– Autumn/Winter 2009

Termite Tracks: Routine Pleasures and the Paradoxes of Collectivity

Michael Ned Holte

Jean-Pierre Gorin, Routine Pleasures, 1986, black-and-white and colour 16mm film, 81min. Film stills © Babette Mangolte, 1984

Jean-Pierre Gorin, Routine Pleasures, 1986, black-and-white and colour 16mm film, 81min. Film stills © Babette Mangolte, 1984

For the rustle […] implies a community of bodies: in the sounds of the pleasure which is 'working,' no voice is raised, guides, or swerves, no voice is constituted; the rustle is the very sound of plural delectation - plural but never massive (the mass, quite the contrary, has a single voice, and terribly loud).

-Roland Barthes, 'The Rustle of Language'1

Gathering Dust

Like clockwork, from 1958 to 1993, the Model Railroaders Club would meet every Tuesday night near San Diego, in a hangar at the Del Mar Fairgrounds on Jimmy Durante Boulevard, and run model trains. The word 'hobby', implying the business of amateurs, is surely too moderate for the concerns of these 'train people', for whom work and leisure are seemingly indistinguishable. Approaching their train-playing with earnest seriousness, these men - with all-American names like Chester and Corky - appear trapped in a limbo between masculine responsibility and boyish fantasy. Signs posted near the club's elaborate train set read, 'When all else fails, try follow- ing directions' and 'It's difficult to soar with eagles when you work with turkeys', setting a droll tone for the intensity with which the group goes about their collective activity. Only chatting to ask a necessary question or to share a particularly noteworthy detail, their rustle may be difficult to see as anything but work, yet it surely exemplifies what Roland Barthes referred to as 'plural delectation' - a shared 'language' that develops over time while relying on histories and goals held in common, and many non-verbal forms of communication. Hidden well enough from public scrutiny as to seem hermetically sealed from the outside world, time stands still for the train

  1. Roland Barthes, 'The Rustle of Language', The Rustle of Language (trans. Richard Howard), Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989, p.77.

  2. Gorin's key collaborators on Routine Pleasures are the cinematographer Babette Mangolte and co-writer Patrick Amos. Gorin, Amos and Mangolte are all credited as the film's editors.

  3. Much of this history is recounted by Colin MacCabe in his book Godard: A Portrait of the Artist at Seventy, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. The Criterion Collection DVD releases of Tout va bien and Letter to Jane in 2005 also contain useful new texts by MacCabe and J. Hoberman, as well as a reprinted 1972 interview with Godard and Gorin by Robert Phillip Kolker.

  4. Three earlier films by Godard - Un Film comme les autres (A Movie Like Any Other, 1968), British Sounds and Pravda (both 1969) - were claimed by the group a posteriori. Footage from an unfinished Dziga Vertov Group project, Jusqu'à la victorie (sometimes simply referred to as Victory), was subsumed into the film Ici et ailleurs (Here and Elsewhere, 1974) directed by Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville.

  5. Penelope Gilliatt, 'The Urgent Whisper', The New Yorker, 25 October 1976, pp.47-58; reprinted in David Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard Interviews, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, pp.69-84.

  6. See, for example, Farber's articles 'Jean-Luc Godard' and 'La Chinoise and Belle de Jour', both published in 1968 in Artforum and subsequently included in the Farber compilation Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998, pp.259-68 and pp.269-74.

  7. Jean-Pierre Gorin, programme notes accompanying the film series 'The Way of the Termite: The Essay in Cinema', organised by Gorin at the Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, 22 January- 19 April 2009.

  8. M. Farber, 'White Elephant Art vs Termite Art', Negative Space, op. cit., p.135; originally published in Film Culture, vol.27, winter 1962, pp.9-13.

  9. Ibid., pp.135-36.

  10. Ibid., p.10.

  11. Patricia Patterson, Farber's wife and fellow faculty member at UC San Diego, began collaborating with Farber on his criticism in 1975.

  12. Patrick Amos and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 'The Farber Machine', in Howard Singerman (ed.), Manny Farber (exh. cat.), Los Angeles: Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, 1985, pp.22-39. Amos was Gorin's silent and unseen partner in the written narration for Routine Pleasures.

  13. A larger discussion of Gorin's other films is beyond the scope of this text. It is worthwhile to note that Lynne Tillman, interviewing Gorin for Bomb magazine's spring 1988 issue, notes that when watching Letter to Jane, 'I heard [Gorin's] and Godard's voices with Poto's and Cabengo's playing in my mind. […] I got the feeling that part of your fascination with the twins was the possibility you saw to divest yourself of your twin-ship with Godard.' See http://www.bombsite.com/issues/23/articles/1056 (last accessed on 8 August 2009).

  14. Quoted in J. Hoberman, 'Tout va bien Revisited', an essay accompanying the DVD release of Tout va bien, Criterion Collection, 2005.

  15. Quoted in Andrew Sarris, 'Godard and the Revolution', The Village Voice, 30 April 1970, pp.53, 61, 63-64; reprinted in D. Sterritt (ed.), Jean-Luc Godard Interviews, op. cit., pp.50-58.

  16. C. MacCabe, Godard, op. cit., pp.228-29.

  17. Ibid., p.229.

  18. 'Morning in America' refers to the slogan of Reagan's TV commercials for his 1984 presidential re-election campaign, which suggested the return to economic prosperity achieved in his first term.

  19. Inevitably, the private activities of the train people were exposed to public recognition because of Gorin's film, but Routine Pleasures has, to date, eluded what one would consider a wide audience.

  20. Cinema and railroad technologies developed contemporaneously, and their stories are frequently intertwined. Of particular importance to Routine Pleasures is the work of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin. In 1931, Medvedkin took charge of an ambitious state proposal for a 'film-train' - a three-car train, outfitted with film-making equipment and a crew of 32, that was to travel across the Russian countryside visiting newly formed kolkhoz farming collectives. Medvedkin and the film- train would survey each kolkhoz and determine which issues inhibited the collective's success, and then, in the course of a day, would shoot, process, edit and screen the resulting film. Medvedkin was unafraid to use humorous or satirical ends to achieve his desired ends. (His feature film Happiness [1934] is a rather surreal slapstick comedy dedicated 'to the last lazy Kolkhozian'.) As he recounts in Chris Marker's film Le Train en marche (The Train Rolls On, 1971): 'Film, in the hands of the people, was a fantastic weapon. Of course that filled us with renewed force, and, thanks to that experience, we knew that we could keep going. It also brought home the fact that the makers of a film aren't just the director and cameraman.'