The Great Significance of Darwin the Retrieving Cat

The writer-director of Ghostbox Cowboy considers how we put disparate pieces of life together to make art.

A friend of mine has a cat who stays out all night and comes back each day at dawn with a piece of string, a piece of cardboard from a box with writing on it, a colorful piece of plastic, always something peculiar and special. The cat places these artifacts at the foot of the bed for my friend when she wakes up. The artifacts are the proof that the cat has a mind and the cat understands aesthetics. Every object he picks is surprising and beautiful, even though it’s mostly trash. The cat’s an artist. His name is Darwin the Retrieving Cat.

The Japanese call this Wabi-Sabi, the process of picking or editing things in the world into an artistic totality. “Wabi” means loneliness or simplicity. “Sabi” means to give life to something. I’ve always loved this way of looking at art as simply picking evidence. The evidence is existence, the art is just what’s there.

I worked on film sets in my early twenties, and one day at breakfast with the crew, I stared at a pancake on my plate and suddenly it felt so far away from me. What exactly was I looking at? A shape and form. How did I get to this chair? I was a man in my head riding around in a flesh cavity that was big and mushy and plodding. Now beholding a perfectly round pancake, that was always there and still is. I said to everyone, “That pancake sure is far away when you think about it, ya’ll.”

One of Darwin’s collages of found items

I was raised Catholic as hell — I was an altar boy and a sinner. So I had a lifetime of work to do to make it up to God. I was always trying to find the God in everything. The unlucky and the unloved were easy, and still are. Harder were people like narcissists, dickheads or morons. But that’s what Jesus did. So I persevered. Eventually I said fuck the latter. There’s only so much you can give an asshole, and the world’s full of them. I failed God and Jesus.

The cynical side of me says that Jesus was, in fact, possibly the world’s most successful narcissist. And if he got spawned today, odds are he’d have a CAA agent and spend his birthdays posing for Instagrams with Gwyneth Paltrow at George Clooney’s house. The world, after all, is the same obnoxious whore in the face of divinity that it was when Jesus went apeshit on the merchants in the temple. Except with high-speed internet. A legitimate Jesus would have to be a hacker. Or march with the immigrants. Or just have a giant fist the size of Delaware.

In coastal Louisiana, where I grew up, time was eternity. Time was however long it took. An entire day laying on top of a bush studying cumulus clouds. An entire night pulling crabs out of the water with chicken tied to a string. Sitting on the bow of my stepdad’s boat at sunrise, flying through the marsh, the way the boat traveled over perfect mirror-smooth glass. That’s when I had my first sense of cinema. I wished my eye had a record button. Such beauty. There are plenty of filmmakers delivering those same images, so I never felt compelled to. Finding beauty in its opposite is much more of a challenge for me.

I now live in San Francisco, where capitalism and automation are the mortal enemies of time. They devour time and replace it with information, data and results: result-oriented war machines, result-oriented stuff machines, Fitbits, Shitbits, iPhones, tri-Phones. We pay Amazon to surveil us. We pay Fitbit to reduce the miracle of existence to “steps.” We are both victims and perps in a measuring stick holocaust.

When I lived in Venice Beach in my early twenties, I knew a guy named Larry the Pug man, who used to walk 7 or 8 pugs at a time. Larry also looked like a Pug himself, so the sight of him was sort of a daddy pug standing upright, patiently making sure the little baby pugs experienced life instead of sitting alone inside while their owners worked. 

Larry had been to hell and back, and then some.

He’d been shot up in Vietnam and come back with such bad amnesia he didn’t recognize his family or even remember his own name.  So he retreated to the woods above L.A., and watched and waited. For 20 years. Then, one day, he fell into a ravine and busted up his leg. When some hikers found him, he remembered nothing except that he was a vet. At the V.A. hospital, he found out his name was Larry and that his family had died and left him $3.5 million and 14 apartment buildings in Tampa, Florida.

So with his new money, he bought a house and walked pugs around the neighborhood every day.  While his renters, nearly 400 in total, paid him rent every month. Which he in turn used to liberate these pugs.
I remember Larry said to me once, “I was the only one in that platoon who survived.  And everyday I walk and try to figure out what it was for.” I couldn’t relate more.

