Saturday, July 08, 2023

Jean-Pierre Gorin in 2023: Two Times

The following pieces appeared in the Cahiers du cinéma this early-spring and early-summer respectively. I've translated them into English below. They can be read there in their original French versions here and here at the Cahiers website. Strongly recommend nabbing a subscription if you can.


Gorin: Useful Idioglossia

by Charlotte Garson

March 10th, 2023

It's already close to twenty years ago — a generation — that Entrevues invited Jean-Pierre Gorin to Belfort. Cinéma du Réel's program "Le monde, autre" ["The World: Other"] will allow one to submit themselves to a ritual viewing that should be required in any cinephile society worthy of that name: in Poto and Cabengo [1979], Routine Pleasures [1986], and My Crasy L1fe! [1992], all the commonplaces of documentary in point of question ("a point of distance, "dispositif") are rubbed down by the relaxed posture of a singular "I" that stages its own excess, not to say its change of course from the usual.

In Vladimir et Rosa [1971], the groupe Dziga-Vertov film also being presented at the Réel, the combined voices of Godard and Gorin produce an agit-prop in stereo. Subsequently, the two offered to Gorin's American films a life-saving alterity. The twins in Poto and Cabengo, astonishing America because they invented a language with two speakers, form a closed couple only in appearance: the shrinks detect a leader (Gracie, called Poto by her sister), and their strange gift turns out to be deceptive. Attracted by this wonder, Gorin records a deflation of this linguistic mystery, but he profitably gleans the details of a family's daily life. Thinking he could better examine the idioglossia (this is the technical term) of the little girls by extracting them from their family environment, Gorin proves incapable of keeping them within the frame, especially when he takes them to the library — a Borgesian sequence in which the two linguistic curiosities go live. Gorin masters the tragicomic arc of setbacks, the perfect documentary filmmaker being the one who arrives a little too late, at the moment when the windfall of 'the live' vanishes  — in this case when the twins agree "better and better each day with the real world," and abandon their pidgin-speak.

My Crasy L1fe!, an incursion into the West Side gang of Californian Samoans, eschews the same acceptance of a leveling off of the subject: dodging the group's mistrust ("Fuck this National Geographic bullshit!") through one of its members who asks others questions, Gorin takes refuge in… the voice of the car computer of a sheriff who knows the families closely and who is followed to Hawaii. In Honolulu, some vacationing gangsters drop their manly poses; My Crasy L1fe! enters a state of vacation, of childhood (it opened with children's games), and the ultra-violence of the continent seems, seen from the island, completely fictional.


The jargon of model-train enthusiasts that Gorin filmed more than ten years earlier in Routine Pleasures is as much idioglossia as Poto and Cabengo and the West-Siders. It is enough to see emerging from a trap door, in the middle of a model landscape, one of these retirees concentrated on their work (the film is dedicated to Chuck Jones and Gustave Flaubert, no doubt for the Bouvard and Pécuchet side of the trainspotters) to understand that the exiled Frenchman found there a miniature slice of Americana. But under the leadership of Manny Farber, the mentor whom Gorin will film in his studio throughout the film, he tracks down his own complacency: the ex-marxist-leninist sees clearly that through these Tuesday evening railway workers he is looking for the vestiges of the American working class, while identifying as a filmmaker with these "mad about true detail." The visits to the painter and critic are the welcome reverse shot of the routine pleasures in which Gorin, too quickly adopted by the club, risks winding up. And the “termite” whispered to him, quoting Proust in the face of his French disciple: “We are all memories of a lost time, but they are not your memories, and they are not your past."


Gorin: Handiwork / Ladies' Works

by Charlotte Garson

June 14th, 2023 / conducted March 30th, 2023

this text is the long version of an initial publication in Cahiers du cinéma, no. 799, June 2023

Specially in Paris to present his three films as well as a carte-blanche at Cinéma du Réel at the end of March, Jean-Pierre Gorin, living in San Diego since 1975, brings news to Cahiers as one writes a postcard. From the margins of “this rat hole” that is Southern California, a casual discussion on a decidedly termite art. 

GARSON: Since you emigrated to the United States in 1975, teaching cinema has been your main activity. How did it change your conception of cinema?

