Trumpet-Tongued Against the Deep Damnation: Jean-Pierre Gorin and his films
By Dan Marks
Jean-Pierre Gorin believes that "there is only one thing to do with the sophist, and that is to beat the shit out of him."
Those who know Jean—Pierre Gorin have come to delight in the occasional oratorical drubbings of the pious and sophistic which he executes with characteristic style—funny, splenetic, passionate, excremental and Gallic. However, Gorin's importance for contemporary filmmakers is not because he coins bon mots in the cut and thrust of debate about films, politics and a variety of other things, but because his two American documentaries, Poto and Cabengo (1979) and Routine Pleasures (1986) stand as towering examples of what film can do and be.
In the year after the 1968 upheavals in Paris, Gorin worked with Jean Luc Godard in France and as the Dziga Vertov group they produced a number of films including, Wind From the East, Struggle in Italy, Vladimir and Rosa, Tout Va Bien, Letter to Jane, and Here and Elsewhere. In 1973 amidst the fallout from the group's break-up, Gorin left Paris with "the idea to be as far as possible from Europe," and an inclination to inhabit and explore the "territory of the in-between." And so, in a fashion that defies all conventional expectations of what happens to French Maoist filmmaker /philosophers after 1968, Jean-Pierre Gorin now teaches at the University of California at San Diego, and lives in Los Angeles where one might encounter him clicking his way down the street in his red alligator-skin pointy-toed cowboy boots.
In Gorin's first "American" film, Poto and Cabengo, we are presented with an examination of how and why a pair of twins deform their lingua franca, what that exquisite mangling means, and from where it comes. From a man whose own complex vocabulary is peppered with occasional and Clouseau-esque words (he might say for example, that the school of hard nax is determined for you) the film's theme is self-referential to some extent. But there is a tendency to jump from this observation to the conclusion that this foreigner is also an expatriate, that this alien resident is also an exile. I suspect that when he lived in France Gorin was no patriot, and now that he lives in the U.S. he is certainly no expatriate. If to be exiled implies some loss in the transition, it is an inappropriate description of Gorin's position, for he embraces Los Angeles life with the passion of the enthusiast, and displays none of the exile's yearning for "home."
And yet both Poto and Cabengo and Routine Pleasures are concerned in different ways and to different degrees with what Gorin calls "the problem of how much inside is inside, the problem of the mimetic mechanism that is at the core of passion and obsession." Rather than seeing his films as the products of exile, loss and exclusion, we should recognize that he is very much the heir to an 'insider's' tradition (albeit one that is iconoclastic and peripatetic in nature). "The Jew," he says, "cannot be an exile. His is the problematic of the chameleon which is always the problematic of the Jews in the grand glory of the diaspora... the problem of the exiled Jew is not the problem of the ghetto, it is the incredibly threatening idea to the state or group of a consciousness which is all about this bizarre mechanism of mimetism by which you are both in and out."
Poto and Cabengo is the story of the six-year-old Kennedy twins of San Diego, two gap-toothed and skinny little girls who communicate with one another in a language incomprehensible to anyone else. Early in the film, while we watch the twins 'talking,' Gorin asks us, "What did they say?" in subtitles which crawl across the screen. The film reveals that the answer to that question is complicated, requiring more than the mere translation of the girls' idiosyncratic sounds.
We see them at home and at play and recognize that in some manner the twins' family account for their odd linguistic productions. Grandmother speaks rarely and then only in German, preferring to stay in the background cleaning the house obsessively. The mother extrudes bursts of deformed English syntax, and apparently the father has long ago retreated into passive collusion with his wife and mother-in-laws' get-rich-quick schemes in an attempt to match their expectations of riches to be had in their new land. But in the film we see them living in poverty in San Diego clutching at hopeless and ironic projects like the sale of the twins' story to the movies.
In telling their story, Gorin man ages to avoid all the cinematic cliches to which a less competent filmmaker might turn. He does not patronize the girls, for we find ourselves listening attentively to what they say, nor does he turn them into disembodied objects of his scrutiny for they are placed in historical, familial and other contexts, nor does he announce them as emblematic, metonymic or otherwise exemplary of something, neither are they turned into ciphers. In large part he accomplishes this by stepping right into the twins' story. In voice-over, we hear his ruminations on their condition, and we watch him take them to the zoo and library where he is driven crazy by their childish, incomprehensible and quite 'inappropriate ' exuberance.
