POTO AND CABENGO: THREE-PART HARMONY
Jean-Pierre Gorin’s three Southern California movies are so militantly unclassifiable that terms like documentary or essay film seem as hopelessly out of sync with the recalcitrant and frequently exhilarating works themselves as a Marxist harangue in a Burger King. Movie criticism is ill equipped to deal with these ecstatic operations, which get high on their own cunning strategies.
How on earth did this Sorbonne-educated son of Jewish Trotskyites, onetime student of Althusser, Lacan, and Foucault, pre-1968 Marxist firebrand and partner in crime of Jean-Luc Godard wind up in Greater San Diego making these peculiarly all-American movies? Let’s just say that he followed his desire. “Many political people have self-conscious and proclaimed interests that they call revolutionary,” he explained to Danish filmmaker and critic Christian Braad Thomsen in a 1974 Jump Cut interview. “But they also have unconscious interests that can be completely reactionary, even if they are linked to the revolutionary interests. There comes the point when I say: ‘Man, blow your mind, try to dig into your own unconscious, try to find where your investment and your interest is.’” During their misunderstood Dziga Vertov Group period, Godard and Gorin were struggling to find a new, living definition of the political: over the years, Godard went increasingly macro, enlarging his sense of his own consciousness to the point where it covered the entire expanse of Western civilization; Gorin went micro, allowing his films and the people and places and contradictions that nourished them to speak in their own idiosyncratic voices. Poto and Cabengo (1980), Routine Pleasures (1986), and My Crasy Life (1992) are, on one level, vastly different experiences, each with its own peculiar frame of reference and line of aesthetic attack. Taken together, they represent an unofficial “language” trilogy, in which varying styles and modes of American speech ravish and are ravished in turn.
Gorin was invited to Southern California by painter, film critic, and teacher Manny Farber, when Farber was in the process of building a visual arts department at the University of California, San Diego. As Gorin put it to writer Lynne Tillman in 1988, “The meeting with Farber was a determining one. As determining, in a sense, as my encounter with Godard years ago. The reading of his film criticism gave me a very different key to American cinema than the one I used in France, a way to ground it in the culture and its language, to pry it away from its own mythology. But more importantly, it’s from reflecting on his painting, his main activity for years by the time I met him, that I learned the most.”
While he was scrutinizing a new landscape through new eyes, Gorin found the story of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, a pair of twins from nearby Point Loma who, according to the press, spoke in their own private language. “The Loch Ness monster had been nowhere in sight that year, and I suspect the journalists felt the twins would be a good substitute,” Gorin told Tillman. “They built up a case which reeked of Wild Child mystique.” Gorin realized instantly that there was no private language but rather “a patchwork of southern lingo spoken by their father and of the deformations imposed on the English language by their German-born mother.” His newfound American friend the producer–star programmer–California gentleman Tom Luddy suggested filmmaker Les Blank as a cameraman, and Gorin began his inquiry into something that “had been so completely misconstrued. It seemed like an eminently dramatic premise: two kids who moved and sounded like hummingbirds, who for years had been privately deciphering the world for each other, who did not know why they had suddenly become the object of so much attention.” Poto and Cabengo (the names by which the twins sometimes called each other) is not a “portrait” of Ginny and Grace and their family, or a “probing look at the strange phenomenon of idioglossia,” but a rhapsodic layering of elements and relations, filmed by Blank in singingly lyrical motion and color. The film can be examined from multiple angles, each as valid, not to mention exciting, as the next.
“Does anyone else use sound as a totally filmic weapon?” wrote Farber of Godard. The same could be said of Gorin’s fix on the spoken word in Poto and Cabengo, and throughout the trilogy, a matter of tireless ethnographic curiosity, slaphappy connoisseurship, and an immigrant intellectual’s ironically tinged boosterism of his new culture—in fact, the title of one of Godard’s finest and least-known works nicely sums up this side of Gorin’s cinematic enterprise: Puissance de la parole. In Poto and Cabengo, you can practically taste the filmmaker’s joy as he circles around the katzenjammerian speech patterns of Chris Kennedy, the raunchy vulgarity of her Hispanic neighbors, and Tom Kennedy’s depressed Georgia drawl, and then contrasts those voices with the squeaky-clean cadences of the speech therapists and linguists, perfectly enunciating every syllable of their expert opinions.
