You looking at me?

For only $200, Jonathan Caouette has produced a dazzling and disturbing film debut about his childhood. Ed Caesar meets the next big thing
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The Independent Culture

It's not uncommon for Hollywood movies to cost more than $200 a second; Tarnation, a dizzying, hypnotic film about growing up in a shattered family, which has stunned film-festival audiences in Sundance, Cannes and London, was made for about $200 in total. And what has struck hardened cinéastes is not the minuscule budget, or the fact that the whole film was edited with iMac software, but the brazen honesty and skill of the film-making.

It's not uncommon for Hollywood movies to cost more than $200 a second; Tarnation, a dizzying, hypnotic film about growing up in a shattered family, which has stunned film-festival audiences in Sundance, Cannes and London, was made for about $200 in total. And what has struck hardened cinéastes is not the minuscule budget, or the fact that the whole film was edited with iMac software, but the brazen honesty and skill of the film-making.

When I meet Jonathan Caouette, the director, editor and star of this independent labour of love, he looks tired. It is hardly surprising, given his non-stop schedule of press engagements since John Cameron Mitchell, the director of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, took Caouette under his wing shortly before the Sundance Film Festival in 2004. In some ways, meeting Caouette feels like a form of trespass. His film is so heartbreakingly frank, especially in detailing his early childhood and teenage years, that meeting the man is somewhat nerve-racking. But, as he slouches with his legs drooping over the arm of his chair, his languid expression suggests that there is nothing he has not been asked.

If ever there were a picture that allowed the audience unfettered access to an individual's consciousness, it is Tarnation. Caouette reveals that his film was "more about evoking a feeling than setting up a narrative", the result of which is a collaged "waking dream" of home videos, answering-machine messages, photographs and audio-cassette diaries that Caouette has archived since he was 11 years old. This hallucinogenic mixture roughly charts the peaks and troughs of Caouette's extraordinary childhood and his mother's descent into mental illness. We learn, for example, that Renee was given electro-convulsive therapy many times to cure a perceived mental illness, which we later realise she never had. Her relationship with her son is a challenging one, as she battles her own demons and Caouette builds imaginary worlds as a survival technique. As Caouette says, "It's not a popcorn movie."

While it will never garner big audiences, Tarnation deserves to be recognised for the artistic success it is. The depersonalisation disorder (a mental condition wherein the victim feels dislocated from his own life) from which Caouette has always suffered has a peculiar resonance in regard to his relationship with film. Caouette has admitted that he has often "watched his life like a film", a quality that is reflected in the structure of Tarnation. Before we get carried away, though, Caouette warns us off talking about his film in opaque terms: "Critics try to intellectualise this film so much, but it's not what people are making it out to be."

Whether he likes it or not, however, Tarnation has sparked an intellectual response wherever it has been shown. In an attempt to counter complex interpretations of his work, Caouette tells me that making the film was a far more organic experience. "Pulling [the film] together was a completely spontaneous process. The whole idea was loosely based on a couple of strange experiences I had in my life. When I was nine, I had walking pneumonia. I got very delusional, because of the fever, very fragmented. When I was a teenager, I would recall that experience. You're in a borderline place - half-asleep and half-awake - and you get these ideas that make sense for a moment, and then dissipate."

Trying to unpick the history of Tarnation's aesthetic is challenging but worthwhile. Most significantly, it points to an artist entirely at ease with recorded media. One senses, also, that this is a man who has considered deeply the way that film and recording has entered the fabric of 20th- and 21st-century consciousness. For Caouette, of course, it has a much greater significance than for most of us - his desire to record has been both a symptom of, and a cure for, his troubled childhood.

Now, Tarnation has caused a seismic shift in Caouette's life. Before this, he was working as a doorman on Fifth Avenue, living with his boyfriend, David, and caring for his mother. Now he is a darling of the media, and the demands are taking their toll. "I can't wait to get back home," he confides. "I've got to look after my family."

The moment of Caouette's emergence as a new talent on the independent circuit came at Sundance in 2004, where the audience gave Tarnation a standing ovation, and the film was hailed as "a flat-out masterpiece", "a spellbinding debut", and Caouette as "a cinematic visionary". Did the recognition come as a shock? "Yes. I really didn't know what to expect. I was overwhelmed. When people did start embracing the film, it was unexpected. I had no idea that this film was going to be accessible to such a diverse range of people. But the real testament to a film's success hasn't happened yet: it hasn't migrated out of the film festival circuit."

While Caouette is still touring around the world with Tarnation, his followers are inevitably curious as to what he'll do next - and it's unlikely to be another stint as a doorman. In fact, Caouette already has a plan, he says: "I'm taking three major motion pictures, which appeared consecutively from 1973 to 1977 and all starred the same Texan actress, who assumes the same aesthetic throughout the films. And it's kind of a remix. I'm telling a completely different story."

Unfortunately, Caouette is not at liberty to tell us either the name of the actress or the names of the films, but the project sounds ideally suited to his talents. It betrays his concern not only with source material, but with how that material translates into narrative - a quality that is evident in Tarnation and seems to be at the heart of Caouette's ideas about film.

He is also keen to make a few more "conventional" movies: "There are so many stories I want to tell. Not documentaries, though. I don't consider myself a documentary film-maker." This surprising admission starts to make sense when one looks back over Tarnation. Caouette has made films his whole life - he has woven rock operas, horror films and arthouse porn into the fabric of his own movie - but never documentaries. Though this film is integral to Caouette's sense of self, it came about almost by accident.

As Caouette trudges off to yet another interview, one wonders what lies in wait for him as he pursues his ambition to be a film-maker with international distribution and serious financial backing. Will he ever be able to re-capture the innocence with which he wielded a camera in his debut? Only time will tell.

'Tarnation' is showing at the Belfast Film Festival (028 9033 0443; www.belfastfilmfestival.org) on Saturday and goes on general release on 22 April it will be available to buy from www.amazon.com from 17 May

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