You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
This week Ivan Čerečina looks at Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo, the first film in the director’s loose “Southern California Trilogy.”
Note: A version of this essay was previously published over at the dialecticsbreakbricks blog.
Jean-Pierre Gorin will probably go down in the annals of cinephile history as one half of the Dziga Vertov Group (the other being Jean-Luc Godard), which is troubling not just because of its inaccuracy,1 but also because it means that Gorin’s solo film-making ventures – beginning with Poto and Cabengo in 1980 – will be unjustly forgotten. The Criterion Collection – in all of its perplexing curation practice, which sees it pick up films from both Christopher Nolan and Pasolini – has distributed three of Gorin’s films for home release as a box set, so big ups to them for fighting the good fight in this particular case.
Gorin is an interesting figure. The son of Jewish Trotskyites and a student of the Sorbonne under Althusser and Foucault, he was wrapped up in the May 1968 protests in Paris before teaming up with Godard and the Dziga Vertov Group to make a series of radical leftist films on nothing budgets. It seems strange then, as Kent Jones notes in his great accompanying essay for the Criterion release, that he would end up making a trilogy of quaint “peculiarly all-American movies” in Southern California. Though certainly not “anti-ideology” or apolitical in nature, they’re a far cry from the confronting Maoism of the Vertov Group’s works, which were typified by an obsession with egalitarian means of film production and particularly with creating a collaborative paradigm for the film-making process (“The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically” was the group’s catch-cry). This egalitarian focus extended to notions of film form and particularly relationships between sound and image. Rather than following the dominant cinematic practice of subordinating sound to the narrative importance of the image, they posited that sound and image ought to be on level footing, acting as unique sources of information in counterpoint.2
Gorin’s down-home “trilogy” of Southern Californian films obviously ease up on the confrontational aspect of the Dziga Vertov Group works, but their formal strategies are a continuation of a line of thought. In Poto and Cabengo above all, sound is key for unpicking the complexities of Gorin’s subject and his ruminations on America as an outsider.
Poto and Cabengo documents the real-life story of Virginia and Grace Kennedy, a pair of identical twins from San Diego who caused a minor media sensation in the late 1970s when they reportedly invented their own secret language. Initially, doctors had suspected that the two girls had developmental problems, and that the language was a result of their inability to learn English, but the issue seemed to be more complicated. Scientists and linguistic experts alike were baffled by this particular instance of idioglossia; though the creation of primitive “private languages” are not uncommon in the early stages of development in identical twins, Virginia and Grace’s language was far more linguistically complex than usual, and they were still speaking it at age seven. Gorin traveled to San Diego to make a film that made sense of the sensationalist response to the linguistic phenomenon, spending time with the Kennedy family in an attempt to decipher just what it was that they were talking about.
In typical Marxist (or ex-Marxist, as Gorin jokingly refers to himself) fashion, Gorin’s answer is rooted in a material reality. Virginia and Grace were brought up in a mixed language household (an English speaking father, a German-born but ostensibly English speaking mother, and a German speaking grandmother) and their “secret” language was a muddled synthesis of these disparate linguistic influences. Coupled with the fact that the girls tended to keep to themselves rather than interact with other children – a byproduct, Gorin asserts, of this working class family’s lack of social mobility – the two girls were left to “run away with the English language under their arms” as he puts it. Gorin draws this conclusion surprisingly early in the film, but this is hardly a documentary that is structured as a procedural investigation of a problem. Rather, what’s most interesting about Gorin’s film is the way that he documents the girls’ idiosyncracies in the context of their environment. He learns by listening; take for example the sequence showing a family dinner at the Kennedy household.
As the dinner continues, Gorin slowly turns our attention towards the film’s sound track; a subtle looping of a fragment of dialogue, still images, subtitling, and finally the image track is completely blanked out. We are left listening to the complexities of language in the Kennedy household, with its multi-lingual stabs (“Gemischt?” – “Yeah it’s kinda mixed”) and fragmentary repetitiveness. The following scene continues with this strategy, framed as a “Four Way Conversation Over A Colouring Book” with the Kennedy family. Gorin once more blanks out the image track and we’re left solely with their voices reading and discussing the text.
