What date shall I assign to Chris Marker’s magnum opus, A Grin Without a Cat? This rugged oak of an essay-film, whose gnarls trace the growth and withering of decades of leftist politics, is now playing for the first time in the United States, where it’s being shown in the form Marker gave it after
the demise of the Soviet Union. I might say it’s a film from 1993; and yet the version we now have is the revision of a work completed in 1977, when Communism was still alive, and anti-Communism was more than the hungry zombie it’s since become.
Communism was still alive, but even then Marker perceived a change. The last major event he incorporated into his essay was the 1974 election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to the presidency of France. In the film, this election represents the end of a period of turmoil that had begun in 1967: the year of campus uprisings in the United States against the Vietnam War, increased union militancy in France, bloody student protests in Berlin against the visiting Shah of Iran, the death in Bolivia of Che Guevara. It’s fair to say that the main body of A Grin Without a Cat deals with these years, so I might date the film 1967-74.
But then, the historical marker slips back even further. To explain why Che perished as he did, to account for his prestige in death, to suggest how that martyrdom shaped the period that followed, the film revisits 1962, when Douglas Bravo launched a guerrilla war in rural Venezuela. Believing that a few militants could spark revolution on their own, Bravo and his followers abandoned the discipline of the Communist Party. That was the good news. The bad news was, they also abandoned the party’s political base. In Marker’s words (which are spoken throughout the film by several voiceover narrators), the guerrillas made themselves into “a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat.”
The phrase brings to mind Lewis Carroll, and maybe Gogol, too. I will have something to say about the rude adventures of this grin. First, though, a question: Assuming there was once a whole cat, what did it look like?
Marker gives a filmmaker’s reply: He goes back in time to The Battleship Potemkin. His picture begins in that other movie–begins twice, in fact. As his first gesture in A Grin Without a Cat, Marker shows us Eisenstein’s celebrated vision of the Potemkin mutiny, in which a sailor faces a line of riflemen and wins them over with a single shout: Brothers! Out of that moment, Marker develops a great, thrilling montage sequence of his own, spanning half a century of conflicts in the streets and ending on Eisenstein’s Odessa steps, more or less in the present day. There, as if to begin the film again, Marker shows us a pleasant young woman who sits in the sunshine, chatting with an offscreen interviewer. She is a French-speaking Intourist guide, and she can testify that this site is very popular. She brings people to it two or three times a day.
We might conclude that the not-quite-mythical cat was on the prowl sometime between these two historical moments, the first of inspiration, the second of nostalgia. We might decide that A Grin Without a Cat is dated 1925-93.
During those years, was anything left unfilmed? To watch this picture is to be astonished at the world of footage that’s been piled up here, some of it shot by Marker himself, most of it recorded by others, both known and anonymous. The raw materials of A Grin Without a Cat include images of a US pilot bombing Vietnam, as seen from the cockpit; scenes of carefully staged party congresses in Havana and Beijing and of an unscripted, on-the-run congress in 1968 Prague; views of the festive Cat Parade in Ypres; broadcasts of the Watergate hearings and of the Shah of Iran’s grandiose party for himself in Persepolis; raw footage of Communist and Trotskyist workers getting into a fistfight at a factory gate; interviews in the jungle with Douglas Bravo, in the Pentagon with a counterinsurgency expert, in the Citroën headquarters with that firm’s managing director; Soviet newsreels from World War II; a student collective’s newsreel from 1967 Berlin; shots of Giscard d’Estaing playing the accordion and of The Who destroying their instruments; behind-the-scenes pictures of training sessions at the School of the Americas; and the usual amalgam of flaming automobiles, flying tear-gas canisters, descending truncheons and human beings lying in pools of blood.
So complete is the filmed record on which Marker draws, and so associative is his method of using it, that he can show us a statement made in 1968 by a Czech national hero, Emil Zatopek, just before he was stripped of his military rank for protesting against the invasion; Zatopek at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, when he famously swept the distance running events; and Zatopek in 1972, when he was released from the mines and trotted out to look solemn at the Munich Olympics, when the games continued despite the murder of eleven Israeli athletes. But then, Marker comments, “I had been in Mexico City in 1968, when 200 people were killed so the games could begin,” and we have that footage, too.
