‘Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin’ Depict a Divided America

Most cinéphiles know Jean-Pierre Gorin from his collaboration with Jean-Luc Godard and the Dziga Vertov group. After the strike events of the May of 1968 in France, Gorin and Godard formed the group and produced various political films such as, Un Film comme les autres (A Film Like the Others), British Sounds/See You at Mao, Pravda, Le Vent d’est (Wind from the East), Luttes en Italie (Struggles in Italy), Jusqu’à la victoire (Until Victory/Palestine Will Win), Vladimir et Rosa (Vladimir and Rosa), Tout va Bien and Letter to Jane. Drawing upon Bertolt Brecht’s dictum that ‘art is not a reflection of reality but a hammer to shape it’, the group aimed at producing films which would not simply entertain, but would make the public perceive the historicity of the world they live in and eventually change it.

In 1972, the group dissolved and Gorin followed a different career path making documentaries and teaching at the University of California in San Diego. These documentaries illuminate aspects of America’s culture, as well as of its political and social flaws in very sophisticated ways.

The first film, Poto and Cabengo, tells the story of Grace and Virginia Kennedy, a pair of twins, who spoke in their own private language – a mixture of German and English. The twins attracted the mainstream media’s attention during the ’70s, but it was Gorin who realised that the their language was not a private language, but ‘a patchwork of southern lingo spoken by their father and of the deformations imposed on the English language by their German born mother’. In placing his emphasis on the twins, Gorin puts forward the conjecture that language is not the neutral interpretation of the world, but a social construction, per se.

Meanwhile, the filmmaker draws our attention to the social construction of the everyday life and the certainties of the American culture raising issues regarding the myth of America being the land of equal opportunities and the lack of welfare state in the USA. Throughout, Gorin does not hide the fact that what we see is a film, thus he does not aspire to put forward claims to objectivity as many documentary filmmakers do.

By contrast, it’s by means of an experimental attitude, that he invites us to rethink and debunk our social certainties and prejudices. One needs to address his employment of sound as a means of creating counterpoints to the images and here it is worthwhile quoting Kent Jones. As he says: “Does anyone else use sound as a totally filmic weapon?” wrote Farber of Godard.

The same could be said of Gorin’s fix on the spoken word in Poto and Gabengo, and throughout the trilogy, a matter of tireless, ethnographic curiosity, slaphappy connoisseurship, and an immigrant intellectual’s ironically tinged boosterism of his new culture – in fact, the title of one of Godard’s finest and least known works nicely sums up this side of Gorin’s cinematic enterprise: Puissance de la Parole. In Poto and Cabengo, you can practically taste the filmmaker’s joy as he circles around the katzenjammerian speech patterns of Chris Kennedy, the raunchy vulgarity of her Hispanic neighbours, and Tom Kennedy’s depressed Georgia drawl, and then contrast these voices with the squeaky-clean cadences of the speech therapists and linguists, perfectly enunciating every syllable of their expert opinions.

Gorin’s interest in sounds and language is evident in the second film of this collection My Crasy Life (spelling intentionally wrong). The film is about a Samoan street gang in Long Beach, and explores the gangster community with its own rules, language, ethics and culture. Gorin is not a moralist, but his gesture to make a film about a community which is rarely depicted in the cinema, is indicative of his intention to debunk the unified image of the American society that the Hollywood industry puts forward.

By contrast, Gorin proposes an image of the USA as a divided society and this division is dexterously proposed by the emphasis on the gangster’s accents, their music and their verbal bravado. As Gorin states ‘it is a basic problem to be able to hear the social music we are involved in’. The audience is given the chance to hear this social music, but the director does not impose it on us. The film is a combination of documentary and fiction, in which the members of the gang are asked to re-enact typical activities and they answer hypothetical questions about vengeance, their hate of other gangs and their view of their ‘homies’ as being their real family.

The last film, Routine Pleasures, takes as its subject a club devoted to model trains. Gorin sets out to answer the question ‘what do these recreations of the past mean’. Gorin situates the model-train crew evoking the all-male groupings in Howard Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Gorin seems to imply that these detailed recreations in the model landscapes signified a willingness to freeze time and history and provide those involved with a sense of historical closure and safety from the workings of history, something that reached its peak during the Reagan era.

This collection provides some of the most important works of a very influential filmmaker, whose work (unfortunately) is rarely distributed outside the festival circuit. It’s a must for all those interested in art cinema and documentary, as well as for anyone interested in politics and representation. The only problem with this collection is that apart from Kent Jones’ written notes on the films, there are no extras. Such a good collection of films deserved some extras that could introduce Jean-Pierre Gorin to the ‘non-initiated’.

RATING 9 / 10