Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo as a Reason I’m Not Screwed

By Jonathan Alexandratos
I think I am what I watch.[1]  I mean, not in some terrible way where every degeneracy that projects onto my retinas instantly translates into my next action.[2]  It’s just that: people tell me that they can tell what I’m reading by what I’ve written in a given week.  There are certain stylistic similarities that transfer, subconsciously.[3]  I sometimes wonder if, in the best case, I’m original simply because all of the various components I’ve absorbed have intermingled to the point where no one can discern any individual element, only the odd-looking whole, much like the communal face cloth in my old college dorm.  In the worst case, my A-B-C stands for “Always Be Citing.”[4]
Recently I watched a film by Jean-Pierre Gorin (a director I’ve loved ever since I saw My Crasy Life, perhaps his best work) entitled Poto and Cabengo which got me thinking about all this.  The documentary, released in 1980, observed Grace and Virginia Kennedy, two identical 6-year-old twins, as they communicated in pure idioglossia.  In other words, they spoke in a language they invented.  All the time.  And somehow managed to avoid being in a sequel to The Shining.[5]
The twins were raised in a strangely bi-lingual house.  Their mother spoke a mix of English and German.  Gerlish?  Engman?  Their father spoke English only.  The live-in, maternal grandmother, though, just spoke German.  So the Kennedy twins – who called each other Poto and Cabengo, resulting in the title of the film – grew up surrounded by a bit of, well, creative linguistics.   There were 16 variations, between the girls, for the word “potato.”  “Potatah” was one.  “Putatrah” was another.  And so on.  Since the language was purely oral, variations were easier.[6]  It was also quick-paced and staccato.  Sounds pretty cool, right?  Well, the twins’ doctors thought they were retarded.  So there was that.
And that, to me, is the part of the film that holds up the biggest and most telling mirror to our society.  Were these twins guilty of something we don’t just always do, only perhaps to a lesser extent?  I’ve carried on conversations using random words, simply relying on tones to convey meaning, but that’s still an extreme case.[7]  We’re inventing and reinventing language all the time, and it seems like it’s based on little more than just what sounds awesomeRadGnarlyDelightful.  Like whatever will get us chicks.
Now, in fairness, the doctors in this documentary also indicated the twins had reduced motor function, but it sure seemed as though the fulcrum of their pro-mentally-handicapped argument was the fact that they kinda spoke like Ewoks.[8]  So, with that, I return to my opening statement:
I think I am what I watch.  But I think we all are.  Poto and Cabengo merely represented an exaggerated version of that statement.  I’m not ready to proclaim originality dead, but I’m ready to wonder if, all along, “originality” hasn’t meant what we thought it did.  Maybe originality isn’t an entirely new idea.  Maybe it’s just the cleverest use of a bunch of old ideas.  Like whomever is the keenest wielder of the Glue Gun of Invention is original.  After all, Poto and Cabengo, as Gorin aptly notes, didn’t create their own language.  Even in the “potato” example offered above, one can see that the twins’ “Potatah” is not far removed from our “Potato.”  Yet, the language that Poto and Cabengo spoke still bore the stamp of originality.
Gorin goes out of his way, in fact, to show the audience, in a brief 73 minutes, the individuality and conformity of Poto and Cabengo.  There are a number of sequences where the screen goes black, and all you have is the audio of the twins speaking.  One article postulated that Gorin didn’t have any footage for those scenes, so they were black in forced recognition of his failure as a filmmaker.  But that has to sell short Gorin’s expertise.  He’s a guy that uses the very small to illuminate the very large.  People as community, perhaps a slight ode to his Marxist upbringing.  He and Jean-Luc Godard split because of this.[9]  No, Gorin knew, I’d wager, what he was doing when he made this sound, the sound of both new and old, take center stage in Poto and Cabengo
Is my dilemma, then, so bad?  Maybe, by Poto and Cabengo standards, I might still preserve my individuality, in light of the fact that my surroundings are constantly echoed in my day-to-day operations.[10]  Gorin went on a fact-finding mission.  It may have, initially, been to find out more about the Kennedy twins.  It ended up being about us all.  Now hang on, Worf’s about to totally stab this guy with a Bat’leth and I really need to watch…

[1] One reason why I can’t watch too many Klingon episodes of Star Trek.
[2]Unless we’re talking about footnoting.  In which case, yes.*
                  *Or if we’re talking about sales on frozen tacquitos.
[3] Hear that David Foster Wallace!?  All this is happening SUBCONSCIOUSLY.
[4] Citation needed.
[5] Though, we only did make it to year 6…
[6] No one needed a definitive way to write anything.
[7] Little experiments where you say a sentence like “Fishbowl suckerpunch cola,” but, tonally, you’re saying “I love you.”  It’s fun to do on the subway.  You tend to get your own car after a while.
[8] Yes, yes, I know.  There weren’t Ewoks in 1980.  Ah, let’s just take a second to appreciate that, shall we?
[9] He and Jean-Luc Picard?  Still cool.
[10] Great.  Now on to why I have to make everything I see into a narcissistic quest to “find out more about myself.”

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