter-culture mythos inflects the work as well, so it was no surprise to learn that his years in Houston and New York were indeed club-centred. Smuggling himself into Houston clubs as a "petite Goth girl" at 13, he was a natural. At one point he tried to support himself as an actor and ended up doing stints in Hair and a European tour of Rocky Horror Picture Show. Throughout, he "always was a film bug, but the cut-throat part, the finance, was all so daunting." Props to the gay and lesbian film circuit: it was the introduction to MIX through a friend that led Caouette to the film world, recognition, and the important assistance of MIX's Stephen Winter.

Tarnation isn't being released into the world of the early 1990s when NQC was the rage of the moment. Instead, its doc credentials ensure it flies in the face of two dominant trends: the move in the US towards big theatrical-release documentaries, in the wake of the box-office success of _Capturing the Friedmans and Fahrenheit 9/11; and the cultural obsession with reality-TV shows, as even the Osbournes lurk in semi-parallel in the background. Caouette may well be pointing the way to a new approach to both documentary and autobiography precisely by refusing the categories, insisting instead on a hybrid that accurately encapsulates the tone of his life. Purity isn't his game; rather, he's generous and inclusive, posing a casual model of what life looks like today in America for a damn talented queer boy who has just turned 32, for whom the contents of his life and the stuff of film have merged.

"It's weird for me to think back on it because although I never in my wildest dreams, thought the stuff I was shooting would get into Cannes or even be shown outside my bedroom, I always did kind of know that all the craziness I was going through and all the footage I was shooting would come in handy somehow, somewhere. I would even sometimes invent weird scenarios, like: I'd die alone in my apartment and my footage would be discovered by someone, Blair-Witch style, and then they would build something out of it, which then made me mad, which is funny. I was like, I'm not waiting till I'm dead for this film to get made."

Not a chance. Tarnation is out there, a William Morris agent is doubtless hard at work, and already there's a wonderfully mad idea in the wings: a new story stitched together from a series of 1970s cult films, all starring the same actress, redeployed into an original Caouette narrative. And after that? It's tempting to imagine that gut-bucket horror movies lurk somewhere in his future. But Caouette, who has taken to referencing music-world examples like the 4AD record company and rap artists, is adamant that, whatever his mainstream hopes, he's not about to trade up and forget his past: "I will always, always be working on no-budget, experimental, personal work, some of which, if it's good enough, I would love to get out there. I'd even self-distribute. But hopefully I'll also get to experience making movies on a bigger budget. I like always to be doing ten things at the same time. It's just how I'm hard-wired."

Tarnation is out on 22 April 2005.

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012