Walk A Mile In My Headphones

Living reflections of a dream: 'Tarnation' director Jonathan Caouette

This is Jonathan Caouette's 417th interview this year--or rather his 417th, 418th, and 419th. I've been stalking the 32-year-old director via telephone and e-mail as he tours the world promoting Tarnation, his debut feature. (He'll be at Oak Street Cinema in Minneapolis on Wednesday to introduce the film at this year's Get Real: City Pages Documentary Film Festival.)

What in tarnation is Tarnation? An unclassifiable home-movie collage about mental illness, mothers and sons, and the healing power of pop (some have called it a "musical documentary"), the autobiographical film has already become an indie legend. (It was created entirely on an iMac for a reported $218.32.) In the movie's anarchic, DIY spirit, I ask Jonathan to select snippets from his life that I'll attempt to arrange in thematic, nonlinear fashion. Jonathan eagerly agrees, and even provides a personal playlist, the better to delve into his troubled, beautiful, staggering mind.



City Pages: You were quite the hell-raiser growing up in suburban Houston. Was there a moment you wish you could've filmed and included in Tarnation?

Jonathan Caouette: There was this time when I was 13 and riding in the backseat of my grandparents' car, an old yellow Buick Opal. And to sort of say "fuck you" to the universe, I started jerking off.

CP: Did you come?

Caouette: Oh, yeah! They never knew. I had a friend who used to do it under his mother's bed.

CP: In high school, you and your friends mounted a musical version of Blue Velvet. If you could do a musical version of a movie today, what would it be?

Caouette: You'll probably think I'm a David Lynch whore, but I would pick Mulholland Drive. It should really be an opera. I love how it's all about shape-shifting and alternate realities. I'd also choose Asia Argento's The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things because it's about mothers and sons.

CP: Being gay isn't a big deal to you.

Caouette: I was always, always, always out. It was more like punk-rock gay. I was always trying to find pedophiles to sleep with. It may have to do with the fact that I never had a father--a reverse Lolita thing. I was always trying to seduce the housepainter.



Eve Kleinman (counselor at Jonathan's day camp): I know things were terrible for him. He would tell me stories, and I didn't believe he was always truthful to me. He was a very good actor, and I had the sense that some of his breakdowns were manufactured to get him out of a bad situation. He'd tell me stories about being hospitalized...and I got the sense that it didn't happen quite that way. He was very theatrical, but I loved that about him.

Michael Cox (Jonathan's first boyfriend): Once when Jonathan was 17 and I was 18, we went to the Galleria Mall in Houston with a friend of ours, and we got into this booth where you could record your own song. So we recorded this rap version of Karen Finley's "Belgian Waffles." It was very vulgar and explicit. But the mall broadcasts the song while you're singing it, and after we came out of the booth, there was this crowd just staring at us. I still have the tape.



CP: In Tarnation, you document your mother's battle with bipolar disorder and her subsequent recovery. How has she reacted to the film?

Caouette: Renee loves it. That's perhaps the most wonderful thing, making my mother smile. Plus all these gay boys have been coming through the house telling her she's this cinema diva now. Since she's always admired movie stars like Elizabeth Taylor, it's a real thrill for her.

CP: You seem to identify strongly with suffering women. There's a scene in the movie where you're speaking to the camera as a female abuse victim. Are you playing your mother?

Caouette: It was actually inspired by an episode of The Bionic Woman. Lindsay Wagner has a doppelgänger who locks her up. She's going crazy because Katherine Helmond is tormenting the shit out of her. Around the same time, I saw a TV movie starring Alfre Woodard called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf. I fused them into this fictitious character and improvised things about a second marriage my mother had. So it was really a mix of all three. By the way, Lindsay Wagner was much too good for prime time.



Jeff Millar (mentor from Big Brother program in Houston): I was a film critic with the Houston Chronicle at the time. Jonathan was 12, and the first time I went to his house, he had pretty much wrecked it. It was obvious he was giving his grandparents hell. But with me, he could talk about movies like an adult. I took him to press screenings and afterward we would discuss the movies. He fell in love with Jacob's Ladder. There was this effect he liked: The Tim Robbins character could see dead people and their heads would vibrate like Home Depot paint shakers.

CP: Why were you so obsessed with Jacob's Ladder?

Caouette: That was the first film I saw that was about questioning reality and trying to save yourself from yourself. Plus the aesthetic of the film--the kind of dreamy madness that only a master like Adrian Lyne could produce--blew my mind. I even wrote a screenplay based on the film called Zin Quillagarvonagitch, which was the name of my main character.

CP: In Tarnation, you reference The Exorcist, Carrie, and the Halloween movies. Is Tarnation your own private horror film?

Caouette: For some reason, people have classified Tarnation as a documentary. You could call it a horror movie infused with love and hope--if such a thing exists.

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