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DVD REVIEW: JEAN-PIERRE GORIN: a new DVD box set spotlights the director's best documentaries

Reviews
by Steven Erickson
January 16, 2012 12:06 PM
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At first glance, the title of Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin looks like a joke. If Jean-Pierre Gorin, a Frenchman who moved to San Diego to teach at UCSD in the ‘70s, is known in the U.S. at all, it’s because he collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard as a member of the Dziga Vertov Group. However, except for Tout Va Bien and Letter to Jane, most of the Dziga Vertov Group’s work is now difficult to see. Eclipse’s 3-DVD set of Gorin’s California-made documentaries, completed between 1980 and 1992, rescues them from oblivion. They’ve rarely been screened theatrically in the U.S. in the twenty years since the most recent one, My Crasy Life, was made, apart from a 2010 retrospective at New York’s Migrating Forms festival.

All that said, “popular culture” doesn’t necessarily have to mean corporate-produced media. In Gorin’s case, it usually means an amused but respectful look at American subcultures, whether they be model train enthusiasts or Samoan gangbangers. While Burden of Dreams director Les Blank, an accomplished documentarian in his own right, was the cameraman on the Paris native's first film, Poto and Cabengo, the Jonathan Demme of Handle with Care and Melvin and Howard is the filmmaker Gorin most recalls. Gorin and Demme share a fondness for the byways of lower-middle-class Americana and the ways the American Dream can be a pitfall, as well as an honest outsider’s distance from their characters or subjects.

Poto and Cabengo is, not surprisingly, his most Godardian film. Starting with the story of two six-year-old twins who have apparently invented their own language, it fills the screen with text and, as Kent Jones’ astute liner notes testify, creates a symphony of voices and languages. Grace and Virginia Kennedy (“Poto” and “Cabengo” are their nicknames for each other), raised in isolation due to the belief that they might be mentally challenged, came up with their own variation on English, completely unintelligible to most observers. Their father is a real estate salesman whose dreams of becoming a millionaire were widely out of synch with the family’s reality. Their mother and grandmother are German.Gorin isn’t interested in the issue of whether the twins really invented a new language so much as exploring what kind of upbringing could have produced such an odd set of little girls.

Poto and Cabengo is formally striking, with much use of black leader and repeated bits of onscreen text, like a question mark floating across the screen and the phrase “What are they saying?” The film eventually answers this, but it’s far more concerned with the economic fate of the Kennedy family. Its final ten minutes are devastating, as their dreams of holding onto a middle-class lifestyle slip away. Gorin’s closing voice-over compresses an emotional and narrative charge which most films would spend a reel developing into thirty seconds

Routine Pleasures is the most complex and perplexing of the films included in this set. Its inspiration isn’t immediately apparent; as quoted in Jones’ liner notes, Gorin says “ It seemed interesting in the eighties to investigate the conservative imagination.” However, the director didn’t do so by any conventional means. Instead, he takes a model train club, whose members meet every Tuesday, and film critic/painter Manny Farber as his subjects. Farber refused to appear on camera, so Gorin concentrated on two of his paintings instead.

This is the most obviously autobiographical of the three films in this set, as Gorin explores what it means to be - or, more personally, to become - an American in the ‘80s. He chooses to do so by means of filming some pretty idiosyncratic men. His main inspiration for Routine Pleasures was ‘30s American cinema, particularly the films of William Wellman and Howard Hawks. Audaciously, one section of it is titled Only Angels Have Wings (Part 2). He often films the train club in black and white, to add to the retro ambiance.

The only politics Gorin explicitly evokes are his own; he quotes Farber calling him an “ex-Marxist.” The kind of conservatism preoccupying him is more emotional than ideological, lying in nostalgia and a fondness for childhood pleasures, evoked (not without some critique and anxiety) in Farber’s painting “Birthplace, Douglas, Ariz.” Even more than Gorin’s other work, the film seems designed to live up to Farber’s definition of “termite art”: a small-scale take on subject matter that practically begs you to call it trivial, yet contains a hidden wealth of substance and resonance. Like many of the best films, it’s impossible to summarize what it’s about in a sentence or two.

My Crasy Life, made at the height of the craze for “hood” films, bears more obvious signs of fictionalization than Gorin’s other two films: stilted line deliveries from young men who seem slightly drunk or stoned, not to mention a robbery whose perpetrator would be a fool to commit it for real on camera. There’s also a talking computer, built into a police car, that delivers ironic commentary on the action, as well as a bibliography on Samoa. The film focuses on Samoan gangstas in Long Beach, California.

On one level, it’s ridiculous to interpret this film as being as autobiographical as Routine Pleasures. In its world, white people are few and far between: barely glimpsed cops or crime victims. Rather than making his presence directly felt through his voice, as in his previous two films, Gorin has his subjects interview each other. However, on a deeper level, the film examines the pain of statelessness and the costs of emigration. It uses shots of beautiful Samoan landscapes as punctuation, even as one gang member shouts “Fuck Margaret Mead!” Brought to Hawaii or Samoa, his subjects are torn between wanting to hang out with their friends in L.A. and craving a deeper connection to their island roots, like learning to speak Samoan fluently.

Thanks to TV shows like Gangland and the proliferation of gangsta rap over the past 20 years - several hip-hop songs are performed here by the group West Side Strong - this is the most familiar-seeming of Gorin’s films. Yet its similarities to films like Menace II Society only make its personal touches - the HAL-like computer, the sobering montages of bloody crime scene photos, the deliberately jarring mixture of fiction and documentary - all the more unusual and powerful. It makes one wish that Gorin had been able to sustain a more prolific body of work as a filmmaker.

Due to space limitations, Jones’ liner notes had to restrict themselves to the three Gorin films included in this set. For a supplement addressing Gorin’s work with Godard and the two music-themed videos made after My Crasy Life, I recommend Erik Ulman’s article for Senses of Cinema.

Steve Erickson is a freelance writer who lives in New York. He writes for Gay City News, Fandor's blog, the Nashville Scene, Film Comment, The Atlantic website and other publications. He has made four short films, the most recent being 2009's "Squawk".

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