Monday, June 28, 2010

A Grin Without a Cat

Chris Marker's A Grin Without a Cat is a kind of eulogy for the worldwide failures of the revolutionary, socialist spirit that ran through many youth, workers and intellectuals in the turbulent 60s. It is a response to the disappointment engendered by the ultimately ineffectual demonstrations and protests of May '68, in France and elsewhere, and to the increasing corruption of idealistic movements by dictatorial forces, by disillusionment, by acceptance of the status quo. The "grin without a cat" of the title (a substitute for the thematically analogous French play on words of the original title) refers to the empty words that never led to concrete action, to the ideal that never quite corresponded to the reality, to the rhetoric that never got a real mass of people behind it to give it meaning and strength. The missing cat behind the grin is what might have been: the masses that never materialized, the revolution that never came, or that dissipated in the wind as it became clear that the ideals were not being lived up to in reality.

It is a remarkable film, an attempt at telling history from the point of view of the losers for once. History, it is said, is always written by the victors, and never by those who tried and failed, never by those whose ideas were crushed by opposition, or whose struggles were ultimately quashed. Marker, of course, is more interested in those whose stories aren't often told by history, those who dreamed and then were forced to wake up, those who don't get to write their stories in the conventional history books. The three-hour film is divided into two equal halves, which together don't so much relate a chronological history as present the factual events followed by the commentary upon those events, the analysis of what it all means. The film's first half, entitled "Fragile Hands," presents a documentary account, assembled through video records of the late 1960s, of the student revolutions and protests, the air of socialist revolt that crystallized in France, in the US and Latin America and elsewhere, around 1967 and 1968 especially. The "fragile hands" referred to here are the hands of the students, the intellectuals; a popular slogan suggested that the students, with their ideals and their posters, were the vanguard, that they would soon hand on the torch to the workers, who were more robust, more suited to actually carrying out these ideas in practice. This film, perhaps, is a record of how and why this passing of the torch never happened.

To tell his story, Marker strings together various documentary sequences, tying together Maoist China, the Stalinist USSR, the war in Vietnam, socialist organizations on college campuses in France and the US, factory workers and their unions, guerrilla revolutionaries in Cuba and Latin America, and of course the capitalist bosses and political leaders who opposed all this upheaval and change. It is a true radical history of 1967-68, and Marker's purposeful juxtapositions emphasize both how united all these various factions and ideals were in their overall ideology and goals, and how divided they were on virtually everything else. Marker gathers together a cacophony of competing voices, many of whom don't seem entirely sure of what they want or what they're fighting for. The revolutionary certitude of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara is contrasted against the workers in French factories, who went on strike without even knowing what they were demanding, what it was all about. The seeds of discord are apparent already: fellow radicals being accused of counterrevolution, the split between the workers and the students.

Several narrators comment on this action, providing context, naming the prominent people who appear on screen, but the bulk of the narrative is conveyed entirely through the archival material that Marker has gathered together. His achievement here is one of editing, compressing and molding a wealth of material into a coherent narrative, condensing the multitude of viewpoints into cogent oppositions and arguments. Marker seems simultaneously nostalgic for this atmosphere of revolt and radicalism, and all too aware of its failings and limitations. At one point, several workers call for a coherent platform of the left, a set of concrete principles for everyone to rally around. It is clear, from Marker's arrangement of the contradictory demands, dreams and ideas of the people arrayed on the side of radicalism, that this is not forthcoming.

If the first half of this film is an attempt to document and provide a historical overview of this particular fraught moment in time, the second half, entitled "Severed Hands," is Marker's more direct commentary on the defeat of radicalism in the late 1960s. It is clear, almost immediately, that Marker's perspective on this material is going to be more intrusive, in terms of aesthetics and commentary, in this second half. The film's midpoint centers around the Soviet invasion of Prague in August 1968, just months after the student uprisings of May. A voiceover darkly hints at the invasion at the close of "Fragile Hands," and "Severed Hands" opens with a lengthy analysis of the situation. One of the most striking sequences involves Castro hedging his bets on the Soviet invasion, declaring it simultaneously illegal and necessary, perhaps afraid to come out too strongly against his Soviet benefactors. As he speaks, the dissonant synthesizer score, by Italian experimental composer Luciano Berio, nearly overwhelms Castro's words with squealing feedback and threatening bursts of noise, as the image jumps and jitters, worn with age, so that the film seems to be on the verge of tearing itself apart. The score, often present as a subliminal hum in the first half of the film, here emerges more frequently and more violently to the forefront, lending a mood of dissonance and disruption to the images that Marker has assembled.

