When American director John Maringouin was just a baby, his father, the small-time Cubist painter Johnny Roe, tried to kill both him and his mother. After twenty-nine years during which Maringouin’s only contact with his estranged father was occasional phone calls, he was told that Johnny was dying (it turned out it was a lie) and that he should go to New Orleans to see him. At the time, Maringouin was shooting his first feature, a fictional film loosely based on his life entitled Self, in which he stars as a homeless man trying to confront his sadistic father. The film was nearing completion but Maringouin was dissatisfied with the ending. So he agreed to go to New Orleans, not so much to see his father as to film him, in order to get a final scene for his movie. He spent ten days at his father’s house, recording the disastrous drug-addled existence that the latter was leading with his long-suffering partner Marie. With this material, Maringouin not only finished Self, a film he’s never shown to anyone, but also shaped the footage into Running Stumbled, a nightmarish documentary of sorts released at the ICA on July 27.
Virginie Sélavy caught up with Maringouin during his visit to London. An engaging, articulate and very funny thirty-four-year-old with a boyish crew-cut, the director told her about the paradoxes of truth and reality, reminisced about his childhood hero Evil Knievel and explained why Running Stumbled is really a stunt.
John Maringouin: I read your review. I found it interesting.
Virginie Sélavy: If you want to respond to what I wrote in the review, that would be great.
JM: I’d have to reread it. I liked it because it was challenging. You were challenging my intentions. I thought that was good. It means you thought about it.
VS: I did. I thought about it a lot because it didn’t present itself in the way those types of films usually present themselves.
JM: What do you mean?
VS: I thought there were two things that made your film different from other documentaries on dysfunctional families. One was that even though it’s about your family, about yourself and your relationship to your father, you don’t appear much in the film. So that was interesting in comparison to something like Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s film, which I suppose everybody mentions in relation to your film….
JM: That movie is very much about him whereas this movie is very much about a place. It’s about the environment first. Secondly it’s about a relationship. And thirdly it’s about my relationship to the space and to the people in the space.
VS: Yes, but I think that at the same time it has to be about yourself in some ways.
JM: It absolutely is. But what I wanted to do with the film was not subject anyone to whatever low-brow interpretation I could come up with, because you can only imagine how limiting and how boring it would be to have to tread through my sad, or horrific, or unbelievable life story. I can’t think of anything more self-serving and manipulative. And maybe it’s a lot harder to not make a movie like that because your hands are tied. You can’t do certain things that easily support your narrative goals, like put some voice-over to explain why this is interesting or who this person is, so you have some context. But when you allow the audience to become the filmmaker, to see what you’re seeing and how you’re affected by events and how you are affecting events, that’s a much more real, resonant experience. It leaves you a lot of questions but that’s the whole point of the reality. As the person, as the filmmaker, I was left with questions. Was this the right thing to do? Was this the wrong thing to do? Do these people deserve to live or to die? (laughs) You are left with an endless list of paradoxes. If you talk about truth you have to talk about paradox. If you’re doing anything else, you’re not talking about the truth.
VS: I thought there were two very fascinating things going on in the film, which were one, this relationship between your father and Marie, two, how you position yourself in this relationship. And it seems to me that it is at the same time about revealing things and about concealing things. You’re staging something very personal but you’re not placing yourself within that very personal family history.
JM: Yeah, there were a lot of personal things that were going on with regards to me in front of the camera. They say that the most interesting thing about acting is when people are trying to protect themselves from the material and from their own realities. To me what’s more interesting is, people in front of the camera trying to protect themselves not only from their reality, and the truth of who they are, but trying to hide it from who they know is the son behind the camera. And then you have the other side of that, which is the son, protecting himself from what he’s seeing. So you have this great, unique organism. If I hadn’t been aware of how revealing that organism was going to be, I wouldn’t have done the movie. I didn’t want to make a movie about, ‘oh I’m going to get to know my father, who I’m really afraid of, and we’re going to talk about psychology’. How boring is that! What was there was this amazing relationship that was very volatile and also very symbiotic. They would make references to the past, to things that happened thirty years ago, as if those things were right there in the room. They would do it right in front of you. They’d yell so loud you could hear them on the street. And you have to subvert your instinct to run when they start saying things that you feel you’re going to have nightmares about for the next three years and you do have nightmares about for the next three years. So you are left with: What is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do? Am I creating art or am I destroying myself? And I think the audience feels all those things.
