Editor: Jean-Pierre Gorin worked with New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard during the early 1970s. Gorin came to UCSD as film professor in the mid-1970s. The film Poto and Cabengo was a result of efforts described in this interview.
Duncan Shepherd: Why not begin at the beginning, and tell how you got this project off the ground.
Jean-Pierre Gorin: It was rather simple really. After the episode on Apocalypse Now, I came back to Berkeley, rather depressed and not knowing what I was going to do, and there was this producer from German television who came through town. I didn’t have any subject yet, but Tom Luddy [the head of the Pacific Film Archive] told me to go seduce him. I had just read the story of the twins that morning in the San Francisco Examiner. So when we got together, I talked about the story as I saw it at that moment, which was rather vague, and I convinced him that there was the possibility of a film. I got the feeling ultimately that he liked the idea, but also that he was inclined to give me a break and let me do a film, whatever the idea might be. So that's how I got the money — fifty thousand.
D.S. Obviously it wasn't thought out very far where you were going to go with the idea.
J.P.G. It was dreamed, it was dreamed. The movie really started for me in terms of the media aspect of the story — I mean learning about it in the newspaper, and trying to see why that kind of fairy tale was arresting, and then trying to get into the mystery of the story.
D.S. How solid an idea did you have of the subject, and of the final shape it would take, by the time you got around to shooting it?
J.P.G. There are two things about that. The first thing is that when I went to do the film, screaming and kicking in many ways because I had been out of active filmmaking for four years, I was sure that, contrary to what I used to do before, I wasn't going to do my homework as extensively as I used to — which generally in my past experience completely stifled me. I used to come to a film having done such extensive work that there was practically no need to film it. So I decided not to go that road. The only thing I knew was that, by force, I would be dragged into the project, and my relationship with the twins would somehow be at the center of it. The other thing I knew before I began shooting was that the story as reported by the press wasn't there. And I mean by that that the main hook — the possibility that the kids had invented a language — had disappeared. Nevertheless, there was something interesting precisely in this idea of being off base in regard to the apparent subject itself.
D.S. There are a couple of extraneous personalities that seem to attach themselves to your character in the movie, one being that of a private detective on a case — I know you toyed with calling the movie Farewell, My Lovelies after the Chandler novel — and the other being that of an anthropologist on the trail of an alien culture as it is disappearing, trying to pin it down before it disappears, and accelerating the process of disappearance by his very presence.
J.P.G. It's true. The Chandler aspect, first, comes from the fact that I've always been drawn to that type of storytelling. Also there's the historical-geographical connection which comes from the fact of Chandler dying here, drinking lime rickeys at the La Valencia. The structure that you get in a lot of his novels — of someone who has a job to do, who starts with some kind of investigation to make, who discovers very rapidly that the mystery which this investigation is supposed to reveal is no mystery, and who finds himself in front of a greater mystery or a more murky situation in terms of its moral issues — seems to me a structure which can be translated into other terms, such as an ethnographic investigation. In any ethnographic literature there is always this feeling of a detective coming from another planet and trying to figure out what the rituals are about and generally not discovering anything but himself. And the ethnographic aspect in this film comes from something very simple, which is my own situation in this country — how do you see a reality to which you are completely foreign?
D.S. Did you have any difficulty selling the Kennedy family on doing this movie?
J.P.G. The media rampage on the Kennedy twins is not something that originated in the family. The publicity came out of the fact that the PR department of the hospital leaked the word to the press, and the press got on the case. The Kennedys were completely surprised by all the publicity. But what happened was that these people who had lived for so long in a kind of Babbitt-like dream suddenly saw in the publicity a way to possibly realize their dream. They had seen a lot of press people before they had seen me, and they were ready for the idea of making a film, and they didn't have any misgivings about doing it. There was also the fact that I gave them some money — ten percent of the budget — and I think that's the first time they got paid for spending time with someone.
D.S. Were there any misgivings on your part about your assuming a role in that media rampage?
