May 18, 2009
Grin Without a CatReviewer: James Van Maanen
Rating (out of 5): ****½
Gring Without a Cat comes off in many ways like a home movie: narration that comes and goes, often simultaneously with other things we are trying to hear on the soundtrack; grainy images from all over the place, sometimes goosed with background colors or filters – red, yellow, blue – that suggest the moviemaker wanted to experiment with color and its meaning. But since the maker is Chris Marker and his subject is leftist history, worldwide, during the 1960s and 70s, those inclined – me, for instance; you perhaps, since you're reading this – will pay careful attention to what this icon (La Jetee, Sans Soleil) has to say. He says a lot, and it's dense, but I wouldn't have missed a moment.
Marker's goal is to explain the changes that took place in the philosophy and actions of the left – Communists, Socialists, Progressives – during a decade of particularly momentous change, 1967-77, when student revolution roiled western nations. His film was first released in 1978, a time much closer to the events he catalogs, and was updated for a later release in 1993. Never seen in America until 2002 (the U.S. has always taken a less understanding and encompassing view of Communism and Socialism than does France or most of Europe), it is only now making its DVD debut, thanks to Icarus Films. The wait was worth it for this is an extremely rich and lengthy documentary. You can agree or disagree with it (those who know history well will be able to do either handily) but not, I think, ignore it.
Originally titled Le Fond de l'air est rouge, which I believe translates to something like "The heart/base of the air is red," or maybe more poetically "The breeze is drifting leftwards." (Please feel free to correct me, your Francophiles). Its English title, Grin Without a Cat comes from a section of the film in which Marker covers Communist guerilla fighting, a la Fidel and Che, and states that guerrilla war is like a spearhead without a spear, or a grin without a cat. Though I imagine the moviemaker to be a strong leftist, he does not like what he often sees on the left. Or the right. And he details this in ways expected and not – from the aforementioned history of guerilla fighting in Cuba, Bolivia and elsewhere to the Olympic Games and how they consistently laugh in the face of democracy. Two examples given are the death of the many Mexican students during the 1968 Games and what happened at the Munich Games of 1972. (He could as easily have included the Games in China this past year.)
In one of the more intriguing sections, which I won't give away, Marker reminds us to be careful: "You can never tell what you might be filming,' which leads into the story of Czechoslovakia's Rudolf Slansky, and then to Janus-faced Communism in general, with its sub-Janus faces of Stalinism and Leninism (we think for a time that Trotskyism has been left out, but no, we get this later, during a workers' demonstration). Marker calls the China of this period "a country that offers Stalin's portrait – but without Stalinism." All this is enough to make any thinking person never again raise a fist in solidarity with anything – so suspect are the masses (and the people who lead them), whatever it is they may be on about.
The ironies come so thick and fast that one can barely keep up, and though the documentary spans the world, it returns again and again to France, Marker's home base. On the coming to power of the right-leaning Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the filmmaker offer this little gem: "Ten years of continuous advertising had finally sold the product." Marker is sometimes a little too abstruse or maybe purposely mysterious: At one point he talks about "the pure eye of a cat" and then compares this with the eye of Richard Nixon and the King of Belgium. I have a cat, too, but a "pure" eye? And as much as I despised Nixon I don't know that I'd have wanted a cat, pure-eyed or not, running our country. At one point Marker offers a parade of revolutionaries, demonstrating how difficult and dangerous it is to be a real one. Régis Debray pops up off and on throughout the film: We see his early years, his time in jail and later as he visits Salvador Allende in Chile. The latter's heartfelt and surprisingly honest speech about moral obligation, made to workers in Chile, is one of the highlights of the film. Toward the end, Marker whisks us forward to the 1990s; then closes with a moving dedication. Divided into two 90-minute sections (Part One is titled Fragile Hands, Part Two, Severed Hands), Grin Without a Cat is a unique combination of history, interpretation and testimony of a very high order.
See also: Marker's more recent follow up of sorts, The Case of the Grinning Cat, also now out on DVD from Icarus.
Posted by cphillips at May 18, 2009 3:20 PM