Bright Lights Film Journal

Man with a Movie Camera: Visiting Jonathan Caouette

“I could somehow control my own story.”

Renee LeBlanc, Jonathan’s mother, personally opens the door. She smiles gently and offers some grape juice in Jonathan’s living room. I know that living room. We all know it. It plays an important role in Caouette’s autobiographical film Tarnation. It has posters on the wall – Blue Velvet and Hair – and about 3,000 DVDs in the shelves, Super-8-cameras, as well as two digital handycams. Today, four years after the screening of Tarnation at the Cannes Film Festival, Jonathan Caouette took some time to talk about cinephilia.

The interview was conducted on April 2, 2008 in Astoria, New York.

Jonathan, when did you do your last video testimony?

Oh, the last one I did was actually for the last scene in Tarnation. That was the very last time I did a video testimony.

You have been doing that kind of video diary for over 30 years. Why did you quit?

When I did my last testimony in my bathroom for the end of the film, I somehow already knew that this was it. I wanted to get the story to an ending and to open up a new chapter in my life. At that time I felt that doing Tarnation had been a very cathartic experience, almost like a therapy. But nowadays, of course, I know that it’s not true. You know, I live the sequel of that film every day. So, of course there is somehow still the need in me to do testimonials, but I would rather do this work of reflection on a narrative level now.

Did you ever write a diary?

There were moments in my life where I wanted to do a diary, and I did so by way of a tape recorder when I was at the Austin State Hospital when I was 12, after my one and only bad drug experience. You know I was hospitalized for several months, it had really messed me up. At that time I would record down my daily thoughts that I had. But I think in general I’ve always loved engaging myself in activities which would allow me to hold on the moments. I have been very fixated to that idea of holding on the moments all my life.

And the medium film allowed you to hold on these moments?

Definitely. I think the medium itself has to do a lot with the very original wish of an immortalized memory. So Tarnation is also about the fear and the tragedy of not remembering, I think. Nowadays it seems almost ironic to me that everyone can actually hold on the moments with a very simple consumer camera.

Do you think the singular moments lose worth because of that development?

Not at all. It’s really a positive development, I would say. It’s wonderful that everybody can become an archivist of his own thoughts and experiences in our days. You never know when we might need those immortalized moments.

Do you think of life as a train? There are a lot of train images in you film.

Yeah, it is a motive, definitely. You’re right, I think life is a train. It is sort of gazing out the window and seeing terrain go by very quickly to great music. That’s what life is to me! [Laughs]

In Tarnation it’s clear that both making movies and watching movies have been very important to you. Is there a difference for you in those two activities?

That’s a good question. I think that watching movies for me was always a sort of escape. It kind of became my film school for many years. I watched everything on television and in the arthouse cinemas of Houston, Texas. I learned so much from watching films – whether films by David Lynch or Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey or just films by local underground filmmakers, you know. And making movies? I simply think that film is the only medium where I am able to fully implement and emulate my dreams. It’s a little bit like playing God, maybe. You can fully control what you want to show and what you want to say. And you can say a lot in a very short amount of time!

How did it feel to control your life?

You know, with Tarnation I could, of course, somehow control my own story. Now people were asking me about truth and fiction. I don’t think that this question really matters for an autobiographical film like Tarnation. The film is nothing but my own private truth.

Jean-Michel Frodon from the Cahiers de Cinema called Tarnation an “autofiction.” Would that maybe appeal to you?

Autofiction? It sounds really French to me . . . [Laughing] I don’t really like the notion of fiction in that word, I think. Of course there have been some reenactments, but those reenacted parts in Tarnation that I did during the editing process are not fictional to me. I just needed them to tell the story of my life, and as I didn’t have a camera in every important moment, I would just capture them later.

Maybe you wouldn’t call it fiction, but there are definitely dream sequences in Tarnation.

That’s true. It’s because I think that all movies to me are like lucid dreams that you can access. My next narrative film will actually deal with lucid dreaming. So you’re right, Tarnation is a captured dream, an imitation of what my brain subconsciously thinks. I would call it a kind of hypnogogia, the state between being asleep and being awake, a sort of waking dream, where you get a bunch of information within a minute and then you forget it again. I tried to realize that dynamic idea while editing the film. And now it’s immortalized on DVD, oh God! You can get it at a shop. . . . It’s crazy.