Gorin's incursions into the film are unlike the appearances of many (even most) filmmakers into the stories they tell, for his adds to the complexity, rather than detracts from it. Countless filmmakers have popped up to comment on their subjects, but their presence represents an example of either the "isn't-this-great-look-at me" school of thinly-veiled egotism, or the 'Tm-really-here-it-must-be-true" school of rhetorical unsophistication, or the "whoops-the-sound-man-got in-the-frame" technique of suggesting that it's all subjective anyway. All three of these schools testify to Gorin 's assertion that, "these kinds of films are made by people who don't seem to have any problem first and foremost with themselves." As if for the documentary filmmaker (unlike other enquiring minds) the problematic can be objectivized, known for certain, exposed and possibly remedied by the application of documentary filmmaking techniques. Indeed, for Gorin the conventional "liberal documentarian of such appearances see himself as some sort of Don Quixote facing a monolithic Bastille of evil." However, the certainty that there is something out there about which documentary films should be made, is precisely the assumption which allows filmmakers to rationalize their egotistic intrusions and wallow in pious sentiments. For Gorin, "the place where the maximum piety is concentrated is in documentaries... the idea is that any piety in reference to an 'exterior' (world out there) is a refusal to problematize the world, a refusal to confront the 'so what'...and in some ways there is a gigantic 'so what' that has to tag any artistic gesture. For the very reason of its definition as an artistic gesture."
Gorin's appearances in Poto and Cabengo and in Routine Pleasures take place because it is honest to be there and dishonest to pretend that he has disappeared. He is there to indicate that he does not have the monopoly share of truth and clear-sightedness on this (or any other story). He is there because the twins' situation represents a question from which the filmmaker must proceed, not a conclusion to which he must arrive. Poto and Cabengo, like Routine Pleasures, suggests important lessons for documentary filmmakers, lessons which I believe to have been systematically ignored by that community. Neither film wastes energy addressing the vain failings of the conventional documentary form, they simply do better.
At the end of Poto and Cabengo, the linguists 'figure out' the meaning of the twins' language and the patterns of their chaotic linguistic formulations. But the twins were always oblivious to these expert attempts to 'get them right.' On first inspection the story suggests that the twins are mere subjects of their family's, the psychologists', the linguists' and the filmmaker 's attentions. But Gorin's appearances allow us to see that something more complex is taking place between these parties than the experts simply acting upon the twins' needs. His relationship with the twins is transparently a symbiotic one—at its grossest level—without them there could be no film. Once this suggestion has been made we can see the various other actors' relationships as being similarly symbiotic, for everyone has an investment in the twins 'oddness' rather than their 'normality'—a situation which suggests they are more powerful than at first appears.And naturally, once the twins are 'cured' all the characters in the story (including the filmmaker) retreat from our gaze: the twins are split up and sent to different schools, and we remember the irony of their faith in selling their story to the movies as we see the family go broke and watch the film come to a close.
In Poto and Cabengo, Gorin examines the relationships between himself, the twins, their parents and the 'experts'. In the tight spaces between these relationships he man ages to find unexpected room or unlikely stories and provocative questions. In this sense Poto and Cabengo is an exercise in 'intensive' filmmaking. By contrast, Routine Pleasures is an exercise in 'extensive' filmmaking.
Routine Pleasures is a film about two quite separate things. The first is a group of model rail-road enthusiasts who gather every Thursday to play with their trains and 'do' train talk. The second is about the life and work of the teacher/writer/ painter /film critic Manny Farber and two of his paintings "Have a Chew on Me" and "Birthplace: Douglas, Ariz. "Routine Pleasures sets itself the task of making interesting and relevant the gulf between these subjects. And insofar as Gorin objects strenuously to "the idea of the documentary as linked to this constant dictatorship of interest" it represents a conscious reaction to Poto and Cabengo, and to the idea that "you film only things that are interesting and those things that are interesting are worthwhile."
It is a detailed examination of the joys of model railroading and a contemplation of the details of Farber's paintings and of his wit and wisdom. Its concentration on the minute rather than the grand hints at a filmmaking attempt to find the world in the grain of sand—to examine the mundane and see in it the diversity and perversity of human experience. But large gestures such as these are not part of Gorin's enterprise and the hint remains only a hint. Indeed, in Manny Farber he presents a character who "is saying 'call me Tex' while he maintains a discourse which is obviously an intelectual discourse." In using Farber, Groin pulls us away from making falsely profound conclusions about the 'meaning ' of the railroaders and their activities. Gorin is determined that his "small films do not pretend to be anything but small."And in the end it is only such a realistic and modest position which allows his films to be as 'large' as they are.
