Jonathan Caouette Returns from the Underworld
from the 10/13/04 issue of Windy City Times
by Richard Knight, Jr.
The young Jonathan in a still from his astonishing debut, the movie poster
Tarnation is the true story of queer filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s mother’s descent into the abyss of
mental illness and his own concurrent, turbulent history. It is also one of those rare films that critics are
knocking each other over to praise. Roger Ebert has praised Jonathan Caouette’s documentary Tarnation as,
“Remarkable, a powerful and heartbreaking film,” Jan Stuart of Newsday called it, “A electrifying film, a
mesmerizing rock-and-read memoir, the Seattle Weekly simply stated that the film is, “A flat-out
masterpiece. Tarnation is the cinematic shit” while yours truly, elsewhere in this issue of WCT, weighs in with
this hosanna: “an astonishing achievement of creative filmmaking.”
The 31 year-old Caouette (pronounced like “co-ed” but with a “t”) is an exciting addition to the list of openly
gay directors. More so, because Tarnation is his first film. I spoke with Caouette, the New York City
transplanted Texan who retains a hint of a southern drawl, when he visited here last weekend as part of the
Chicago Film Festival. The movie opens this Friday at the Music Box.
WCT: Welcome to my city!
JC: Oh, I love it, it’s beautiful! What sort of gay thing can I do tonight to get a flavor of Chicago?
WCT: Oh my God, there’s a gay smorgasbord that awaits you, young man!
JC: (laughs) Really!? You have to tell me everything. I just love to explore gay nightlife in other cities.
WCT: Well, head up to Halsted and look for the big rainbow towers.
JC: Oh, wow, how cool, that’s terrific. I’m going to try to get out there after all this interview stuff.
WCT: You just tell the cabdriver, “Take me to boystown.”
JC: That’s so cute, that’s so great. I was almost taken to a place called boystown when I was younger but it
certainly wasn’t this boystown. So you saw my crazy movie?
WCT: The film is wonderful, really terrific. We have to start with that right there.
JC: Thank you so much.
WCT: Where does the title derive from?
JC: “Tarnation” in simplistic terms is damnation or hell; it’s an old southern term, you know, “What in
tarnation…” It’s never stated in the film, no one says the word but I like the sound of it.
WCT: At what point did it go from making home movies and great, fun fantasy projects to saying, “I’m going
to assemble this and make a movie”?
JC: It’s when I met somebody from the MIX Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film Festival in New York. I’d met
John Cameron Mitchell at that point and he knew that I was working on it and I continued to tweak this thing
which at that point was a 35-minutes of what you now see. For about six months I had those 35 minutes and
then I met this intern from MIX in New York – which is where both Gus Van Sant and Todd Haynes got their
start – and he said, “You should finish this for MIX but there’s a deadline coming up.” I was working as a
doorman and doing catering jobs at the same time and I was about to throw in the towel in New York at that
point. As an actor nobody knew what to do with me because I was so unpredictable and bizarre. But
something about that deadline was totally inspiring so I took a leave of absence from work and I was
completely flat broke at the time and I went on this three week editing rampage and got the film done –
literally on the hour before they were about to shut the door. I got it into the hands of Steven Winter who was
the Artistic Director of the film festival at the time and later came on as producer to catapult the film to
another level. About four days prior to the screening we sent it out to John Cameron Mitchell who passed it on
to another one of my heroes and gurus of all time, Gus Van Sant and everybody sort of simultaneously came
onboard. Everything just ignited. All this happened less than a year ago.
WCT: I want to go back to the day the phone rang and Steven said, “Okay, Gus Van Sant now wants to
executive produce this.”
JC: I almost fucking passed out! I could not believe it. I have loved Gus Van Sant all my life. I saw Mala
Noche when I was like 16 or something.
WCT: Isn’t that the sweetest, saddest movie? He really is the gay director’s guru, isn’t he?
JC: He really is and he really set a palette for a very cool, specific aesthetic that nobody was doing up to that
point – at least to that magnitude. I almost lost my shit when that call came in. The film has literally gone
from my desk top computer to a 35-mm release print, worldwide distribution in less than a year and I STILL
wake up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach wondering what the hell has happened.
WCT: You’re like the gay Cinderella!
JC: (laughs) I know, it’s amazing and so bizarre.
WCT: It’s so well deserved because it’s wonderful but harrowing. So, then you met Gus Van Sant?
JC: Oh yes, at a loft party at a friend’s in New York and I’m in love with him. I actually have a crush on him.
WCT: (laughs) Who doesn’t?! Get out of my way!
JC: (laughs) I know, he’s so cool and sweet and humble and laidback and the same with John.
WCT: One thing that struck me when I was watching your movie is that being gay did not seem like an issue
JC: It wasn’t, it never was. I was never one to revolve around my sexuality in a way that some people have
to make reference to it if they are gay to feel like they sort of anchor on to something but I never did that. I
was bizarrely out when I was 13 and telling people then that I was gay – not only to validate it for myself but
to stir up shit. I always used to tell people that I loved a big dick in my mouth. I was very much an angry,
wild, precocious kid who would always try to lure as many pedophiles as I could. I was constantly trying to
sleep with older men, straight and gay. I was really into stirring things up though I would certainly NEVER be
an advocate for that for any kids these days. But in my strange circumstances, I was a little sexually
WCT: It also seemed like your gay relationships have been your most stable and your safe harbor through all
of this. Did I get that right?
JC: Yes, my boyfriend and I have been together for like seven years now which I find something of a miracle
living in New York and being subjected to so much temptation and he and I have been very tight.
WCT: What’s been the reaction from your family to the movie? How did your mom like it?
JC: She likes the movie. I was scared that she would freak out; I was afraid that people we’re going to think
that I was exploiting her, exploiting myself and even worse, that I would be sold as a director with quotation
marks and that would exploit me in the worst way. But she loves the movie and she’s always known that
between her and I we’ve always had a pretty poignant story that we needed to get out there. I just never
knew it was going to be by way of the real McCoy, the real footage that was hovering under my nose the
WCT: Tell me about your next project.
JC: It’s going to be a little out there. It’s about identity and personality theft. It features a re-imaging of
three films from a 70s star. I can’t say more.
WCT: Are you still videotaping everything?
JC: No, that’s stopped.
WCT: Don’t need to anymore?
JC: Don’t need to anymore. Tarnation is out there. Enough is enough. Stop the insanity. (laughs)
WCT: You’ve returned from hell.
JC: I have and it’s so cool to come full circle here in Chicago where my mom and I had a very horrible
experience and it’s great to come back to this great city under these remarkable circumstances.
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