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DVD Review: Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin

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Based on a simple summary, all of the films presented in Criterion’s latest Eclipse offering appear to be typical documentaries hewing closely to conventions of subject and structure. With Poto and Cabengo, you have an examination of a media phenomenon still unexplained; Routine Pleasures delves into an obscure, highly specific subculture; My Crasy Life looks at a major social ill in an attempt to understand it from the inside. While all of these descriptions might be technically accurate, they don’t even come close to touching the beguiling, labyrinthine nature of the films in Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin.

After founding the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Luc Godard and making a series of politically charged, formally radical films in France, Gorin moved to Southern California in the late ’70s and proceeded to lend a fascinated outsider’s perspective to these three distinctly American stories. As much essays on the American experience as they are documentaries, Gorin travels down unexpected pathways in each film, illuminating by obfuscating.

In Poto and Cabengo (1980), Gorin examines the curious case of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, identical twins who seemingly developed their own language unintelligible to any outsider, using it until the age of 8. Thought to be mentally retarded when they were born, the girls were kept mostly in isolation, and a minor media frenzy sprung up around the pair’s idiosyncratic communication style.

Using the detached observations of speech therapists and media figures as a kind of droning background noise, Gorin insists that everyone missed the big question, simply, “What are they saying?” He’s less interested in the peculiarities of their language — which turns out to be mostly a jumbled mishmash of English and the German the girls heard from their maternal grandmother — than the family’s specific social experience, inevitably distorted by the media attention.

Gorin turns his camera off the twins often and onto other members of the family, who soon are caught up in the mill of the American Dream, moving to a house beyond their means and finding supposed fulfillment in modern convenience. Gorin doesn’t condemn or diagnose — his evasive refusal to endorse any point of view is a distinct strength of all three films — but juxtaposes image and sound in consistently thought-provoking ways.

With Routine Pleasures (1986), Gorin conflates two seemingly disparate elements to examine the nature of enjoyment and the idiosyncrasies from which passions derive. It’s a look at an elaborately governed model train club that meets in a former airplane hangar and obsesses over recreating a real train schedule in miniature. At the same time, it’s also an examination of two paintings by artist and critic Manny Farber — a key player in moving Gorin to the states — and the collage-like intersection of elements on the canvases of Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz. and Have a Chew on Me.

The most essay-like of the three films, Routine Pleasures sees Gorin gleefully setting up these two side-by-side and letting each of the highly specific observations (the train enthusiasts talk shop about engines and routes; Farber connects his work to the films of William Wellman) bounce off one another. What Gorin sees as a thematic through-line isn’t always clear, but his fascination and that of his subjects is palpable and contagious.

In My Crasy Life (1992), it initially appears as if Gorin has made a significant step toward more accessible, traditional snapshot documentary. He makes his own personal presence less felt (it’s the only film of the three where he’s neither heard nor seen) and the film’s themes are far more visible. But this look at Samoan gangs in Long Beach is often just as formally bizarre, constructed mainly out of patently artificial reenactments and accompanied by a number of ironic asides from a HAL-like talking computer.

Gorin’s great success here is that the film never feels false despite its construction — there’s a penetrating portrait of inevitability among the gang members, many of whom wax poetic about the need for revenge and the supremacy of the gang family above even actual blood relatives. Gorin also travels to Hawaii and American Samoa, where the sensibilities of gang life loom large over those who’ve been physically separated from it. Religious heritage and family life come to be seen as essential parts of many of the subjects’ lives, but not to the exclusion of gangbanging.

Again, Gorin refrains from making sweeping statements or diagnosing the cyclical patterns of death that hover over the lifestyle. He doesn’t have to. The disheartening implications are clear.

Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin is another essential Eclipse offering from Criterion. Each of the films is accompanied by liner notes from critic Kent Jones.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.
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