VS: As you’re watching the film you get the very strong sense that you are protecting yourself with the camera. Would you have gone to see your father without a camera?
JM: No. (long pause… laughs)
VS: Do you want to elaborate on that?
JM: No, absolutely not.
VS: Why not?
JM: Because I didn’t want to have a relationship with him. I didn’t want to know him. It was devastating to even acknowledge that I was from this place. This is one of the scariest places in town, not just for me, but for the town. This is a really crappy, white trash, suburban town, and these were the most fucked-up people there. When you’re trying to take yourself even the slightest bit seriously as an artist, you don’t even want to acknowledge it, much less bring yourself down to that level and allow yourself to let everything in. It’s like wearing a trench coat; you open the trench coat and let in all those demons; and then you close the trench coat and you walk away. There’s some yoga practice where instead of blowing out the evil, you inhale the evil. (laughs) You suck in all the bad energy and you hold it as long as you can, you let it absorb into you and then you let it go. It’s sort of a reverse way of thinking about it. And it’s interesting because there are all those dark energy portals – best example is reality TV (laughs) and Jerry Springer. The format of those shows is to take really wretched examples of humanity and blow them up, sensationalise them into a sound bite, so that you can project off of that thing, so you can discard that piece of human waste that you are (laughs)… that we all are (laughs)… So that’s what you’re supposed to do. But there’s a gigantic problem with it, because it’s fascistic. It’s pushing everyone into a false sense of themselves, where I am not a white trash motherfucker, I am not a junkie, I’m not a whore, I’m not all these things. But these are the same people that all the writers in history were writing about. The people in my movie are the people that Tennessee Williams was talking about fifty years ago.
VS: You got a call from your father saying that he was dying. That was the starting point of the film, right?
JM: There are so many layers to the truth. When people ask me how I ended up making the film, there’s not one reason, there’s probably about nine or ten things that suddenly coalesced and conspired to put me at that door. One of the pieces of that puzzle was a phone call that went something like, ‘your father is gonna die and you’d better go see them. They’re in really bad shape’. But of course it was coming from an unreliable source. In fact the person who was calling me was sort of like a stalker of me. (laughs) So it was a frightening phone call, because it was like, ‘how do you know this information? What are you doing calling me?’
VS: So it wasn’t someone that you actually knew?
JM: It wasn’t a friend, let’s put it that way. It was somebody who was basically a stalker. When a stalker calls you and says, ‘you need to reconnect with your father’, and then you do, there’s something almost perverse about that, and then you wonder, was that a sound choice? Did I have no ability to do anything else? I don’t know… The other side of the story is that I had been making a film about it for years. I had been making a film about a guy who has this life-threatening confrontation with his family, which he hasn’t seen in twenty years. It was a fictional film and it just started to become more and more real. I shot the ending of the film three times with actors and it never worked out. I’m sorry, wait, it wasn’t actually actors, it was Jerry Lee Lewis’ family… (laughs) the rock musician from the fifties…
VS: How did that happen?
JM: It’s a really long story…
VS: Right, so back to your film – that was Self, right, the film you were making?
VS: So that was obviously quite autobiographical and concerned with self-examination, wasn’t it?
JM: No, that’s the thing, it was intended to be ironic because it was titled Self but it wasn’t about myself.
VS: But you were in it, right?
JM: I was in it and it was very much based on what I perceived could be a mythology that I would act out. You create a myth and then you act it out to see what would happen. (laughs) It was like, OK, what if I were to be homeless? What if I created this character that was so haunted by the past that he had no choice but to go and confront something that he would so not want to confront that he would have these visceral reactions to it, he would be puking all the time just even having these thoughts. I didn’t have that in my own life but it was like exploding all this stuff that was buried.
VS: Was it like a kind of worst-case scenario of your own life?
JM: Yeah, exactly! It was a much more extreme example of what I could have been like. And it was a way of making fun of that. In my efforts to make it real and powerful and immediate it got more and more dangerous because I’d say, ‘oh you know what would really be crazy, is if I used… no, never mind, I’m not gonna do that’. And then months would go by, ‘oh well, that scene didn’t really work, you know what would really be something, is if I just walked in there… no, no, no, that’s my real father, forget that shit, that’s insane, it’s too much. I won’t do it, that’ll be a white elephant in my life.’ So it was a gradual process and all of a sudden there it was.
VS: Have you finished that film?
JM: The first scene of Running Stumbled is the last scene of Self. I finished it in a few hours of being there. It took me a few weeks to edit and then it was done. And I immediately put it away. It was like the train had left the station and another one arrived. I’ve never shown anyone that movie.