Were you prepared for the enormous reaction, in the States and internationally, to Tarnation?

I never expected this. I thought the film might best be shown in some bar in Brooklyn while people were cleaning out drinks together, you know. So when it was shown to an anonymous public for the first time on the Mix Film Festival – a gay and lesbian experimental film festival here in New York – I felt I won’t survive this. It was the first time that I actually came out to my mother, and it was the first time that she would see any of the footage that I collected over 20 years. You know I really felt bad, somehow. I went through emotional rollercoaster rides, but I think in the end it was my personal vision of all the things that we went through together.

Did you need the public?

Yes, I somehow needed to show it to someone. But in the beginning I never thought of that big anonymous “public.”

Did you want to share the intimacy which is in the movie?

I didn’t mind sharing it, but at the time it was distributed in over 20 countries I really felt that I was baptized with fire. I felt like I lost control over the movie, when it came out. But of course I am extremely grateful to Gus van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Winter, along with Wellspring who produced it and cared about the distribution.

I think that although cinema is definitely a public event, it can still be very private and intimate. Serge Daney described himself as a “ciné-fils,” a son of the screen. It seems to me that you share that familiar idea of cinephilia.

Oh yes, it is a very familiar relationship. I really feel very connected to the movies that I watched. I knew in some way very early that I had to be part of that experience. For a while I wanted to be an actor, but then I preferred the idea of control, and wanted to create those experiences on my own. But still today I wouldn’t call myself a director, I would rather say a filmmaker, a sort of alchemist, you know.

Where do you think that familiar relationship with films comes from?

Maybe it’s because I was in the Big Brother program, a social institution for children from broken homes, and my “Big Brother” Jeff Millar often went to the cinema with me, as he was a local film critic. By these early days I really was fascinated by the way cinema worked, the way it sounded. I was fascinated by the “pops” and “clicks” of the wheel changes, you know. And I remember when I was around ten years old, I would go to the movies with a tape recorder and tape the soundtrack. And at home I would draw almost frame by frame the storyboard to these audiotapes. I did the weirdest titles, you know. I recorded Christiane F, The Exorcist, Phantasm, pieces of George Méliès and things like that.

Did you want to possess those films?

Yeah, I wanted to possess the films! There is a sequence in Tarnation where I tried to express that wish of becoming part of these films. You know, by drawing those storyboards I just wanted to become a filmmaker. I was trying to do movies. There was another weird experience I can recall. When my family and I were at home sometimes, I would venture out in the backyard of our house. I sometimes just left the table and said “I’m gonna do a movie in the backyard.” And “doing a movie” would be like watching and almost reenacting a film in my mind’s eye and turning the backyard into the dream-movie landscape. I would act out all the characters, and if it were a musical, I would write the songs on the fly. It probably looked as though I had some form of autism. Perhaps I am a little autistic even.

Did you want to escape?

Oh yes, all the time. That’s why I was glued to the television as a child. I just wanted to watch as many films as possible.

Your son is getting older as well. Is he also a ciné-fils?

Yes. He is 12 years old now, and he has already told me that he wants to become a filmmaker, probably an animator. He draws as much as I did when I was his age. but he takes his time with his work unlike me. He is a super-talented child. I feel so lucky to have him in my life.

You are his father. Who is your father?

You know, I think Gus van Sant is kind of a godfather to me. I don’t even think that he realizes it. His work has inspired me as long as I can remember. Both Gus and John Mitchell are definitely two of the most inspiring filmmakers to me. They are such mavericks and their visions, although completely different, tend to shake up American cinema in one way or another and that’s rare. I mean, Mala Noche and My Own Private Idaho have been very important to me. I was technically “out” by the time I was 13 years old, so films like these were a real solace for me. Ironically, I ended up being on the commentary on the new edition of the Idaho DVD. [Laughs]

It’s because you have a similar topic, maybe. His work and your work are both about youth in their essence.

Yeah, for sure. One thing that I can definitely personalize with the likes of Gus van Sant or Larry Clark as well is that they are all in their own way having an empathy for troubled youth. And you’re right, youth and the trouble that can surround youth is certainly one of my subjects as well, although my approach is very different. I just finished shooting a documentary about a camp for children from broken homes. It’s some of the most compelling footage ever. It’s gonna make Tarnation look like Scoobie Doo. It will come out at the end of 2008.