JWR Articles: Film/DVD - A Grin Without a Cat (Director/Writer: Chris Marker) - July 14, 2009
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A Grin Without a Cat

Le fond de l'air est rouge

4 4
180 min.

What does victory look like?

Chris Marker’s editorial tour de force is a marvellous compilation of film excerpts (nearly a dozen ranging from Roberto Savio’s Che Guevara Inchiesta su un Mito through Noriaki Tsushimoto’s Minamata), voices (principally Jim Broadbent, Charlotte Comwell and Robert Kramer—occasionally covering the historic utterings from the likes of Fidel Castro, Alfred Lynch, Simone Signoret and Yves Montand with brief introductions—onscreen captions would improve the flow) and music (notably Luciano Berio’s Quattro versioni originali della Ritirata notturna di Madrid di Luigi Boccherini sovrapposte e trascritte per orchestra underscores such key scenes as Santiago authorities applying water cannon to their protesting citizenry; a hint of the Rite of Spring for a look forward to Paris, 1977, a few measures from Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont playing in the background during the memorial for the slain Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics and a wee bit of Dixieland in a truck on the last “happy” May Day parade Paris would ever see).

Its three-hour run time is split in two: “Fragile Hands”; “Severed Hands.” In the former, Marker asserts that the global upheaval of the late ‘60s found its epicentre in 1967 rather than the more-widely accepted/reported 1968. These fragile hands belong to the students who must find some sort of alliance with the workers in order to obtain enough critical mass to effect change. In the latter, Prague’s 1968 invasion by the Soviet Union begins a near-unending stream of examples of political, moral and societal contradictions, proving conclusively that it’s virtually impossible to tell the good guys from the bad—especially with the advent of instantaneous and wide-spread television broadcasts (the Watergate hearings, we are told, didn’t require protests in the streets to draw the world’s attention to the daily revelation of Richard Nixon’s true character).

Aside from some stunning skeletal life forms depicting the slain Olympic athletes and a few moments of ballet (Letter to Someone, with two men demonstrating the shift from old-fashioned slavery to new-regime servitude—they cause the woman-in-red to twirl about incessantly even after she seems to have achieved her own victory—and the aforementioned music tracks, the role played by artists in these “Revolutions Within the Revolution” remains largely off screen. Similarly, the enormous power of the Church is never brought into the conversation. The sexual revolution must also take a back seat even when the 1969 Stonewall Rebellion came into the ugly, mores-altering spotlight. If life were just work and politics then that world and today’s would, necessarily, be far different from what was then and what is now.

In many ways, all religions began their existence due to the teachings, writings and actions of singular revolutionaries. The degree to which their cries of “Follow me” were heard decided whether such prophets and healers could come out of the hills and into the hearts of those thirsting for something more than material wealth in their lives, or if they and a few disciples would be forced to snipe from the sidelines, hoping that a miracle of belief or circumstance would fulfill their desperate need to “tear down the old in order to rebuild anew.”

If Fidel Castro’s “success” in Cuba is the bench mark for the promise of revolutionary spirit (“conquer or die”), and the larger scale 1917 Russian upheaval’s early victories—followed by entrenched totalitarianism only to disintegrate into complete ideological and geographic collapse—are the blueprints for other radicals to follow, then it seems the whole notion of solving society’s ills by instigating change at any cost is doomed to failure no matter what the scale. (Mao Tse-tung's apparently benign rule is also briefly assessed.)

As long as humans crave comfort, food and companionship ahead of the greater good (if everyone is born equal and, through education, health, location and just plain good luck, remain that way) then the rules and regulations we collectively adopt to limit anarchy and chaos (whether political, social or religious) will only be as stable and “successful” (if the revolutionaries can’t quantify what constitutes a victory, how can those they seek to replace?) as the sum of their parts. JWR

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