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A Spliced-Together Life

Jonathan Caouette Tells Of the Pain of Mental Illness In His Hit Home Movie

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 10, 2004; Page C01

Jonathan Caouette is sloe-eyed, soft-haired, gentle. A 32-year-old boy Bambi in jeans. He's the kid you see slouching into a Starbucks. Clicking through his iPod. Smoking Marlboros. Waiting for the bus. Everydude.

You wouldn't have a clue he's floating around the lobby of this Courtyard hotel. Mentally, that is. Doing his best, at any given time, to hang on, concentrate on what you're saying. He's there, shifting positions in a soft chair, his eyes tell you so. But he's also not there. His consciousness is fragmented into a billion puffs of decentralized anxiety.


Caouette produced "Tarnation" using his computer and footage he'd shot since his preteen years. (John Sciulli -- Wireimage.com)

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"My brain is like a hyperlink," says Caouette. "It goes off in all directions."

What brings him back, what has always given him higher purpose, is filmmaking. He has been making films since his preteen years. It has been his existential lodestar throughout a family history of domestic ennui, abuse and mental illness.

That guiding light has finally led him to major buzz level at festivals with "Tarnation," a movie about his struggles with his own issues (he has been diagnosed with depersonalization disorder: a feeling of detachment from the self) and his mother, Renee, who has never recovered from the shock therapy her parents forced her to undergo. (She has acute bipolar disorder and schizo-affective disorder -- which has elements of schizophrenia and manic depression.)

"Tarnation" was a critical sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, then at Cannes and Toronto. And Caouette picked up an award last week at the London Film Festival. The film debuts in Washington on Friday. (Caouette will host a Q&A Friday after the 7:35 p.m. screening at Landmark's E Street Cinema.)

"This movie has literally gone from my desktop computer to a worldwide distribution deal and a 35-millimeter print in less than a year," says Caouette.

The film documents his mother's horrendous experiences, including shock treatment following her fall from a roof as a young girl; her continued bad experiences in the Texas state mental health system; a husband who abandoned her; her rape by a stranger, which Caouette witnessed as a small child; and Caouette's coming-of-age in Houston and escape to New York in 1997, where he worked McJobs and found happiness in a long-term relationship with his boyfriend, David Sanin Paz. He returned to Texas to assist his mother after she overdosed on lithium in 2003.

Caouette claims in the movie, and in person, that his depersonalization disorder was triggered by two joints he smoked at the age of 12. They were laced, he says, with formaldehyde and PCP. He had never smoked a joint before and hasn't since, but the feeling has never left.

(You can visit sites about depersonalization disorder, as Caouette regularly does, and read about people who have these feelings of detachment, of high anxiety, of being outside their bodies. Says one poster identified only as "J": "Perhaps I have died already and just do not know it.")

"Tarnation" also shows Caouette's lifelong obsession with movies, from watching them to making his own Super 8 films with such B-movie-style titles as "The Ankle Slasher" and "Pig Nymph." And it's edited like a fever dream, with images, sounds and music coming at you in a visual bombardment, much in the underground style of some of Caouette's idols: Andy Warhol, Paul Morrissey and John Waters.

"That machine-gun editing in the movie, that's sort of how it is up here," says Caouette, tapping his head.

Amid this fragmentary pastiche of home movies, photographs and passing images of gay sexuality, you see the depth of his mother's illness and the eerie remoteness of his Texan grandparents, Adolph and Rosemary Davis, who raised Caouette and who appeared in some of those Super 8 movies.

"My grandparents became my stars -- eccentric people who were at arm's length," says Caouette.

"Having the camera and maybe being this would-be artist was definitely a way out, somehow," he continues.

Caouette had long entertained thoughts of making a feature-length film about himself and his relationship with his mother. The trigger for that dream came when he auditioned for a small movie part for John Cameron Mitchell, the writer-director of "Hedwig & the Angry Inch," and showed him elements of his home footage.

Mitchell encouraged him to finish the film. And in a three-week crunch to make deadline for the New York Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film/Video Festival, Caouette put it all together with Apple's iMovie editing software, spending $218.32 on the initial production. Festival director Stephen Winter liked the result so much, he became a producer for the film. Mitchell, too, came aboard as a producer, and he showed it to Gus Van Sant, who followed suit.

Many have drawn similarities between the movie's torturous self-umentary angst and 2003's "Capturing the Friedmans," in which a family, two of whose members were imprisoned for acts of pedophilia, made home movies of themselves suffering through the harrowing trial and post-trial events.

But Caouette says his movie is different. "Tarnation" was "a validation to remind myself that this was really happening." The primary reason for making it, he says, was to express his love and concern for his mother.

"I still wake up in the middle of the night, still pondering the question, what it is exactly that we have done here. Why am I doing this? And did I exploit my mother? I don't think I've done that. . . . we had a pretty poignant story between us to tell. It was really more about a window in my heart of activism -- so far as the Texas mental health system is concerned. It is really about getting my mother's story told, although it may seem narcissistic with my name flashing like a thousand times. I was the one who had the camera, and I had to tell it from my point of view."

His mother, he says, is thrilled with the movie, and her condition is under control. She's "very happy and functional," he says. This leads him to believe "Tarnation" has been the success he wanted: good for his family and, admittedly, for himself and then some.

Caouette seems to speak out of breath at times, as if he's permanently stunned by his sudden, unexpected success. "This has been, truly been, on so many levels, exhausting and cathartic, horrific and beautiful and emotional, one of the most emotionally insanely beautiful times of my whole life."

Basking in the present, he's also looking to the future. He wants to make a horror movie, he declares. Not for the next project. Maybe the one after. Although he returned to New York after his mother's overdose, he plans to return to Texas to look after his ailing grandfather (his grandmother died in 1995). As a filmmaker he may have broken out, but somehow, Jonathan Caouette keeps coming home.


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