Jonathan Caouette's 2004 autobiographical documentary film, Tarnation, was a sensation. Made for $218.32 on iMovie, the film drew from 20 years of personal Super 8 footage, VHS video tapes, and answering machine messages. Footage of Jonathan imitating a battered wife found its way to John Cameron Mitchell during the making of Shortbus, and, eventually, to Gus Van Sant, who signed on as executive producer. By the time Tarnation screened at both Sundance's Frontier Section and the Cannes Film Festival's Directors' Fortnight, Caouette was living the American Dream: He was a young filmmaker whose first film had received international distribution and global attention.
Caouette's latest film, Walk Away Renee, sets out to answer the question of what happened after Tarnation. Walk Away Renee has been described as a "companion film" to Tarnation, following the filmmaker and his mother, Renee Le Blanc, on a road trip from Texas to New York. Walk Away Renee premiered at Cannes in 2011 and will be released internationally in 2012 and in the U.S. by IFC Sundance Selects in fall 2012. OUTfest will be screening the film twice: Wednesday, July 18, at 9:45 p.m. at the DGA, and Saturday, July 21, at 5 p.m. at Redcat.
I recently spoke with Caouette about the making of Walk Away Renee, queer men as caretakers for boomer parents, and the relationship between gay men and their mothers.
What is the relationship between Renee and the title, Walk Away Renee?
The original Left Bank song, "Walk Away Renee," is about love lost. I grew up listening to the 45 that my mom had, and it was one of her favorite songs. In 2012 it meant to convey that my mother Renee is able to walk away sustaining aspects of herself -- walk away from her past and be as whole of person as she can possibly be with the time she has left in the world.
But are you walking away from her, too?
Oh, God, no. That's the one thing I was worried about. When I repurposed that title, I was worried that it would have negative connotations. For me it never had any negative connotations. For me it wasn't about me telling her to walk away. It's more about her walking away and sustaining herself. She's walking away as Renee.
Your biography is the narrative engine of both Tarnation and Walk Away Renee, yet they're such different films.
Tarnation was made for more of a catharsis, an urgency, a place that I'm coming from, and there was a real sort of magic surrounding the film, whereas Walk Away Renee was made out of a compulsion that I didn't want to lose the remaining footage in a lot of ways.
How does Renee feel about her story being told in your films?
Renee loves the fact that her story is being told. I just happen to be a filmmaker.
Both you and Renee had embodied tremendous physical beauty, a quality that many gay men share with their mothers.
She was stunning. And for me she still is stunning, but then she was just drop-dead gorgeous when she was younger. I don't know what it is between gay men and their moms, and what that is all about, what the correlation is. I know that it's very prevalent, and it's always there in the ether. I can't put my finger on what the deal is with that. Can you?
The path that you and Renee took while walking through Central Park was the same path Pat and Lance Loud took in An American Family. As a reality-based metaphor, it was interesting to see two iconic mother-son pairs covering the same ground, literally, and then how their relationships evolved, but with the roles flipped (i.e., Pat becoming the caretaker for a son who struggled with mental illness, albeit drug addiction, which was of a different sort but the same). This makes me want to ask: How would you, or how do you, situate your work relative to An American Family and Michael Apted's 7-UP?
This is not going to be some sort of post modern 7-UP series. Most certainly this is the conclusion to Tarnation. Neither of those films was really in my brain repertoire when I was making them, so I don't really see a relationship to either of them, but I do have a tremendous respect for them. They're completely different animals.
Tarnation captured the attention of Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell. In this day and age, do you think the same coalescing would happen?
I don't, actually. If a film like Tarnation were made now, and it were made exactly -- let's say hypothetically, stylistically, aesthetically the exact same way that it was made in 2004, with the barrage of text on screen, with the music and the imagery, and all those kinds of devices that were used. If that were to happen in 2012, I don't see it. I don't know if it would have made the same sort of impact, necessarily.
Walk Away Renee raises the likelihood that queer men, especially, will be caretakers for the tsumani of boomer parents becoming elderly. Was that at all on your mind when you were making the film?
Not at all. But it's very insightful to bring it up. It never occurred to me specifically to isolate gay men as taking care of their parents. But I think, I hate to say, but if anybody's going to take care of their parents, or their moms, it's going to be gay men.
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