J.P.G. I had no illusion but that I was going to function as part of the media, and that that was the way I was going to be seen, and that was the way the Kennedys wanted me to address myself to them. They saw me as some sort of interviewer, and that's what I am in the film. I don't try to sneak outside of my borders. I respect the way they wanted to see me. But what happened ultimately is that my role in the media world and my interaction with the family became problematic because of what the kids are, because of the innocence of the kids — I mean they were two little girls who have absolutely no idea why they're so interesting to the world — and because of the very simple fact that instead of staying five minutes like other media people, I stayed fifteen days. There is, by force, a lot of seduction going on both ways — seduction on the girls’ part and also on the part of the interviewer who is this person who is going to open Pandora's box for them, Pandora's box being nothing more than the San Diego Zoo and things like that in the outside world which were at that time another planet for them.
D.S. If it’s possible to relate the twins' story to other stories of alien worlds being assimilated into our own — I'm thinking of Truffaut's Wild Child, Herzog's Kaspar Hauser, that sort of thing — the motives of the establishment in those others are entirely to domesticize and conventionalize the aliens. Here there is something of a reversal in that the media showed a great willingness to romanticize these children into "wild children."
J.P.G. That's very true. And the two motives are not separate. There is a connection between this romanticism which was poured on them and this enterprise of normalization of the kids. One can say that the twins themselves profoundly want that normalization. If there are any people in this story who have absolutely no illusion as to the wealth of the twins' state, they’re the twins themselves. So on the one hand there is this bit of news which immediately lends itself to romantic coding — I mean all of the press coverage is focussed on those two pet names they had for each other: Poto and Cabengo! What a world! These two kids calling themselves these strange African-sounding names! And on the other hand there is the enterprise of putting these kids on a par with our normality.
D.S. Hiring Les Blank (a director known best for his musical documentaries, The Blues According to Lightnin' Hopkins, Chulas Fronteras, etc.) as the cameraman on your film would seem to be an important determinant in what shape the film would finally take.
J.P.G. My first idea was to work with a Russian cameraman I knew of, and the idea there was to augment what I saw in the subject as one of its main components,which was a kind of disconnection or a kind of exile. And then I kind of chickened out because I thought that this would add too much to the disconnecting brew, and also because my relationship with this Russian would be difficult on a pure language basis. Then I got the idea that I should go as American as could in terms of the image, and Les became my idea for that. He was used to a certain kind of documentary shooting, and then I was introducing something else which he wasn't used to. I mean, he goes rather traditionally for subjects of interest, and I was going for something where the interest was in some way displaced. What I got ultimately when the film was shot was material which was all going in the Les Blank direction, but without having any of the punchlines or the payoffs which a Les Blank film normally has because it goes for subjects like the world-famous bluesman full of savvy and wisdom.
D.S. How much were you able to lay out for him what you wanted, or point him in a particular direction?
J.P.G. It was very difficult to lay out anything as far as the kids were concerned, because they were completely rebellious to any kind of direction. You cannot pin them down in a frame. So a lot of it was catch as catch can, and a lot of it was linked to the progression of my relationship with the twins, who at first were rather bashful and had a rather complex relationship the camera. I mean, they were like birds — you had to lay out a lot of crumbs in order to get them in the tight places
D.S. So after the shooting you were left with this mass of Les Blank-ian footage without the built-in focus of interest. Then what?
J.P.G. Then it's into the editing room, and the first stage of the editing is to rub the beast in the direction of the fur — which means to try to edit a movie which was shot in Blank-ian terms and make the normal connections that this type of shooting seems to induce, and discovering relatively quickly that this was the way to defeat, because the payoffs that that mode implies simply weren't there.
D.S. That first version was the hour-long rough cut which you tried out at the Pacific Film Archive.
J.P.G. Right. So the question after that became where to put the drama. And suddenly the only way to deal with the material, it seemed to me. was to cross it from another angle — to start to decompose and analyze and show the stages of comprehension. At that point the movie began to take a completely different shape. What happened was that rather than become this homogeneous Blank-ian thing, it started taking shape by the fact that a lot of different procedures entered into it. Also, this enabled me to go back to a lot of things I used to do in films, like using the black space for the presence of a sound.
D.S. Is the amount of yourself in the film — the first-person narration, your evolving relationship with the twins, and so on — relatable somehow to the stance of the Dziga Vertov film group or to the original reasons for naming the group after Dziga Vertov — “the man with a movie camera” declaring his own presence and own position within a film? You said earlier that you went down a different road with this film, but are you still close to where you were at some points?
