|A FilmExposed Film Review
Dir: John Maringouin, 2006, USA, 85mins
Featuring: Virgie Marie Pennoui, Johny Roe Jr., Stanley Laviolette, John Maringouin
As documentary subject matter, the dysfunctional family has very much entered the mainstream due to the ubiquity of reality TV. But Running Stumbled, a disorienting stream of skewed consciousness that unspools before the camera, is strange stuff despite the sub-genre’s familiarity.
While in production on a self-penned feature about a man who contemplates killing his father, director John Maringouin received a phone call from his estranged father of 29 years, the Dadaist painter Johnny Roe, Jr. They’d had intermittent contact since Roe, a career drug addict and sociopath, had allegedly tried to murder him and his mother, then Roe’s wife. Experiencing a desire to re-establish relations, Maringouin travelled to Terrytown, a suburb of New Orleans, to film in the squalid house belonging to his father and Marie, Roe’s suicidal, pill-popping common law wife.
Besides the extremeness of the ‘characters’ involved, the most striking thing about Running Stumbled is that its technical quality is so poor! Its micro-budget amateurishness is very much worn on its tattered sleeve: not only is the sound muffled and the image quality grainy often to the point of being indistinguishable, but other film-making technicalities have also been catapulted to the wind. Shots that meander in and out of focus can be excused in that they authenticate the documentary as cinéma-vérité film-making, but – according to traditional film-making practices – scenes during which the camera’s exposure setting is manifestly changed mid-shot simply cannot.
Why weren’t such brazenly amateur shots, therefore, edited out? Indeed, why wasn’t the editing itself executed with greater finesse and craftsmanship? Because Running Stumbled is a prime example of how form and content can take on a symbiotic relationship in film. The self-conscious ‘egregiousness’ of such techniques more than does justice to the content. The above synopsis should give enough of a summary of Roe’s life to convey its precariousness, and Running Stumbled cements his reputation as a somewhat psychotic nonconformist. From the central couple to Roe’s brother Stanley, everyone appears completely immune to conventional morality and orthodox codes of conduct. In filtering their psychological ‘reality’ through a style of film-making that rejects conventional technical principles, the documentary’s formalism perfectly complements the subject matter.
Yet such a heavy-handed approach, however pertinent it may, can conveniently mask technical failings. After all, it’s more difficult – albeit less imaginative, depending on context – to create a polished, technically accomplished work than one that displays absolutely no concern for technical proficiency. Be that as it may, that a conscious decision was taken to ‘degenerate’ the documentary’s audiovisual textures, Maringouin is to be applauded for such artistic resolve.
Maringouin has cited the Maysles Brothers’ GREY GARDENS (1975) as an influence; other comparisons will doubtlessly mention JONATHAN CAOUETTE’s TARNATION (2003 – although Maringouin filmed Running Stumbled in 2002), insofar as the digital revolution has permitted these contemporary ‘autobiopics’ to exist in the first place. As absorbing as it is though, Running Stumbled leaves certain questions about its intangible subjects unresolved, with Maringouin concealed opportunistically behind a nihilistic approach to form.