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A Grin Without a Cat

A Grin Without a Cat
Icarus Films
1977 (1993 version) / B&W - Color / 1:37 flat full frame / 177 240 min. / Le fond de l'air est rouge / Street Date May 5, 2009 / 29.98
With the voices of Yves Montand, Jim Broadbent, Cyril Cusack, Simone Signoret, Jorge Semprún
Cinematography Pierre-William Glenn
Film Editor Chris Marker
Original Music Luciano Berio
Written and Directed by Chris. Marker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly pitted against that of governments, who would like us to have no memory."

The last on-screen text in Chris Marker's 1977 A Grin Without a Cat acknowledges the filmmaker's use of an enormous quantity of news film, much of it taken under dangerous conditions, during the activist struggles of the 1960s and early '70s. We've seen plenty of documentaries seeking to explain (and in some cases eulogize) the emergence and subsidance of The New Left: the international anti-war movement and political upheavals of 1968. Peerless intellectual documentarian Chris Marker (Sans Soleil) uses three hours (originally four) to present an in-depth picture of the unrest of the sixties. Some of the film sources on view can be seen nowhere else, as they were repurposed from even more obscure documentaries. Thanks to Marker, we're allowed a memory of events quietly suppressed in mainstream news channels of the time.

Marker is an expert on memory; his brilliant Science Fiction short subject (La Jeteé) analyzes the concept of memory more cleanly than any Alain Resnais film. His essay-documentaries are known for their complexity; Sans Soleil twists and turns in its associations and clever juxtapositions. Organized into two roughly 90-minute halves, A Grin Without a Cat is more straightforward. It does utilize clever editorial trick-work, as when the 1925 Soviet film Battleship Potemkin kicks off a montage of protest and repression throughout the 20th century. The famous shot of a mother carrying a baby on the Odessa Steps is practically identical to a real image of a demonstrator trying to evacuate an injured woman.

The editing occasionally creates irony by association. Fidel Castro claims in 1961 that his revolution will someday become institutionalized unless it evolves to stay relevant. Marker cuts to a giant curtain rising on a 1975 gathering of the Cuban Congress, arrayed on stage as if part of a beauty pageant.

Marker also indulges more than a few jokes. Godard-like inter-titles ask, "Why is the camera shaking?" when we see some film footage with a bad blur effect from a misaligned shutter. He has fun pointing out Fidel Castro's habit of playing with podium microphones during his speeches. A montage of mike-fiddling ends with Castro stumped when a bank of Russian microphones won't budge.

The title A Grin Without a Cat is a cagey Lewis Carroll reference. The elusive desire for a worldwide revolution by The New Left came to a head in 1968 but proved to be a romantic notion that failed for lack of anything like a real consensus: "We'd all love to see the plans", sang John Lennon. Marker returns often to the massive social experiment, or perhaps pressure valve, that was Paris in May of '68, where we see the confusion of the day resulting in a hopeful alliance between students and workers. But the only authoritative voice that stands out is a dry company executive who makes a clear point ... take away capitalism and you have to uproot the entire society. There are no halfway measures. Without power or profit, "management specialists" will have no incentive to advise the new worker-owners.

Marker conceives of the process as a grand tragedy. The only possible result of anarchy in Paris seems a conflict like the Spanish Civil War. But in other spots on the globe, terrible betrayals and political crimes ruin what could have been meaningful social progress.

Part one is called Fragile Hands, which figuratively refers to the hands of comradely brotherhood which communist ideology preached would cross all national boundaries and sweep the world up into a new society of workers. Marker scores early points with Vietnam footage in which an American ground support pilot cheerfully narrates his machine gun, bomb and Napalm run on the ordinary-looking Viet countryside. "Great fun! I like to do that!" smiles the pilot. Marker is not afraid to inter-cut this footage with Nazi Stukas bombing Spain in the 1930s. It all seems the same, especially when we're shown U.S. military and intelligence agency anti-insurgency training camps for Latin American dictatorships, complete with demos of fancy arms for sale and torture training. Yes, we actually see footage of captured Viet Cong being subjected to Waterboarding- like induced drowning techniques.

Marker jumps neatly from Nazi war-making to real neo-Nazis in America, where a young spokesman predicts that they'll soon be repatriating negroes back to Africa and executing "Commies and traitors". Marker doesn't quite equate Vietnamese fighters with Parisian workers but he scores solidly when protesting the fact that the Shah of Iran tortures and murders, yet is welcomed in gatherings of world leaders. Meanwhile, activist militants are demonized and hunted down as monsters.