VS: Why not?
JM: I never watched it. I finished it and I put it away.
VS: And you don’t intend to release it?
JM: I don’t intend to release it.
VS: Why not?
JM: It’s a lot of reasons. I don’t know. Maybe it ended up being too personal.
VS: But it’s a fiction though, and you’ve shown everybody your real family. That’s quite a paradox, isn’t it?
JM: It is a bizarre paradox.
VS: Would you say that filming your father was more about making an interesting film than it was about your relationship to him or is it a bit of both?
JM: I wouldn’t say it’s more. I would say it’s definitely both. They’re informed by each other.
VS: The other thing that is very different from Tarnation or other documentaries about dysfunctional families is that you don’t fill in the audience with the back story. We only find out about what comes up in the conversations between the characters. It gives the film a very immediate, intense feeling but at the same time you only get teasing little bits of this amazing story and you just want to know more.
JM: I wasn’t interested in doing that at all because to me that’s boring. And to try and contextualise them would have been stupid because what they were doing was already so interesting, not only in the way that they were relating to themselves, but also relating to me as a director. The movie is a documentary but it’s also a form of improvised theatre. It’s taking a real situation, something that they’ve been acting out in private all the time for twenty years, and now someone is filming it, someone who they trust, because he’s their son. (laughs) It is an improvisational film, and improvisational acting, but it’s also real; it’s based on their actual relationship. I read a review that said, ‘Maringouin showed up and let his camera roll and was the luckiest filmmaker ever’. It’s so funny because it seems that this is what critics think, that I showed up and this just happened. It’s so far from the case. And at the same time it’s not a construction. There was one review that said, ‘Maringouin must have staged all this stuff’. Well, sort of, and then, sort of not.
VS: So your presence made things happen?
JM: My presence made certain things happen. I created certain scenes, or I suggested certain scenes that they played out. But they were always based on things that had already happened or that I remembered happening or had heard had happened. And then there were things that just happened while I was there. So it was all of those things. I think that’s what you do when you make movies. You influence things to happen. Even the driest documentaries are like that. What I don’t like is when people feel compelled to insinuate their opinions in their documentaries. They almost arrive in the middle of the documentary as critics. This format of, ‘I’m going to tell you how to think and how to feel’ is such an unsatisfying experience to me.
VS: I think that’s probably the most unsettling thing about your film, the fact that you don’t know what to think at all. They’re fascinating people to watch but the kind of lives they lead is… appalling. (laughs)
JM: When you watch a Cassavetes movie, you don’t know what to think either, but you’re settled by the fact that it was just actors playing the roles of real people. What’s unsettling is that this is real people, and were they acting or was this real. I think that’s the next thing in film, that’s where this whole thing is going… At least, that’s where I’m going! (laughs)
VS: The way you describe Johnny and Marie in your director’s statement is very striking. You say it was a ‘real-time performance’ that you were filming, which you compare to jumping the Grand Canyon. That’s a very interesting way of seeing things because even though there is an obvious element of performance there, they also don’t seem to be in control of what they show to the camera. Do you really see them solely as performers in the film?
JM: No, I mean they’re performers playing themselves in the context of their lives, which is like reality TV, except that their story is taken seriously as a piece, whereas reality TV services this surface level. It looks for story points. There’s nothing about nuances and ghosts in the past and other realities or other dimensions (laughs). That’s what reality TV lacks, the ability to transcend reality (laughs)… but while staying in reality at the same time. That’s what they’re doing. That’s why I call them performers. And I think they were influenced by my intention to do that.
VS: Why do you think they agreed to do this?
JM: Because they understood what my intention was. When you’re a down-and-dirty character like they are and your son shows up… I could have shown up with a film crew and been like, ‘you know, you guys, there’s cat shit all over the floor back there and I’m gonna have to call the social services and I really want to help you guys because I see myself as right and proper and you as not’. Of course they wouldn’t have revealed anything. But I showed up on the same level as them. I showed up in a white suit on Easter Sunday as the crazy son. (laughs) So of course they’re going to go, ‘wow, look who it is, it’s a character like us. Now you understand us so we’re gonna play this game together.’
VS: In what way was their performance in the film a stunt?