In his filmmaking Gorin presents a way to make 'big' films by targeting 'small ' issues and thinking about them hard and on film. But outside his films he is both more specific and more vehement about the failings of contemporary documentary practice. For Gorin, "the problematic of Roger & Me is that it is a 'small film' which hints profoundly at large and big subjects." Most critics would be content to label the syndrome as hyperbole, but Gorin delights in performing anatomical dissections on such deficiencies, and he notes that apparently simple hyperbole in fact masks "hypocrisy, reactionary collusion, piety and cliche," a combination which drives him to splenetic oratorical heights. As he says, "I think that there is something absolutely devastating in the admission by filmmakers that filmmaking is an art made by cretins for cretins. I would think that Chris Marker, Immamura, and The Black Audio Film Collective are people who are proving day after day that cinema is not exclusively made for morons by morons. And I think that films like Roger & Me are absolutely always on the other side."
Gorin's critique of contemporary documentary filmmaking is thorough going and devastating. He reserves his greatest attacks for "the liberal documentarian who has this idea that he functions in a certain phantasmic universe that has to do with the state 'out there' doing devilish things. The state or the upper classes or the 200 families of imperialism. Anybody except themselves." What to do about this state of affairs is what passes for critical thought in most documentaries, but this question "is obscene because it only arises if you have swallowed hook line and sinker a certain political organization. These people don't see that on their way to denounce, they do precisely the opposite. This problematic of the denunciation of the inhumanity of the man at the top is an absolute acceptance of the political situation that comes with the organization of 'das kapital' as we know it." For Gorin, pointing the finger at the so-called 'bad guy' is nothing but cliche, and he has "some sort of defiance against the power of cliche. I always feel compelled to stab any cliche that's brought toward me." And it is a consequence.of those prevailing notions that brings us a regular documentary film diet which "ritually takes the gut-wrenching cases of one homeless, one out of work male or female, one paraplegic, one this, one that -who all immediately in the process of analyzing the case get offered a job, a home, etc. etc. As if such acts represents remedies to the real problem which is about the production and maintenance of these symptoms by a functioning system." Nevertheless, once the 'easy' enemy has been located, the documentarian seems to settle down into his accustomed mode, the pious, and "what's wonderful about piety is that what it lifts is the idea that there would be in front of you something that should be, and is, and has to be, the object of a complicated reflection. I think that one should actively hate any kind of piety that comes one's way."
It is not just that Gorin hates these phenomena out of some abstract principle, but rather he believes that unchallenged they represent real dangers. "The idea that emotion and intelligence are two antithetical phenomena, that drives me crazy. I do not see why I wouldn't take some sort of militant position against that. I am an intellectual, I know fascism, intellectual or not. It starts by a violent attack against people who think. And I think that in cinema the attack against people who think has been relentless."
For Gorin, letting such attacks pass without comment is to collude with them; for him an important task is "to provoke people who always put the word 'dignity' next to the word 'human' to reveal themselves for what they are—which is this incredibly repressed mind who does not hesitate to grab a very large club and beat the shit out of you or starve you or prevent you from doing your job or whatever." Singled out for particular scorn in this respect is the current cinema's flavor-of-the-month documentary Roger and Me, about a filmmaker 's dealings with Roger Smith, the President of General Motors and the consequences of that company's decision to shed jobs at its plant in Flint, Michigan. Under the guise of being a radical statement about the corporation, Gorin finds that "Roger and Me is a film that is being done by Bush. It is a film that wants a kinder, gentler reorganization of the capital in Flint, Michigan... Seeing films in which there is no intention whatsoever either in terms of form or content, I should be bored in the name of what? The bigness of their subject?"
In addition to being a wonderful filmmaker, there is no doubt that Jean Pierre Gorin is an iconoclast, and the irony of that position is that the iconoclast depends more than anyone else on the existence of true believers to revere the icons he kicks for a living. He has, therefore, a certain investment in not converting those to whom he preaches. It is an irony that is not lost on Gorin. Characteristically, he turns it to his advantage. "All prior ideas of iconoclastic practice" he says, "are linked with the idea of the solidity and the permanence of the icons that the iconoclast wants to bring down. And now the iconoclast is, in fact, confronted with soft icons. Icons which reveal themselves to have a shelf-life of 15 days."
Given this recognition, who can say what the next Gorin project will look like? He won't, because "one never talks about one's next project, because if one talks about it one doesn't have to do it."
If an impending project forces the silence of Jean-Pierre Gorin, the only compensation would be its release. So hurry up and do it, Jean-Pierre. I, for one, can't wait.
Daniel Marks is a filmmaker and anthropologist who works at the Center For Visual Anthropology of the University of Southern California.
Poto and Cabengo, 1979, 16mm, 75 mins. Distributed by New Yorker Films, New York.
Routine Pleasures, 1986, 16mm, 80 mins. Written by J.P. Gorin and Patrick Amos.