The capture and defeat of Che Guevara in Bolivia exemplifies Marker's "fragile hands" analogy; Che's defeat came because the Bolivian Communist party in La Paz abandoned his charismatic revolution in the hills. In an example of A Grin Without a Cat's rare footage, we see two large segments in which Bolivian Communist leader Mario Monje (an eloquent Spanish speaker) sidesteps responsibility for Che's betrayal. A rift immediately developed between Fidel Castro and other Latin American Communist organizations -- in Venezuela, armed revolutionaries in the hills were opposed not only by the government but also by the Soviet-dominated party in Caracas. The idea of a socialist brotherhood was proved a myth.

On the other side of the fence, A Grin Without a Cat has amazing film footage of a Pentagon press briefing by a U.S. Army major and a shirt-sleeved intelligence spokesman. They take credit for training the special Bolivian army unit that hunted down and executed Che Guevara; they even say that allowing Che to stay alive would present a "publicity problem". This is indeed the kind of history that despots want us to forget.

When the May student protests in Paris become a full-on worker's strike and the entire country is shut down, we get a perfect example of the way the mainstream reports social unrest:

Interviewer: "Do you blame these events on outside agitators?"
Woman in street: "Yes!"
Interviewer: "Why?"
Woman in street: "Why, the events, of course!"

We hear speaker after speaker talking of Socialist Revolution, clearly not connecting with ordinary Parisian citizens who deplore the vandalism and fires: "Even the Germans avoided destroying Paris!"

Part two, Severed Hands, recounts the destruction of socialist revolutions. Nearly everybody condemns the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia, including Fidel Castro, who is particularly inflamed that a supposedly sovereign Marxist government would so freely cooperate with the Soviets. Again, we see rare footage. Czech newsmen climb atop a Russian tank to harangue its commander -- why is he oppressing fellow Communists? Graffiti on a wall shouts, "Lenin wake up! Brezhnev is talking bullshit!"

From then on the news is almost all dismal. The Czechs stage Stalin-like show trials. The '68 Olympics in Mexico City goes on without a hitch after government troops gun down 200 (some say 300) student demonstrators in the streets in the Tlatelolco Massacre. The film offers a litany of activists and radicals murdered or disappeared, across the world. In Japan, outbreaks of industrial pollution poisonings and birth defects ignite a dramatic in-your-face protest at a public meeting (more startling footage). Douglas Bravo, the Guevara associate fighting for years in the Venezuelan hills, now has no support from anyone, including Cuba.  1

French intellectual Régis Debray was captured while fighting with Guevara. The Bolivians let him go in 1970, whereupon he went to Chile to report on Salvador Allende's budding socialist government there. Marker has an excellent prison interview with the optimistic Debray and heartbreaking footage of Allende speaking his mind at public meetings. The democratically elected Chilean president has a non-violent approach to problems and a calm sense of humor: There seem to be some disturbed by my good health." We see the last known film footage of Allende before his death (in a coup engineered by the U.S. State Department). Beatriz Allende is shown eulogizing her father in a speech in Havana.

The windup of the film reveals that Chris Marker revised it in 1993, cutting it by an hour and changing the ending. He narrates a few thoughts about concepts that arrived after 1977 -- boat people, AIDS, Reaganism -- and speaks over the original ending, which had concentrated on the massive arms trade to oppressive Third World governments. The final images are of jet helicopters being used to shoot wolves from the air. The wolves represent the surviving members of The New Left, who we see blasted one by one from above. It's a typically pointed Marker analogy.

Icarus Films' DVD of A Grin Without a Cat is an extremely welcome release of a movie almost too intense for one theater screening; at home one can take down names and dates to study later.

The image quality is good, with the caveat that some of the source material Chris Marker draws from is compromised in quality. The Potemkin clips look terrible, as one can imagine, and many other shots exist only in dupes or scratched. Slightly more troublesome is an occasional difficulty in hearing the audio mix when the narration (at least in the English track) doesn't clear the background audio. Also, it looks as if original lab work has left a few bits of optical dirt that persist through the entire film. Let me stress that 98% of the film is clear, bright and easy to understand. Many speeches and narration bits are left in their original languages and translated with subtitles.

The disc carries no video extras. Full English, French and German versions are present, with Spanish and Portuguese versions made by fully subtitling the French version. A fourteen page booklet contains a 2008 essay by Chris Marker and a glowing Film Threat web review by Phil Hall from May 2002 .

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Grin Without a Cat rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good -- Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Chris Marker essay; review by Phil Hall
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 15, 2009


1. Wikipedia says that Douglas Bravo is still active, criticizing Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez for not being far enough left!

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson

See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
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