Jean-Pierre Gorin made his name as Jean-Luc Godard's copilot during what is now sometimes regarded as the latter's "ornery cuss" period immediately following May '68 and preceding his partnership with the other Dziga Vertov Group alum, Anne-Marie Miéville. Gorin and Godard teamed up on a series of documentary films, essay films, and "educational" films, each invariably suited to the pair's Marxist sensibilities, as well as the entertaining Tout Va Bien, a "Scenes from a Mod/Awakening Revolutionary Marriage" comedy-tract starring Jane Fonda and Yves Montand. While he might have played a role in enhancing the accessibility of what may be one of the least audience-friendly phases of any filmmaker's career, without looking at Gorin's solo work, you might ask what the Paris-born filmmaker and teacher brought to the pair's projects. The trilogy of films Gorin made between 1980 and 1992 probably won't definitively answer that question, but in their indifference to the traditional documentary template, the way that they are, as Kent Jones described them, "militantly unclassifiable," they remain autobiographical emissions of an undeniable veracity. Although Gorin picked friendly, "human interest" subjects for each of the three films, he doesn't so much seek to convey a comprehensive understanding of what he documents as come to terms with the limits of his understanding, and use the alien environment of Southern California as a notebook to record his observations, sensations, and philosophical musings.
For instance, the story told in Poto and Cabengo, that of two six-year-old identical twins (Grace and Virginia Kennedy) who speak to one another in an invented language, a domestic curiosity that captured the nation's imagination for several months in the late 1970s, often acts as a kind of screen, upon which Gorin projects his personality, both as a director and as a guest in the Kennedy family's lives. Gorin is never seen, but his voiceover narration is heard almost continuously from beginning to end, and he often measures out the depth and breadth of a given sequence based on his means of production, an approach that has the effect of diminishing the event status of Grace and Virginia's headline-making account. While Gorin speaks with a host of experts about the "mystery" of the twins' minds and fabricated vocabulary, and employs various editing effects (optical printing, sound clips that are replayed immediately after they are first heard in the diegesis) to emphasize the project's interrogative tone, its main subject is almost its secondary subject, rigorously qualified as it is by such scenes as Gorin pleading with the twins to stop horsing around in a library space, that he might sit them down for an interview before his magazine of film runs out.
With a title that sounds like an experimental/narrative film by Mark Rappaport, or a part of Hollis Frampton's "Hapax legomena," Routine Pleasures has two unseen protagonists instead of one. Besides Gorin, who again provides the ambling, confessional, yet genially unpretentious philosophical narration, the late film critic and painter Manny Farber appears only in archival photos, his conversations with Gorin (you can imagine him growling at the filmmaker with the Hemingway-esque terseness and pugilistic lyricism that informed his movie reviews) spoken by the director in second-hand bursts. The "main" subject of Routine Pleasures, however, is a model train club in Del Mar, a group of non-professionals whose devotion to precision and verisimilitude, as applies to many hobbies-that-are-more-than-hobbies, tips into benign obsession.
About three quarters of the images in Routine Pleasures are taken from the train club, either in terms of watching its members carry out daily business, manage the timetable, or watch home movies of real trains, or in close-ups of the model trains and the Dorothea Lange-esque rural landscapes that surround them. The remainder consists of shots of Farber's paintings, or Farber-related material, such as a long excerpt from a 1931 William Wellman melodrama called Other Men's Women, a different kind of train movie that likely represents the only explicit Venn Diagram overlap between Farber's world and that of the Del Mar railfans. In spirit, Gorin's leisurely paced, unassuming, purposefully inconclusive sketch of the train club shares with Farber's paintings ideas regarding the use of collage, and of repurposing objects and faces based on new or alien environments. The primary repurposed object is, of course, Gorin himself, who constantly refers to his outsider status, even at times talking about himself as an unwelcome houseguest. A bit like the famous Farber termite, he is content to mount no arguments, only to leave behind the evidence of his passing, against the emulsion of the film stock.
Any faint whiff of Herzog-ness you might get from Poto and Cabengo or Routine Pleasures probably doubles when viewing My Crasy Life, which covers a few days in the lives of a Samoan street gang in Long Beach, California. Films like Larry Clark's Wassup Rockers and Kent McKenzie's The Exiles might also come to mind, as Gorin maintains an air of documentary-ness throughout, even while gradually introducing fiction cues, less to "story up" the material than to make the viewer aware of—and therefore comfortable with—the element of contrivance. If you can, imagine a Frederick Wiseman documentary in which, from time to time, the subjects are given a scenario to play out in front of the camera (as when a banger rolls a white guy trying to buy drugs, takes his wallet, and chases him away), or interview each other on the most elemental matters that concern them, like what does different slang mean, have you done any drugs, and what you would do if your one-year-old daughter was killed by a stray bullet. There's also a police squad car's onboard computer, whose depressive/wiseacre tone brings to mind 2001: A Space Odyssey, if it was directed by Chris Marker. All of these fabrications are presented with a kind of open-faced nonchalance, the better to head off any accusations of self-indulgence.
As in Routine Pleasures and Poto and Cabengo, Gorin works to erase his presence from the construction, not so much out of a desire to attain some platonic ideal of documentary objectivity, but as an instrument he elects to use one way in one film, another way in another. In all instances, Gorin manages to create a strong feeling of equilibrium between his outsider status and (with respect to the insularity of the subjects) ours. It will occur to the viewer, at some point, that all three films are about insiders whose indecipherable language creates peace and stability—home-like feelings—within an isolated setting. Look in vain for the communist manifesto; look instead at the way the subjects seem to have created a safe haven out of nothing.
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Eclipse productions practically ask to be underrated in terms of authoring, but there's no reason to. The experience of watching a selection from this set is a lot like watching them in an editing bay, or projected on the wall of some artist's loft, so precisely is the DIY texture of each movie preserved by Criterion's fine work. In terms of sound, language is obviously paramount—as all three movies are about slang, dialect, or jargon, in one way or another—and voices are presented with outstanding clarity in each movie. The sound mix is especially good in My Crasy Life, which has the most unusual score of the three movies, the occasional intrusion of Samoan music into the background of several scenes, sometimes dominating the soundtrack, sometimes nearly inaudible.
Sure, as a rule, movies in Eclipse sets come au naturel, and Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin is no different. The essays that accompany the set, however, are by the esteemed critic and programmer Kent Jones, whose study of the three films, in the context of Gorin's life and politics, is far more illuminating than most critics—including yours truly—could manage on their best days. As far as DVD sets with no supplements go, the essays make a pretty good supplement.
If you think you know the documentary-essay-sketchbook genre, Jean-Pierre Gorin proves that there's always a little more country to undiscover.