Home Video Hovel- Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin
New from Criterion’s Eclipse line of films (“…lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.”) is a selection of three documentaries from Jean- Pierre Gorin. Included in this package are three films from his “Southern California Trilogy,” Poto and Cabengo, Routine Pleasures, and My Crasy Life. Until presented with this collection, I was unaware of Gorin’s work. A film professor at UCSD, according to imdb his nickname amongst his students is “Totoro” because he only appears to those with a “pure heart.” Now, if you are worthy, your pure heart can experience his work for less than $50.
Gorin’s subjects are skewed, his examinations ride the line between academic and poetic, and in some cases his work becomes wildly surreal. These three films are obviously guided by the same hand, yet while they explore similar concepts, each has something different to offer.
Poto and Cabengo (1980)
This is the story of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, twins who made headlines in the ‘70s because they created a language that they used exclusively until the age of eight. This seems to be a documentary completely dependent on the spectacle of the subject matter.
The question to be answered is implicit: How were these girls able to be so isolated for so long? Yet there is an attempt to make this film more than just an answer to a simple question. Peppered throughout this documentary are Gorin’s comments on the situation. His observations have a poetic bent, and he seems to see the girl’s situation as not dissimilar from his own, as a foreigner living in the United States.
Gorin’s French accent provides a constant voice over, and he also let’s you know he’s there by frequent experiments with editing. In particular, this film makes heavy use of paused images, subtitles, dialogue over black, and certain expressions repeated in a limited loop.
Although made a good 25 years before YouTube, this movie seems to have been made with the same back-end tools now common (and perhaps abused) by any eight year old on the popular video site. In Poto and Cabengo these tools convey the staccato confusion of the world these twins seem to live in. Perhaps it also has the unintended side-effect of making prescient commentary on the divided communication that comes as a result of our current media culture.
Routine Pleasures (1986)
This was the first of these there three films that I watched, and it worked as a good introduction to Gorin’s style and perspective. The subject matter here is two paintings by the artist and film critic Manny Farber, and a quietly enthusiastic group of model train enthusiasts. When it comes to the techniques of film, instead of playing with editing and text, here Gorin plays with the subject matter by alternating between black and white and color film. Along with this, his French accented poetic commentary also makes another appearance.
I said above that these model train builders are “quietly enthusiastic,” but what I mean to say is that these gentlemen are true blue and white striped train nerds. They are real nerds, not hipster nerds. These grown men are so obsessed with model trains that they have numerous audio recordings of specific trains, crawling specific ranges of track, which they listen to for a good time. In some ways I feel as if these men are living their own (brain-damage free) version of Marwencol.
When it comes to the subject matter, it’s wonderful to see Gorin treating these people in such an unironic manner. This could easily have been a 30-minute documentary about the club alone. Yet Gorin’s presence seems designed to take the trains as far off the rails as possible. This fact is made evident with the film’s opening dedication to both the animator Chuck Jones and the French writer Flaubert. Just like those to which this film is dedicated, the link between the train people and Farber can be found. But I’m not sure if this is a documentary about finding the link, or a documentary about the subjects.
There are hints that Gorin may have overstayed his welcome as he documented those with the scale model obsession. It also sounds as if he may have alienated Farber during the course of preparing the documentary. Perhaps Gorin’s passion for this documentary is the true link, and therefore the subject, of this documentary. Through the voiceover we discover that this film was made during Gorin’s official transition from French citizen, to American. As he comes to grips with this fluctuation in his own nationality he refers to the model builder’s train projects as, “America, under budget, and in a shoebox.” He then talks about the railroaders as telling a, “tale of permanence.”
As much as this may be an examination of the subjects, this documentary truly seems to be an examination of Gorin’s own fluctuating state of permanence.
My Crasy Life (1992)
Perhaps my favorite of these three films, My Crasy Life is about the world of a Samoan Street gang in Long Beach, CA. This particular documentary approaches its subject in the most un-documentary like manner I’ve ever seen. What the audience gets is a surreal combo of very obviously staged conversations, genuine first person interviews, a smattering of graphic crime scene photos, all framed with a voice over coming from a demonic police computer, reminiscent of KITT, or better yet, HAL.
There are some grisly images in the film, and the “vehicle” chosen for the voiceover gives the whole piece an eerie and intense vibe. There’s also a feeling of uncertainty since you’re never certain if you’re watching a play staged for the camera, or a true documentary. Frankly, the amateurish acting from the gang members has the odd effect of making the whole thing feel like a home movie that’s struggling for sophistication.
Although this is the only film of the three without direct voice over commentary from Gorin, familiar subjects of national identity, and the idea of being a stranger in one’s own land reveal themselves. In a lot of ways I think this movie is brilliant because it shows the audience what’s true through the use of artifice. Oddly, it also gives me the feeling of being closest to Gorin’s spirit and mind, yet his direct influence seems absent.
This is a different look at gangs that amazingly avoids being sentimental, tragic, or glorifying. For all it’s dramatization, this is a very true documentary.
I definitely recommend seeing all three of these films. Since they are part of the Eclipse line they lack the traditional comprehensive Criterion documentaries and commentaries. While that’s unfortunate, the brief yet comprehensive liner notes kinda’/sotra’ make up for it. For good or ill, the best reason to get this set is so you can see these three “popular” films by Jean-Pierre Gorin.