When gay Jewish filmmaker Jonathan Caouette was a preteen in Houston, he frequented sock hops at the Baptist church near his home. Invariably, church elders warned he was destined for hellfire: "And I would tell them that I was possessed by the devil," Caouette, 31, said.
His tart reply wasn't far from the truth, according to his new documentary memoir, "Tarnation," named for an archaic term for "damnation." The experimental self-portrait describes Caouette's hellish childhood, during which he endured physical abuse, a mentally ill mother and brutal foster homes. The raw, hallucinatory film is compiled from 20 years of home movies, answering machine messages and snippets of underground films -- all edited on a borrowed Apple computer for a total production cost of $218.32. Lauded as "a category-defying work of blistering originality," by the Guardian and "astonishing" by The New York Times, it won best documentary at Los Angeles Film Festival and a 10-minute standing ovation at Cannes.
If the movie exposes Caouette's childhood demons, it's also steeped in a zeitgeist obsessed with public exorcisms performed on reality television programs and cringe-fests such as "The Jerry Springer Show."
Caouette has been turning his life into a kind of reality TV from age 11, when he first pointed a camera at himself and his relatives. He recorded family arguments and performed impassioned monologues influenced by underground filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Paul Morrissey. In one such sequence, he portrays a battered housewife, "essentially channeling my mother, who was being beaten by her second husband," he said.
For the budding cinephile, the camera became a "protective force field, a means of controlling and validating the family chaos," the boyish director said from his Queens, N.Y., apartment. "It was a grand way of saying, 'Pinch me, but is this for real?'"
The reality was that Caouette was living with his overwhelmed grandparents as his mother, Renee, was repeatedly hospitalized for acute bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder. A former child model, she had suffered mental illness since undergoing electroshock therapy following a childhood accident. During a manic period, she whisked 4-year-old Jonathan off to Chicago, where she was kidnapped and raped.
"I remember cowering under a bed while she was being strangled," the filmmaker said.
Back in Houston, Renee went on a rampage, breaking windows throughout the neighborhood with Jonathan in tow. The boy was promptly placed in a series of foster homes where he was sometimes tied up and beaten. When his grandparents assumed custody two years later, they attempted to curb his wild behavior by enrolling him in a highly structured Jewish day school.
"But I didn't have the attention span to sit through the long day or to retain a new language, Hebrew," he said. "I was a mess of a child already at 6."
It didn't help that Caouette felt like an alien while visiting his classmates' pristine Jewish homes.
"Our house had gum all over the floor, like a New York subway, and rat droppings all over the beds," he said.
His wealthy Jewish relatives eventually stopped inviting him to holiday celebrations.
The discord turned Caouette into an angry preteen who staged suicide attempts and hit his grandparents. After smoking PCP-laced joints at 12, he was hospitalized eight times for a depersonalization disorder that made him feel like he was disconnected from his body and living "in a constant state of unreality."
Former Houston Chronicle film critic Jeff Millar, who became Caouette's big brother in 1984, remembers walking through his home and noting "broken mirrors and holes where Jon had punched through the wall."
"I felt he might be capable of making a bad decision that could kill him," Millar said. "But I also saw that he was innately talented and that he had a rigorous film aesthetic. I felt that if he managed to get through what was sure to be a troubling adolescence, he would do something creatively spectacular."
Caouette proved Millar right two years ago, when he decided to turn his 160 hours of home video into a film. He had nursed Renee back to health after a lithium overdose and hoped to create a cathartic piece about their relationship.
An early version of the movie convinced filmmakers John Cameron Mitchell and Gus Van Sant to sign on as executive producers and secured a slot at New York's 2003 MIX Film Festival. But as Caouette sat next to Renee at the screening, he worried he had made a terrible mistake.
"I wondered if I had exploited her, exploited all of us," he said.
As patrons embraced him after the screening, Caouette began to change his mind. He now views the movie as a healing trip to Tarnation and back: "It's the story of people going through hell and coming out OK, sort of," he said. "It's still not entirely OK, but it's better than it's ever been."
"Tarnation" opens today in Los Angeles.