Throughout the film, Gorin pares down the complexity of the image track in favour of sound and text, using blank frames, still images and large blocks of text with remarkable frequency. The first piece of moving 16mm footage – an almost 360 degree plan straubien of the Kennedys’ home shot by the recently departed, great documentarian Les Blank – comes almost eight minutes into the film; before it, Gorin simply alternates between empty black frames, still photos, newspaper clippings and text, with a short piece of video footage from the hospital providing a brief moment of mobility. The static nature of the image creates an effect akin to the comic book strip, further driven home by the film’s opening on a series of panels from the Katzenjammer Kids comic. Moreover, Gorin’s stop-start, cobbled-together approach to the image recasts sound and image as equals in both the creation of meaning and as documents of an event. The melange of different voices we hear (Gorin’s heavy French accent, the German/English creole of the Kennedy household, the perfect enunciation of the speech therapist) are as strong a representation of the swirling mix of personalities that make up the Kennedy’s world as anything we see. More than any of his films, Poto and Cabengo reminds us that sometimes, movies ought to be heard as much as they ought to be seen.
The film closes on a quite poignant 10-minute document of the Kennedy family six months after Gorin’s initial meeting with them. By this point, the media storm has died down, and the Kennedy family are no longer front-page news. As the exhausted family members speak about their current position and future prospects, the heartbreaking reality of their situation, hinted at earlier in the film, becomes clear. A working class family surviving solely on the patchy real estate sales of its patriarch, Tom, the Kennedy’s had enjoyed a degree of security and comfort as a result of Virginia and Grace’s fame, and had even managed to move to a larger home in San Diego as a result of it. Both the parents had pushed the story hard to the media in an attempt to make some money out of the ordeal. The twins’ mother, Chris, speaks about their difficulties in optioning the story for the creation of a feature length film, an irony that I’m sure was not lost on Gorin.
Gorin paints a grim picture of the Kennedy family’s future at the close of the film; three months on, they had moved out of the newer house after being unable to meet rent. Tom’s luck had run out in the real estate game, having only shared commission on one sale in that period, and Grace and Virginia’s story was no longer a viable source of income for the family. Gorin put it well: “I got the sense that at the end of this story, everybody in this family would be left high and dry.” The Kennedy’s would soon drift into obscurity, and Grace and Virginia’s secret language was quickly naturalised after they were sent to different schools. 30 years on, the two were last reported to be sweeping the floors of a McDonalds and doing factory line assembly work, respectively. Gorin’s footage of the children in Grace’s class reciting the Pledge of Allegiance seems particularly jarring but doubly effective placed at the end of the film considering the fate of the Kennedy family after their brief moment of national celebrity.
In the end, I wanted to shine some light on Poto and Cabengo in the hope that it would highlight Gorin’s unique position in the history of documentary film. For someone with such a rigorous intellectual engagement with the heady debates on film and political economy that academics have occupied themselves with for decades, Gorin’s documentary work escapes the pitfalls of dry intellectualist filmmaking, displaying and (hopefully) sharing with his audience a genuine curiosity for his subjects. Likewise, his experiments in film form feel like means towards expressing his inquisitiveness, re-thinking and re-arranging the building blocks of cinema to this end. Perhaps the best description of his work comes from Manny Farber (Gorin’s mentor) and his famous essay “White Elephant Art and Termite Art.” As opposed to the “ambitions towards gilt culture” that characterise “White Elephant Art”, Farber describes “Termite Art” as art that “goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.” More than in any of his films, the zeal with which Gorin burrows in and out of the various pathways that surround his subject in Poto and Cabengo cements its status in my mind as one of the great termite art works of documentary filmmaking.
