A pale, dark-haired boy of about 13 approaches Jonathan Caouette in the lobby of the Landmark E Street Cinemas. He is visibly overwhelmed, barely able to speak. “Thank you,” he stammers. “Thank you for pushing the limits of cinema. Nobody does that anymore.”
It’s not faint praise. Nor is it undeserved. Caouette’s film, Tarnation, which opened last weekend, is officially a documentary, but it’s also a thunderously emotional, avant-garde head trip depicting chiefly the harrowing mental deterioration of Caouette’s mother, Rene, who as a young girl was subjected to years of shock treatments.
Culled from over 160 hours of footage shot by Caouette since the time he was 11-years-old (he’s now 31), the movie was never intended for the big screen. But Caouette got lucky and caught the attention of some famous independent cinema angels — John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant. The resulting final product — edited by Caouette using Apple’s iMovie program — is one of the year’s most exhilarating, inventive, spellbinding achievements. It revives your faith in the power of a medium all-too-often impressed with its own mediocrity. It rekindles with a blaze what used to be known as the art house film.
“The notion of mental illness is often very candy-coated in the cinema,” says Caouette, who is gay. “It’s a world that nobody understands — they just tend to brush it under the carpet.”
Caouette, who resembles a cross between Stephen Dorff and Leonardo DiCaprio, is engaging but scattered. Promoting Tarnation has taken its toll. “It’s been a little turbulent, but it’s almost over,” he says. “Then I can stop and, hopefully, veer away from the Hollywood system for a while.” Caouette says he’d like to try his hand at acting — and his monologues in the film, directed at the camera when he was barely a teen, point to his innate talent, as well as a tendency for flamboyance. At the end of the day, however, Caouette will probably do what he does best: record his life and the life of those around him.
“I’m thinking” he grins, “Tarnation 2.”
Tarnation is playing at the Landmark E Street Cinemas, 555 11th Street NW. Call 202-452-7672.