Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

Guest Post—A Grin Without a Cat, Lincoln Center


by John Fitzgerald

I didn’t see A Grin Without A Cat when it first came out in 1977. My first encounter with it was this past year on a small monitor in a university library – even Kim’s in the East Village didn’t have a copy. From the first few frames I could sense what a monumental film it was: shots of people in the streets, on the march, all over the world. But, being so monumental, I realized also it was something that really needed to be seen in the dark, in a theater, on a big screen. Marker has said: “The reception of a film on television and in a movie theater is quite different. The difference is more or less the same between thinking and dreaming. In that sense, I compare dreaming to cinema…”

So we went to see it on Tuesday at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York as part of their 1968 cinema retrospective. The turnout was surprisingly good – at least fifty or sixty people, probably more. Part of me felt like we all should have just exchanged numbers and formed our own little film society right there. How often are you in a room with fifty other people who have even heard of Chris Marker? Many, no doubt, had gone to the Film Forum screening last summer of Sunless, which also had an excellent turnout (though the fact that Werner Herzog was there to introduce the film probably had some effect on attendance). Of the film itself, what can one say? Who else but Marker could collect all the collapsed hopes of socialism’s success in China in an evocative dance sequence layered over echoes of music from La Jetée? Or capture the Soviet Union’s totalitarianism in another sequence that showed Castro’s penchant for moving around the microphones at the lectern during speeches, and how the microphones, during an address in Moscow, wouldn’t budge? Of Watergate, Marker notes that by the seventies no one marched in the streets any more; the nation experienced it through a series of congressional hearings on television, thrown into the network lineup with sitcoms like All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but in response I might point out that at least then we had congressional hearings. For the crimes being committed in Washington today go well beyond Watergate, and we don’t even have those…


  • I experienced this transition from the streets to television as a kid, accompanying my parents to candlelight marches in Santa Barbara holding a “War is Not Healthy For Children or Other Living Things” sign (that I was quite proud of) against the Vietnam war and later avidly watching Watergate unfold on tv (excellent reality tv, better then many shows today :>). We even saw Bobby Kennedy speak at the sunken gardens of the courthouse here, protesting in the back for Eugene McCarthy. Days or weeks later, after the assassination, we felt chagrined for having done so: again, as Marker points out in this film, rifts within the left draining energy that could be focused elsewhere… This phenomenon was certainly not limited to France, though it played out with particular intensity & in a markedly different political context there.

  • ‘Well! I’ve often seen a cat without a grin,’ thought Alice; ‘but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in my life!’
    Alice in Wonderland

  • Just missed this, but it’s it’s showing at the New Museum this thursday. This is by far my favorite film, and one I can’t get out from under my skin since first seeing it in Philly 4 years ago (film projection, wonderfully.) And it’s free!

  • I just caught the film at the New Museum last night. What an amazing compilation of the time; I was just being born in the midst of these revolutions; Marker’s means to weave the dynamics between these various events had a kind of clarity and poetry that I’ve rarely seen in documentary film. It felt very alive, in keeping with complicated puzzle we currently dwell in our geo-politics.

  • For any other New York City Marker fans, the Alliance Francaise is screening his “La Solitude du chanteur de fond” with Simone Signoret and Yves Montand on Tuesday (June 10).

    Here is the publicity: “As a filmmaker, Chris Marker has always been very much a diarist, crafting intimate portraits of his subjects. The same is true with this, his affectionate look at Montand, which includes conversations with costars, his wife Simone Signoret, and Montand himself. Essential viewing for fans of both Marker and Montand, the film teems with insight into the life of this great French artist.”

Chris Marker Notes from the Era of Imperfect Memory

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