Conor Bateman: I’m afraid Poto and Cabengo did little for me, outside of some impressive and intimate cinematography courtesy of Les Blank. I think it’s near remarkable how Gorin manages to take such an intriguing premise and render it so dull in his excruciatingly clumsy introduction, he sets up his experiment with sound and image by having a woman read newspaper clippings to a black screen, crawling at a snail’s pace through the media storm he only vaguely reconsiders in the film’s final minutes. I would agree with Ivan in saying that the film’s most interesting aspect is not the way he manipulates sound (in a simplistic fashion only serving to provide diminishing returns of insight) but rather in the documentation of the Kennedy girls’ idiosyncrasies. Put simply, they are a captivating presence on screen, Blank able to capture a real sense of childlike wonder and understanding of the world. One of the best scenes in the film is one Ivan cites in this regard, at the dinner table as we come to understand their ‘language’ is just a result of confused bilingual conversation. It is also the best use of repetition of sound in the film, where Gorin focuses on a discussion regarding a steak knife, and shows us just how the adults in the room have no regard for how their own misanswering of each other’s statements could impact upon the understanding of the girls.
Outside of this, though, Gorin’s implementation of subtitles and intertitles is frustratingly didactic, the ‘?’ that hovers across the screen at points in particular. He also happens to be a very frustrating presence on screen, with one section of the film consisting of him taking them to the zoo and following them around, only for him to stop and realise, relayed to us in voiceover narration, that their real story lies with their family – you know, the thing he was filming before and now following his weird indulgent sojourn. There’s a gem of a line Ivan wrote in his review of Wiseman’s At Berkeley which contrasts documentarians that are akin to a “fly on the wall” and a “fly in the soup” – unfortunately, and in a roundabout way, Gorin tends to embody the latter.
Jake Moody: Poto and Cabengo is just as puzzling as Ivan first points out, both in the curious subject matter with which it deals, and the unusual relationships depicted and dealt with. The involvement of Jean-Pierre Gorin, whose collaborations with Godard remain some of that director’s least accessible work, and the easily-inferred thematic conceits of language, communication, and socialisation, imply a heavily didactic or at least academically distant film. What I found most striking about Poto and Cabengo, though, was its intimacy and sincerity as a documentary of the family. What Gorin appears to have intended as a study of firstly speech and language, and secondly (as the narrative develops) of the media’s sensationalistic influence on society, develops into a muddied but heartfelt fly-on-the-wall fable about childhood, capitalism, and the immigrant experience.
Ivan’s point regarding the ‘breakdown’ of aural and visual elements – particularly in the surprisingly intense sequences of the twins conversations singled out for analysis – identifies what remains the most significant stylistic trait of the film. It’s probably also the most important debt to Godard, whose variations on this theme have been ceaseless over the last fifty years. The way in which Gorin repeats, superimposes, and distorts dialogue and subtitles rhyme clearly with visual motifs in Godard, particularly the primary colour theme reducing characters, clothes, cars, and dishwashing liquid to mere signifiers of political meaning in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, Week-End, or Tout va Bien.
While these traits are the sign of a literate filmmaker, though, it’s still the moments of personality and eccentricity which dominate the film – Poto and Cabengo often feels tonally more like a Maysles or even Wiseman film than a Godard one, with films like Grey Gardens evincing the kind of allegorical, unloved Americana found here. In a brief 75-odd minute film, devoting so much screen time to letting Gracie and Ginny’s parents speak at length only really makes sense from this perspective; their mother’s bizarrely accented German-English sitting at odds with father Tom’s clipped Navy Southern creates an aural dissonance which begins to suggest both the scientific/linguistic means by which the girls came to create their idioglossia, but also to unravel the unease at the heart of this American dream family. Gorin manages to explore these heavy ideas with a sense of playfulness so notably absent from most truly political filmmaking – the sequence in which he takes the twins out to a library and, having spent his life as a Marxist academic surrounded by artists and revolutionaries, finds himself totally unable to control them, is a brilliantly judged light moment, for example. While its briefness and obviously carefree production can render it occasionally slight, Poto and Cabengo still fundamentally works as a study of language, less as a political film, and more as a home video.