A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT (Le Fond de L’Air Est Rouge) A
France (240 mi) 1977 re-edited 1993 US version (180 mi) d: Chris Marker
The workers will take the struggle from the fragile hands of the students.
One is unlikely to ever see so much collected Communist footage without watching propaganda films, as Marker, a member of the “Left Bank” of the New Wave for his Marxist inspired politics, fought in the French Resistance during World War II, and his films, like ¡CUBA SI! (1961), are often sympathetic to Socialist movements around the world. His work combines social issues with formal experiment, getting his start as a foreign correspondent and inquiring reporter, where he is especially interested in transitional societies, “Life in the process of becoming history.” His films are not only set in specific places, they are about the cultures of those places, calling his approach “Involved objectivity.” An epic, years-in-the-making history of militant/revolutionary struggle from the 1960’s, there are essentially two versions of this film, a 1977 four-hour version in French, which would probably score a higher grade, and a 1993 re-edited, three-hour English language translation, which likely loses something without the original French speakers, such as Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, who are among the collective of French narrative voices. Ideally, in film essays, one appreciates the tone of the narrative voice, such as the authoritarian, yet highly personal voice of Terrence Davies in Of Time and the City (2008), whose eloquence and perfect diction reflects his devout Catholic upbringing, which he angrily rails against in his heavily autobiographical film. Without hearing the intended voices when Marker made the film, one can only surmise what must be missing from this American version, as the dry and emotionless English language narrator continually takes the air out of the wealth of material with his monotone and often lifeless readings. That’s unfortunate, as certainly one of the revelations of this film is the rare historic nature of the collected archival materials, where the narrator should help put this invaluable footage in perspective. Consider this segment with a French narration, presumably Marker himself, beautifully recalling a childhood experience when he first watched Eisenstein’s BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN (1925) Grin Without a Cat (Opening Sequence) - Chris Marker - YouTube (4:04), emphatically describing that magical moment when he first hears the words “Brothers!” This opening POTEMKIN sequence is utterly enthralling, especially with that mix of militarism and Mozart in the original score written by Luciano Berio, using carefully edited clips from the original movie, then cleverly introducing chosen footage of 1960’s demonstrations that resulted in bloody clashes with heavily armed police, mirroring the chaos and pandemonium from the Odessa Steps sequence.
Along with Jean Eustache’s film The Mother and the Whore (La Maman et la Putain) (1973), these are definitive expressions of innocence lost, reflecting the aftermath of the failed French revolution in May 1968 and the end of the French New Wave, while Bertolucci’s film Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione) (1964) is a wonderfully insightful critique of the Communist Party leading up to that promised day when the revolution would finally come. Marker’s video essay is comprised entirely of archival footage on revolutionary events between 1966 and 1977, dividing his work into two parts, first examining the unity and optimism gearing up for May 1968 in France, while also documenting the subsequent collapse of global socialist struggles, leaving the Left fractured and in disarray afterwards. If there is one word that encapsulates what the 60’s was about, that word would be Vietnam. Marker shows footage of American armed merchants selling their wares, including explosive devices that can be hooked up to common household items such as soap dishes, proudly displaying their effectiveness, claiming this could easily blow up a car as well. America’s fascination with weapons is displayed by an overzealous Air Force pilot filmed while on a mission dropping bombs and napalm on Vietnam, positively exhilarated that he was able to obliterate live targets seen running on the ground out in the open Air Force pilot in Vietnam: at war and loving it - YouTube (2:00). Perhaps the poster faces of revolution in the 60’s were that of a youthful Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, both advocates of guerilla warfare. While this tactic may have worked in Cuba, leading Parisian socialists were not so quick to pronounce this an effective strategy in Europe. Nonetheless, there is plenty of footage of Castro analyzing the various international strategies, such as the Cuban Missile crisis or the Russian decision to abandon Cuba, where more than any other, he is the most featured speaker. The film examines the effectiveness of Stalinism, suggesting one of the problems of the Russian Revolution was the lack of input from ordinary citizens, where it was not a people’s revolution, ruling instead through despotic control, using the police and armed military to prevent dissent, so the socialist mindset was never accepted by ordinary citizens, believing it was imposed upon them rather than a collective method where everyone contributed to the whole, which is exactly how Russia always portrayed itself in the propaganda films. By contrast, the Chinese Revolution is a people’s revolution, where ordinary people are the engine that generates activism, where they have a personal stake in the output, generated by local party council meetings where they are constantly feeding input to the top. The problem, however, is corruption, where a few would rather consolidate their own power, taking advantage of their position in the party for special favors. Nonetheless, effective or not, there was a growing influence of Maoism, especially after the Sino-Soviet Split, where even the American Black Panther Party carried around Mao’s Little Red Book, aka Quotations from Chairman Mao.