JM: Because it was dangerous. They were in danger of losing themselves, losing their soul. It’s like when Marlon Brando talks about how he’d never do Last Tango in Paris again because he’d never make himself look that vulnerable again. They made themselves completely naked but in a much more dangerous way than acting because actors can always go back to, ‘oh, you don’t really know me. Even though I gave you so much of myself you don’t really know what I do at the end of the day’. This was their house and their relationship and they were being completely naked. It’s pretty dangerous. It is a stunt.
VS: And you described your own filming of them as a stunt too.
VS: Because for you it was dangerous?
JM: Very dangerous, incredibly dangerous. It was, is this going to be the end of me, is my identity going to be so compromised and so tarnished by this that I won’t be able to ever come out of this, is my soul going to get stuck in this dark vortex forever. It’s like in horror movies. When you get killed it’s scary. But what’s really scary is when the killer is immortal and he’s going to eat your soul after he’s killed you. And that’s kind of what this is.
VS: Your next film is about a Slovenian swimmer, Martin Strel, who’s swum the world’s largest rivers. You filmed him as he was swimming the Amazon, is that right?
JM: I just filmed him when he’d swum the Amazon. I didn’t film him when he swam the other rivers. I just filmed a man swimming down the Amazon.
VS: That’s a stunt too, right?
JM: It is.
VS: So there seems to be a running theme there.
JM: Yeah, stunts are fun. Stunts are interesting. (laughs) Why does someone do a stunt? What’s in it for them? When I was a kid I used to love Evil Knievel. In fact, he was my hero. He was a professional daredevil. He would risk his life and survive and come out the other side. He was like Elvis and David Blaine together. He’d wear these red, white and blue suits with a cape. The stunts would get ever more spectacular. He jumped the Grand Canyon on a rocket and almost died. He almost died every time and then he would stand up and he’d go, ‘Thank you. I almost died and I’ll never do this again’. The point is, there is this great myth about the stuntman. There is a great writer, a friend of Cassavetes’ whose name I can’t remember, who wrote an essay fifteen years ago about where film was going. He said art in the twenty-first century was going to be about a dark energy stuntman. There would be a gigantic wall of information and to get noticed the artist would have to perform insane stunts that explode this dark energy. And I think that’s where it’s at. So the swimmer guy is very much a comedy, not really a documentary. It is a documentary but it operates on some kind of fantastical level.
VS: So is that going to be released?
JM: Yeah, the funny thing is that it’s actually financed by the Discovery Channel. It’s going to be the craziest thing that the Discovery Channel has ever done. (laughs) It’s a job, it’s me making money. But I’m also doing a follow-up to Running Stumbled.
VS: Along the same kind of personal lines?
JM: Yeah, it’s going to be personal. It’s going to do the same thing that Running Stumbled does, half of it real and half of it not real.
VS: At the end of Running Stumbled you’ve included some very striking scenes of a hurricane that’s destroyed part of the town. Did you edit that after Katrina?
JM: Yeah, it was after. I’m not very happy with that ending.
VS: Why not?
JM: Because it’s neat and tidy and it’s also a little bit too narrative. It’s too convenient. It leaves the audience off the hook in a way, because it says, ‘oh the hurricane came and made it all better’… (laughs) ‘Oh, the sun is shining now, and look everybody, Johnny is off drugs, he’s painting again, everything is resolved, now I don’t have to care, OK, goodbye!’ And I hate that. There’s something about it that’s unsatisfying to me. The reason that it’s there, is that I couldn’t film anymore; I felt that it was done. I might get rid of that ending. I don’t want to let Johnny off the hook, I want to nail down his coffin! (laughs) I don’t want him out there in the world, succeeding and painting again after thirty years! But the fact is that he did go through this amazing transformation so I felt I had to include it.
VS: I find the conclusion disturbing.
JM: It is disturbing.
VS: It’s like, OK, he’s better, so I guess that side of things is positive but…
JM: …look what he did to get there, look at the lives he destroyed to get there.
VS: Exactly. We don’t know what happened to Marie. The last images we see of her is when she is taken out of the house on a stretcher because she’s had an overdose and we don’t know what happens next. It’s a very sinister ending in a way, because he seems quite happy but it comes at a cost to everybody else around him. So I think you can be satisfied with your ending, it’s really quite dark. (laughs)
JM: It’s not that I wanted to be dark. It’s just that it’s unsettling to me in a way. I don’t like the aesthetic of it because it looks different from the rest of the movie. But it had to be. I wanted the film to stay in this phantasmagoric place. I didn’t want it to be like reality and that’s what it becomes at the end; it finds its way out into the world and I don’t like that very much.