A Grin Without a Cat (1977, 1993)

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Last week, Icarus Films released the latest DVD in their excellent Chris Marker series, A Grin Without a Cat (originally released in 1977 but shortened with an added coda in ’93). Not only is this one of his most acclaimed documentaries, summarizing the decade of the New Left worldwide as well as his own globetrotting SLON collective filmmaking period, the DVD also comes amid a flurry of new Marker events:

• Cannes Classics has announced it’s debuting a new and restored print of Far from Vietnam (1967), the protest film Marker organized and edited with contributions by Joris Ivens, Claude Lelouch, Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais, and William Klein (who, along with Raymond Depardon and many others, also contributed footage to Grin). Given that Marker begins his history of the New Left with international outrage against the Vietnam war, this is a timely restoration.

• Harvard Film Archive is featuring a series of Marker’s best-known films this week, and will culminate on Saturday, May 16, with a Marker-led Q/A tour of his Second Life cyber museum (which will be dismantled later this year) set in the virtual realm of Ouvroir. (You can watch a preview here courtesy of Les Inrockuptibles.)

• The Peter Blum Gallery in New York City is offering an exhibition of Marker’s Owls at Noon installation (which Rob Davis reviewed here) beginning this Saturday.

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Marker begins A Grin Without a Cat with a moving, tour-de-force credit sequence (set to a rousing march by Italian composer Luciano Berio) that juxtaposes images from the famous Odessa Steps scenes in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) with first-hand footage of demonstrations that Marker and his SLON colleagues amassed over the years, forging a universal archetype of the clash of peaceful protesters versus state militia. It’s one of the great editing sequences of the cinema and showcases the rhythmic ingenuity that Marker (who only credits himself with editing and sound) has demonstrated in all of his work since the early-’50s.

As in Marker’s later The Last Bolshevik (1993), which begins with a newsreel clip of a parading Tsarist ordering the poor to remove their hats and bow to the rich, Grin opens with the face of injustice in its most crystalized form: an American bomber bragging in his cockpit about the spectacle of terrified Vietnamese people fleeing from his napalm. Though the antiwar resistance (especially in France) is often dated from May ’68, Marker shows how it began in ’67, noting in his extensive liner notes provided with the DVD:

“Perhaps too much has been made of the famous editorial by Pierre Viansson-Ponté in Le Monde, March ’68, ‘France is bored’–a moody column from which rose the consensual idea that May had been a thunderbolt in a clear sky, that no one had seen it coming. As for me, I wasn’t bored at all, and to discern the waves of the seism that began to shatter our planet you really didn’t have to be prophetic.”

Using multiple narrators (including Simone Signoret and Yves Montand), the pseudo-anonymous Marker charts how self-determination sentiments merged with the workers’ movement to create new critiques and demands within established power structures. The film winds together workers’ strikes in France, demonstrations against the Shaw of Iran in Berlin, interviews with Fidel Castro in Cuba and Regis Débray in a Bolivian prison; it remembers riots in Santiago, Prague, and Mexico City, where police killed hundreds of students in the Tlatelolco massacre just days before the 1968 Summer Olympics, after which “not one country refused to attend.”

The film captures the excitement and promise of the times, which became a grin without a cat as competing factions of the Left–Stalinists, Trotskyites, Maoists, union organizers, Communists, Socialists, radicals–failed to unite (or sold out to middle class interests), and assassinations and coups prevented many revolutionary dreams from fully taking shape. Marker wryly points out that one of the biggest victories for the Left–Nixon’s resignation–came about not by political protests but by television. The film is also a cogent preview of postwar corporate issues that would become increasingly dire: “Until recently,” the narrator says, “those in power oppressed or killed directly. Today, death or madness could be a simple by-product of their activity.” Marker shows a heartrending protest at a Chisso board meeting in Minimata, Japan, due to the company’s mercury poisoning of the public water supply.

In contrast to the idealism and beauty of the film’s opening montage, the bulk of the film is comprised of bits and pieces of found footage and hastily shot protest films and newsreels, and edited at a breakneck pace, emphasizing the fluid, unformed chaos of the times, yet it’s never without grace and wit. Marker brilliantly transitions from a playful digression about cats (comparing their clear-eyed watchfulness to the shifty eyes of people in power) to a Belgian parade honoring felines to a sickened cat in Minimata, then cuts to footage of the town’s human victims. In similar fashion, the film links major global events with humor, outrage, and compassion, and serves both as a potent time capsule and a call to arms that can still be heard ringing around the world.

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