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.