All three films are conversations—conversations between people and between those people and the unlikely landscapes in which they dwell, between cliché and reality, inside and outside, difference and repetition, sound and image, filmmaker and subject, body language and verbal language, and, supremely, between Gorin and himself as he continually revises his own position relative to both the movie and his adopted country. They are explorations and self-explorations, pinpointing and opening up all the inconvenient details and exceptions that short-circuit any final judgments. At first glance, we sophisticates may feel like we have the Kennedy household, Routine Pleasures’ Pacific Beach & Western railway crew, and My Crasy Life’s West Side S.O.S., Sons of Samoa, 32nd Street gangbangers all figured out. We are disabused of such notions almost instantaneously. Every rhetorical move is either jarred or knocked out of place by a countermove, and we are left with a cinematic organism in which nothing is frozen and everything is in ceaseless motion. I honestly can’t think of another movie that keeps tunneling through its own foundation as relentlessly as these three do, each stopping just short of a complete cave-in.
In Poto and Cabengo (and Routine Pleasures as well), the filmmaker’s voice-over squeezes some comedy out of the spectacle of an “ex-Marxist” immigrant fretting over the degree to which he is still French or already American. It’s easy, and slightly misleading, to become fixated on Gorin’s deadpan delivery of his stylized and allusive commentary, in which he borrows Farber’s wisecracking deflations and turns them on the film in general and himself in particular. In his writing, Farber found a language that was scintillating, thrillingly dense with metaphors, and utterly precise, disarming both the reader and any conventionally authoritative voices, be they academic, moralistic, corporate, or political. Gorin adapts Farber’s strategy to his own purposes in order to maintain a one-to-one relationship with his subjects and his audience. While the voice-over scores a few comic points here and there and maintains a nice surface tension, its principal purpose is utilitarian: to steer the film up, down, and sideways, and finally guide us to the more unsettling seriocomic state of affairs deep within the material. The gap between Tom and Chris Kennedy’s vision of their economic situation and the gruesome reality is terrifyingly wide, a real-life version of early movie comedy’s fixation on the gulf between aspiration and achievement. The only reasonable response to the strange sight of this “close-knit” family sitting around their cardboard hearth is to laugh, as they might just do were they to wander into a theater and get a load of themselves. This is not the comedy of cruelty but of extreme identification.
Gorin’s American movies are handmade productions that now speak to us in two tenses. Three decades and a “digital revolution” later, they are among the most provocative artifacts of the last moment when movies really were made by hand, and when, for a precious few (Gorin, Godard, Glauber Rocha, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, Robert Frank, Yvonne Rainer, Chantal Akerman), process was on an equal footing with product. As immediate, present-tense experiences, they are endlessly self-revealing, an array of clear aesthetic choices, made from a limited set of cinematic elements, combined, layered, pulled apart and put back together in different configurations to build a rich, winningly active surface texture in the mind of the viewer. They are rude and lovably inelegant movies, resisting any drift into sophistication or severity, and resembling nothing so much as the earliest sound productions of Walsh or Wellman as reimagined by a political firebrand who has just escaped from the prison house of his own theories.
But above all else, these are “popular” films, in the French sense of the term—populaire, or “of the people.” In other words, they begin and end at ground level, where life is lived out from instant to instant. Gorin wrote, “My Crasy Life has at its core a commitment, radical in its simplicity: to respect the voice of its ‘subjects’”—the voice and, by extension, the worldview and experiential horizon line. This can be said of all three movies.
In the cinema of Jean-Pierre Gorin, there is no such thing as a case study or a type. Just us, all in the same boat, whether we care to know it or not.
ROUTINE PLEASURES: THE ROMANCE OF THE RAILS
Like the two Manny Farber paintings that form one of its through lines, Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures (1986) is stubbornly anticonclusive, a film without obvious entries or exits. Farber’s Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz. (1979) and Have a Chew on Me (1982) are oils on board in which renderings of toy soldiers and cowboys, trains and tracks, open art books and postcards, hammers and wrenches are seen from a brain-twisting array of overhead perspectives, setting the viewer’s eye loose to carve out new pathways rather than follow old ones. “At stake in these paintings is the mapping of his mental processes,” wrote Gorin and Patrick Amos, the film’s cowriter, in the 1985 piece “The Farber Machine,” “and the works’ originality holds to his antidialectical approach, the pluralist strategies that tend to produce contradictions within the picture, and within each of its gestures, without offering any resolution.”
In Gorin’s similarly additive and nomadic film, Farber’s nonstop paintings are juxtaposed, harmonized, and counterpointed with the goings-on in the model-train world of the Pacific Beach & Western railway club and crosshatched with selections from Thelonius Monk (whom Farber liked, Gorin tells us, for the way he “always managed to hit the wrong note”), William Wellman’s railroad melodrama Other Men’s Women (1931), and America’s onetime favorite comic strip Barney Google, as well as the filmmaker’s reports of his regular, enthusiasm-busting check-ins with Farber (a parody of a guru-disciple relationship). In the process, Gorin’s mental map of the American landscape—actual, historical, and cinematic—is redrawn, along with his position in it.
