A Grin Without a Cat (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by David Sterritt

Editing and soundtrack: Chris Marker; cinematography by Pierre-William Glenn, Willy Jurant; music: Luciano Berio; documentary materials provided by William Klein, Raymond Depardon, Miguel Littin, Pierre Lhomme, François Reichenbach, Jean Boffety, and others; voices: Simone Signoret, Jim Broadbent, Yves Montand, Robert Kramer, Cyril Cusack, Jorge Semprun and others. DVD, B&W and color, 178 mins., in French, Spanish, English, German and Vietnamese; versions with partial English, French and German subtitles; versions in French audio with Spanish and Portuguese subtitles, 1977/1993. An Icarus Films release, www.icarusfilms.com.

Chris Marker, one of France’s most important living filmmakers, has been guarding the unsteady flame of politically attuned cinema in feature films, short films, radio and television programs, and gallery installations—not to mention articles, poems, photo books, drawings, comic strips, and translations—solo and collaboratively, for almost six decades. His most widely known work is the 1962 short La Jetée, an apocalyptic “ciné-novel” about time travel and nuclear holocaust consisting (almost) entirely of still images. That film embeds the political within the esthetic, but most of his movies do the reverse, using a dynamic style to tease out the clashing historical meanings of ideological movements and trends.

This is certainly the case in A Grin Without a Cat, originally called Le Fond de l’air est rouge, which means approximately “the depth (or ground, or base, or heart) of the air is red.” The film’s French title evokes the Marxist convictions that surge through Marker’s career, and also the blood that has been spilled for revolutionary causes; the English title, nodding to Lewis Carroll, metaphorically echoes Marker’s contention that when international socialism lost the Soviet Union and the Communist Party as focal points, the forces of reform veered into limited, uncoordinated struggles, becoming like a spearhead without a spear.

Additional meanings also suggest themselves if you read Marker’s essay on the picture and sniff out scattered clues in the semisurrealist spirit he enjoys. (The essay is included with the DVD edition from Icarus Films, along with an appreciative review by Film Threat critic Phil Hall.) The momentous “night of the barricades” that shook Paris in May 1968, Marker muses, had a festive atmosphere that would have been quite different if it had been raining “cats and dogs.” Citing the indignities suffered by an imprisoned French activist, Marker pointedly mentions the denial of her request for “the company of a cat.” Recalling his last conversation with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, on the eve of Portugal’s leftist uprising in 1974, he writes that revolution “was in the air, and had to be, like the grin of the Cheshire Cat.” Althusser “would always see that grin,” Marker continues. “And he wouldn’t (nor would anyone) ever see the Cat.”

The wordplay is slippery, but the thrust is never in doubt: Marker is a commited Marxist, and he is also a sophisticated skeptic. A Grin Without a Cat is a film without a dogma, celebrating the promise of socialist ideas (the grin) while realizing that the brave new world they envision (the cat) remains elusive and intangible as its twentieth-century trial runs slip farther into the past. On one level, the documentary is a meditation on recent world history, organized around the idea that the “pivotal point in the sixtyish saga” was not 1968 but 1967, when pressures were building and “one had to be pretty dumb not to catch a glimpse of what was already cooking.” (I agree, and I’ll add that 2002—the year of fateful U.S. decisions that could still have been contested and reversed—was the equivalent point in the Iraq war, an enterprise vastly more centralized and cynical than the rebellions of 1968.) On a deeper level, A Grin Without a Cat is an essay on historical memory itself.

This is evident at the very beginning, when a first-person narrator (one of many over the course of the film) says, “I didn’t see Potemkin when it first came out, I was too young. I remember the shot of the meat, definitely, with the maggots….” Images from Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 classic then appear on screen, mostly out of sync with the narrator’s ongoing recollection of particular shots, intercutting the Odessa Steps massacre with footage of more recent demonstrations, riots, and state violence. This kinetic montage spans five continents and half a century, as critic Nora M. Alter points out in her (uneven) book Chris Marker. Its most significant feature is not so much the raw power of its images as the deliberate instability of the meaning(s) it puts forth. Along with the decoupling of words and pictures at strategic points, the speed and complexity of the sequence make it hard to take in all of the shots, much less the countless connotations that erupt from their rapid-fire juxtapositions. The voice-over also plays up ambiguity and subjectivity. Marker didn’t see Battleship Potemkin when it first came out—he was about four when it opened in the U.S.S.R., a year older when it reached France—yet he remembers individual shots. But are we hearing Marker’s words? Perhaps they belong to the narrator who speaks them, actress Simone Signoret, born in the same year as Marker, but in Germany, where Battleship Potemkin opened almost a year after its French premiere.

On top of all this, Marker’s notes on the film make the often-overlooked point that there never was an Odessa Steps massacre, since historically, everyone ran for their lives when the soldiers arrived. This scene was Eisenstein’s invention, Marker observes, adding that the Soviet director “didn’t know…he was staging the imagination of several generations.” In sum, A Grin Without a Cat is not a lesson in history but a lesson in how history is dismembered and remembered by every generation in its own faulty way. The film is like a dream gradually coming into focus, or rather, a dream having its last bursts of energy as it gives way to newer but equally skewed patterns of cognition, imagination, and wishful fantasy.

Marker released A Grin Without a Cat as a four-hour film in 1977, then trimmed it to three for the 1993 cut on the Icarus disc. Galvanizing though it often is, I want to temper my praise with important reservations. Its skein of intricately linked materials is sometimes too imposing in its own right, estheticizing events that need to be taken on their own singular and disturbing terms. It doesn’t explicitly engage with capital, the basis of all Marxist analysis. Although it casts revealing light on occurrences in developing countries, it pays little specific attention to the United States and the U.S.S.R., whose influences affected virtually everything depicted in the film to one degree or another. The segment on Watergate is particularly weak, garnishing its brief account of the crisis with a montage of Archie Bunker dancing in his living room, Dick Van Dyke falling on the floor, and so on. What is this supposed to say—that frivolous amusements diverted Americans from revolutionary vigilance? More broadly, anyone not familiar with the periods covered by the film will be periodically confused by its collagelike style, constant country-hopping, subtitling inconsistencies, and spotty identifications of people and places.

This said, viewers of all political stripes will find fascinating things in the film—Salvador Allende outlining the limits of his socialist agenda, Fidel Castro reciting an Italian recipe with revolutionary gusto, an American pilot gleefully describing the pleasures of dropping napalm. And a narrator’s voice calmly saying at the end that “some of the harshest opponents of Soviet totalitarianism—these very people of the new left to whom this film has been largely dedicated—were swept away in its fall. Dissidence died with tyranny. They were linked, like the scorpion to the tortoise, remember? It was their character.”

David Sterritt, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, writes about movies for Tikkun .

Copyright © 2009 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4