I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Jean-Pierre Gorin has been making films since 1968. A native of France, he’s been living in southern California for 14 years. From 1968 to 1973 he collaborated with Jean-Luc Godard in the Dziga Vertov Film Group. Together they directed Tout Va Bien and Letter to Jane. His films Poto and Cabengo and Routine Pleasures appeared in 1979 and 1986, respectively. He’s currently at work on a new film project.
Lynne Tillman For those readers who haven’t seen Poto and Cabengo, how would you describe it?
Jean-Pierre Gorin A low-budget independent film, shot in San Diego in 1979, in 16mm color negative. It’s an investigation, a film “around” an event—the case of the Kennedy twins. They were front page news at the time, as it was believed they had invented a “private language,” a private mode of communication, with a syntax and a vocabulary of its own. But this kind of an answer seems to frame Poto and Cabengo as a classical documentary …
LT And for me, it’s anything but … I think about it more as a narrative film, because of the way you chose to tell the story and to show the complexities which lie beneath the surface of the event.
JPG I got hold of the event through the press. It was the middle of the summer and news was sparse. The Loch Ness monster had been nowhere in sight that year, and I suspect the journalists felt the twins would be a good substitute. They built up a case which reeked of Wild Child mystique. The very day I saw the first article on the twins, Eckart Stein from ZDF was passing through town and I sold him the idea of a film. I lied through my teeth, told him that I had seen the twins, seen the therapists who took care of them at Children’s Hospital, secured the rights to the story. I assured Stein that they spoke a “private language.” He agreed to do the film. But when I saw the twins for the first time I immediately realized that the story as the press—and by then, myself—had cast it was not there. There was no private language and never had been. All along the twins had spoken a Creolized language, some densely unintelligible American/English, a patchwork of southern lingo spoken by their father and of the deformations imposed on the English language by their German-born mother.
LT So in a sense it’s this “absence” of the obvious subject that interested you?
JPG Yes. I got excited by the idea of inquiring about something which had never been there in the first place, which had been so completely misconstrued. It seemed like an eminently dramatic premise: two kids who moved and sounded like hummingbirds, who for years had been privately deciphering the world for each other, who did not know why they had suddenly become the object of so much attention, and who by now were for the therapists and linguists just two rather “ordinary” kids with banal problems of auditory information processing, while the press was still “Ripleying” their case to death. At the same time their parents were desperately hoping to convert their 15 minutes of Warholian celebrity into some hard cash. It seemed pretty interesting to try to unravel all these conflicting interests at work below the surface of this event. And don’t forget to add me, the filmmaker, to the stew: me, with my own agenda, trying to get a film out of this whole situation.
LT And you are very present in the story, both as image, a physical presence, and as the narrator, another voice …
JPG A voice with a rather thick French accent. The first title I thought I would give to the film was “Two Spoke Together,” as a skewed homage to John Ford’s Two Rode Together, because the lure of the West had played such an important role in the story of the twins as their parents had fled from creditors in the East to California, but also—on a more metaphorical level—as the twins had been “riding” their private language into the adult world. But it dawned on me that such a title would leave out of the picture all these other voices, all these other discourses that had surrounded the twins, and I decided for a while to call the movie “Everybody Talks Funny.” It had the advantage of focusing attention on the Tower of Babel dimension of the story and on the way the twins destabilized, in a sense, the languages around them. I finally decided against the glibness of that title, afraid as I was that viewers would see in it some disrespect for the people and the situation described. I settled for Poto and Cabengo, the names the twins used to call each other. It seemed the most poetic and the most appropriate way to indicate the fable-like quality of their story.
LT The twins’ inability to “master” English in some ways mirrors your own as a relatively recent emigrant to this country. But isn’t there also an even more personal dimension to your attraction to them?
JPG What do you mean?
LT It’s something that struck me when I saw Letter to Jane recently. I heard yours and Godard’s voices with Poto’s and Cabengo’s playing in my mind. It made your film sound like a comment or critique of Letter to Jane. As if in the old days you and Godard had also had a private language, your own “crazy” language which you employed to “engage” with a picture of Jane Fonda. I got the feeling that part of your fascination with the twins was the possibility you saw to divest yourself of your twin-ship with Godard.
JPG That’s a pretty funny take on it! I suspect it might well be true. And the language in Letter to Jane does sound like Marxist jabberwocky, like Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas high on a steady Leninist diet! It is true that I have always worked or liked to work within the structure of a priveleged dialogue, within the shorthand that such dialogue tries or tends to build. The twins’ case certainly offered an occasion to reflect upon that and upon the relationship of such private modes of communication to the world at large.