J.P.G. Well, that’s a problem I had been facing for four years — how to make the break. When I first left my work with Jean-Luc I tried to make the break by shifting gears and turning the wheel 180 degrees and I crashed. There was this difficulty of getting away from forms which were regarded as Jean-Luc tricks, even if in the years we worked together I had had a great deal to do with the elaboration of those tricks or the perfecting of those tricks.
D.S. Do you see the possibility of someone putting your film alongside the work you did with Godard, and by comparison trying to isolate your influence in the collaborative work? And how does that possibility strike you, or worry you, or gall you?
J.P.G. That would certainly be possible. It would be a very boring endeavor, I think. I am light years away from what I was doing at the time. I think this movie is essentially different in terms of its tone. The movies I was making before were rhetorical movies about rhetoric. I don’t think this movie is that. I think ultimately it’s like any classically constructed narrative: it goes into emotions and into drama and into suspense, which are things completely absent from the previous movies.
D.S. How crushing or paralyzing a consideration was it to declare your own personality, independent of Godard, in this movie?
J.P.G. It was a bitch. That goes back to what those five years with Godard were. Because I had chosen to do this kind of collaborative effort, and because I had chosen to do it with someone who was involved with the mystique of the author with a big “A,” and because I had chosen to do it in some sort of political context where there was certainly a lot of naivete about how the world was going to change, and because I was a product of the ‘60s as they were lived in France — because of all that, there was at the end of this period a complete loss of identity, literally not knowing what was mine and what was the other person’s. Which was compounded by the fact that I had decided to wander away from my country and my roots, and it took me a long time to get over the kind of culture shock that is implied in my coming here. On one level the movie is about that. The interesting thing is that I found in that family and those twins some element of my own situation — what it is to speak in a language different from your own.
D.S. You’ve chosen, at least for this movie, to work outside of the settled centers of moviemaking — Hollywood, the Coppola community in San Francisco — which I guess tags you as some sort of regionalist, doing a move around home and about home.
J.P.G. I accept the term “regionalist” completely. I found myself on this film outside of the industry mechanism, and I also found myself outside of the academic grant system, even though I teach at UCSD. Up to this point there are very few people who have avoided being on one side or the other. The concentration of production in specific places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, or its concentration on the local level in the academic world, tends to create a situation in which ninety-nine percent of this country in not filmed, either in terms of its subjects, its landscapes, its human resources, its language, or whatever. So it’s nice to be there, because there are very few people there right now.
D.S. How much does this regionalism restrict the accessibility or the exportability of a film? This film in particular would seem to face a terrible language barrier. Of course it was made to be shown on German television, but do you worry what they will be able to make of it in Germany?
J.P.G. I do. I think there is something rather funny or gutsy about it in some way. I mean, the whole of the movie relies on the fact that the audience understands English in order to understand the transformations to which the English language is submitted in the movie. So it’s literally a film which cannot be subtitled. It’s literally a film which is so specific that it might not have a life outside of the very place where it took place. So I’m worried, but I really don’t know what to do about it. My only justification is that I am not really trying to do anything else but to treat a subject with a certain amount of craft. Like a dog I stick to that subject for whatever the subject is worth, and that should be able to carry the film beyond its geographical borders. To what extent, I really don’t know.
D.S. Your closest contact with the settled centers of production in this country was the Coppola movie, from which you said at the outset that you came back depressed.
J.P.G. The closest confrontation I had before that to big-time filmmaking was the film we did with Jane Fonda and Yves Montand [Tout Va Bien], which was a $500,000 movie. And suddenly in the Philippines I found myself in a machine which was mowing away thirty and some million dollars. I was on the periphery of it. I was trying to get into it, but I came in on the last part of the shooting on very imprecise terms, and most of the time I was just in some strange kind of observer position. But it was interesting to see how it worked, and it was interesting to see how someone like Coppola functions, from what you could decipher. The great liberating part of it was to see how someone could be totally lost in the process of making a movie and nevertheless make it. Which was a feeling you never got with Jean-Luc because he was extremely clever at — even if he was completely lost — erasing the tracks of his loss and giving you the sense of complete mastery of the situation. It was also interesting just being part of this gigantic machine and being in contact with Hollywood professionals. My only two contacts with Hollywood were writing script for Louis Malle, which was a script he never shot, just before he decided to do Pretty Baby, and then being on the Apocalypse crew. It gave me the feeling that I needed to go back to San Diego.