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Tarnation: Filmmaker Jonathan Caouette
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2004-10-13

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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. 'Remarkable,' 'electrifying,' 'mesmerizing' are just some of the adjectives that have greeted the documentary. The praise is well deserved and the 31-year-old Caouette (pronounced like 'co-ed' but with a 't') is an exciting addition to the list of openly gay directors. Moreso, because Tarnation is his first film. I spoke with 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, www.musicboxtheatre.com .

WCT: Welcome to my city!

JC: Oh, I love it; it's beautiful! What sort of gay thing can I do to get a flavor of Chicago?

WCT: Well, head up to Halsted and look for the big rainbow towers.

JC: Oh, wow, that's terrific. So you saw my crazy movie?

WCT: The film is wonderful, really terrific.

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 … .' No one says the word in the film but I like the sound of it.

WCT: When did you decide to make a full-length film out of your assorted footage?

JC: It's when I showed somebody from the MIX Gay and Lesbian Experimental Film Festival in New York 35 minutes of what I had and he said, 'You should finish this for MIX but there's a deadline coming up.' Something about that deadline was totally inspiring so I took a leave of absence from work and I went on this editing rampage and got the film done. Steven Winter who was the artistic director of MIX at the time then came on as producer. We sent it out to John Cameron Mitchell who passed it on to Gus Van Sant and everybody sort of simultaneously came onboard. Everything just ignited. All this happened less than a year ago.

WCT: Gus Van Sant really is the gay director's guru, isn't he?

JC: He really is. He set a palette for a very cool, specific aesthetic that nobody was doing up to that point. The film has literally gone from my desktop computer to a 35-mm release print with worldwide distribution in less than a year and I STILL wake up in the middle of the night with butterflies in my stomach.

WCT: You're like the gay Cinderella.

JC: (laughs) I know, it's amazing and so bizarre.

WCT: One thing that struck me when I was watching your movie is that being gay did not seem like an issue for you.

JC: It never was. 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 was very much an angry, wild, precocious kid. 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.

WCT: It also seemed from the movie like your gay relationships have been your most stable and your safe harbor through all of this. Did I read that right?

JC: Yes, my boyfriend and I have been together for like seven years now which I find something of a miracle.

WCT: What was your mother's reaction to the film?

JC: She likes the movie. I was scared that she would freak out; I was afraid that people were going to think that I was exploiting her or exploiting myself. 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 footage that was hovering under my nose the whole time.

WCT: Tell me about your next project.

JC: It's about identity and personality theft. It features a re-editing of three films from a '70s star. I can't say more but it's going to be a little out there.

WCT: Are you still videotaping everything?

JC: No, that's stopped. I don't need to anymore. The film is out there. Enough is enough. Stop the insanity. (laughs)

WCT: You've returned from hell, haven't you?

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.

Film Fest Continues

Several of the more than 100 films at this year's Chicago International Film Festival, which runs through Oct. 21, are of more than passing interest to GLBT audiences. Last week's Windy City Times (available online at www.windycitymediagroup.com) had an overview of those films. Highlights include:

Brother to Brother: Winner of the Sundance Special Jury Prize, Rodney Evans' ambitious feature debut engages the theme of cultural legacy while challenging contemporary Black culture. AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois, Monday, Oct. 18 7 PM; Landmark's Century Centre Cinema, 2828 N. Clark, Wednesday, Oct. 20, 9:30 PM

The Journey: Set in the lush, rural Kerala, Chicagoan Ligy J. Pullapally's lyrical, lesbian-themed story covers territory rarely visited by Malayalam filmmakers. Landmark, 2828 N. Clark, Tuesday, Oct. 19 (9 PM), Oct. 20 (6:45), Oct. 21 (3:30)

Outing Riley: The second film from native Chicagoan Pete Jones is a romantic comedy about Bobby Riley (Jones), a gay man who has hidden his sexuality from his Catholic family. AMC, 322 E. Illinois, Tuesday, Oct. 12, 9:30 PM and Oct. 13 (4:30)

Oxygen / Blackmail Boy: a 'smoldering thriller, where family dysfunction in a stifling town boils over into scandal, blackmail, and deadly betrayal. A modern Greek tragedy.' Landmark, Sunday, Oct. 17, 4 PM, Oct. 18 (9:15 PM), Oct. 20 (9:15 PM)

Poster Boy: It's tough enough being the son of a despised right-wing senator while you're in college. Harder still when you're a closeted homosexual and your father is virulently homophobic. AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois, Tuesday, Oct. 19, 9 PM, Oct. 20 (3:45), Oct. 21 (6:15)

See www.chicagofilmfestival.org


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