Part twisted home-movie, part trash documentary, part screwed-up therapy, John Maringouin‘s Running Stumbled navigates the same muddy waters as Jonathan Caouette’s 2003 Tarnation. When Maringouin was just a baby, his father, the Cubist-influenced painter Johnny Roe, tried to kill both him and his mother. Twenty-nine years later, Maringouin, DV camera in hand, goes back to New Orleans and confronts his estranged father, recording the stupefying, constantly-on-the-brink-of-disaster and at times insanely hilarious existence he now leads with his death-obsessed, cancer-ridden partner Marie.
Clearly awed by the spectacular human bankruptcy he is witnessing, Maringouin is filming almost hypnotically, as if unable to stop himself from watching. In the unspeakable squalor of their one-storied New Orleans home, Johnny and Marie swap sardonic insults and death threats, trip over the litter-strewn floor or waddle unwashed around unmade beds, their physical and moral degradation fuelled by years of rancour and mammoth doses of prescription drugs. Completing the picture is next-door neighbour and Johnny’s best friend Stanley, a slightly deranged motormouth Johnny Cash lookalike who cares for his dying mother while dreaming of being a star in Hollywood. Speaking in a heavily-accented drawl, Johnny, Marie and Stanley alternate between shattering lucidity and nonsensical rant, their exchanges peppered with strikingly bizarre, almost poetic phrases – ‘running stumbled’, coined by Johnny to describe his post-hip-operation state, being a case in point. Johnny and Marie have moved so far beyond the conventions of polite society that there are no limits to what they will say or do and it all comes out as raw as hell.
With such a subject matter, a certain amount of self-obsessed angst might have been expected from Maringouin, but he is in fact almost entirely absent from his own film, adopting a very different approach to Caouette’s in Tarnation. Where the latter film was an overwhelmingly narcissistic, if compelling, exhibition of Caouette’s troubled self, Running Stumbled reveals very little of Maringouin’s character, the director making only two brief appearances that bookend the film. Maringouin is clearly reluctant to get involved, and it is almost as if filming his father’s nightmarish existence is a way for the director to distance himself from it, the camera acting as some kind of protective screen. While the lack of any self-pitying probing comes as a relief, Maringouin disengages himself so much from what he’s filming that it often feels like he’s somewhat skimming the surface of things, unwilling to dig too deep into horrors that he can’t quite face.
Adding to this is the fact that Maringouin is uninterested in charting the family’s charged history, preferring instead to concentrate on what he calls Johnny and Marie’s ‘real time performance’, a ‘stunt’ on a par with ‘jumping the Grand Canyon’, as he describes it in the director’s statement. But while eschewing all family narrative to concentrate on the here-and-now is a refreshing approach to the dysfunctional family biopic, again here Maringouin’s refusal to delve deeper than the daily life of the characters only contributes to the impression that he’s skirting some major issues, making it at times an unsatisfying experience. There is something not quite right in the fact that the director’s statement is at least as interesting as the film, and much more revealing. Calling Johnny and Marie’s desperate lives a ‘stunt’ for instance betrays more about Maringouin’s character than anything in the film: the fact that he sees his father and step-mother not as washed-out victims of drugs and personal demons but as existential seekers of the extreme says more about him than it does about them.
Although it was shot with a DV camera, Running Stumbled looks like a vintage Super8 home-movie. Just like Tarnation, the film may use the latest technology, but it is very much in the tradition of the home-movie-as-art of the sixties Underground filmmakers, as represented in particular by Stan Brakhage. Not only does Maringouin make use of techniques such as solarization, split screens and coloured frames, developed by his sixties predecessors, but he also clearly adheres to Brakhage’s conception of filming as a way of making sense of life. Brakhage compulsively recorded all aspects of his home life, including the birth of his first baby in Window Water Baby Moving, explaining that this was the only way he could cope with the sight of such a spectacle: ‘I’m not so constituted to be able to take on an experience like that, at least the first time, without camera in hand (…). In fact, there’s very little to me that’s understandable about life, or even bearable, except the seeing of it. I have managed my whole sight by making films.’ It is easy to imagine that Maringouin, filming his traumatic encounter with his father, would agree with the sentiment.
However, while it is interesting to see the life-as-art approach of the Underground Cinema being revived through digital technology, there are limits to the similarities. While Brakhage was as intensely concerned with developing his art as he was with exploring his life, the two being absolutely inseparable, Maringouin’s work is more about life than it is about art. But while Maringouin certainly can’t compare with Brakhage in terms of formal inventiveness, he does conjure up a mesmerising vision of domestic hell, grainy, fuzzy and tinged with murderous red. And although Running Stumbled feels at times frustratingly incomplete, we can’t help but watch as hypnotically as Maringouin films because, to borrow from the Brothers Quay, there is nothing more compelling than the surreal nightmare that we call human life.