Filmmaker As Socialist Anthologist

Chris Marker’s Grin Without A Cat (Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge)

My father was an anthologist who published dozens of volumes on themes as diverse as eroticism, plants and cats.  He was someone who found great pleasure in the largely lost art of the literary anthology. His book collection was rife with obscure volumes, day books and Victorian diaries that he would peruse, noting in pencil on the inside back cover the pages that presented an interesting quote or idea on this or that subject. He would then use these parts to create a thesis of his own.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always had a fondness for films that use edited clips to create pointed narratives out of the millions of hours of footage found in recesses of news archives and the like. Chris Marker’s 1977 film A Grin Without A Cat (finally released on DVD this month, by Icarus Films) is, along with Emile de Antonio’s work, one of the defining political “anthology” films of the 60s and 70s (which can also be called a “compilation” or “essay” film if you like). Marker is an esteemed artistic figure and leftist political critic in France best known for his seminal work La Jetee (1962) and Sans Soliel (1982); not surprisingly, he remains largely unknown in America. And, like an anthologist, he shuns auteur status (which is seen these days in the often misleading “A Film By…” under a title).  For example, he doesn’t even take a directorial credit on A Grin Without A Cat but, rather, lists himself as editor and composer.

A Grin Without A Cat, a title that references a line from Alice in Wonderland, is the film that should be shown to younger generations of Americans whose understanding of the meaning that socialism had throughout the world doesn’t go beyond a kitschy reference to mid-1980s anti-communist films like Red Dawn. The film is a—if not the—visual narrative history of the tremendous popular anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist movements that swept through Southeast Asia, Latin America, and even western industrial democracies in the 1960s and 70s. Marker’s work shows incredible breadth and scope. In fact, the original film was four hours but this most recent version has been cut down to three—the first section, called “Fragile Hands,” covers the international surge in leftist movements sparked from the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War that culminated in the Parisian student riots in May 1968. The second section, titled “Severed Hands,” largely deals with the eventual fragmentation of leftist movements and diminution of revolutionary fervor into the 70s and beyond. 

A typical sequence in “Fragile Hands” goes from German student radicals vigorously protesting the Shah of Iran to Bolivian leftists to Che Guevara to Black Panthers in the US to Maoists in Peking and then back to Latin America, with each section exhibiting pointed and often extremely rare footage, some shot by Marker, but most culled from archives, other films, friends and who knows where. Some of the many notable scenes include a US fighter pilot who, while napalming the Vietnamese countryside, is downright jolly, exclaiming “That’s great fun!  We really like to do that!” That is soon followed by footage from a helicopter flying over the jungle broadcasting ghostly recordings on a US Psy-Ops mission, which segues into footage of what looks like water-boarding where you can hear an American accent in the background saying “Hey, don’t kill him.” Then it’s a Neo-Nazi rally in the US where a group is yelling “Bomb Hanoi!”

But Marker’s objective is not agitprop.  It’s rather to create a critical film-essay edited by someone steeped in the complexities of leftist political movements that occurred at the time. He doesn’t shy away from addressing the left’s endless factions and contradictions or from providing an exegisis, exultation, and obituary of the socialist ideal.  For example, there is a lengthy section of cogent criticism by a French businessman on the practical problems of a worker-run factory as well as a searing portrayal of the Soviet invasion of Prague, which includes a clip of Fidel Castro saying that the event “puts every world revolutionary movement in a difficult situation.”  This historiography can seem weighted down with internal references and theoretical narratives that might at times baffle all but the more erudite history buff. But it nonetheless gives play to the fact that socialism is not some monolithic entity but rather a basis of ideas, the manifestation of which is entirely contextual and often-changing due to internal criticism and debate (or what Marker—borrowing from Régis Debray—calls the “revolution within the revolution”). Grin Without a Cat captures the moment when student radicals and workers came together in western industrial nations, often joining in solidarity with the rebels in developing countries. It’s a necessary reminder that not long ago, it seemed like “real change” was going to happen.

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Williams Cole