LT Earlier on you spoke about the way the twins seem to destabilize the languages around them.
JPG The film is about an unstructured discourse—the language of the twins—surrounded by structured discourses—the discourse of the family, the discourse of the media, the discourse of therapy, the discourse of documentary filmmaking. There are as well other structured discourses at work in the film: the discourses of science, capitalism, and education. They are each a method of using words that presumes a type of authority. Clearly the twins’ unstructured discourse challenges discursive authority: it erupts as a subversive act which has not been authorized by any social or ideological establishment. In a sense its special threat is that its “unauthorized” nature relativizes the arbitrary nature of those institutionalized discourses. The singsong of the twins reveals the shaky grounds of institutional power. It relativizes discursive authority from the family to the scientific community in their competitive and ineffectual attempts to “define” the twins who spontaneously flit about the screen exceeding any definition. In a fashion, I wanted the viewers to feel the twins made more “sense” than anybody around them. Or at least to perceive that the twins’ way to handle language offered a marker for the way people around them used language and were used by it, and were spoken through it.
LT One feels it intensely in the case of the father, a failed accountant and a failing real estate salesman who speaks a language of money and property entirely foreign to his life. A language that he uses, but doesn’t own. It brings to mind Barthe’s comment in The Pleasure of the Text that “the last degree of alienation [is] … to borrow from the class that oppresses them.” There is a profound sadness that comes out of his unconditional allegiance to what oppresses him.
JPG He is acting out a dream of prosperity from the “outside in,” never living it, always hoping that if he gets the language right, riches will follow. And he is not alone on that treadmill. His wife, Chris, is there too. With a vengeance. It is nowhere more evident than in the scene where they both articulate the catechism of capitalism and the American dream, as Tom, the father, attempts to rehearse a sales pitch with her as the potential buyer. Chris’s desire and aggressive energy takes over. To her, “price is no problem” and she insists upon a “swimming pool,” a “sunken tub in the master bedroom,” and an “extra powder room” and a “gourmet kitchen.” It is a strangely frightening litany—all the more poignant that, while you are hearing it, you can’t take your mind off the props that cramp Tom and Chris’s surroundings—the cardboard fireplace, for instance, that adorns their living room.
LT Is Poto and Cabengo, then, an attempt at situating language, placing it in a situation? To show it is produced?
JPG Yes. And this implies throughout the film a complex series of manipulations, on the soundtrack as well as on the image track, an attempt to build—for lack of a better word—a dialectical machine which enables the viewer to feel the situation. There is the lengthy opening sequence, for instance, which works hard at dissolving the discursive authority of journalism, which dialectically presents the “facts” of the case in a way that questions the very production of facts by the media. You hear on the soundtrack a perfectly intelligible, flat, neutered PBS-like voice while on the image you see newspaper headlines and press excerpts which range from the scientific—”ideoglossia or twin speech”—to the hysterical and the gossipy “gibberish talking twins called possessed by some.” Or, to take another example, there is the investigation of the way language circulates between the twins and their parents during the everyday ritual of a dinner, where the German “kase” and the English “steak” get confused. The visual dematerialization on the screen of the words exchanged during the dinner, the looping of these words on the soundtrack offer the viewer the possibility both to experience and reflect upon the language as it is lived by the twins in their home, a language which won’t stay centered, which incessantly will slide from English to German and back again. It’s a way to make the viewer feel how the twins got lost in linguistic space.
LT Poto and Cabengo abound in graphic interventions and sound play (titles, newspaper excerpts; visual materializations of diaglogues; sound loops, etc.), but these “tricks” don’t feel as if they’re employed for their own sake. It seems that the film progresses by a complex association of ideas, and one of the effects of all these manipulations is to reinforce your presence in the film.
JPG It’s very much an editor’s film, and in that respect a war machine against the classical pathos of documentary filmmaking! It’s not an accident that I chose to work with Les Blank on the film. It’s precisely because I knew that as a very traditional documentary filmmaker he would give me a type of material I would have to fight against. In most documentaries the filmmaker chooses to play the role of an absent God, content to let the material “speak for itself,” rather smug in his/her all-knowing mastery of it. It’s this missionary position toward material that I experience as insufferable and dishonest. What makes a movie “move” is not the sheer accumulation of physical motion on the screen, it’s the intelligence behind it. And in documentaries, this intelligence is by necessity—in its attempt to decipher reality, to frame it, or reframe it—fictional. I don’t like the word “documentary,” which tends to position reality in a static relationship to the filmmaker. I like the word “investigation” because it stresses the effort of the filmmaker, the struggle with a reality that one experiences as problematic. There is an inherent drama for me in any attempt at thinking about anything and it is the pace of this “drama” I am after. Thus the speculative nature of my films; the fact that they pile questions upon questions and tend to disqualify any answer as temporary; that they are full of false leads; that they are investigations which wander away from their own stated premises; that they proceed in fits; that, at their core, there is the stop-and-go motion of a mind trying to figure “it” out. An “it” which is always problematic, always shifting as the investigation progresses.