Later, the names of killed dissidents and activists are read out above a melancholy organ drone, as images of their funerals are collaged together, and the drone eventually coalesces into a burbling, insistent dirge. Marker's perspective on this material becomes more forceful. The subdued air of nostalgia that inflected the first half of the film gives way to anger and disappointment, the feeling that something potentially magical was lost in the aftermath of the hopeful atmosphere of 1967-68. The Prague sequence demonstrates this loss most poignantly, as Marker shows images of a Congress held by the Czech Communist Party in the wake of the invasion, a meeting at which everyone participated rather than just the usual leaders, suggesting a potential new democratic ideal within socialist organizations. Of course, the Soviets subsequently suppressed this Congress, and Marker ironically remarks that these images, these silent and tinted black and white images of people passionately stating their resistance and their desire for a new role in politics, document an event that, according to the official histories, never even occurred. It's an affirmation of one unstated goal of this film, to bring to light the ideas and people forgotten by official history's gloss on the past.

"Severed Hands" is a document of disillusionment as well. One sequence portrays the initial hopefulness about Mao, of all people, as a democratic icon, a new socialist hero in opposition to the now-discredited totalitarianism of Stalin. And then that too fades, as Marker describes the reaction of radicals as some of Mao's inner circle started to disappear, to be denounced as imperialists and counterrevolutionaries, a familiar pattern repeating itself as revolution gave way to repression. This film is all about familiar patterns. In another sequence, in France, Trotskyite agitators get called "fascists" by those socialist workers who oppose them; it's easier to call opponents loaded names than to engage with their ideas. It's the victory of empty words and specialist sects, divisions based only around terminology, factionalism. And the beginning of defeat.

The voiceover describes the complete lack of mass response to the Watergate hearings, and a television montage positions the whole scandal within the context of prosaic entertainment, goofy sitcoms meant to distract from genuine world conditions — an explanation for the absence of public protest surrounding Watergate, the apathy of a public watching their political system unravel on TV, all of it with no more impact than an Archie Bunker show. What a coda to May 1968, from Marker's perspective, and what persuasive evidence that the moment of political upheaval and political engagement represented by that era was at an end. Other political events provide similar reference points: the short presidential tenure of Salvador Allende in Chile (Marker frames this sequence with the first recorded image of Allende as president, and the last); the international mourning over the Israeli hostage tragedy at the 1972 Munich Olympics juxtaposed against the complete lack of international interest in the far bloodier Tlatelolco massacre at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. By the 70s, history was being written by the victors, not by the students or the revolutionaries or the workers.

Nevertheless, A Grin Without a Cat doesn't offer up an entirely hopeless farewell to the era of political protest. Instead, Marker seems to be encouraging a movement away from the ideal, towards the concrete. He presents an anecdote about a Japanese town where a company poisons the water supply with mercury waste, and accompanies the story with harrowing images of mentally damaged young men, drooling and heavy-lidded, deformed by this industrial abuse. The way forward, perhaps, is in such local battles, and Marker celebrates the fierce reaction to this situation, the enraged protest against the company responsible. In such localized, clearly focused fights, the amorphous revolutionary, anti-establishment fervor of May '68 finds its clearest, most potent expression. When Marker shows a Japanese mother whose children are dead, raging against a flustered business executive, it's obvious that he's juxtaposing her with the radicals and revolutionaries who had appeared elsewhere in the film. She has no ideology, no slogans or ideals, only a genuine and visceral reaction to the unfairness of the system she lives under. This is perhaps the source of the hesitant optimism in the film's coda, written by Marker in 1993, when he re-edited and restructured his original 1977 film, in which he comments on how things have changed and stayed the same in the years since he made this film.

Marker consistently looks to animals for inspiration. Of all the assembled heads of state at the Shah of Iran's grand festival at Persepolis, the voiceover says, earlier in the film, "compare their expressions with the clear eye of the cat... the cat is never on the side of power." There's a freedom, an innocence and simplicity, in the animal, that Marker clearly respects. So it's appropriate that in the film's coda, he locates a metaphor for radicalism in the use of helicopters to slaughter wolves, thinning the herd with rifles, as originally documented at the end of the 1977 version of the film. In 1993, Marker retains some hope about the future of protest and resistance: fifteen years later, he notes, some of those wolves are still alive.


Unknown said...

I would argue that this film is not so much about the internal failure of the revolutionary fervor of the late 60's, but the Balkanization that took place behind the scenes to destroy it. Similar to The Hour of The Blast Furnaces, Marker is exploring the realities of a "war without end", events that began with the first world war that spawned the second and that have continued unabated to this day.

If this film can be called a eulogy, it is for the bygone era of nationalist wars. Marker documents the paradigm shift into proxy wars, a third world war predicated on small third world skirmishes. He leads this into a brief meditation on the corporatization of conflict, of outsourcing occupation. I believe his interest is equally concerned with the social need to bookend wars versus the reality of the conflicts of World War 2 still raging on.

Ed Howard said...

That's a fair point, Andrew. It seemed to me that Marker was equally critical of — or observant of — both external and internal factors in the loss of revolutionary spirit post-1968. In some ways they're part of the same thing; the co-opting of supposedly revolutionary movements by totalitarian leaders led to the dis-illusionment that so many people felt in the wake of the initial optimism represented by the student protests.

Your points about the film's treatment of the changing nature of war are very much appreciated. This is a dense, complex film with a lot going on, and it deals with many facets of history, so it demands multiple perspectives, multiple interpretations of what kind of picture Marker is drawing here.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Le fond de l'air est rouge is the French title, but A Grin Without a cat is most appropriate in that Chris Marker IS a cat. An alurophile supreme when asked for a photograph of himself Markr invariably sends a picture of a cat. Those familiar with his work note the importance of cats in such diverse fare as Le Joli Mai, Le Mystere Koumiko, La Jetee, and his masterpiece Sans Soleil

When he visited the set of Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice someone surreptitiously took a picture of Marker. I used to have it but it was lost when my computer crashed. It may be out there on the net somewhere still
(an excellent search for the intrepid.)

The ultimate film about post May 68 malaise is of course Jacques Rivette's Out One

Ed Howard said...

I've always loved Marker's fascination with cats, which is perhaps most beautifully expressed in the Japan scenes of Sans soleil (which, I agree, is his masterpiece, just a stunning film that hypnotizes and enthralls me each time I watch it).

Great story about that (single) picture of him, David. Marker's elusiveness is another aspect of his strange charm.

1001: A Film Odyssey is produced, directed and written by Chris, a librarian. said...

Will definitely put on my "to see" list.

Just Another Film Buff said...

Terrific stuff here, Ed. One of the greatest films by Marker and my candidate for the greatest political film ever made. Just look at its scope! Phew.


Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Chris and JAFB. I completely agree that it's among the most amazing, ambitious political films, really addressing its themes on a pretty deep level.

Joel Bocko said...

Excellent overview of a film which was once one of my "Holy Grail" movies (I once tried to download a torrent, had no clue what I was doing, and got only audio!). It came to Boston a few years ago, and I went with a friend to see it. The friend HATED it, and while I thoroughly enjoyed myself, I had to concede it was probably more due to the subject matter - which fascinates me - than the delivery. The film did not seem to have the same discipline or structure as Sans soleil, appropriate perhaps given the subject matter but nonetheless frustrating.

However, I can imagine it coalescing more on re-views and I'd love to see it again. You bring up a lot of astute points. Among them, this - "Marker seems to be encouraging a movement away from the ideal, towards the concrete." - reminds me of a book I read a year ago, called From Revolution to Ethics, about the movement away from pure rebellion to a system of ethical and legalistic opposition in the wake of May '68.

I've always felt that both the Achilles' heel and the strength of the left are its passion. On the one hand, an infusion of energy is needed (without it, the left can ossify into a smug, pedantic intellectualism or empty gesturing - as happened to the old left before the student revolutionaries came along, or as eventually happened to the ex-student revolutionaries when they took over the universities).

On the other hand, it is dangerous; it's no accident that totalitarians have a tendency to take over supposedly subversive movements: the emotional charge and desperate wish for change by any means possible open up an avenue for opportunistic tyrants to exploit (or for sincere revolutionaries to themselves become these tyrants).

So yes, a local and logical approach does seem warranted - at the same time, does this lead to what Andrew suggests, a Balkanization? Perhaps. Anyway, this is why I myself tend to be cautious politically - I am a registered independent, and generally favor pragmatism because pure idealism and revolutionary fervor so often seem to lead to the opposite of what is intended. Yet at the same time we can't do without it entirely; a healthy, passionate, and critical left is vital to any democracy - and that's one thing that's been missing for the past 20-30 years, at least in the U.S.

I agree with David about Out 1 - and I love the fact that (unless I'm misremembering) they don't ever use the phrase "May 68" yet we all know what they're talking about...

Joel Bocko said...

I love the pictures you used, by the way (speaking of which, you've been tagged in my most recent post...)

Ed Howard said...

MovieMan, I'd agree that this film is no Sans soleil, but then few works by ANY director approach that masterpiece, which I'd consider one of my favorite films, if not THE favorite. A Grin Without a Cat isn't as formally ambitious, but its more direct style is perhaps more suited to this kind of historical essay. And, as this discussion suggests, the film is provocative and packed with ideas.

I agree with you, and maybe Marker would as well, that the left has for some time now failed to strike a productive balance between passion/enthusiasm and pragmatism. There's plenty of enthusiasm, particularly at the outset of any given cause or event, but not nearly enough follow-through; just witness the slide back into apathy once Obama was elected. Everyone was excited and jazzed up just long enough for him to get into office, but where's that enthusiasm once it's time to do something concrete?

Joel Bocko said...

I think the mistake there may be investing too much in a leader, especially one (for better or worse) who is essentially a technocratic administrator, which is what the president functionally is. It's disappointing that his rapport for the public (which may have been more a case of oratory than true rapport) vanished as soon as he entered the Oval Office, replaced by a perfunctory PR approach - no FDR with the fireside chat is he. But in the end, it's a mistake to invest too much ambitious hope in an individual. Meaningful change is going to come on a smaller scale, and no one will deliver you except yourself. I think, anyway...

Cathedrale said...

Holly sh**, that's a review!!!

i'm astonished, and i'm gonna looking for this movie right now!!
Thank you!