Jonathan Caouette, Maker of Tarnation

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FEW GLBT films in the past ten years have had the impact on independent filmmaking of Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 film, Tarnation. Made on a shoestring budget, Tarnation explored Caouette’s wildly unorthodox childhood as an openly gay kid growing up in Houston with his maternal grandparents, Rosemary and Adolph Davis, who were largely responsible for the schizophrenia of his mother, Renée Leblanc, after they submitted her for unnecessary shock therapy. There was no father in the picture.

    Hailed as the first DIY (Do It Yourself) film of the new millennium, the experimental documentary was filled with materials that Caouette had collected since childhood—Super-8 home movies, answering machine messages, video diaries, parts of his early short films—was produced by Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell and received a U.S. theatrical release. Since then, Caouette has directed the 2009 documentary All Tomorrow’s Parties, which delves into the history of the cult music festival of that name, as well as an experimental short, “All Flowers in Time.”

    At the age of five, Jonathan was on the streets of Chicago with his mother when he watched her being raped. Also in his early childhood he was abused and beaten while in foster care. When he was eight he started making artistic collages with available materials. His grandfather gave him a camera when he was eleven. At age twelve, a friend of his mom’s gave him a joint laced with formaldehyde and PCP, which lead to a trip to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. During his teens, he began dressing like a girl and going to gay clubs; and he started making horror films starring himself, often dressed as a woman. In high school, where he was openly gay and had a boyfriend, he staged a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.

    After all those years of experience and personal filmmaking, the thirty-year-old Caouette put his tragic story out there with Tarnation, and the rest is his story. Now a father living in New York City with his boyfriend, Caouette sat down with me during this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Gay & Lesbian Review: You’ve been collecting documentation of your life in the form of recordings and pictures since you were a child. What got you into that?
Jonathan Caouette: I was inspired by just watching television and staying up very late. During my formative years I was watching these very atmospheric horror films. That was the first genre I really liked. I was incredibly inspired by The Exorcist. Even the TV-edited version freaked me out. I saw the real version when I was about ten, and it blew my whole life away. When I was kid I would stare at myself or someone else under this really low lighting until it turned into something else. I’m still a diehard packrat. I haven’t succumbed to Netflix. I like the activity of going and looking for things physically. I still collect records. I’m one of those people who will go on Facebook and tell everyone how much I hate Facebook and how much I think it’s Videodrome.

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