CAPSULE: Chris Marker's epic four-hour history of the New Left from 1967 to its fall in 1977 has rarely been seen in the United States until now. Cut to three hours, it may still feel ponderous and obscure to some. As mostly a hodge-podge of roughly edited footage, it recreates the feel of the period, but in the end its obscurity undercuts its power. Tracking the leftist movement from the exuberance of the late 1960s to dissolution of the movement in the late 1970s this is a huge project that feels like it veered off course. It probably works much better in France than in front of an international audience. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
One type of film that the French do better than anyone else is the epic-length documentary. Marcel Ophuls's THE SORROW AND THE PITY and Claude Lanzmann's SHOAH have been shown in the United States to deserved acclaim. In my opinion the only epic documentary from the United States that stands with these films is Ken Burns's THE CIVIL WAR. One major French documentary that has never gotten much of a release here was Chris Marker's A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT. To be honest I had not even heard of this film until a few weeks before its scheduled DVD release in the United States in May 2009, though it had a low-key release in 2002. The film was originally 240 minutes in 1977 and was cut to 177 minutes for a European rerelease in 1993. Why the film has been so rarely seen in this country is not hard to guess.
The name Chris Marker may sound familiar, by the way. He wrote and directed a 28-minute film "La Jetee." Terry Gilliam remade the film, enlarging on the ideas, for his TWELVE MONKEYS.
Here is a test to see for yourself if this documentary is for you. Suppose you were to see a film clip of a young Jacques Delors. Would you know who that was? Would you recognize him? Would you know that he was later to become a major figure in the French Parti Socialiste? Would you enjoy hearing him or someone like him discuss dialectic in French accompanied by frequently difficult to read subtitles? No doubt there are some who will answer with "no" and some who can answer with "yes". I freely admit I am in the "no" camp. Perhaps greater numbers of French would be in the "yes" group. Still, Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann made their documentaries accessible with little presumed preparation. Chris Marker did not. Marker will have someone lecturing in French and intercut a picture of what looks like a raccoon. It appears a complete non sequitur. Meanwhile the person talking usually is not given any identification and his speech is not very clearly translated into English. At times even the subtitles are hard to read.
Marker begins with the Odessa Steps scene of Serge Eisenstein's BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, intercutting it with nearly identical scenes taken from then current news footage. Marker's study of the New Left starts in 1967 with protests of the Vietnam War. Then early on there is a disturbing sequence of an American flyer taking great pleasure from the sport of dropping napalm on Viet Cong on the ground and watching them scatter. "We saw people running every which way ... I really like to do that." Intercut we see footage of people burned by napalm and get a better feel of why they do run every which way. So far the narrative is fairly clear, but it does not remain that way. Soon it will be littered with long speeches with obscure references. Someone will just start talking about the Grenelle Report without any explanation of what it is or what its importance is. Presumably it is more meaningful in France.
Marker will give us footage of Fidel Castro making a speech about policy. It will not be clear how it fits in. But Castro's style is to speak with long pauses between sentences to collect his thoughts. Marker needed to do something to edit out the pauses, but instead the viewer sits and waits. There is a lot of footage of crowds protesting. The camera will pick someone out of the crowd and focus on him. Is he someone important or just supposed to represent a typical member of the crowd? We never know. Again, this might be a very different film in France.
The film is divided in two parts. The first part titled "Fragile Hands" chronicles the Vietnam War and the protests it generated in the United States and also in Europe. The title is a reference to a quote that the workers will takes the revolution from the "fragile hands" of the students. As I remember that period, most of the workers wanted to part of the protest or the protesters. Norman Lear was more accurate when he personified the typical worker as Archie Bunker. The second part, entitled "Severed Hands", is more downbeat and starts with the schisms in the left brought about by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It covers the leftist movement in France, Japan, Venezuela, Cuba, the United States, China, Chile, West Germany, Northern Ireland, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and South Africa. It ends with Chile and the bringing down of reformer Salvador Allende.
While the footage cobbled together gives a feel for the excitement and disappointment of the times, the editing seems rough and the sound is often muddy. This feels almost like a rough cut rather than a film that has been re-edited more than once, but the crudeness is probably intentional to give the film tone. Still this film seems more like a pile of scenes than an edifying history. Some of the electronic music used sounds like something from a Dario Argento film.
To get full value from A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT, it would be necessary to watch it taking notes on what is not familiar. Then one would have to research those topics--Wikipedia is probably fine. Then watch the film a second time. And no doubt there will be more to look up. That is not saying that it is a bad documentary, by any means, but it is made for a different audience than the film will likely find in the United States. This is a long documentary that recreates feel of exciting times but does not explain those times as clearly as an Ophuls film would. I rate A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10. The title of the film is obviously a reference to the Cheshire Cat in Lewis Carroll's ALICE'S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND, but the meaning remains unclear. The French title of the film, LE FOND DE L'AIR EST ROUGE, means "the bottom of the air is red." If anything, that makes less sense.
The DVD is being released on DVD on May 14 from Icarus Films. It comes with a 16-page booklet which includes essays by Chris Marker and film critic Phil Hall.
Film Credits: http://us.imdb.com/title/tt0076042/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/grin_without_a_cat/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2009 Mark R. Leeper