Without ever endorsing any particular method, Marker is careful not to editorialize, but offers perhaps the best composite overview and critique of his own failed Marxist dream, occasionally interjecting an eccentric electronic score that adds a fragmented touch of dissonance or discord, where the events leading up to May 1968 are prefaced by other Protests of 1968, including a worldwide series of demonstrations and strikes, largely comprised of students and workers, including the Tlatelolco massacre of 200 protesters in Mexico ten days prior to the 1968 Summer Olympic games, where not a single country lodged any protest. May 1968 is significant because the world might be a different place had there been a different outcome, truly a historic moment in time when the Parisian student demonstrations combined with nationwide French worker strikes creating the largest general strike in the history of an advanced industrial nation, a prolonged two-week strike involving 11 million workers and nearly a quarter of the French population. The impact was so significant it brought about the collapse of the De Gaulle government, but there is still plenty of disagreement about what went wrong, where the general consensus is the lack of a cohesive direction, where the Communist Party all but supported the government, as the leftist student movements never made the case for a worker’s movement, the foundation of any socialist revolution, allowing a wedge to be brought between the two groups which the government capitalized upon. Major Ralph “Pappy” Shelton is seen in his Pentagon offices describing the capture and killing of Che Guevara in the mountains of Bolivia, proudly gloating at this success, eager to assess blame that Che’s mistake was relying upon a Communist Party that hadn’t established a footing and never connected with the locals in Bolivia, leaving him isolated and vulnerable. This event seems to foreshadow more ominous occurrences yet to come.
Marker’s analysis of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August of 1968 is nothing short of breathtaking, perhaps the high point of the film, as it capsulizes the deflated hopes of those advocating international socialism, that call to arms for fraternal brotherhood so brilliantly depicted in POTEMKIN. Even Castro is outraged, calling it an illegal act when a socialist nation militarily occupies another nation, as it goes against everything the international brotherhood of socialists stand for and only weakens their position worldwide. Marker also provides stunning footage of recently elected Socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile addressing a gathering crowd, charming and completely relaxed, displaying a candid logic and intelligence while attempting to alleviate tensions about converting the nation to a socialist state, claiming there are already capitalist precedents. He is also seen giving a surprisingly honest speech about the necessity of imposing a wage freeze to avert inflation, for which he received jeers and hisses at a worker’s hall gathering where he speaks about a worker’s moral obligation, but he was the tragic victim of a U.S. backed military coup shortly afterwards, allegedly committing a forced suicide while surrounded by an armed opposition, immediately installing military head Augusto Pinochet. We see Allende’s daughter Beatriz gravely addressing a crowd in Cuba afterwards, receiving a warm reception, but she later committed suicide. A collection of TV reports, guerrilla newsreels, government propaganda, speeches, and various interviews, the images are drawn mainly from rarely shown footage shot by others, chiefly outtakes from other documentaries, Marker has a way of distilling seemingly disparate ideas in surprisingly provocative ways. A memorial to those free spirits who fought for liberty, equality, and human solidarity, Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the national motto of France, Marker’s film is bluntly critical, while remaining poetic and perceptive in its analysis, a landmark work where there is nothing else remotely like it. Unfortunately, a moving and significant credit at the end remains untranslated in the American version, paying tribute to the collective nature of filmmaking, “The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses and activists whose work is constantly pitted against that of the powers that be, who would like us to have no memory.”
Excerpts from a 15-page Marker essay entitled Sixties originally released by Icarus Film Distribution Company upon the film’s 2008 DVD release, seen here:
In May anyway the final whistle came quickly: with the first casualty. Not too serious for revolutionaries, but it’s a fact, the murder of Pierre Overney by a Renault watchman would bring everyone back to the real value of lives, things and words. On the workers’ front, the great wave finally met its dikes, a phenomenon summarised by former minister Edgar Pisani in one sentence, ‘a terrible connivance between the conservative apparatus of the CGT (the communist-led union) and the conservative apparatus of the government’. And a great disorder fell on everyone’s mind.
Strangely, the small clannish fights used to draw a kind of overdetermination from the fact they had developed in this fuzzy space of the imaginary revolution. Left to their own devices amidst a reassured country, they became weakly and purposeless. Historical Anarchy had died – heroically – in Spain. To refer to it now made no more sense than being a royalist, unless it became an ideological business, quite profitable at that. The Communist Party had missed every helping hand offered by History and started the long spin of a motorless airplane. French Maoism would remain a landmark in the history of teratology. The foolishness of morons is a plague, but statistically speaking we have to put up with it. What is fascinating is the foolishness of clever people and in this particular case, some of the cleverest.
Elsewhere, things were more violent, more difficult than in France, but the curve was the same. For having gleaned a few traces of these luminous and murky years, I tinkered with these films. They don’t claim to be any more than that: traces. Even the most megalomaniac, A Grin Without a Cat (originally four hours long, wisely reduced to three but without modifying the content, just shortening it, with a short monologue at the end), is in no way the chronicle of a decade. Its inevitable gaps would become unjustifiable. It revolves around a precise theme: what happens when a party, the CP, and a great power, the USSR, cease to embody the revolutionary hope, what looms up in their place and how the showdown is staged. The irony is that thirty years later, the question is irrelevant. Both have ceased to exist and the only chronicle is that of the unending rehearsal of a play which has never premiered.