Another word I love is the Ancient Greek word for truth, which is “aletheia.” It means “when being reveals itself.” Falsehood or error is the opposite of this, “when being conceals itself.”

I noticed a pattern in the films I’ve made so far. They’re always about someone who is stripped down, grappling with a state of self-disclosure, someone who is forced to reveal themselves, whether they want to or not.

Ghostbox Cowboy

In my first film, Running Stumbled, Johnny is hazed by his wife until his true self, a stone-cold killer, is revealed. In Big River Man, Martin Strel is a lovable rube on the outside and it takes swimming the entire Amazon to reveal his brooding fatalism.

In Ghostbox Cowboy, Jimmy goes to China in a state of concealment. He hides his identity, his intentions, even the nature of his product, expecting financial returns in exchange for his mysteriousness. But China doesn’t want an enigma, it doesn’t want his dumb product or his money. China wants him to reveal himself. China wants him to stop being an entitled dick and do something authentic.

When we create something innovative, that creative act is an act of disclosure. It uncovers truth, being, or even God. The irony is that we can become so caught up in trying to use the thing, make the thing, tweak the thing, that what Heidegger called the “originary aletheia” is lost.

What we make is trying to speak to us. What we make is saying, “I gifted you to distract you from me. Now see if you can find your way back.”

In Louisiana, the highway signs are marked “LA,” with a number after it. When I was three or four years old, riding in a car with my grandmother, I asked her what the signs meant. She said the number on the sign was the distance to Los Angeles.

The sign on the road in front of me said “LA 528.” Just a few miles later, the sign said “LA 12,” and it broke my mind. How had we traveled 500 miles in three minutes?

Then there was the time I asked her, “Hey Maw Maw [Cajun French for grandma], how did Benjamin Franklin discover electricity?”

She looked at me sternly, and said, “By flying his kite into a goddamn power line. And it shocked the shit out his stupid ass. So don’t go being a stupid asshole like him”

It took me years to process that one. And created complexes around trust that I’m still trying to unravel.

What I didn’t know then was that she was preparing me almost perfectly for the world we live in today.

Capitalism is a fire spreading, burning through everything in sight, leaving only empty shells behind. Capitalism is America’s fundamental value, saying, “Harness the labor of thy neighbor and create time for yourself.” A billionaire landlord president is the end result of capital’s dark dream. DJT is humanity’s nightmare scarecrow.

It’s always puzzled me why there’s never been a general revolt against “time genocide”: 99 percent of us working so that 1 percent of us can have as much idle time as possible.

My friend’s cat, who has been given the freedom to come and go after a day of sleep and contemplation, has more creative freedom and time than her owner. The owner has to work to pay the rent … to take care of the cat.

In return, Darwin has made it his job to inspire his owner. To remind her that her life is real. Does that mean that all the super-rich are artists? Or are they just cats?

Darwin the artist cat shows us that there is great beauty in trash. Trash, after all, began as a manifestation of being … even if in the minds of idiots.


Since writing this I learned that Darwin died last October 2017. He was hit by a car on one of his late night excursions.

RIP Darwin.

John Maringouin is a South Louisiana born writer, director, cinematographer and editor. His first film Running Stumbled was described by Filmmaker as “an absolute epic in the fucked up family genre” and received a 2008 Spirit Award nomination for documentary. John’s second feature, Big River Man, about a Slovenian endurance swimmer’s attempt to swim the Amazon river, won multiple 2009 film awards including the World Documentary Cinematography award at Sundance. In 2015, Maringouin took home Sundance’s Best Editing award for Documentary for his work on the rock doc We Are X, making him the only Sundance alum to receive honors for both disciplines. Ghostbox Cowboy, Maringouin’s first fiction feature, about corrupt American entrepreneurs in China, premiered in the narrative competition at Tribeca 2018 and since picked up Best Independent Feature at the 2018 Denver Film Festival. Ghostbox Cowboy is distributed by Dark Star Pictures and is now playing in select theaters.