A Grin Without a Cat

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 28, 2015

This is agitprop, evolved to a very high, challenging and invaluable degree. We’re finding Chris Marker still to be a dedicated Marxist, but he’s no party hack, and I think that this film is better and truer—more searching, more self-critical, more humane—than so many of the original Soviet productions. Not that Marker has softened in his attitude toward the colonialist, capitalist project. This enormous four hour assembly starts with a stunning interweaving of Eisenstein’s Odessa Steps sequence (from Battleship Potemkin/1925, of course) with documentary footage of actual repressions, actual state murders. From these events we leap forward to a more recent Imperialist Incursion, embodied by the gleeful, bomb-dropping American pilot in Vietnam. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But for all of these clear lines and bold assertions, Marker’s elegant film essay is still, always, subtly shaded.

Much of that subtlety lies in the fact that A Grin Without a Cat is not only ideological cinema, but also educational cinema. The thunderous prologue turns out to be the shape of things to come, as far as the rest of the film goes. It’s dramatic, but it’s also densely, scrupulously informational. Tons of data, coming clear, coming fast and hard. Interrogation and critique. Questions, like crazy. Answers too, occasionally even expressed as moral certainties. On the other hand, when things are less clear, Marker says so. It occurs to you that he is actually a good example, as a film investigator, world citizen, person. He is firm, principled, but never doctrinaire.

The title is kind of perverse. (That Marker and his cats…) It’s partly a problem of translation, since the French original doesn’t really have an easy English equivalent. The grin and the cat seem to refer to the shining promise of revolutionary realities, and the fact that they never actually arrive. There’s a Cheshire tinge to the actual film too. A few of the dozens of well thought out, well articulated and strongly segue’d ideas here don’t quite stand up, or pan out. Marker might not have minded that characterization. Looking outward (at his subjects), he sees complexity, acknowledges insufficiency, condemns perfidy, where so e’er (cf. Rosi’s Manos sula Citta). The same goes for his own side, and the same comes after the inward glance.

This means that Ché Guevara and Fidel Castro and the revolutionaries of Paris ’68 come in for considerable, well-detailed criticism. It means that the Communist film director lets François Mitterand (also allied with the left, mind you) reasonably articulate an integration of progressive and market objectives. That sensible Citroen guy is given the floor to suggest that when it comes to the production of consumer goods, which we all need, capitalism really does make a lot of sense. From all of this we see that conscientious revolutionaries, and their conscientious films, can be in conflict with themselves. The exacting ideologue can admit as much. Or, in addition to political conviction, things are complicated.

And for the unconverted? Will you entrepeneurs find this film to be worth your while? Yes! For one thing, it’s good to hear from the folks on the other side of the aisle, even if they’re on the way other side. Then, in addition to all of this inquiry, made with such integrity, are the informational torrents. Facts! and vivid interpretations thereof. These are important things that we really ought to know. And it’s not like they don’t connect at all. After all, the last Shah’s reign, the entire trajectory of the Prague Spring and the subsequent Soviet crackdown, Allende ascendent and Allende deposed, Minimata, even arms sales and the culling of wolves are all part of a pattern, a historical and ideological tapestry that have everything to do with the geo-political present.

Most of us don’t do much of this kind of thing, and yet it may be the most important thing we can do. Education, and application—when you spend a lifetime on this kind of stuff, you start to know what you’re talking about. And of course, after knowledge and discourse come action. In a certain sense, maybe the only sense, films are always and only a prologue. Participate!