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The Days of Lithium and iMovie

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I
onathan Caouette’s film, Tarnation, has been categorized as either a
documentary
or
an experimental film, when in fact it is something else entirely. To me, Tarnation is
to indie film what Nirvana’s Nevermind was to indie rock. Working with
a $200 budget and iMovie software, Caouette made the first cut of his
film in three weeks. Set
to an almost continuous soundtrack, Tarnation combines the quick-cut aesthetics
of MTV, the experimental tradition of nonlinear narrative and the compassion
of the documentary filmmaker to create something wholly original yet hauntingly
familiar.

    In Tarnation, Caouette uses a lifetime of footage (he’s
been shooting since he was eleven) to tell the story of his complicated relationship
with his mentally ill mother, Renee. A ’60s teenage beauty queen, Renee is misdiagnosed
with a mental illness and subjected to shock therapy; most of her adulthood
is spent in and out of mental institutions and hospitals. As Caouette tells
the
story of his mother’s abuse, their tempestuous relationship and his own turbulent
youth, what emerges is a surprisingly hopeful portrait of what could be anybody’s
dysfunctional family. — Andy Horwitz

This is such a profoundly personal film, it must have been really difficult to let other people work on it.

It was hard, and it’s still very hard. My biggest fear was that someone was
going to pick up my film and say, “Look at this ‘director’, this ‘found art’
that we discovered and now we’re going to exploit the fuck out of it!” There have
been other documentaries and films by or about indie or outsider filmmakers
that make people out to be buffoons. And the subjects don’t know they’re
buffoons. I was scared of that. But I think that ultimately people get it;
they get the whole package.

People who grew up
in the ’70s and ’80s will probably relate to footage of
you as an adolescent. At one point, you have a bi-level haircut and are lip-syncing
to “Frank Mills” from Hair.


Yeah, but older people get it too. I was at the Roger Ebert Film Festival and
I was anticipating that it was going to be mostly college kids because it’s a
college town. Well, I walked into the auditorium and the majority of the people
were eighty-year-olds. I was like, Oh my god, they’re going to walk out and
they’re not going to get it
, because the editing is so frenetic. But people
came up to me in tears and began dialogues about their sisters
and brothers and aunts and uncles, some of whom had overdosed on Lithium, like
my mother did. It was just a really bizarre way of meeting people. Bizarre and
beautiful at the same
time.

Well, it’s an extremely personal film.

I never realized as I was making this that people would come up to me and
say, “I feel like I know you already.” Nothing I was doing about this was
preconceived at all. I was really reluctant at the beginning to actually
sell the film, because it’s so fucking personal.

It’s an incredible
story.


I think my family has collectively always known that we’ve had a pretty poignant
story to tell. I definitely wanted to tell my story regarding my mother,
but it was originally going to be by way of narrative — like a reverse Lolita,
where a twelve-year-old boy seduces older straight men. I’m actually still
thinking about doing that.

Was there a conscious moment where you realized that this was the story?

I had all this footage and I had basically written an elongated Twilight
Zone
episode.
It was sort of this parapsychological Lynchian shapeshifting story about
me and my mother and my boyfriend living in the apartment under completely
imaginary circumstances. I was going to start with all the footage I had
acquired over the years and work my way out with a fictitious narrative
that would surround it as sort of a safe way of putting this out there
without fully giving myself away. But ultimately I succumbed to the fact
that this footage and that screenplay were two totally separate entities.
I started cutting the footage and tried to piece
it
together as it was.
I had about thirty-five minutes.

How did you meet John Cameron Mitchell?

I had auditioned for his movie and in my audition tape I slipped in some
footage of my film. I was like, “Hi! I’m Jonathan! I’m a filmmaker! And here’s
me when I’m eleven in drag! I’m sure you’ll love it!” But just after I had
auditioned for John’s film I had to break away for about six months to go
and basically rescue my mother because my grandfather was inadvertently allowing
her to overdose on Lithium. I brought her back to live with me and my boyfriend
in New York. I continued to work on this thirty-five minute thing that is now the beginning of Tarnation.

What motivated you to finish the movie?

I met somebody who was an intern at the MIX Film festival. He was the new
roommate of a friend of mine. Totally by accident they came over and I just
popped a tape of the film in. I didn’t know who he was or what he was affiliated
with or anything. He was the first person that I’d shown it to, outside of
my nuclear family and some film-savvy friends, that said, “I think you’re a filmmaker.” And then he said, “You should finish it because there’s a deadline for the film festival in the next few weeks.” I
went on this editing marathon and finished the movie in about three weeks.
The whole thing. I would stay up for three or four days at a time, on just
tons and tons of cigarettes and coffee.

With a film like this,
do you feel like it’s actually finished, like it’s ever really done?


Every time I see it I’m like, wish I would have, could have, should have … There’s so much that’s left out, so many subplots that are gone. I have a nine-year-old son, actually. My mother had a second failed marriage, I have a half-brother from that marriage. There’s a baby that appears with my grandmother in one sequence and that’s unexplained. So it kind of lends a mystique to this cut, but there was a lot that was left out. I think I might just inevitably save that for Reintarnation or Tarnation 2.0 or whatever.

There’s a sequence in the film where you and a friend stage a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet with your high school classmates — have those people seen it? Or the people from your clubbing days?

We had a screening for all of the ones I could locate but most of the club people are just nonexistent. The boy that I fell in love with that looks like Nick Drake is nowhere to be found. I actually went back to Westbury High School where I went with him and I sifted through six or seven yearbooks trying to find people to sign personal releases and he wasn’t in a single, solitary page of any of these yearbooks. It kind of creeped me out because I was like, did this guy even exist?

How does your family feel about the film?

My grandfather loves it, and my mother ultimately loves it, too.  




 
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