LT What makes Poto and Cabengo quite an incredible movie is the way in which it segues from its initial question—What are they saying?—to different areas of inquiry. And in the process, your position as a filmmaker seems to be shifting too. There is the scene, for instance, where you take the twins to the library. They are running around, grabbing books off the shelves at random and you are trying to follow them. There is something very sad and very funny simultaneously, something difficult to express in words.
JPG It’s a key scene in the film for me. They are grabbing these books as if they were these talismans. There is an urgency, something both manic and poignantly relevant to their situation in the way they pile these books up in the hope of taking them home with them, as if these things were bound to secure their liberation, their passage into another world beyond the confines of their family. While I am there lumbering around with my film equipment and trying in vain to frame them into some scene, some conceit of my own. When I saw the scene on the editing table, I decided to add to the soundtrack a series of pleas, things like “Stop, you guys! Wait a minute! Let me film you! It will only last a minute!” which I had not uttered at the time, but which I could have uttered. It was to recapture how much I had felt at the time the film was escaping me. The whole scene is a good metaphor for what always happens in the filmmaking process for me. I get the sense that a film is going to be successful when the material trips up my initial intentions! I guess what thrills me in “documentary” situations is precisely that dramatic moment when I realize that the material is going to resist my schemes. That’s where the fundamentally fictional aspect of documentaries comes into play. As the gatherer of information, the filmmaker is always forced to approach the facts from a certain angle and always forced also to realize at one point in the process that the facts will show a fundamental reluctance to fit neatly into one’s approach. In effect one is always taken to other places than the one one intended to be taken to. The detour becomes the destination, and, one detour leading to another, the closure of the film becomes very problematic. I have always had a hard time finishing my films. In Poto, I start from the question “What are they saying?” and I end up with quite a different question—”What is going to happen to them?” And somewhere in between, I have asked myself the question of kidnapping the twins and living happily every after with them. In a way these are the kinds of questions Raymond Chandler has running through the mind of Philip Marlowe. The mysteries in a Chandler novel are generally solved by page ten of the book, but the very fact of the inquiry pushes forward a different set of ethical questions. The “noirish” tone of the voiceover in Poto and Cabengoowes a lot to Chandler, who died sipping lime rickeys at the La Valencia Hotel, heartbroken over the death of his wife in La Jolla, a few miles away from Linda Vista, where the twins were living. But even more than the tone of the voiceover, the jazzy vagaries of the inquiry owe something to Chandler.
LT You just said that in your films the detour tends to become the destination. It seems to apply even more to Routine Pleasures, the film that followed Poto and Cabengo. One can rather easily tag Poto to the event around which it is built, but it seems to me more difficult to define Routine Pleasures’s point of departure.
JPG Essentially, I think that’s so because the film is not built around an event but around two obsessive rituals: the rituals of a group of model railroaders, who, for some 25 years, have run trains on time on the display they have built in a hangar on the Del Mar fairgrounds, and the painting rituals of Manny Farber. After I completed the twins film, I started to be self-critical. I felt I had been carried through that film by the event and its inherent juiciness. And that because the story of the twins was an event, the film would always be pigeonholed in the documentary category I had tried so relentlessly to pry it away from. I had grown weary of the immediate emotional hold that the twins film had on its audience. It was great at first to be repeatedly asked what had happened to the twins and to measure in that very question how much people had been taken by the film, but after a while I felt trapped by that question. Thus the idea to go for a nonevent the next time around. Besides if the story of the twins when I filmed it had an immediate emotional tie to my own situation as someone who had very recently landed in America and was bumbling his way through American culture, with the passage of time something else had come to be at stake for me. I was not a stranger here myself anymore! The first time I went back to Paris after Poto, the cabdriver who picked me up at the airport, when he heard my French, asked me if I was Canadian! If my own people could not tag me as French, it was a sure sign that the question of the day for me was “How much inside is inside?”—the question of the degree of my penetration into the American culture.
LT Both Farber and the trainmen are engaged in looking and composing. In a way, the train table is almost like an editing table. Also a mini-terrain.
