Language Games

Darrell Hartman on the films of Jean-Pierre Gorin

Left: Jean-Pierre Gorin, Poto and Cabengo, 1980, still from a color film, 73 minutes. Right: Jean-Pierre Gorin, My Crasy Life, 1992, still from a color film, 98 minutes.

PEOPLE TALK ABOUT HOW this or that director has a good eye. In the case of the experimental filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin, it’s just as much about the ear. Gorin, a French-born émigré based in California, has that ear cocked toward outsiders; his films are stories from the fringes of American culture, told by a guy who refuses to tell them the way anyone else would.

Gorin’s digressive, liberated take on the documentary “reads” more like an essay or a diary than like journalism. Loose, spontaneous, and lacking any pretension to objectivity, Gorin’s films are sometimes more about Gorin than you want them to be. But then, isn’t that the case with most filmmakers? At least Gorin is being up-front about it.

Of Gorin’s three feature-length films, Poto and Cabengo (1978) is the only one that focuses explicitly on language. Gorin’s subject is Ginny and Gracie Kennedy, German-American twins who communicate by means of a rapid-fire patois that only they understand—an “idioglossia,” as linguists call it. The concept holds obvious appeal for an investigator of cinematic language like Gorin, whose early film work includes several collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard.

From the beginning, Gorin is present. There is his laconic, accented voice-over narration, which takes some getting used to. During a recording of the twins speaking their indecipherable creole, “WHAT ARE THEY SAYING???” races across the black screen. The filmmaker clearly has films like Truffaut’s The Wild Child in mind when he takes the untamed twins to the zoo, then to the library, where they dash around, tearing books off the shelves faster than he can keep up with them.

Gorin pulls off a structuralist critique that’s also, subtly, a paean to the mysteries of childhood. Their language decoded and explained by linguistic specialists, the twins are sent to separate schools. They learn proper English and the Pledge of Allegiance, part of an indoctrination that will presumably enable them to participate in the same American Dream that tangibly frustrates their parents. The twins have a volatile, infectious energy, and a remarkable dinner scene captures them absorbing and repeating the Kennedy household’s fascinating mélange of German and English. There’s constant chatter in Gorin’s sound track—language is all around us, seeping in. And while part of us craves an understanding of the twins’ alien creole, once translated, it loses its magic.

As in Gorin’s other films, the implication is that this particular idioglossia flourished because its speakers (who are developmentally disabled, although you might not know it by looking at them) were kept mostly sequestered from mainstream society. Poto and Cabengo documents Gorin’s interest in the twins’ private, ephemeral world, just as Routine Pleasures (1986) documents his attachment to the imaginative other-place inhabited by a group of model-train enthusiasts in Del Mar, California.

His interviews with these mild-mannered “train men” are painstakingly boring, which is part of the point. Their language is banal—everything is a “good-looking train”—but Gorin is fascinated nonetheless. “Obsession” and “pleasure,” he reports, are the two words he keeps writing in his notebook. Gorin’s subjects attend to every detail of their intricate simulacrum, including a sound track of train whistles and barking dogs. Having created a miniaturized, nostalgia-infused America for the trains to crisscross, these regular guys preside over it like giants.

Gorin, looking to complicate the story, weaves in regular voice-over references to Manny Farber, the artist and film critic who brought Gorin to California in 1975 to join the faculty at the University of California, San Diego. Farber never appears on camera, but his paintings do, including one of his Arizona hometown that bears a notable resemblance to the train men’s landscapes. From him Gorin takes the rather wonderful image of the artist as a termite “gnawing at the borders of a subject.”

The LA gangsters in 1992’s My Crasy Life, a Samoan branch of the Crips, are on the fringe of an outlaw group. Gorin remains entirely behind the camera, but a HAL-like computer that holds forth, somewhat bizarrely, from inside a police sergeant’s cruiser seems to do some of his speaking for him. To a greater extent than in his other films, however, Gorin gives these subjects control of their story—or, at least, of the raw materials he will use to tell it. Members of the “S.O.S.” gang rap and conduct interviews with one another, and even if scenes that are obviously staged make these mostly young men seem a bit like tokens, they also give the film the vibe of an empowering creative project, rather than an instance in which a community simply let itself be documented.

Moreover, the artificiality of certain situations (Girl in red car pulls up: “There’s a party tonight”) functions as a comment on the limited options within this adopted society. Beckoning these prisoners of the ghetto life, in typical Gorin fashion, is the otherworldly singing voice that wafts in a few different times near the end. It’s the distant call of the islands, and a moment during which another of Gorin’s recurring themes rings clearly—that of Paradise Lost.

“Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin” is available from the Criterion Collection on Tuesday, January 17.