A Grin Without a Cat

11/15/2009

France / 1977 / With English narration

Directed by Chris Marker

Still from 'A Grin Without a Cat'Chris Marker’s seminal coda A Grin Without a Cat is a portrait of political dissent in the latter half of the Twentieth Century that uses newsreel footage, interviews, and voice over narration. It is an epic of editing, a highly accomplished act of ventriloquism, offering a scathing jeremiad that is at once autobiographical narrative and free-associative critique. Marker winds up with some unlikely mouthpieces for his ideas; Fidel Castro, in pointing out the problems faced by armed struggle in Venezuela, in fact underlines contradictions in the Cuban revolution, wherein a guerilla uprising, not seeking capitulation, is divorced from the collective needs of the people and comes to represent radical politics in a region without embodying it. This is where the titular metaphor comes from.

Over the course of the film’s three hours the Soviet Union withers from the loud exhortations of Potemkin in the opening down to the ugliness of Prague’s occupation in 1968, but at no point attains the monstrous proportions it demands, perhaps due to Marker’s latent, lingering partiality.

For all the passion underlying this assemblage, as well as the potential ungainliness in using many primary and retold historical accounts end to end, the film manages in many cases to cut deep into causation born of rhetoric and its effects – the smirking masks placed over the facts, and the grim realities that catch us in their penetrating stare. We see a press conference with an American general whose vested interests lie in Bolivia; a somewhat intimate office interview with Bolivian president Barrientos; the dutiful peasants’ genuflection over the messianic corpse of Che Guevara – several levels of reality appear before us in close succession, from diplomacy to execution. Marker understands that all of it is important to the story.

Still from 'A Grin Without a Cat'Through editing, Marker is doing all the direction; it becomes a highly mannered sort of thaumaturgy. By careful selection from hours of footage, he gives the film its real voice. The narration that comes up frequently, recited by a handful of different actors, has an elegiac tone and presence, and rarely co-opts the viewer’s focus from the footage itself. While Chilean president Allende’s daughter speaks heatedly at a summit in Havana, we are told plainly that she, like her father just before her, committed suicide shortly after the film of her was taken. The writing is somehow incisive while being indistinct, as drifting and detached as the bleep-heavy electronic score (allegedly composed by Marker) that lies beneath the images. The words and music coalesce to form a somnambulant layer, reminding us to remain conscious and critical even while generals and politicians inform us that they will protect our interests during the coming storm.

For Marker, the year 1968 was both a new beginning and an unceremonious end. The riots in Paris, which many recall as a hot and ferocious blossoming of collective power, are to him an assembling of empty motions that frayed parts of the city and failed to awaken the government or people’s consciousness. The student riots in Japan are similarly treated as high theatre. What happened in May of that year for the good, however, was that the real, established element in left-wing politics, which was entrenched in the workers’ movements, felt threatened by the new wave of young and ideologically underdeveloped rebels, and set about trying to claim its rightful place as arbiters in a new climate. A record number of strikes followed the clashes with police. Some mistakenly thought that it would be like 1848 all over again.

Although the film was constructed in the 1970’s, it is a case of the content feeling somehow more apropos to now than then. At the time that it was made, radical movements, far from having died off, played a greater role in shaping the world than they do today. Radicalism disappeared with tyranny, that is to say absolute tyranny, suggesting that the two were inextricably bound. To this Marker attributes the relative quiet that fell in the 1970’s. The superstructures that preside over us today are so normalized that they do not lend themselves easily to the same Manichean rhetoric that created such disturbance to the status quo in times gone by.

Still from 'A Grin Without a Cat'In 1977, while Vietnam had already had its victory over the US, the terror of the Khmer Rouge was yet to be appreciated and China had not descended into capitalism – in other words, there were some serious deformities just on the horizon. It would be fascinating to see a contemporary account of the last 30 years attempted with such far-reaching enthusiasm. What does Marker say about today’s Left? A Grin Without a Cat provides some insight, but is it possible that this particular lineage, described herein as decaying, has essentially vanished? At the time that he made this documentary, things had only broken off to a point where an observer could bemoan the absence of struggle without yet being able to see the dimensions of the false consciousness into which it was draining.

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