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Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin: Eclipse Series 31 DVD Review

Discussion in 'Archived Reviews' started by Matt Hough, Jan 8, 2012.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Director

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
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    Matt Hough
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    French filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin was invited to come to Southern California in the late 1970s by film critic and graphic artist Manny Farber to join a department of visual arts he was establishing at the University of California at San Diego. During his period there, he produced three documentaries on American subjects, each in its own way focusing on varying American lifestyles. Eclipse Series 31 presents Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin in their usual no-frills box set spotlighting these three unusual documentaries in one unique presentation.

    Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin: Eclipse Series 31

    Poto and Cabengo/Routine Pleasures/My Crasy Life
    Directed by Jean-Pierre Gorin

    Studio: Criterion/Eclipse
    Year: 1980-1992

    Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1  
    Running Time: 73/79/98 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 English
    Subtitles: SDH

    MSRP: $ 44.95 

    Release Date: January 17, 2012

    Review Date: January 8, 2012

    The Films

    Poto and Cabengo – 3.5/5

    In 1977, a set of primary school twins Grace and Virginia Kennedy make international headlines by seeming to be speaking their own invented language. Gorin’s investigation over the course of a couple of years finds the heavily sheltered children under the influence of three heavily accented adults: a German-speaking grandmother, a heavily accented English speaking mother, and their American father who has his own unique way of expressing himself. The family’s dynamic along with the trying economic times for the family are also part of the story.

    Gorin’s documentary probes the possible reasons explaining the girls’ unique speech patterns, and we see their eventual modification of their communication skills over the course of the time the filmmakers spend with the family. There’s an unsettling sense of melancholy that surrounds this project (one look at that heartbreaking homemade fireplace and hearth quietly marks the family), and, indeed, the coda which arrives at the results of the linguistics studies on the girls and reports on what had happened to the Kennedys after the cameras left them makes for a somber end to the story. And Gorin’s technique, an on-camera narration/indoctrination which insinuates himself into the story seemingly unconcerned with sterile objectivity or remaining aloof from his subjects, is not always what one expects, especially as he has an annoying motif of freeze framing moments and replaying the sound bites from those moments three or four times in succession. Still, the filmmaker succeeds in showing us this family’s quirks making them human beings worthy of compassion rather than simply objects under a microscope to be studied.

    Routine Pleasures – 4/5

    In Del Mar, California, where filmmaker Jean-Pierre Gorin had settled, he meets a group of model train enthusiasts who have for years been a part of a hobbyist group that calls itself the Pacific Beach and Western Railroad. Every Tuesday, the group meets for hours to refine the elaborate railroad atmosphere they have constructed in their headquarters. The film details their various fields of expertise and eventually shows us a typical night of activity once the trains are put in motion. Meanwhile, director Gorin’s close relationship with film critic and painter Manny Faber seems to be somewhat melting away as Farber’s interest in films is giving way to his increased interest in painting.

    Though Manny Farber was instrumental in getting Gorin to California and both men shared a great passion for films of the 1930s and 1940s, Routine Pleasures really scores its major points of interest not in relating the sour Farber’s deteriorating involvement with film as Gorin explores every inch of two different canvases he’d painted but rather by showing the contrasting quiet joy and genuine pleasure these unpretentious Del Mar men have for their model train hobby. Though simple men, they’re bursting with skill and knowledge about railroading, and their clubhouse is indeed something to behold. Though most of the early parts of the movie dealing with the hobbyists is in black and white, once they put their trains into motion, the movie switches to startling color which is literally breathtaking thus showing off the great building accomplishments of their intricate train layout in more realistic terms making cutaways to Farber’s part of the story all the more annoying and off-putting. Gorin calls the train sections of the movie an examination of “the last stand of the American handyman,” and he may not be far off the mark: these gentle, kind, and self-effacing men exude a kind of temperate skill and knowledge of their craft that shows their pride through the results of their efforts instead of through empty, braggadocios words and behavior.

    My Crasy Life – 3/5

    A cross section of the Sons of Samoa street gang of Long Beach, California, is portrayed  in the film as Gorin’s documentary camera pops in and out of a host of venues: from a sentencing session in a local courtroom to the streets of Long Beach as members originate and refine various raps (and later perform them in a recording studio). They’re also seen playing endless games of cards in a variety of locales and sitting in front of the camera giving confessionals about their attitudes toward blood family and their fellow gangbangers who appear to hold their true allegiance.

    Gorin comes a cropper somewhat with this rather uninstructive documentary focusing mainly on individuals who lack enough communication skills to plumb to the depths of their feelings. With their “eye for an eye” attitude concerning their own banger brethren, the repetitive nature of their comments is as monotonous as the endless rap lyrics espousing their “badness” and “coolness.” More interesting is Sergeant Jerry Kaono who seems to prowl the streets running interference for the gang before they get themselves into serious trouble (the documentary never probes into their drug or other illegal businesses; how they make their money is reduced to seeing one of the crew stealing a rich kid’s wallet who’s come looking for dope). Had the director zeroed in on the officer’s story (and the running commentary in his scenes furnished by a HAL-like police computer voiced by Richard Masur), the film might have been able to offer something more edifying. Likewise, a quick look-see at two former gang members now relocated to Honolulu and member Ikula going back to his roots in American Samoa don’t have the emotional resonance the filmmaker was obviously hoping they would generate.

    Video Quality

    Poto and Cabengo – 3.5/5

    All of the films are framed at 1.33:1. Though the film can boast some rich color hues, color saturation is erratic throughout with flesh tones shifting from overly brown to more reasonable shades. There are some dirt specks to be seen here and there, but sharpness is generally good, and black levels are also fine. The film has been divided into 13 chapters.

    Routine Pleasures – 4/5

    The black and white sequences are sharp and clear though black levels aren’t plumbing the depths of inkiness. The Farber color sequences as the camera explores his two paintings seem a little grainier and harsher in tone than the color footage of the hobbyists once their trains go into motion. Throughout, however, the images are clean, and there are no artifacts either age or video-related. The film has been divided into 10 chapters.

    My Crasy Life – 3/5

    The color saturation level is consistent in the film, but sharpness is about average or a little above. There is moiré to be seen on occasion and some stray dust specks as well. Black levels are only fair. The white subtitles in the American Samoa sequences are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.

    Audio Quality

     Poto and Cabengo – 3/5

    All of the films possess a Dolby Digital 1.0 sound mix. There is some hiss present, but the narration comes over clearly and cleanly if a bit flat and of limited dimension, perfectly fitting for a low budget set of documentaries such as are present in this box set.

    Routine Pleasures – 4/5

    The sound mix here is stronger with the only hiss present found on some of the ancient recordings which are used as background music. Gorin’s halting narration is certainly recorded well, and there’s no distortion anywhere on the track.

    My Crasy Life – 3.5/5

    The dialogue is not always intelligible due to street-level recording techniques and some of the club members’ tendency to mumble. The throbbing rap music comes through loud and clear, however, making for an above average audio track.

    Special Features


    The Eclipse films contain no bonus features, but each of the three slimline cases contains extensive liner notes by film historian Kent Jones.

    In Conclusion

    3.5/5 (not an average)

    The three documentaries offered in Three Popular Films by Jean-Pierre Gorin couldn’t be more different from one another. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and those interested in the total career of the director will likely look forward to seeing these works of nonfiction which definitely pulse with an ethnic American vibe.

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC


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