V’07 : pt4 : Documentaries : Poto and Cabengo (1979); Stage Legislature; At Sea; Gibellina; etc

Published on: November 19th, 2007

POTO AND CABENGO (1979) [7/10]               
The first American film by French expat – and sometime Jean-Luc Godard collaborator - Jean-Pierre Gorin, and the first of what would become an informal trilogy of documentaries (though that's only a loose description of Gorin's format) about closed Californian "communities" which are largely defined by "private" forms of language. Or rather, semi-closed, as Gorin in each instance is able – in his deceptively bumbling, vaguely Nick-Broomfieldish manner – to obtain entry and acceptance. Here the focus is on two young sisters in California who - according to the news reports which made worldwide headlines in the late seventies - communicate by using a dialect unknown to linguists. The truth is rather more prosaic but, in Gorin's genial telling, no less absorbingly bizarre. Occasionally his "gee whizz!" style gets a little out of hand (as when he repeatedly sends a subtitle zipping across the screen asking "What are they saying?"), but as he quizzically uses the girls' case to explore much wider issues – about families, America, Americanisation, language, fame, exploitation, and much else besides – it's very hard to avoid being drawn in. The real question being, we quickly realise: "What is he saying?"

STATE LEGISLATURE  [7/10]               
Epic in length but intimate in tone, this 3 1/2 hour fly-on-the-wall documentary shows the inner workings of that much-discussed, never-more-topical activity: American democracy. In a series of committee-rooms and offices, Wiseman's cameras unobtrusively record the quotidian business of Idaho's local government, allowing time for a wide variety of "characters" and issues to occupy our attention. Perhaps predictably, it's the driest-sounding stuff which actually proves the spiciest, in a picture which only very occasionally bogs down into insider-talk and jargonese. Educational and informative in a rock-steady, old-fashioned style, but perhaps of most particular interest as a keen-eyed observation of taken-for-granted anthropological phenomena: this a world of time-smoothed interpersonal relationships and long-established traditions (rituals, even) within which the 'business of government' slowly takes place. And don't be put off by the length: State Legislature (projected in two halves in Vienna, with a 15-minute toilet/coffee-break) feels no longer than your typical Hollywood action-movie, although that doesn't mean Wiseman couldn't perhaps have achieved similar effects within a more conventional sort of running-time.

AT SEA [6+/10]            
Sixty silent minutes in which, through a variety of what looks like 'found' 16mm and 8mm footage from numerous sources, the "biography" of a typical container-ship is related. There are some truly remarkable images here (the film really should be seen on a cinema-screen rather than TV) at every stage of the ship's "life" - and the lack of sound means we can give them our full attention, as well as endowing many of them with an unexpectedly alien, eerie quality. But there's something fundamentally troubling about the film's structure: it's divided into three sections of equal length, one detailing the ship's creation, one its working life, one its destruction in a breaker's yard (a post-apocalyptic coastal workplace which looks rather like the one shown in Michael Glawogger's Working Man's Death). But in reality the "middle" period would have lasted many times longer than either the beginning or the end – Hutton therefore seems much less interested in the ship's purpose and function than he is in the details of how it came into and out of existence. A deliberate artistic decision, needless to say – the choice of title is evidently ironic – but, on balance, decidedly debatable.

GIBELLINA – THE EARTHQUAKE [6/10]               
Gibellina was an ordinary Italian town, until it was almost entirely destroyed by a terrible earthquake that left many residents dead and the rest homeless. A new Gibellina was built nearby, along modernistic lines – and including all manner of modernistic sculptures which were intended to make the town a tourist attraction and thus boost the local economy. But things didn't quite work out, as chronicled in this easy-going, TV-style documentary, most of which alternates between static shots of the sculptures in their spookinly-quiet environment, and interviews with various bigwigs (nearly all of them men, as it happens: mayors past and present, a churchless priest). The ordinary folk of Gibellina, while much mentioned, are seen but – for the most part – not heard, especially the younger inhabitants with whom the area's future, if it has one, rests. In fact, the residents are not that much seen either, as the director seems fond of making Gibellina look as deserted as possible – all the better to examine those outsized sculptures. He's clearly seen too many Antonioni movies for his own good – not to mention De Chirico paintings – and the results, while an undeniably engaging treatment of an offbeat subject, suffer in comparison with Mercedes Alvares's stately Spanish equivalent, The Sky Turns (2003). And it's especially regrettable that, on the rare instance that we come across some "ordinary" workmen – as they toil over some large, fast-decaying artwork - their conversation goes conspicuously unsubtitled.

THAMES FILM (1986) [5/10]               
While predating Patrick Keiller's essay-films London and Robinson In Space by around a decade, Raban's journey down London's mighty river feels very small beer in comparison. We learn a few surprising historical tidbits along the way, and John Hurt's narration ensures that the viewing experience is never exactly dull. But Raban doesn't have much of an eye for visuals (composition and editing feel arbitrary, even slap dash) and his choice of secondary texts and images to accompany his footage (most of it shot from the river itself) is distinctly variable. A tone of poetic portentousness prevails – the picture bobs torpidly along to the extent that it feels padded-out even at 66 minutes. This makes Raban's omissions all the more baffling: his focus on the waterway downriver of Tower Bridge ,eans there's nothing about the Thames' many islands, nothing about the 'city centre' and its relation to the river. But where is there also no mention of the great Thames-estuary novel, Conrad's Heart of Darkness, nothing – and this is 1984-86, don't forget – about Thatcher or the GLC or the government's ambitious plans for Canary Wharf (you'll actually get more about that side of things in The Long Good Friday). Instead Raban, fixated on the past to the exclusion of the present, returns again and again and again to a minute examination of Brueghel's painting The Triumph of Death (a work whose relationship to the Thames is tangential at best) in a manner that has more than a slight marshy whiff of high-falutin' pretentiousness about it. Not a disaster by any means – it would be exceedingly hard to make a dull study of such a multi-faceted subject. But Raban comes mighty close: his is an essay in search of a focus and a thesis, and as such very much a missed opportunity. 

Neil Young
13th/18th November, 2007

Poto and Cabengo : [7/10] : Jean-Pierre GORIN : US 1979 : 76m : seen 24th Oct, Austrian Filmmuseum (Essayistische Kino programme)
State Legislature : [7/10] : Frederick WISEMAN : US 2007 : 207m : seen 26th Oct, Stadtkino
At Sea
: [6+/10] : Peter HUTTON : US 2007 : 60m : seen 26th Oct, video-room
Gibellina – The Earthquake : [6/10] : Gibellina – Il terremoto : Joerg BURGER : Austria/Italy 2007 : 72m : seen 25th Oct, Urania cinema
Thames Film : [5/10] : William RABAN : UK 1986 : 66m : seen 27th Oct, Austrian Filmmuseum

(all – except At Sea - complimentary press-delegate tickets)

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