GORIN: When I arrived, I had to eat, and thanks to Tom Luddy [see Cahiers no. 797], I met Manny Farber, an important painter and critic who got me into UCSD. He was also a writer with an extraordinary language, a good Virgil for understanding the country, since he covered the whole century. The university's visual arts department was primarily an art school, not a film school. There were people like the poet and critic David Antin, Allan Kaprow [the inventor of the word and the concept of happening within Fluxus at the end of the 1950s —Garson's note], and in their wake, the idea that life was more interesting than art, and that the boundary between the two had to be as porous as possible. In a language that I was only beginning to master, I was trying to teach something beyond cinema: what it was like to be American according to what we saw in films, from Thomas Ince and Ford to Capra or the Maysles brothers. Manny and I would call out to each other, he would come to my classes and we would start talking, it flew over the heads of the blondes, but they were surprised by the liveliness. I was doing a history of cinema starting with a contemporary film, and in the same three-hour class, I ended up in 1900 – from Mysterious Object at Noon to Griffith.

GARSON: In Routine Pleasures, you go back and forth to Farber, as if in search of a lost secret of mise-en-scène.

GORIN: Manny was interested in both Hawks and Ford and fringe, esoteric productions. He had written on Michael Snow, Ernie Gehr... I had not yet read his articles collected in Negative Space; we were talking about painting, which was a way of talking about cinema. In his career, he moved away from large abstract paintings to return to the figurative: on the canvas, flat, he placed small objects or figurines, and he approached them from different angles, hence a polyphony, paths between them. That was the trigger for Poto and Cabengo and Routine Pleasures: an essayist cinema, where in the end, the subject remained alive and where I moved on to something else. The subject matter was really what matters to the subject! What interests me is the moment when I can no longer manage it, when reality is stronger than me. The documentary, usually, starts from a mass of information to arrive at a point of elucidation. Me, I take a needle hole, I sneak in, and I explode. There is always excess, and a happy defeat. In Manny Farber's founding text, on white elephant art versus "termite art," the only thing I question is the "cons": in fact, every film oscillates between the two. "The highest power of fiction appears only when it becomes documentary," said Fritz Lang. I would add: and vice versa.

GARSON: In Poto and Cabengo, your "joyful defeat" is that the little twins who converse in an unknown pidgin have not invented a real language.

GORIN: I wanted to call this film Everybody Talks Funny, because there is also me and my accent, and their German mother and her accent, their grandmother... Then with Manny we considered Two Spoke Together, in homage to Ford. This first film corresponds to my arrival in the United States, to the confrontation with another language, which has become my mother. During my carte-blanche at Cinéma du Réel, I showed En rachâchant [Making Up for Things, 1982] by the Straubs and I Was Born, But... by Ozu, for childhood defined as an uncontrollable gesture, while the adult pounds on the table. Routine Pleasures wonders what exile is: when do we manage to be inside? The guys I film, model train enthusiasts, finally place me in the landscape when they put the little car that is a miniature of my DS on their circuit. A voodoo gesture! On the other hand, I went to the Brumes de Hawks festival, because the guys who play with the little train, it's the collective as playful enjoyment, which connects a whole section of American cinema of the 1930s: a group of guys making a gig. My Crasy L1fe! shows how immersion makes it possible to understand a language that the natives themselves cannot understand: that of gangsters. I chose to put it in resonance with The Musketeers of Pig Alley by Griffith. I don't film the mafia: the Samoan gangs don't want to make a profit, they do small things, and if there are deaths, it's because the police are more armed than them, otherwise they would have had the revolution a long time ago. When there are riots, why do gangs ransack supermarkets? To barter food, but also, because if you're caught by the police with drug money, you're put away for a lot longer, so the gangs liquidate the money in the supermarkets at fifty cents for the dollar. Supermarkets, for them, are usurious banks, which they hate.

GARSON: By describing this political underpinning of the film, you reconnect with the duo you formed with Godard between 1967 and 1973, whereas since then you seem reluctant to talk about this period.

