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Houston Filmmakers and Actors: Jonathan Caouette opens his life for the world to view

Sunday, October 24, 2004

Jonathan Caouette opens his life for the world to view


Jonathan Caouette was forced to deal with hit mother's mental illness at an early age.

Oct. 22, 2004, 9:38AM

Jonathan Caouette opens his life for the world to view
By BRUCE WESTBROOK
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle


A year after its genesis as a do-it-yourself film, Tarnation has finally come home.

Houston-born Jonathan Caouette's fever-dream documentary about his troubled youth opens today at Houston's Angelika and Greenway theaters.

Using video and film footage he gathered for 20 years, Caouette assembled Tarnation on a computer at his home in Queens, N.Y., where he moved seven years ago. Total cost: $218.

After stirring up buzz at the Sundance and Cannes film festivals, the film was picked up by Wellspring for distribution. Upon opening Oct. 6 at one New York theater, it earned rave reviews and strong box office
Jonathan Caouette was forced to deal with hit mother's mental illness at an early age.

Tarnation's $12,740 first-weekend gross grew in its second weekend, indicating good word-of-mouth support. (The film's advertising budget is minimal.) Expanding to five more cities for its second weekend, its per-screen average of $9,000 topped every movie in the national Top 10. Eleven more cities get Tarnation this weekend, with more American and foreign markets to come.

Critics have adored it. Movie-review tracking service rottentomatoes.com reports Tarnation has had 90 percent favorable reviews. The New York Post's Lou Lumenick even called it "an unqualified masterpiece."

Yet for Caouette, the best response of all was back home. On Monday night, Tarnation was shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where Caouette was joined by many old friends.

"They reacted to every moment the way I'd fantasized," he said. Yet his film's unflinching look at domestic abuse, drug woes and mental illness left them stunned as well as proud.

"They didn't know me as well as they thought. As a teenager, I'd finesse the truth (about mother Renee's mental illness) and say, `Oh, my mother is just an eccentric hippie.'

"But now they know it all. I've opened Pandora's box. And that's fine. Tarnation is what it is. It's an accessible story that people seem to get."

Yet Caouette isn't exactly celebrating, as Tarnation's success will pull him away from his mother and grandfather, whose mental and physical health, respectively, are fragile.

"The life of this film can't be over soon enough. Promoting it will be three months of hard work, and it's going to take a miracle and lots of coffee to get me through. I'm also profusely worried about the health of my mother and grandfather. I'm doing a balancing act with my emotions."

After touring America and Europe with Tarnation, Caouette, 31, plans to return here in March. He hopes to spend six months looking after his family at the southwest Houston home where he grew up -- and where Tarnation's harrowing looks at his childhood are focused.

For now, he's "basically unemployed," though he hopes to land acting gigs on Tarnation's strength.

"I also have ideas for more do-it-yourself films," Caouette said "I could set up an editing bay in my old bedroom here. Home would be a good place to inspire me."

He has many more hours of footage from his adolescence, but won't unveil it on a Tarnation DVD.

"I've toyed with the idea of doing a sequel. It could be called Reintarnation," Caouette said with a laugh. Another idea would have him mixing parts of three films by a well-known Texas actress into one new story line.

Just don't expect him to keep documenting his own life.

"Tarnation caps a chapter in my life, but I don't feel like I need to keep reading it -- to keep filming myself and doing the autobiographical thing. I've done it, and that's it."

Nor does he plan to go Hollywood, despite encouragement from high places.

"It's a horrible place," Caouette said. "I want to veer away from the Hollywood system as much as possible."

A "truth junkie," Caouette detests the fakery and excesses of the film industry, which he considers the opposite of what he's trying to do.

"The idea of home-software movies is a monster to them," he said. "It gives filmmaking back to the artist.

"Someone asked me, if I had $500,000 to make a movie, what would I do? I said I'd probably end up pocketing three-fourths of it and then make the movie. Why would you need that much?"

Caouette doesn't expect to get rich off Tarnation, even if it becomes an art-house hit.

"I'm such a newbie. I still haven't comprehended how distribution and recoupment can happen. I hope I can make some money off this, but I have yet to do so."

He did get $25,000 from corporate sponsor Target after Tarnation was named best documentary at the Los Angeles Film Festival. But taxes and old debts gobbled that up.

"All this has been a catharsis, yet not much has changed," Caouette said. "I'm just the flaky artist who's reinventing film -- or whatever it is I'm doing.

"At least my movie is out, and I'm happy about that. Like my movie, my life is crazy, but also still hopeful."

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