Grin Without a Cat (1977)
Directed by Chris Marker
Tuesday, August 21, at the Spectacle Theater, part of its Lessons for Radicals series
Like a Howard Zinn tome with abated tendentiousness and a detached sense of humor, Chris Marker's tour-de-force A Grin Without a Cat views political history through the slanted eye of the downtrodden Marxist. A collage of news footage and communist agitprop, with eulogic narration from countless co-conspirators, the film digests the brief, if global-scale, rise of socialism in the late 1960s and the fractiousness that made the revolution a nonstarter. Marker's timeline begins with the Vietnam War, moving through Mao, Ché Guevara, Castro, and the Prague Spring until climaxing with the May 1968 revolt in France, but the free-form rhetoric frequently digresses to provide context, either historical (such as eastern Europe's post-WWII disillusionment) or emotional (objective corollaries range from Battleship Potemkin clips to punch-ins of cats and raccoons).
The protean stream of commentary alternates unsmoothly between poetry and didacticism, often within the same breath. (As Marker himself intones, “Look well at these images. They show something which, apparently, never happened.”) But the film's pleasures are, as ever with this impish film-essayist, contrapuntal. Subtly satirical riffs on dumb TV documentary techniques abound; at one point, an overdubbed voice mourns the death of a penurious, 80-year-old communist nobody atop footage of an automobile factory assembly line, illustrating the cheapness of proletariat nobility. And Marker depicts the downward slide of his politico heroes without mercy; as Castro morphs from a voice of reason into a blowhard, film clips of his speeches are menacingly distorted with screeching electronic music and jittery frames. The resultant document, despite the glut of text and extended running time, is the opposite of exhaustive. Artfully incomplete, like a chapter torn out of a textbook and annotated with crayon, A Grin Without A Cat represents one socialist's journey from grief to acceptance in the aftermath of defeat.