Doug Emmett cuts his directorial teeth in Room 104 S3E7 this week. Previously to this Emmett has a busy bio as a cinematographer or director of photography. Is there a difference between the two? I’m not sure. Outraged film students can let me know in the comments. Having worked with Duplass Brothers Productions before on the excellent The One I Love and their HBO series Togetherness (both also starring Mark Duplass), no doubt when Mark Duplass dreamed up this documentary episode “Jimmy & Gianni” he wanted someone he knew could deliver the cinematic goods in the right style.
This season of Room 104 has seemed more than ever to be about pushing the boundaries of what can be done with a show about a motel room. From the period origin story of “The Plot” set on the future site of Room 104, through the iPhone-filmed found footage “Itchy”, and the part-animated sonically-driven “A New Song“, there has been no let-up in the experimentation. This hasn’t gone down too well with some viewers who want more straightforward “plot of the week with a twist” stories set in a motel room. But, for me, I’m quite happy to see where Duplass and his cohorts take us, and more often than not, if you just let yourself go, without any expectations, they take you somewhere absorbing and intriguing.
“Jimmy & Gianni” then is a straight-up documentary short (or is it?). At first, I thought it was a spoof-documentary that would reveal itself to be something else in some way, but refusing to be tied down even to the genre of fiction, or the gimmick of forcing in a twist at the end—which, to be honest, has sometimes let down what would have been an otherwise great story—Duplass has woven an inventive, touching story here that would hold its own as a straight-up documentary short. That it appears as an episode of Room 104 and was probably produced extremely rapidly, as all the episodes are, is a testament to the ingenuity and skill of the entire crew.
The room itself here acts as a canvas, both for father and son artists Jimmy Ray Flynn and Gianni Arone to create on, but also as a backdrop for their story, the relationship between them that has been severely tested by Gianni’s issues with mental health and addiction. Immediately upon entering the room, they are both artistically casing the joint, assessing it, touching things, seeing every surface and every object as artistic potential.
As the episode unfolds, we learn more about Gianni’s troubles and how that has impacted their relationship, but from the beginning we also see the small things that any parent or child will recognise: Jimmy’s insistence that the edges of Gianni’s boxspring are painted, taking over to do it himself, and not accepting Gianni’s desire to leave them a little rough and ready. Warning Gianni to be careful with the spray paint, even though he must know that Gianni has experience with the medium. Even as fellow artists, the parental attitude of “father knows best” is apparent, and although this would probably annoy many people, and Gianni’s placid acceptance of the interference seems odd, as we learn more about their story, perhaps we understand it more. Gianni is just happy to have a father to create with, to have him there by his side. He is happy to have a father to interfere, because not very long ago he didn’t have that.
The episode is doubly fascinating in the way it reveals the creative processes of both artists, but also the relationship between the two, and how much love there is between them, despite (and possibly partly because of) everything they’ve been through. Jimmy’s obvious enjoyment of Gianni’s work is not only the respect of a fellow artist but there is a real sense of fatherly pride. “I’m his biggest fan” he exclaims. The closeness of the two now is clear to see but as they describe, when Gianni started to get into drugs, things got bad. Gianni didn’t just dabble a little though, he dived in headfirst, getting into meth, which they both state “steals your soul,” and basically taking anything he could take his hands on to see what effect it would have. After micro-dosing LSD for a year, his mental health started to be affected and he started to hear voices. He describes never entirely feeling comfortable in a human body, that it somehow gets in the way of his sense that there should be a unified whole.
Jimmy describes emotionally the time one year before that Gianni turned up during a “psychotic episode” and was in such a state that Jimmy called the police to get him and he was taken to the psych unit. He says it was the hardest things he’s ever had to do, but it seems as if it was the thing that finally stopped Gianni spiraling out of control. Gianni was diagnosed with bipolar I and II and schizoaffective disorder. He describes struggling with staying on meds. His addiction to being high in any form meant that he missed the high of being manic, something that isn’t that unusual.
“I like feeling a little off. I like feeling a little weird…”
When Gianni becomes unhappy with where his boxspring piece is at you can see Jimmy noticing, and constantly aware of the still-new fragility of Gianni’s mental stability trying to calm him before it potentially becomes something more. It may not have, Gianni seems fairly together, but the parental concern is there. Jimmy is perhaps always aware of how close they came to losing each other, or of Gianni going too deep down the hole of addiction and mental health issues to ever come back. Like trying to steer a small child away from a tantrum he offers soothing positivity, but even then, he can’t help but comment again on filling in the canvas background a bit more. He still wants it done his way, and can’t help but sigh and mug for the camera when Gianni is doing it the “wrong way.”
Both Gianni and Jimmy have made suicide attempts—Jimmy’s when Gianni was seven—so Jimmy understands more than many parents would perhaps the mental state that you can get into. Both have stared at death in the face and gone on to live, and to appreciate that life can change, even when you have no belief that it has anything left to offer you. Creating is their outlet and their drug now, and especially for Gianni it seems that he has replaced the use of drugs to reach those highs he wants to reach in order to feel a connection with the universe. When he’s creating, in the moment, he has a sense somewhat akin to that high, but it’s not a destructive way to get there, and a lifeline to feel a peace, a centeredness that he hasn’t had in his life before.
There’s a moment when Gianni finishes his crazy horse drawing on the boxspring when he hugs Jimmy, and Jimmy looks at the drawing, gives a look that might mean, “What on earth is this crazy horse he’s done?” but also is filled with emotion, an understanding that just the fact that he’s in this room, creating an installation with his son is so amazing given what could have been and even maybe seemed likely not too long ago. Jimmy just seems immensely grateful to be at this point and to have his son back, and stable, and this, I think, is why Duplass wanted to present this story to us. Room 104 is about connections, and the connections between those we love, be they familial or otherwise, are the things that help give us meaning in the world, and help us to make sense of the world. Jimmy and Gianni have been through the wringer, and have lost each other. Jimmy had lost trust in Gianni, but they didn’t give up on each other, and with a lot of hard work and time managed to forge an even deeper connection—one that they both seem to value highly, and are thankful for.
After writing this, I’ve been informed by sources at HBO that this is not actually a true-to-life documentary but is in fact scripted by Mr. Duplass (curse him for foxing me) and although Jimmy and Gianni are father and son, they are following guidelines from Duplass. Some of it may be real. The emotion, the love. Who knows what has happened in Jimmy & Gianni’s lives that they used in this? I could have rewritten the piece to hide my shame, but I’m going to let it sit there, as a testament to Mr. Duplass’s ability to pull such strong performances out of two artists, and to make it seem so natural and raw. Likewise, Doug Emmett for capturing the reality of the bond between the two. I will never trust Duplass again…
Further news: Doug Emmett and Jimmy Ray Flynn reached out to let me know that it is all factual, so Duplass is off the hook and I am no longer a fool. Thanks guys!