JPG Yes, and the train people and Farber are obsessively dealing with imaginary landscapes. As a European coming to the States, one is overwhelmed by geography. First and foremost I suspect, because one is so trained to think in historical terms, one has been constantly dealing with sedimented time. For a European filmmaker coming to the States, the first temptation is always the road movie. But my tendency is always to try to find a twist, a way to set at a slant an age-old problem. And it seemed that if I was bound to make a landscape film, that to reflect on the practice of these model railroaders and on the paintings of Farber was an eccentric enough way to go about it! The train people had built this display, this miniature landscape, which spread over some hundred feet, full of mini-characters no taller than a penny and they had been acting for 25 years as the Gullivers of their own Lilliputian world; Farber was relentlessly ordering and re-ordering in his tabletop paintings the same type of mini-props as the train people, in an attempt to draw some cryptic and ironic maps of his life. At the core of both works, there was a similar obsession with miniaturization, and it dawned on me that to reflect on it might give me access to something essential to American culture: this need to scale things, to take stock of the immensity of the landscape by anchoring it to a small device, which one also finds in the early American landscape paintings, as well as in the way of someone like John Ford, for instance, to anchor the immensity of the Western sky to a cactus or to the post of a corral.
LT It seems to me that an essential difference between Poto and Cabengo and Routine Pleasures is that Routine is all about male space—as opposed to Poto which is about women or girls and their space, although that isn’t articulated by you as the film’s narrator.
JPG It’s quite true. In Poto, the main male figure (the father) exists at the periphery of the story. In Routine it’s the opposite; women exist as miniatures in the imaginary landscape of the train people and as articulated dolls in Farber’s paintings. What can I say? Routine is very much a filmic meditation on an American male imagination anchored in the ’30s and ’40s, its high art—Farber—and low art—the train people—manifestations, and my relationship to it. Thus the buddy story aspect of the film. In a sense, if Poto is nothing else than a skewered revamping of a film noir, Routine is a revamping of the outfit films of the ’30s, those ensemble films Hawks or Wellman were so deft at churning out, all about male bonding and the task at hand, obsessive about the way they laid out the details of the rituals of work. What fascinated me, both about the train people and Farber, is how much their childhoods articulated themselves within the rituals of their working life as adults, how much work and play got strangely confused in their activities. I chose never to get the viewer out of the model railroad club, to lock him/her within the space of these guys’ imagination. The world outside is alluded to on the soundtrack, a world of real estate deals and of incessant transformation of the landscape, a world in turmoil. But inside the club, shelter and solace were found in the voodoolike manipulation of these miniature trains, these objects which had played such a role in years past to create the wealth and the might of this country, but were—in the real world—by now almost obsolete. In a sense the film stays locked inside their conservative imagination. It seemed interesting in the ’80s to investigate the conservative imagination, to offer a view of conservatism which would not rehash the traditional macro-political pieties, but instead would probe the imagination of people I knew had voted for Reagan.
LT Obsession seems to be key here.
JPG When you try to track down the “why” of an obsession, you set a trap for yourself. The obsessed lives his obsession as a Fatum and is, definitionally, totally inarticulate about it. He lives in a transparent relationship to his obsession. He will never be able to tell you what makes him tick! If you keep at it, if you keep asking questions, it’s your own obsessiveness that comes to the fore. It’s the movement at the core of Routine. Throughout the film, I am trying to “talk train,” to get inside, and at every turn I feel my defeat: when I think that I have reached a certain level of comprehension, I always find myself confronted by another arcane subtlety. I have barely mastered the difference between a boxcar and a pigflat when I encounter a guy who hints at the fact that the real pleasure of model railroading lies in the ability to differentiate between doorknobs! After a while one just gives up and remains content just to nod at the darn models as they zip through the landscape. What else is there to say than “good-looking train?”
LT The voice in Routine Pleasures seems to be saying, I am trying to keep up with these guys, I can’t quite speak train, but I am more comfortable… .
JPG There was an edge, an energy to Poto, which had to do with breaking into a new world. Routine aims at something different. It describes the first years after one’s landing at Ellis Island, so to speak, a time when things American have somehow ceased to be new and assaulting. It’s “Americanization, Part II,” a time when your heart and your throat have grown accustomed to the idiom and you can start looking, a time when you are bound to be hooked by people like Farber or the train people whose exclusive business is looking and composing. There are profound formal differences between the two films, which reflect that. Poto’s image has a slapdash quality, a fast-doodle-on-a-sketchpad aspect that is completely absent from Routine, which is all static and strongly referential in its compositions. The interviews of the train guys and the rituals which precede each session at the club were shot in black and white, framed and lit with the outfit films of Hawks and Wellman in mind. Babette Mangolte—the eye behind the camera—did such a good job of it that in the film there’s a shot of two guys inside the machine which turned out as a perfect duplicate of a shot in Hawks’s Ceiling Zero, a film neither of us had seen at the time of the shooting of Routine! The trains and the miniatures were shot in color, with a long list of people in mind whose business had been the depiction of the American landscape, from Walker Evans on down. All that with the hope that somewhere along the line someone would look at the film and blurt out, “Good-looking film!”
