Judge Daryl Loomis sees grinning cats all the time. He's just that funny.
It is a great asset in life, not to know what you're talking about.
In Paris at the end of 2001, people began to notice a grinning yellow cat appearing in odd places all around the city. While not a physical manifestation of Lewis Carroll's Cheshire Cat, this huge feline caricature stared out over the city from the tops of skyscrapers and the sides of buildings, almost anywhere and in all sizes. How did they appear so suddenly and, more important, what do they mean? With this mystery as his basis, acclaimed documentarian/film essayist Chris Marker (La Jetée) explores the changes in culture and politics of a post-9/11 Paris.
Using the montages, mixed media, and freely associated imagery on which he has built his reputation, Marker takes us to the streets to see the people whom the cat stares down on. Solving the mystery of the cat is much less important to Marker than understanding what the cat meant to a rapidly changing and discontented populous…if anything at all. His explorations take us from the streets and into the métro to show people living their day to day lives, unaware that they live under a specter of fear instilled by their own government. Is this cat meant to represent a government that smiles at its people, tells them everything's alright, but with oppression (in the name of national security) squarely on its mind? On the contrary, it seems closer to representing the antithesis. Taking a cue the 1968 French protest slogan, "Poetry is in the street," this cat never says that anything is alright; only that art and esthetics are political statements unto themselves.
Marker, however, is too digressive to give us a satisfactory answer to the question, and that's a good thing. The ambiguousness allows him to look more closely at the new left of French activism, and he's bemused to find a politic of posturing in response to an increasingly right-leaning state instead of a politic of people looking for real change. In this way, The Case of the Grinning Cat is an oblique sequel to Marker's fabulous documentary, A Grin Without a Cat, in which he examined the fall of old Leftist politics on a broader world scale. Here, in the confines of the Paris streets, he can focus on the specific tension of the post-9/11 world and how, the day after the attacks, French papers read, "We are all Americans," but after a mere few weeks, America had become the villain. Marker explores the issues without giving resolution and, like the mysterious cat, is another jumping off points for new questions. Marker is entirely successful with The Case of the Grinning Cat. Now in his '80s, Marker keeps a whimsical distance from his subject, using humor to make his point as much as protest footage. He's at his absurd best when he mattes the cat into paintings from cave dwellings all the way through to Van Gogh, all the while talking about the grinning cat as pervasive throughout human history.
First Run Features has done an excellent job with their DVD of The Case of the Grinning Cat. Marker's imagery is often done using mixed-media and, as a result, the image is just as mixed. There are no transfer errors, but the picture quality is only fair. Neither is the sound anything to write home about. It is in stereo and very clear, but dynamic sound isn't really necessary here. The best part of the release, better than the feature itself, is a collection of Marker's short films that focus on animals. A pair features Marker's own cat, one in which he's laying on a keyboard listening to a sonata and another, called "Leila Attacks," about a mouse scaring a cat. A "bestiary" is next, with five films ranging from owls to an elephant doing a tango to an "Okinawa Bullfight," in which the bulls fight each other instead of people. Lastly, in an absolutely heartbreaking piece of cinema, is the 17 minute "Three Cheers for the Whales," which discusses the history of whaling for food and, later, for sport and profit. Violent and sad, there are images in this short that I will never forget. I recommend the disc for this film alone, but The Case of the Grinning Cat is an excellent, if often obscure, film essay that shows Chris Marker in his winter years as strong as he's ever been.
Not guilty; case closed.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Icarus Films
• Short Film: Leila Attacks
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