Gorin and director of photography Babette Mangolte—a key collaborator of Chantal Akerman’s and Yvonne Rainer’s and, like Gorin, a French expatriate who wound up at the University of California, San Diego—situate the model-train crew in sardonic and studiously loving evocations of the all-male groupings in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939): men who fill their leisure time with the rhythms of work, re-creating cinematic representations of the rhythms of work. “Your film isn’t a schizo-analysis,” wrote the critic Raymond Durgnat in a letter to Gorin, “it’s network-analysis. Same thing, becoz to realize how things are connected is to realize that they’re not all one same thing.” It’s an apt description of Gorin’s cinema in general and this film in particular.
“It seemed interesting in the eighties to investigate the conservative imagination,” Gorin said of Routine Pleasures, “to offer a view of conservatism which would not rehash the traditional macropolitical pieties, but instead would probe the imagination of people I knew had voted for Reagan.” The minutely detailed re-creations in the model landscapes, without a cactus, lamppost, or storefront out of place, take us deep into a collective desire that reached a peak during the Reagan era, manifested here through a shared sense that change can be postponed and finally rendered powerless by the careful practice of routines. “Was it their schedule that sheltered them from the storm?” Gorin asks of his PB&W subjects, as he and his camera observe the meticulously maintained timetable on the Big Board. But the conservative longing behind these re-creations comes most fully alive when placed in contrast with Farber’s barbed and resolutely antinostalgic boards. Meanwhile, the expatriate artist remains happily wedged between two imaginary Americas.
MY CRASY LIFE: CRASY RHYTHMS
My Crasy Life (1992) is the least appreciated of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Southern California films. It is also the spookiest, and perhaps the richest.
Much ink has been spilled over the question of authorial intervention in documentary filmmaking, as if every intervention were intended to accomplish the same purpose. Most descriptions of My Crasy Life refer to this blindingly obvious side of the film, but the real questions are: Where do the Sons of Samoa gangsters take Gorin, and where does his film take them?
In fact, the film is less observational than collaborative. Everything in My Crasy Life—staged reenactments of “typical” activities, a primer on gangsta lingo, interviews in which hypothetical questions are posed about vengeance and love and “your family or your homies,” a Hawaiian police officer patrolling Long Beach like an astronaut on Mars—seems to have been arrived at by mutual accord. Throughout, American Samoa itself appears as an apparition, beckoning its Sons. When one of them returns to his birthplace and stands on its shores, he is in turn beckoned by the memory of his crew back in Long Beach—like the filmmaker, a man caught between two worlds.
The movement of the film is altogether different from that of an ethnographic or sociological investigation. My Crasy Life floats on cinematographer Babette Mangolte’s crisp images, which endow every fabric and skin tone with elegant tactility. Gorin alternates haunting lyrical refrains with rhapsodic stretches of the purest behavioral and verbal bravado, in which the gangsters are seen exactly as they would like to be seen. The sarcastic asides emanating from the dashboard computer in Sergeant Kaono’s patrol car, a HAL knockoff with a sense of humor, have a jarring effect that offsets the flow (as in Poto and Cabengo, where the flattened speech of the specialists offsets the musicality of everyone else, the voice of authority is tone-deaf). Two montages of murder-scene photos, brief but chilling, are like offerings to the angel of mortality, reminders that everybody in this movie is on borrowed time.
“It is a basic problem to be able to hear the social music we are involved in,” Gorin said in 1974, and with My Crasy Life, he made a film that must be apprehended musically or not at all. This is not a movie of words and illustrative images but of accents and rhythms, gestures and stances. You don’t remember what Kaono says as much as the contrast between his stiff, official affect and the fluid motion of the crew—the coded hand movements and strides, the constant flamboyance that gives a funny undercurrent to every action. Most touching of all is the body language of the gangster who visits Samoa: a proud OG on 32nd Street, a compliant child in the land of his birth.
“These gangsters, Jerry. Do they hold as much mystery for you as they do for me?”—these are the computer’s final words. Trying to understand how or why someone becomes a gangbanger is like trying to date the beginning of time—a tantalizing prospect, an ultimate brain twister. For the Sons of Samoa themselves, who dutifully heed the calls of two homelands as they try to survive with savage pride, the question is nonexistent.
Kent Jones is the author of Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticism, a volume of his writings, and the director of the 2007 documentary Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows. A film he directed and wrote with Martin Scorsese about Elia Kazan is forthcoming.