Originally published and copyright Film Comment, May/June 2002, 33-34.
CHRIS MARKER'S A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT REVIVES THE REVOLUTION. MAKING HISTORY BY PAUL ARTHUR
Chris Marker is the doyen of the nonfiction essay-film, that elusive yet recently resurgent genus of cerebral imagemaking. He's been at it longer than anyone else—since Letter from Siberia (1958}—mapping the form's possibilities and limits with unflagging vigor, poetic elegance, and sly humor. Now that Marker has joined cinema's tiny cadre of octogenarian directors, the re-release of A Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de l'air est rouge), his scintillating account of the rise and fall of the New Left, is a doubly important event.
The original four-hour French production, completed in 1977, was “re-actualized” in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Shortened by an hour-with the voices of Simone Signoret, Yves Montand, and Jorge Sempnm replaced by the likes of Jim Broadbent, Robert Kramer, and Cyril Cusack-the current English version is still brimming with enough spectacular news footage, interviews, and verbal and visual analysis to launch a festival of documentaries.
Beginning in 1967 and spanning a decade of political upheaval, Grin darts at breakneck speed between revolutionary hot spots on four continents. It juxtaposes iconic leaders (Fidel, Che, Mao) with dimly remembered agitators (Daniel Cohen-Bendit, Douglas Bravo) and rank-and-ftle radicals, while developing a cluster of over arching themes such as the dissolution of Europe's Old Left, the relationship of institutionalized power to guerrilla warfare, and the lingering shadow of Stalinism. Neither embittered critique nor unalloyed celebration of Sixties utopian energies, the flim lays out a complex and surprisingly nuanced view of history that wrestles valiantly with collective as well as individual contradictions as it reconstructs, in theorist Regis Debray's fine phrase, “the revolution within the revolution.
“Grin is divided into two equal parts bracketed by a rousing prelude and an elegiac postscript in which the narrator briefly conjures the distance between the Sixties and Nineties, both in global consciousness and political reality. Part One, “Fragile Hands,” traces a double arc of international resistance encompassing Vietnam and Latin America, sandwiched around the backdrop and fallout of May '68 in France. “Severed Hands” starts with the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, then leapfrogs back and forth around crises in America, Europe, and other firstworld powers and the unsettled struggles of “underdeveloped”countries—dominant and subaltern societies are sinUlarly played off in Marker's masterpiece, Sans Soleil (1982). The method throughout is to make salient connections, not necessarily linear or chronological, between events or issues unfolding in settings ranging from Tokyo and Beijing to Washington and La Paz. The film stops along the way for concentrated passages of sectarian debate—especially the internecine squabbles of French communism—and quirky digressions, the most amusing of which is a study of Fidel's nervous fiddling with microphones during long extemporaneous speeches, a tic tellingly thwarted by a Moscow podium's immovable mikes. Although it consists almost entirely of archival footage gathered from dozens of official sources and activist filmmakers, Marker transforms his stream of inert materials into a vital, personalized document via techniques both subtle and imposing: tinting scenes red, blue, or amber; inserting occasional signature shots of cats; cunning use of electronic music by Luciano Berio; lyrically mordant narration that undercuts as it ballasts arduous doses of political theorizing and public speeches.
An example of Marker's extraordinary grasp of the affective potential of montage, Grin‘s four-minute introduction is nothing short of breathtaking. First-person ruminations on key moments in Battleship Potemkin are paired with scattered excerpts from the film. After describing the emotional impact of a rebellious sailor's shout in the face of a firing squad—”Brothers!”—Marker cuts from Eisenstein's film to a color image of antiwar protesters' hands raised in a peace sign. An accelerating cadence of perfectly timed match cuts, backed by a sumptuously martial melody, links silent shots from Potemkin with worldwide scenes of street marches, funerals, and police brutality: angry speeches circa 1925 meet angry speeches circa 1967; Cossacks merge with helmeted riot troops; victims on the Odessa steps collide with bloodied demonstrators. Insurrection will always engender the naked violence of the state.
Marker enlists the happy accident of the Bolshevik Revolution's 50th anniversary for a twin gesture of solidarity. First he establishes the hopeful, if ultimately betrayed, promise of Sixties militancy as a renewal of the revolutionary spirit of 1917. Of equal significance, he reclaims montage from the dustbin of film history as a formidable contemporary weapon. Indeed, in the course of the essay Marker freights montage with functions rarely glimpsed in the Eisenstein-Pudovkin-Vertov playbook. It is wielded as a tool of analysis and conjunction, denoting qualities of difference as well as similarity across far-flung events (time travel being one of Marker's favorite tropes and the basis for his singular 1962 foray into fiction, La Jetée).
Although he refuses any hint of easy closure, to say nothing of unqualified truth, Part Two concludes on May Day 1977, “the last day of the unified Left,” a sequence that follows a lengthy ode to Salvador Allende's doomed attempt to forge social democracy in Chile—interestingly, Allende emerges as the film's only unambiguously heroic figure. By tracking the course of working-class, peasant, and non-sectarian youth insurgencies, he avoids what by 1977 had seized center-stage in American and European political arenas: feminism and identity politics, movements with which by inference he has little sympathy. Nonetheless, despite an evasion or two, the vision of history presented here has few filmic equals in scope or sophistication. It is a vision realized as much through formal means as by the content of speakers or events. That is, in its rhythms and editing structures, Grin tries to embody the very shape and textures of historical transformation, rendering the abstraction of change as an amalgam of rapid, plurivocal, uneven, and, at times, contradictory forces aligned in provisional symmetries encompassing past, present, and future perspectives. Hence, it simultaneously places itself in opposition to narratives consecrated to linear progression, as well as simple cause and effect, Great Man theories, and even less obviously reactionary notions of unsung heroes or “repressed” mechanisms of flux. This is no small accomplishment, which should, however unlikely, garner the kind of popular reception usually reserved for gladiator epics and soppy biopics.