Dream Catcher

Johnathan Caouette's swirling Tarnation shares the softer side of family hell

When Jonathan Caouette was nine years old, he was struck with walking pneumonia and a crippling, 104-degree fever. "I got very delusional," he recalls. "I was very haunted by the delusions I had but could never articulate what they were."

Some 22 years later, the native Houstonian has captured those and other delusions on 91 minutes of film. He's also captured considerable industry buzz. With a stirring, haunting montage of photographs, family movies and even answering-machine messages, Caouette has concocted Tarnation, the stay-awake dream that has constituted his tumultuous 31 years of life. The internationally heralded film opens this week at the Angelika Film Center.

"I wanted to take the experience, hone in on it and stretch it out where it was lucid enough to be transposed cinematically," says Caouette. "I wanted the movie to evoke a feeling, rather than tell a story, like something that would get under your skin and live with you for a long time."

Caouette whittled down 160 hours of raw footage into 
a feature film about his screwed-up life.
Courtesy of Wellspring Films
Caouette whittled down 160 hours of raw footage into a feature film about his screwed-up life.

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It does get under your skin. Tarnation plays like an eerie mix of long-form music video, documentary and reality show. And much of it is set in Houston, where Caouette was raised.

The movie uses text to describe major events in Caouette's life. Through it, we learn that his mother, Renee, became severely mentally ill after being subjected to two years of shock therapy as a young woman. Caouette goes from foster homes to living with his grandparents. While attending Westbury High School, he is hospitalized after smoking pot laced with PCP and formaldehyde and is soon diagnosed with depersonalization disorder, a psychological syndrome that causes feelings of living in a dreamlike state. In Tarnation, we see his disjointed, jostled reality: ghostly images of himself, flashes of '70s movies and snippets of his mother performing for the camera, dancing and giggling maniacally. It's almost unbearable to watch as Caouette's camera captures every cruel moment.

Later on, the openly gay Caouette starts to become a polished performer and moviemaker -- staging musicals at his school, voguing for his camera and producing his own films. Caouette moves to New York, meets David, who becomes his partner, and forges a career as an actor. Reality creeps back in when Renee suffers brain damage from a lithium overdose. "I don't ever want to turn out like my mother," Caouette allows in the film. "I can't escape her…She's in my hair, behind my eyes, she's downstairs," he says, motioning below to another room and displaying his signature style of humor amid chaos.

Caouette began documenting his life when he was 11, and eventually his archives would yield more than 160 hours of raw (figuratively and literally) footage. The edited film later screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival to gushing reviews. But with all the acclaim he's received, Caouette is most excited about returning to Texas to care for his mother and grandfather while continuing his film career.

"I can't wait for the life of this film to be over so I can hurry up and get back there," he says. "Texas is a very, very ghostly place for me. There are so many demons I had to battle there. But I'm really ready to make peace with it."

 
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