GORIN: At the end of the 1960s, Godard was stuck, he could no longer film, and he found in me this crazy dog that allowed him to free himself. We met through Yvonne Baby, film critic at Le Monde, where, constantly refused entry to the École Normale Supérieure and having relations with Althusser and others, I wrote for three years on literature and culture. Jean-Luc was doing La chinoise. Baby told him, “I know a Chinese man,”and it was me. I told him about his films. When we made our first film together, I told him that we hadn't written anything when we were shooting in four days. He replied, "We're going to write the script tonight!". He takes me to the St. Germain drugstore, to the bookstore. “Keep an eye out." I see him tearing pages at random, then he says "your turn." We cut and we mark at the top: HIM and HER, and we give that to the actors... What people don't want to understand is that Jean-Luc, essentially, is a rhetorician from the 15th century; whether that rhetoric is Maoist or otherwise, it doesn't matter. After my departure, his films lie in the wake of what we did together, like how mine, modestly, are permutations of our common work: a system where we see all the sedimentary layers that create a situation. It's already in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the first film he called me to ask me to see, fresh out of the lab, with Made in U.S.A. We watched them all night.

GARSON: So the break-up was, above all, geographical, circumstantial?

GORIN: No, it went down because I got tired of making films in which the filmmaker had the missionary position: “Look, it’s great, I fuck my subject!" The sexism of cinema lies not only in its representation of women, but in the act of directing, dominating in that it claims to reveal the subject to itself. I came out of it expressing myself in a language that I did not master. I realized that I could create a filmic structure where the complexity came from an alternation between idea and emotion. This is what the essay is all about: ideas which become emotions, which become ideas again, which again become..., etc. With Jean-Luc, when we act together at this point, producing so much, at some point, we can't take it anymore. Naïvely, in my enthusiastic youth, I found that one of the places where the cinema was blocked was in auteurism. So I said: “Let’s try to return to a collective practice of cinema." Which didn't really work, since in fact the Dziga Vertov Group, there were two people...

GARSON: One Poto and one Cabengo.

GORIN: Yes! I hadn't taken measure of the weight of Jean-Luc, who intervened massively in society: without him, modern advertisements would not exist, Benetton, the use of paint as it is. His authorial position is apparently made up of a denial by the author: "In my films, even 'Pass me the salt' is a quotation," but one only has to look at his insane credits, with his voice-over which names the participants, the unrecognized, but which eradicates them at the same time since we only remember the voice. So I left the "landscape" by leaving France. I liked to tell stories, I did not have this anti-narrative puritanism which characterizes part of the cinema of the 1960s. We also see in Poto and Cabengo that I was fed up with people throwing stones at me: it is the film of someone who wants young girls to take it to their mothers and tell them that I am a boy of great sensitivity... Jean-Luc told me, "Do a fictional version after twenty years, when you kidnapped them and live with them!" Because to leave at the end is to abandon them. I'm the bastard of the movie. Narratively, it was like a short story from Chandler: I'm the detective, I quickly solve the case, and I find myself around more complicated moral issues, and in the end it's impossible to continue: I was the savior who was going to bail them out of this environment.

GARSON: You've taught a lot since 1992, but have you been shooting anything?

GORIN: Yes, Messiaen's St. Francis of Assissi, an opera directed by Peter Sellars. For a few years, I've been knocking on doors, but getting funding for a sketch is difficult: everyone wants to know where it's going. I produced unidentified visual objects [a pun on "OVNIs" in French, "UFOs" or now "UAPs" in English —ed.], contrary to the macho posture of documentaries: when you think of what Werner Herzog would do with the twins of Poto and Cabengo... The diktat is to take risks, à la Apocalypse Now. For them, I made ladies' works [des ouvrages de dames]! I wanted to revisit Tocqueville, to do De la démocratie en Amérique, part 2. I thought we could be in San Diego, on the margins, to restart the machine.

GARSON: Did you look for money in France, at the beginning of your life in the United States?

GORIN: The filmmakers of the New Wave and the like, producing others wasn't their thing. They had to create a person, a myth: Chris Marker, the man who does not allow himself to be photographed; Jean-Luc, the rebellious child of the bourgeoisie; and Varda, so solid that she could resist the atomic irradiation, turned into a grandmother of jams. Branding involved, by necessity, limited generosity. The only worker-priest was Straub. These filmmakers were artisans, not producers. Jean-Luc Godard, raving about Routines Pleasures, told me: "I'm going to write about it," but then he added: "Your film is so good that I have to learn to write again."

GARSON: That's brilliant! [laughs]

GORIN: Yes, these geniuses, we don't ask them to be Florence Nightingale. The only thing that annoys me is that people talk to me about this period as if I were still 20 years old. I'm 80. I film a little; I'm working on a dialogue of animals where I would do all the voices and where I would talk about art, politics, sex. It's in the notes. But from time to time, I will film the animals. There is an amazing zoo in San Diego.