LT Let me go back to something. You mention in the film that Farber once wrote of you as a sort of twin brain. Is twin-ship a recurrent curse?
JPG In a fashion. As I say in the film, I “owe” Farber my stay in San Diego! Seriously, the meeting with Farber was a determining one. As determining in a sense as my encounter with Godard years ago. The reading of his film criticism gave me a very different key to American cinema than the one I used in France, a way to ground it in the culture and its language, to pry it away from its own mythology. But more importantly, it’s from reflecting on his painting, his main activity for years by the time I met him, that I learned the most. The lack of closure in his canvases, the endless “and … and … and” mechanism that shapes them, his relentless way to multiply the entries and the exits into the material, his way to map his own life by incessantly reordering the jetsam of the culture, his hatred for Big Ideas, his insistence on dodging clichés. All that struck a chord. In Routine, Farber gets a mythic, Virgilian status, which I intended as ironic, but that a lot of viewers take at face value. I guess the irony of attempting, under Farber’s coopted and reluctant guidance, this small-scale epic, the absurdity of trying to deliver “America under budget and in a shoebox” got lost for some in the shuffle.
LT Did he play a role during the shooting or the editing of the film?
JPG None. I talked to him far less than I did during the shooting or the editing of the twins film. It’s all a construct, a fictional way to reassess a relationship. And maybe—to refer to one of your questions on Poto—a way to divest myself from it. In fact, in the making of Routine, the “shorthand” existed with two other people: Babette Mangolte, who shot the film, and Patrick Amos, with whom the voiceover was written. With Babette Mangolte, what was at play was the fact that like me, she is French with some 16 years or more of America in her eye and that she had just come out of an American landscape film of her own, The Sky On Location. Two out-takes of her film, in fact, found their way into my film, two shots of Monument Valley. As far as Patrick Amos is concerned, he was an essential part of the process during the writing. He is a writer and a performer, who I got to know through two pieces he did, one on architecture (Only a Burglar Knows a Building) and the other on photography (Photo Finish: Snap-shots Judgments). They are talk pieces in which he likes to work the edges of the subject, where he likes to put things together not because they go but to see them together, where he pretends not to know what’s important and gets scales and priorities all confused. There is a lot of dry wit and irony in the work, which I feel quite close to. What was essential in Routine was to get a far denser voiceover than in the twins film, to go almost to the point of overload, as if the voice was nearly choking from all the Americana it had feasted upon since the time of the twins film. An equivalent on the soundtrack to what the trainmen and Farber displayed on the screen, of the ever-reactivated pleasure that the guys found in watching their miniature trains crawl across their anthill and Farber found in filling up his boards.
LT There is more pleasure in Routine than there is in Poto, where there is always an edge of sadness and loss …
JPG It’s pleasure, desire, imagination defined as a gray zone. Both the trainmen and Farber have set up what the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has coined “desiring machines.” So-called low art and high participate in the same realm. There is an endless, silent, ironic and slightly sullen joy to the process. I know that every Tuesday the guys are still at it, fascinated by the subtleties of their schedule, the various pitches of train whistles, the details of train cars’ doorknobs! I know that every day Farber dreams some other incremental move on a fresh board. Somehow there is some ironic solace in that thought! There is a lot of cockeyed optimism at work in Routine. It’s as if I had left behind me the terror of having to find in film after film a subject with enough juice, glamour, and inbred spectacularness. One could panic at such privatization of the obsession. One could also see it as a necessary condition of art-making.
LT Could you make films like these about French culture? Could you live again in France.
JPG I don’t know. I went back for a period of four months last year, my first extended stay in more than 13 years. It felt like Rip Van Winkle, my vocabulary locked in time somewhere in the late ’60s, a strange induced amnesia! I could talk about that … but, who cares? Not me at this juncture. Besides, as far as I can remember I always felt when I was in France that I was bound to leave. I do not regret the kind of cultural schizophrenia I have imposed upon myself by landing here. There is some merit to the position of a perennial in-betweener.
Lynne Tillman is currently working on a new novel. Her recently published novel Haunted Houses is published by Poseidon Press.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee