The 1960s: an oft-misremembered, overly romanticized era when it comes to the movies. Hindsight changes a lot of things, but is that any excuse for the long hair, tie die and soundtrack fetishization of Forrest Gump, or the eroticization of radicalism in The Dreamers? In both films, “the left” appears as a seemingly unified whole, an establishment as rigid and stable as the government it supposedly rebels against. Throw in some love children, maybe a humorless university student or two and some equally humorless cops (often in riot gear), cue the Hendrix and you’ve got “the 60s.” Or, at least, some perversely simplified refraction of that era.
One could view Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (1977), just released on DVD by Icarus Films Home Video, as an aggressive antidote to such dumbed-down fairytales of that tumultuous time period, but that would hardly scratch the surface of the film’s profundity.
In this three-hour tome to two decades of political struggle around the globe, Marker charts the idealistic rise of the international leftist movement in the 1960s and its problematic fracturing in the subsequent decade. Using his characteristic essay-film format, Marker culls interviews and footage from disparate sources, including propaganda and activist films, and weaves them into a complex tapestry of perpetually diverging political viewpoints.
In part one, “Fragile Hands,” Marker begins with footage from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and continues on to chart the rise of global protests in reaction to the war in Vietnam. Swiftly moving from Paris to Prague to Bolivia to Venezuela, Marker documents a political left that is unified in a common vision for revolution. In part two, “Severed Hands,” the dreamed-of utopia turns into a splintered dystopia as Che is killed, the Prague Spring is cut short, and differences in rhetoric factionalize the once united front.
Poetic in its insight, perceptive in its analysis, and blunt about the successes and failings of arguably the most important generation of protestors of the twentieth century, A Grin Without a Cat is undeniably a landmark documentary achievement. Keeping his own scripted narration to a minimum (among the voices heard are legendary actors Simone Signoret and Yves Montand), Marker smartly lets the clips speak for themselves, allowing the separate voices and viewpoints to converge in a cacophony of contradiction. Socialists, Neo-Nazis, Guerillas and American GIs all pass by in front of the camera and speak their mind, and while it is impossible not to see where Marker’s sympathies lie, he is smart not to silence any voices. And therein lies the magnitude of the film: Marker’s isn’t a single viewpoint or a platform for his own beliefs, but a tapestry of an era.
Fans of Marker’s work should be aware of two upcoming events. The mixed media exhibition Chris Marker: “Quelle heure est-elle?” opens on May 16 at the Peter Blum gallery in Chelsea, and consists of three series of photographs (Koreans, Crush-Art, QUELLE HEURE EST-ELLE?) as well as video installations, posters, and other Marker goodies. And for those up for a road trip to Boston, the Harvard Film Archive is hosting a retrospective of the director — including a special Second Life presentation on May 16, in which Marker will appear in the guise of his feline alter-ego, Guillaume-en-Egypte.
Also on DVD this week:
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) (Paramount, Region 1) — Based on an early short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Brad Pitt is born old and ages backwards from there. You could buy this now, or wait another month and get the Criterion edition — which, along with the usual extras, includes an essay by Kent Jones, which will most likely be at least as good as the movie itself.
Momma’s Man (2008) (Kino, Region 1) — “Have you ever had to watch your parents get old?” asks Azazel Jacobs’ film, which risks sincerity and earnestness to investigate the emotion confusion as a grown man has to come to terms with his parents’ mortality. Blessedly devoid of Hollywood sap and cheese, there’s a vulnerability to the characters that is both uncommon and sympathetic.
Profit motive and the whispering wind (2008) (Watchmaker Films, Region 1) — John Gianvito’s ethereal tribute to the remembered and forgotten who fought for human rights and justice throughout American history. Eschewing narration, Gianvito concentrates on gravestones and other public monuments, creating a poetically democratic fusion of memory and landscape.
TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: American Musicals (The Band Wagon/Meet Me in St. Louis/Singin’ in the Rain/Easter Parade) (2009) (Warner Home Video, Region 1) — If you don’t own these, you probably should, especially The Band Wagon, whose show stopping film noir number includes plenty of dames, roscoes, gracefully tumbling goons, and some of the best pulp posturing put to film.
Twilight (Ultimate Collector’s Set) (2008) (Blu Ray Region ‘A’) — Don’t buy it for the movie, but for the jewelry box, exclusive watch, charm bracelet, bookmark, and certificate of authenticity. Especially the latter.
Wendy and Lucy (2008) (Oscilloscope, Region 1) — Its story of a girl (Michelle Williams) and her dog (real name Lucy) who head out west looking for work may seem to recall the Neorealist classic Umberto D, but it really follows the “Westward Ho!” ethos of the nineteenth century. But as director Kelly Reichardt shows, Manifest Destiny is truly dead, and there’s no place left to go.