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In Features, Issues

Armed only with a cheap video camera, consumer editing software, troves of home movie footage and less than $300, Jonathan Caouette made Tarnation, an experimental documentary about himself and his family. Gus van Sant and Jonathan Cameron Mitchell have championed the film, and Caouette’s already received more A-list festival invites than he knows what to do with. Andy Bailey investigates.


Tarnation director Jonathan Caouette. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL.

In the competitive, publicist-fueled rat race to claim the mantle of “cheapest film ever made,” the year’s surefire winner is New York City–based filmmaker Jonathan Caouette’s experimental personal essay Tarnation, shot for $218.32 and edited entirely on Apple’s consumer-grade iMovie software. But although it screened at Sundance, has been invited to the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes and the New York Film Festival and has attracted high-profile executive producers like Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell, the question remains: will this film ever see the broader light of day? Packed with stunning but difficult-to-clear pop music cues, the film needs clearances, possible remixing and, to make it to the Croisette, dollars for a film blowup.


Production Format
Mostly on Hi-8 video, along with other video formats and Super 8mm film.
Sony CCD-TRV228 Hi-8.
Editing System
Eschewing on-location filming and conventional production design, Caouette’s debut feature melds 19 years of video footage — including home movies, still photographs and audio diaries — with an atmospheric soundtrack and a written narrative that unravels, sloganlike, as subtitles on the screen. Forget about actors and a script, unless you include Caouette’s preadolescent bedroom performance as a battered housewife in the throes of a messy nervous breakdown; Tarnation is guerrilla confessional at its most visceral and personal. Building on the voyeuristic allure of last year’s Capturing the Friedmans, it continues indie film’s ongoing obsession with dysfunctional families, examining Caouette’s coming of age amid the mental deterioration of his mother, not to mention the filmmaker’s own battles with depersonalization illness, a controversial affliction involving feelings of detachment from one’s own body or mental processes.

Caouette and his mother Reée in Tarnation.

While some have dismissed Tarnation as a glorified home movie, one that revels in its own blunt victimization, the film is not without real emotion. Perhaps it’s the rudimentary appeal of the work that makes it resonate with festivalgoers, many of whom were reduced to tears during Park City screenings.

A lot of the footage in Tarnation consists of early attempts to make home movies,” Caouette admitted in an interview prior to Sundance, where he presented the movie as a musical docudrama. “But now, objectifying it as an adult, it certainly has morphed into something else. The video camera was a way to disassociate myself from what I was going through.”

Fishtank: Photographer Ray Billingham’s 1998 documentary portrait of his own dysfunctional family living together in the British Midlands. At once tender, brutal and grotesque.
Grey Gardens: David and Albert Maysles’s classic 1975 documentary study of "Big" and "Little" Edie Bouvier Beale, two lapsed aristocrats (and cousins of Jackie O.) living in squalor in a dilapidated Hamptons mansion.
Put the Camera on Me: Darren Stein and Adam Shell’s true-life chronicle of their own childhoods in Encino, California, as seen through their own amateur films. A hit on the 2003 festival circuit.
A product of the Houston suburbs, Caouette grew up in a family rife with dysfunction and mental illness. His beauty-queen single mother, Renée, floated in and out of hospitals battling schizophrenia while Jonathan was raised by his grandparents, whose own questionable sanity is examined at length in Tarnation. In one painful scene, Caouette films his grandmother, poststroke and toothless, rambling with a speech impediment. “As I approached my teens it became more of a compulsion to do it,” Caouette said of his urge to capture the darker aspects of his family’s plight on video. “I wanted to film my grandmother — she was really kooky and not like the other grandmothers. I wanted to film my mother. She has schizophrenia — she’s kooky too. It hit me like a brick wall in my teens that I was going to make this movie. And I was still making it up until about a year ago.”

Caouette stopped documenting his life after a devastating change in Renée’s condition — she suffered an overdose of lithium — prompted him to shut off the camera and start the editing process. By then Caouette had relocated to Astoria, Queens, to an apartment he shares with his boyfriend and mother. “I started using iMovie because it came with my boyfriend’s computer and was simple as hell [to use],” Caouette explains. Tarnation’s press-release-friendly budget can be itemized as follows: $149.47 for Hi-8 tapes, $33.57 for VHS tapes, $10.27 for a camera adapter and $25 for a pair of angel wings employed during a musical reenactment of Blue Velvet that Caouette once staged during his high school years. (The home computer was a gift to Caouette’s boyfriend.)

Caouette in Tarnation.

Thus far the film has only been exhibited digitally at film festivals — a 35mm print would require additional production funds. But Tarnation’s major stumbling block on its laborious path to theatrical distribution isn’t its raw, home-movie quality but clearances for the music, which includes everything from Sinatra to moody numbers by Nick Drake and Low and which are crucial to the work’s sentimental veneer.

It’s ironic that a film originally created for less than the price of a plane ticket now has to obtain thousands of dollars in music clearances in order to move forward for distribution,” bemoans producer Stephen Winter in a recent interview. “But Jonathan’s amazing choice of songs is part of what makes Tarnation so extraordinary. Our goal is to retain as much of the music as possible without breaking the bank. If Paris Is Burning can get through this process with all those rare house tracks intact, we certainly can do it.”

Jonathan Caouette on iMovie
The trick to using iMovie is that there really is no trick. I edited Tarnation on iMovie in rhythm with music, which was easy because you can load images, sound and whatever you want in minutes. I cut the first version of Tarnation in three weeks on a regular iMac with no external hard drive. It’s so easy and addictive precisely because it is so easy. The problem was that the iMovie system can’t handle a lot of media, so I would cut 15 minutes of the film and dump it off my hard drive to a master Hi-8 tape and then delete what I had [on my hard drive] until the film was finished. Also, the cool thing about iMovie, unlike professional editing systems, is you don’t need to wait around for the rendering of what you have just cut. The program renders really quickly so you can screen almost immediately exactly what you have just pieced together. The biggest key to using iMovie for your work is patience. If you can persist and stay serene, you can get through everything.

Go to the Tarnation web site at


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