In this impressive and buzz-creating debut, the previously unknown filmmaker Jonathan Caouette used his Apple computer to create an epic autobiographical home movie on an unheard-of budget of $218.32, or so he claims. The budget is a suspiciously exact number (what filmmaker can account for every penny?) but then a lot of things that Caouette presents as fact are invitations to skepticism due to the film’s subjective and hallucinatory, dreamlike quality.
Tarnation is a Southern word (in a Bible-thumping attempt to avoid the use of the expletive “damnation”), and Caouette’s movie of the same name is a queasy, harsh and sometimes exhilarating look at his own personal hell.
At age 11, Caouette began videotaping himself and his family and friends in a suburb of Houston, and over the next 19 years, he used his camera to record a turbulent life. The earliest footage presents Caouette as a precocious pubescent drag queen with an alarming talent for acting out the woeful hysteria of women in distress.
Where did this grotesque but expert little impersonator come from? We soon learn that his unfortunate mother, Renee, was also a talented child, a local model and actress, whose troubles apparently began when she fell off the roof of her house, landing on her feet and suffering paralysis as a result. (Already the story is, if not fishy, vague enough to make one wonder what really happened. Why was she on the roof? Later in the film the story changes to say that she fell out of a window.) Her paralysis lasted so long that her doctors thought it might be psychosomatic; the docs delivered shock treatments.
Caouette says it was the “curing” attempts that plunged his mother into schizophrenia, as she was treated in “over 100 psychiatric hospitals” between 1963 and 1999. At one point we’re told that Renee took Jonathan to Chicago when he was still a child, and that she was assaulted and raped in front of him. The tale (an exaggeration, perhaps?) seems almost too perfectly tragic, but it helps explain the little boy diva who channels Blanche Dubois minus the kindness of strangers.
Growing up gay in a Houston suburb with a disturbed mother and two eccentric grandparents could have been a crushing experience, but for Caouette it was a spur to creativity. At one point, he inadvertently smoked a joint laced with PCP and soaked in formaldehyde, and in the film he presents the experience as a turning point in his life, after which he spent years in a dissociated state, feeling palpably unreal and liable to evaporate in the sunlight. He became part of the local punk and underground movie scene, disguising himself as a petite Goth girl to get past age-checkers at clubs. He filmed everything compulsively and learned to use the meager tricks of the program iMovie f/x like a natural-born surrealist.
In high school Caouette and his current boyfriend directed a musical version of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. The actors lip-synced Marianne Faithfull songs as a “quasi-metaphysical” representation of the plight of Dorothy Valens, the beleaguered Isabella Rossellini character in the movie. Even more surprising than Caouette’s prodigal imagination is this apparent evidence that such baroque manifestations of alienation have penetrated deep into the heart of Texas.
Caouette, somewhat inevitably, ends up in New York City but is called back to his messy past when he learns his mother has overdosed on lithium. This, actually, is where the film begins — everything described above is the body of the piece, a protracted flashback. Caouette starts out seeming like a freaky little disaster and then, as his wit, intelligence and against-all-odds humaneness are revealed, ends up as somebody worth rooting for.
Judging from this shoestring effort, Caouette might become a brilliant filmmaker.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday and Saturday, Oct. 15-16, at 7 and 9:30 p.m., and on Sunday, Oct. 17, at 4 and 7 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].
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