Reviewer: Philip Tatler IV
Ratings (out of five): SET **** 1/2
Poto and Cabengo *****
Routine Pleasures **** 1/2
My Crasy Life **** 1/2
Jean-Pierre Gorin is probably best been known for partnering with Jean-Luc Godard in the late ‘60s to form the Dziga Vertov Group. Their aim was to take cinema in an authorless, overtly political direction and produced (among others) the Jane Fonda-starring Tout Va Bien. Thanks to Criterion’s latest Eclipse release, Gorin’s work is finally making its American DVD debut and will hopefully increase his stature to beyond just a footnote in Godard’s career.
The first film in the set is Poto and Cabengo (1980), which looks at the lives of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, twin girls who briefly made headlines in the ‘70s for appearing to have their own made-up language.
Despite growing up with an English-speaking father and German speaking mother and grandmother, the twins never learned to speak English or German. Their “language” – which has the speedy, nasal quality of Tagalog or Thai – is hardly distinct from any other toddler idioglossia. But, for whatever reason, the press became intent on selling them as alien creatures or, as Gorin puts it in his insightful voiceover, “Alices in reverse.”
Gorin discovers that the remarkable thing about the case is that it’s remarkable at all. More important than the media’s short-lived interest in the girls is the Kennedy family’s stillborn version of the immigrant American dream. Gorin catches up with the twins after their star has faded. The media event has ended and the family is uncomfortably in denial about their return to their pre-celebrity lives.
They’ve slowly become wards of the state, subsisting on food stamps and welfare while the twin’s father attempts to sell real estate during a rather crippling recession.
When Gorin discovers them, the twins are living in Linda Vista, CA which Gorin describes as a San Diego “backlot”. The designation is significant; for Gorin, the US is a fascinating soundstage and all three films in the set represent a look at distinctly American phenomena through a foreigner’s inquisitive (and, it must be said, very appreciative) eyes.
Gorin ultimately injects himself into the action, taking the twins on outings to the zoo and library and inviting them to his house for a picnic. Often, his narration turns inward, reflecting on his own experiences as a newcomer to the US. Gorin’s autobiographical and self-deprecating tone is reminiscent of Ross McElwee.
Although Gorin employs several avant-garde tropes – the droll/contrapuntal narration, simple phrases in white lettering over black fields, freeze frames, audio loops, an atonal piano soundtrack, etc. – Poto is the most conventional documentary in the set and familiar territory for anyone who grew up on PBS programming in the 70s and 80s.
Poto becomes obsessed with language, jumping away from the nasal sing-song of the twins and exploring the dull, flat business-related spiels of the father, the strange nasal ramble of the twins’ mother, as well as the hot-blooded racial disputes among the family’s neighbors. This focus on syntax is the set’s most obvious theme.
The next film – Routine Pleasures (1986) – finds Gorin reflecting on America on his “fifth Fourth of July.” Gorin is “not French anymore but not American either.” During this period, Gorin stumbles upon the Pacific Beach & Western Railroad, a labyrinthine HO-scale (model railway) project occupying a huge building on the Del Mar Fair Grounds in San Diego.
The stoic codgers that ply their obsessive hobby at the railroad are fascinating to Gorin in a way that has a refreshing lack of condescension. The lovingly detailed model universe then men have created offers Gorin a look at the “unchanged landscape before the franchising of America.”
Gorin juxtaposes the men’s “conservative imagination” with the paintings and philosophy of film critic/polymath Manny Farber, the man who invited Gorin to the States in the first place. In both Farber and the PB&W railroad, Gorin finds American anchorage – Rosetta Stones by which to interpret his own life in the melting pot of American culture.
If Poto and Cabengo occasionally improvises a bit with the subject matter and documentary approach, this one is a full on free jazz riff and is a lot more deep and rewarding as a result. Gorin takes intense pleasure in his subjects, vicariously enjoying the club’s love of everything railroad related – from field recordings of locomotives to the confusing logistics of train time tables. Their enthusiasm – and Gorin’s – is infectious.
The last film in the set – My Crasy Life (1992) – takes a look at Long Beach, California’s Sons of Samoa, a notorious street gang. The film observes the gang-members – most of whom are very young – in their natural habitats. They drink, smoke, freestyle, play spades and craps, boast about crimes (either committed or aspirational), and lament fallen comrades. Gorin also rides along with a frustrated Hawaiian-born LAPD officer who aims to help these Long Beach lost boys.
Gorin takes a back seat for most of the film, only occasionally using an odd surrogate: the police officer’s onboard computer. The computer “talks” several times throughout the film, cynically pointing out the officer’s hopeless quest. It’s a risky device that could be a laughable failure but Gorin uses it sparingly, successfully evoking the alienated position of both the gangs and the police officer, despite the ostensibly fraternal organizations both belong to.
“One more kid you cannot save,” the computer’s HAL-like voice intones after another of the cop’s unsuccessful interventions. The film seems to suggest that salvation lies in the Samoan tradition. Gorin pays for one of the gang members to return home and the marked difference in the boy – cocksure and irreverent in the streets of LA, meek and respectful around family and culture – reveals more than any anthropology-spouting talking head could.
Despite being twenty years old, My Crasy Life is a fresh document of gang life. Many depictions – on reality TV and in fiction (Boyz N The Hood was being filmed around the same time Gorin was in the area) – have come since but, other than Steve James’ recent Interrupters – I haven’t seen as honest and probing a look into the family dynamic (or complete lack thereof) that informs the decisions that lead to joining gangs. It’s a mystery how this self-deprecating French intellectual was allowed such close access to the gangs.
Which is the one fault I can cite with this set: the material demands extras. Where are Virginia and Grace Kennedy now? How did the conservative train club members react to Gorin’s “arty” depiction of them? And how many of the people we meet in My Crasy Life are now statistics? Kent Jones’ liner notes to the set are great and provide a background for Gorin and paint the backdrop for the films’ creation. However, it’d be great to know more and, at least, hear more of Gorin’s thoughts on the material.
That said, this set was another triumph for Eclipse, revealing a vital filmmaker at the peak of his talents. I look forward to the (long-rumored) Dziga Vertov Group set and more from Gorin.
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