Judge Daryl Loomis hopes they soon make an elegy to the death of the Neo-Con.
"Revolution is not a dinner party."—Chairman Mao Zedong
In Sergei Eisenstein's landmark 1925 landmark film, The Battleship Potemkin, Tsarist soldiers massacre the people on the Odessa Steps. Although this violence never occurred in reality, Eisenstein's imagery became integral to the Bolshevik mythology and a rallying point for the radical Socialist New Left regimes that would begin to emerge throughout the world in the 1960s. Chris Marker (La Jetée), in A Grin without a Cat, uses this scene as his springboard for exploring the causation of these left wing movements, their rise in popularity in the minds of students and workers across the globe, and the final collapse of the ideology.
Told over three hours and divided into two even parts, subtitled "The Fragile Hands" and "The Severed Hands," A Grin without a Cat weaves its web in a surprisingly linear fashion, given his 2004 film The Case of the Grinning Cat. The entire film consists of found footage, interview clips, and rare documentary footage with occasional narration over top of the image. While the montage of footage is not in any kind of timeline, Marker uses his expert editing skills to arrange the clips into a coherent, powerful story of the rise and fall of the Radical Left.
The story he tells, however, is not a pretty one and Marker pulls no punches. The rise of the ideology was predicated on violence, either inflicted on citizens by their own governments or manifested in foreign conflicts, and the director does not hide any of the torture and suppression, building our sympathy for the oppressed. Marker makes it clear from the opening moments what side of the fence he stands on, but neither is he striving for objectivity. Like much of his work, this is more of a film essay than a typical documentary. His explorations raise more questions than they answer, but the thoughts that arise from these questions are in the heads of the viewers, allowing for further exploration on an individual basis. The power of the film lies in the harrowing nature of the footage; of the plethora of shocking sights, there are a few lowlights.
At a convention somewhere in the jungle, put on by American manufacturers, envoys from the world over flock to see and test the latest in suppression technology, including hot new micro-explosives and electroshock devices.
On an Air Force bombing mission in the skies over North Vietnam, a bomber joyously discusses the most efficient strategies of napalming and gunning down "Victor Charlie." This man is best left to speak for himself: "That was an outstanding target! Alright, we bombed first of all and we could see the people running everywhere. It was fantastic! It's very, very seldom we see Victor Charlie run like that. When they do, we know we've got 'em. If we can keep 'em on the run than we know we're going to really hose 'em down…[laughs]…I've got four 20mm cannons you can see out here and we really hosed 'em down, by Jove! That's great fun, I really like to do that!" At once galling and disturbingly sad, this is the kind of attitude that justifies reciprocation. Whether this individual is good or bad is beside the point; in the heat of the bombing run, this man is utterly complicit in the evil he rains down on the North Vietnamese.
On top of this, in a montage of the horrors of war, we are presented with two soldiers waterboarding a prisoner. At the time of the film's release, this was simply one of many horrible images, but its current resonance is profound. After seeing the footage, I have no problem drawing a line in the sand: this practice is absolutely torture. The soldier's thrashings are clear death throes and such an action should never be performed on anybody under any circumstances. This is pure terror, an image I cannot forget.
If I have made A Grin without a Cat sound like Faces of Death for Leftists, that is the wrong impression. The film is about the struggle from under oppression, so the oppression must be shown. Out of struggle comes success, and Marker continues by showing some of the tenuous victories of the movement. Here, he focuses on the near revolution of Paris in 1968 and Fidel Castro. He spends quite a bit of time with both, though Castro's speeches are the hallmark. In these speeches and interviews with the Cuban leader, he discusses the movement, other leaders in it, and how great he is, of course, but goes on to speak on the pitfalls that can come from the movement and the resulting government gaining too much power; the ongoing cycle of government oppression and revolution.
With this in mind, Marker takes the entire second half of his film, "The Severed Hands," to detail the destruction of the movement and the re-establishment of the Right. To elucidate what happened, the director uses two primary examples: the death of Che Guevara and the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. Che's assassination in La Paz, Bolivia in 1967 helped to drive a wedge between Castro and the rest of the Latin American movements. Ideological differences and the lack of revolutionary influence from Guevara led Castro to believe that these nations were hopeless cases, false revolutionaries who immediately succumb to outside influence (a viewpoint given heft by additional footage of a State Department official discussing America's role in Che's murder). Furthering Marker's point, the director moves across the Atlantic to show us Soviet tanks rumbling through the streets of Prague while the Czech citizens demand to know how Communists could do this to other Communists. What happened to the brotherhood? Are the events of Battleship Potemkin all lies? They had their questions answered, unfortunately.
Marker's ability to persuade through this footage is astounding. The editing of the film clips combines with the poignant narration to ask questions of the viewer. This is a thought-provoking elegy to the Radical Left, and ideology Marker is very much at home with. He deliberately leaves out the other side, making no effort to explain the views of the government oppressors. Any hind of sympathy toward them would quickly undermine his aim. A Grin without a Cat is not so much a call to action, so it's hard to describe as propaganda, though it does skirt that line at times. Instead, Marker pleads with his audience to not forget the great work of these unsung heroes, who opened doors for the oppressed to gain rights and who thought that, maybe, with a little collective effort, a group of people could change the world for the greater good. Marker, at the end of his brilliant film, leaves us with this single credit:
"The true authors of this film are the countless cameramen, technical operators, witnesses, and activists whose work is constantly pitted against the powers that be, who would like us to have no memory."
A Grin without a Cat is presented by Icarus Films in an appropriately no-frills edition. Given the breadth of material here, it is just as well to have the experience without supplement. Because of the massive number of sources of Marker's film clips, the image quality is all over the map. The picture ranges through fill color, black and white, and sepia tones alternately. With some footage shot by amateurs on their Super 8's and some by professionals, there is no good way to judge the image quality. I can say that the opening and closing titles, some of the only original footage in the film, have some grain, so it doesn't appear to have had any restoration work done one it. The sound is similar, though there is much more original narration than there is footage. There are four individual language tracks and, though this is a French film, viewers will want to select the language they actually speak. The footage is in many different languages, all of which is subtitled, but the narration is in the chosen language and is not subtitled. The only extra to speak of is a written essay by Marker, "Sixties," where he shows himself to be as fine a writer as a filmmaker.
A Grin without a Cat should be required viewing. Not guilty.
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