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Poto and Cabengo

Posted by martinteller on May 19, 2012

The start of a “language trilogy” of documentaries by Jean-Pierre Gorin, an associate of Godard’s (he co-directed Tout va bien) and member of the “Dziga Vertov Group” who relocated to America.  The first of this unofficial trilogy concerns a pair of San Diego twin girls.  On their birth, their parents — an American salesman and a German immigrant — were told the children might be mentally retarded, and so they raised them in isolation, usually in the care of their grandmother, who spoke little English and didn’t interact much with them.  As a result, Gracie (“Poto”) and Ginny (“Cabengo”) developed their own form of communication.

You might expect Gorin’s film to be a case study of their linguistic curiosities, and it does touch on those themes.  Gorin frequently highlights the oddities not just in Poto and Cabengo’s speech, but in the “normal” speech of those around them.  He makes allusions to the Katzenjammer Kids, and comments on his own thick French accent.  Sometimes the film will stop and go back to repeat a noteworthy phrase, or use onscreen titles to emphasize them.  But the film casually and frequently shifts gears, in a way that may frustrate those hoping for an academic treatment of the subject.  But we see that the real story here isn’t merely the “language” they invent (a kind of freeform bastardization of the snatches of English and German they picked up) but also the naive promises of The American Dream.  It’s a subtle commentary… Gorin doesn’t call attention to the family’s financial difficulties and the parents maintain a sense of optimism (among other things, hoping to capitalize on their children’s publicity).

But I don’t want to say it’s just that, either.  Gorin’s approach is hard to pin down, which — in addition to the unusual language — is what makes this film so fascinating, and not quite like any other documentary I’ve seen.  McElwee’s Sherman’s March is similar in the way it goes off on tangents, as are some of the films by Herzog, but there’s a looseness to Gorin’s style that sets it apart.  They don’t feel like tangents or detours, but a gentle, go-with-the-flow development of the material.  Is there a “point” to seeing Gracie and Ginny run around the library’s music room while Gorin struggles to follow them with his camera?  Perhaps not in terms of their story, but perhaps as a metaphor for how Gorin approaches his subjects, letting the film lead him where it may.  Rating: Very Good

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