The latest release in the Criterion Collection's Eclipse series, a mid-price line devoted to overlooked auteurs, is titled, with tongue slightly in cheek, "Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin."
Obscure by most measures, these eccentric, rarely seen documentaries are popular in a more modest and profound sense — they are, as the writer Kent Jones' eloquent liner notes point out, "of the people," which is to say, endlessly interested in individual experience and idiosyncrasy, fully alert to the tragicomedy of human complexity and contradiction.
A central figure in the political ferment of 1960s Paris (where he studied with the likes of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault and worked as an editor at Le Monde), Gorin is known mainly as a former collaborator of Jean-Luc Godard, a primary co-conspirator in the Dziga Vertov Group that resolved in the aftermath of the May '68 upheavals in France "to make films politically."
Gorin moved to the States in 1975 to teach at UC San Diego, and his documentary trilogy, made between 1979 and 1992, upholds that earlier promise, albeit in a very different way. The films retain the formal intricacy of Gorin's collaborations with Godard, but in contrast with the grand sloganeering rhetoric of the Vertov films, the American movies are small-scale epics (to borrow Gorin's phrase), with a lightness of touch and sense of delight that belie their darker undercurrents.
Although they seem to have little in common at first glance, all three films are about outsiders and subcultures in Southern California. All concern displacement and language, and all are visions of contemporary America as seen by strangers in a strange land.
Gorin's essayistic investigations avoid the feigned neutrality and the first-person bombast that are the most common modes of nonfiction American cinema. He's a presence in all his films, above all as a restless inquisitor and perpetual wonderer, seeking out the elusive resonances in subjects that most journalists and documentarians would have treated as open-and-shut cases, if not with outright condescension.
"Poto and Cabengo" (1980) grew from a news item on Grace and Virginia Kennedy, 6-year-old twins in suburban San Diego who were said to communicate in a private language. (The title refers to the girls' nicknames for each other.) Filling the soundtrack with their singsong babble — and the screen with question marks and intertitles ("What are they saying???") — Gorin sets up a central mystery that in due course is explained and dismissed.
Spending time with the family, he shows how the twins' garbled baby talk emerged from exposure to an unusual clash of accents and speech patterns — a Southern father, a German immigrant mother — within a cloistered environment that had much to do with the parents' assumption that the girls were developmentally disabled. But because Gorin never regards the twins simply as an enigma to be cracked, the film opens up into something larger and less conclusive, a meditation on family, assimilation and aspiration in America.
Like "Poto and Cabengo," "Routine Pleasures" (1986) ponders the attractions of a private world and a fantasy America. Gorin's subjects are model railroaders, a tightknit group whom the cinephile filmmaker imagines as characters in a Howard Hawks movie. Against these middle-aged men, fanatically immersed in their miniature worlds, Gorin counterposes the work and ideas of his mentor, the late painter and critic Manny Farber, who brought Gorin to San Diego.
Farber remains off-screen, but Gorin relays in voice-over the older man's skepticism and anti-nostalgic stance, and the camera lingers repeatedly on two of Farber's beguilingly dense canvases (which use some similar imagery as the hobbyists' model landscapes but to very different effect).
In this Reagan-era investigation of what Gorin has called "the conservative imagination," he finds surprising common ground between Farber's and the railroaders' activities. Musing on labor and leisure, on obsession and pleasure, Gorin speculates that routine is "at the core of any flight of the imagination," not least when it comes to his own filmmaking.
In 1992's "My Crasy Life," he shifts his attention to another kind of boys' club: Samoan gangbangers in Long Beach. Combining captured moments and acted scenes, interviews and monologues, the film is clearly a collaborative endeavor, with the gang members and the kindly sergeant who patrols the hood. Gorin stays entirely behind the camera this time and in place of his droll voice-over ruminations, a computerized voice emanates from the police car, framing the action in a quizzical deadpan.
In his best-known essay, which Gorin cites in "Routine Pleasures," Farber praised the qualities of what he called "termite art," a brand of eccentric genius that "goes always forward eating its own boundaries." There is perhaps no higher compliment for Gorin's volatile, shape-shifting films, which resist summary and refuse to settle on a center of gravity, than to call them exemplars of the form.