This sort of thing can make your head spin; but since it should also make your head clear, Marker’s montage is not only associative but diagrammatic as well. A Grin Without a Cat is divided into two main sections. Part One, “Fragile Hands,” concentrates on the events of 1967 and 1968, up to the fizzling of the May revolt in France. Part Two, “Severed Hands,” begins with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, continues with the rise and fall of Salvador Allende (and the Gang of Four) and concludes with the fading of the cat’s grin, late in the 1970s.
Marker tends to present these events in big loops. He’ll jump from source to source, place to place, to develop an argument (about the concept of a revolution in the revolution, for example); he’ll digress to examine the way people gestured with their hands, or how they either filled or did not fill the space between striking workers and police; and then he’ll swing back to close the loop, concluding one phase of his essay and moving on to the next. At each phase (at least in the earlier part of the film) he also introduces elements that I might as well call dialectical. When he shows a group of war protesters preparing to burn their draft cards in 1967, he also shows a rally of the American Nazi Party. When French student leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit comes into the picture, so does Giscard d’Estaing. We watch the New Left rise in tandem with the New Right. In Marker’s view of history, the development of the New Right may have been the New Left’s greatest achievement.
If so, then the Old Left contributed ample help. Marker makes the point with stunning force during his section on Czechoslovakia, when he unexpectedly closes one of those big loops of montage. Citizens of Prague have surrounded a Soviet tank driver and are berating him–“How could you, a Communist, be doing this?”–when that intertitle from The Battleship Potemkin pops onto the screen again, in a way that’s now heartbreaking and futile: Brothers!
And since Marker is a moviemaker above all, A Grin Without a Cat also makes its point as a movie should, through the actions of its star. Yes, there is a lead actor in this film: Fidel Castro, whose many performances, interspersed throughout the picture, amount to a little drama of their own, complete with a nasty plot twist. Here is Fidel on the podium, addressing a night-time rally with wit, vigor and good sense. Here he is again, sprawled casually on the grass for the benefit of the camera, giving a very good impersonation of a man speaking spontaneously, sensitively, about popular militancy and his comrade Che Guevara. And here, giving a radio broadcast, Fidel appears to work himself into a fury against the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as a dramatic overture to praising the Soviets for their tanks.
This is dense, complex, allusive filmmaking, encyclopedic in ambition, profound in understanding, playful enough in form to make you smile sometimes at the tricks of history. Though Marker has made an elegy to the left, he would prefer that you leave the theater invigorated, feeling that power is still abroad in the world, and that you and your friends might still disrupt its dirty work.
My only complaint is that the film could have sent you home feeling even better. During the period Marker covers, the feminists got a few things done, often without bothering to define their relationship to the Communist Party; but feminism shows up very late in A Grin Without a Cat, as a mere afterthought. Africa doesn’t show up at all; yet activists from around the world made some changes there too, such as ending apartheid and establishing a new democratic state. You may choose to add to the list a third or fourth victory. We’ve had a few, despite all of history’s tricks.
That said, A Grin Without a Cat was made for you, Nation reader. It premieres in America on May Day, at New York’s Film Forum.
Abbas Kiarostami’s most recent documentary, which premieres in the United States on May 3 at New York’s Cinema Village, is about nothing other than Africa and feminism. Made on behalf of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development, ABC Africa is the record of a trip to Uganda, during which Kiarostami investigated the effect of AIDS on women and children.
The effect, briefly stated, is that children are orphaned, and women are left to care for them: six, eleven, thirty-five at a time. According to the film, there are now more than 1.6 million orphans in Uganda, out of a population of 22 million. The Catholic Church helps by offering a wretched level of care to the suffering, meanwhile insuring there will be more suffering by discouraging the use of condoms. By contrast, the Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) helps with a program that encourages women to band together and become economically self-sufficient.
I lack the space in this column to describe even a part of what Kiarostami recorded with his digital video cameras. It’s enough to say that, while he captured images on the run, he somehow made a Kiarostami film. ABC Africa is devastating, as you’d expect. It’s also lyrical, beautiful and quietly inventive.