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Case Number 23183: Small Claims Court

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Three Popular Films of Jean-Pierre Gorin

Poto And Cabengo
1980 // 73 Minutes // Not Rated
Routine Pleasures
1986 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
My Crasy Life
1992 // 98 Minutes // Not Rated
Released by Criterion
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // January 23rd, 2012

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All Rise...

Judge Gordon Sullivan once invented his own language. Sadly, he wasn't a twin.

The Charge

"American life at its most hauntingly enigmatic"

The Case

By 1968, Jean-Luc Godard had all but exhausted his desire to make films that looked anything like typical narrative cinema. His 1967 feature Weekend even finished with a title card reading "End of Cinema." Of course, Godard couldn't deny the lure of the medium, and he co-founded the Dziga Vertov Group with Jean-Pierre Gorin. The group's most famous creation is Tout Va Bien, but they dissolved soon after. This led Gorin to emigrate to America, where he made a series of essayistic documentaries that intersect with his outsider status as an emigrant. Because they're likely to appeal to a very niche audience, Criterion have released three of Gorin's films in this Eclipse set, Three Popular Films of Jean-Pierre Gorin. Although they probably won't have the widest appeal, this set of quirky documentaries will hold many film fans' interest.

This set includes three films, each on their own disc:

Poto and Cabengo
Six-year-old twin girls can't seem to speak English. What doctors first thought was a learning disability turns out to be a secret language that the twins share. Their progress fascinates Gorin, with the twins' own strange world seeming to correspond with his own move to America.

Routine Pleasure
Model trains and the paintings of Manny Farber offer Gorin the opportunity for a conceptual tour of America.

My Crasy Life
In this in-depth look at Samoan street gangs that combines documentary and scripted moments for a mediation on community and what it means to establish a new identity.

Most viewers have encountered some kind of nonfiction film in their lives, usually from a TV rather than a feature film. Whether on TV or in a cinema, most of us are used to the kind of factual, narrator-driven search for some kind of truth on a topic that is typical of the documentary. However, there is another strain of nonfiction film that follows a less fact-driven path. These films tend to be more personal, and are often referred to as essay films. The three Jean-Pierre Gorin included here fit neatly under that rubric. All do an excellent job of excavating their subject, while also allowing us to see how the subject reflects or is reflected in the life of Gorin. The form also gives him an opportunity to manipulate sound and image in wonderfully idiosyncratic ways.

Poto and Cabengo may be the most interesting subjects of the three films. The fact that these two girls were originally thought mentally challenged but were instead just communicating in their own sophisticated language is astounding. Their story alone would be interesting enough, but Gorin uses it as an opportunity to muse on the question of language and what it means to be understood. His visual style is also very involving. Gorin mixes footage of the twins interacting with talking-head style shots. Most interesting, though, are those moments when Gorin incorporates other sources, like having a newspaper story read in voiceover while Gorin interrogates the newspaper story with onscreen questions. The combination makes for a film that's both fascinating and informative.

On the surface, Routine Pleasures seems to be two entirely different subjects. On the one hand, we have a collection of model train enthusiasts endlessly building their utopian townscapes. On the other we have critic/painter Manny Farber, an acerbic personality who creates challenging paintings that eschew the very precise recreations so prized by the train enthusiasts. Initially it seems like the only thing that unites these two threads is Gorin himself, and that's part of the point. By contrasting these two ideas—nostalgia with the model trains and anti-nostalgia with Farber—Gorin's point is really about enthusiasm and getting involved in something you love. The loving shots of the model train depots keep the film visually interesting as well.

Finally, we get the utterly bizarre story of Samoan street gangs My Crasy Life. At first a documentary about Samoan street gangs sounds like a perfectly normal venture in the age of Cops and other reality programming. However, what distinguishes Gorin's film is that it's not a typical verité documentary that follows a group of people around to learn about their lives. Instead, it's a collaboration between Gorin and the gang calling themselves Sons of Samoa. The gang reenacts their lives for Gorin's camera, and their outsider status allows him to continue his thematic concern with his own immigrant status. The film's real wonder is how it got made in the first place, how Gorin got the Sons of Samoa to agree to the film.

This is a typical Eclipse set, which means we get minimally processed audio and video, with no substantial extras. However, for low-budget 16mm documentary films, these features look surprisingly good. There is no serious print damage in the sources for these 1.33:1 transfers. Though they don't have the razor-sharp look of actual 16mm prints, no digital trickery mars these images and they retain an appropriate look and grain structure. All three films also use a Dolby 1.0 mono soundtrack that does an excellent job conveying the spoken portions of the films (especially Gorin's voiceover). They're not room-shaking tracks, but they do a fine job conveying the ambient sounds of Gorin's recordings. Subtitles are included for each film, which is a nice touch. The set's lone extra is a collection of essays—one in each of the slimline cases that house each disc. They're informative and provide a solid mix of contextual material and cinematic analysis.

These are obviously films which will appeal to a pretty narrow group of viewers. Though I'm sure there's some appeal to fans of international cinema, especially Gorin's work with Godard. The fact that My Crasy Life won at Sundance will appeal to some. However, for the vast majority of viewers out there this set will be a little too weird to digest.

These Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin are interesting examples of the essay film. Gorin has a strong drive to make his visual compelling, his subjects unusual, and his messages ambiguous. For fans of odd documentaries, international cinema, or any of the subjects covered, these films are certainly worth a rental. For everyone else, this set is probably a bit on the strange side.

The Verdict

I don't know about "popular," but these three films are not guilty.

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• Documentary
• Foreign
• Independent

Scales of Justice, Poto And Cabengo

Judgment: 88

Perp Profile, Poto And Cabengo

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 1980
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Poto And Cabengo

• None

Scales of Justice, Routine Pleasures

Judgment: 85

Perp Profile, Routine Pleasures

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1986
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, Routine Pleasures

• None

Scales of Justice, My Crasy Life

Judgment: 87

Perp Profile, My Crasy Life

Studio: Criterion
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• English
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 1992
MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Distinguishing Marks, My Crasy Life

• None

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