A Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de l’air est rouge)

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Tonight’s film is long and there won’t be time later to stay around and discuss the film. However, our September 20 Labor Lyceum program will provide an opportunity to consider Chris Marker’s take on the struggles of the decade 1967-1977 and the significance of those struggles to our own. (Lyceum details are on the flyer you should have received).

Rather than anticipate the Lyceum discussion, I thought it might be useful tonight to say a few words about Grin Without a Cat as a film — and to say something about its remarkable director.

Chris Marker:  philosopher; fighter in the French Resistance; essayist and novelist; film director/producer/scriptwriter/narrator/codirector and coproducer/ founder and active member of film collectives/editor and publisher/producer of video and multimedia works/traveller/ photographer/ journalist…

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Chris Marker: enigmatic genius  — born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve, probably in 1921, probably in Paris… possibly in Ulan Bator (Mongolia)…

Chris Marker, reportedly took his pseudonym from the magic marker — quite literally a  nom de plume

Chris Marker is relatively unknown, considering the range, extent, and impact of his work in film over a period of fifty years, including:

  • work with Alain Resnais on Statues Also Die (1952 documentary on demise of indigenous African crafts) and Night and Fog (1955 Holocaust documentary which included Nazi footage from the death camps)
  • his own documentaries including Letter from Siberia  (1957 political travel essay), Cuba Si!  (1961study of Castro’s Cuba), and Lovely May (1963 study of Parisians’ world-view, based on street interviews)
  • a ground-breaking fiction film, The Pier (1964) — consisting almost entirely of still images
  • Far From Vietnam (1966),  segments by such filmmakers as Resnais, Ivens, and Godard,  edited under Marker’s supervision and produced by a collective he founded ( SLON)
  • political documentaries made with the SLON collective from 1968-1974 on subjects including auto workers’ struggles in France (several created by the workers themselves);  the anti-Vietnam War movement in the U.S. (The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, 1968); the failure of the Cuban sugar crop (The Battle of the Ten Millions, 1970);  agit-prop filmmaking and distribution in the Soviet Union (The Train Rolls On, 1971); and, after the collective had become ISKRA, about Chile (The Spiral,1975).
  • subsequent work as an individual filmmaker, including Cat Without a Grin (1977), Sunless (1983 documentary/essay on filmmaking), A.K. (1985 documentary on Kurosawa making his film, Ran)

Chris Marker continues to work on multimedia projects and continues to decline interviews …

In a world that divides film into fiction and documentary, Marker is a documentarist. But his work has broadened the definition of documentary film. His use of still images, his insistance on the interdependence of images/text/and sound, a witty and often ironic narrative stance that questions the very notions of objectivity that motivate traditional documentary, an emphasis on collaborative and collective work, open engagement with social struggle… these are among Marker’s contribution to his metier. If he has not created a new documentary language he has at least established a new syntax…

So as you watch the film tonight, I urge you to pay attention not only to what Marker is saying but how he is saying it. A Grin Without a Cat is a complex film. A montage mainly of other filmmakers’ work that juxtaposes footage that was never used, as well as images taped from television broacasts, Grin asks us to think not only about what happened in the past but about how we know what happened, how the past exists as memory — memory of images, the interpretation of images, the loss of images — how we (and others, including Marker himself) can manipulate the past…

The original film, released in 1977, was four hours long. In two Parts, “Fragile Hands” and “Severed Hands,” it dealt with the successes and failures of the left in many parts of the world during the decade 1967-1977. Twenty years later (after the collapse of the Soviet Union left global capitalism virtually unchallenged) Marker reedited the film and in 1997 released the three-hour version we will see tonight.

Describing his film as “scenes from the third world war,”  in 1978 Marker said  that “Some think the third World War will be set off by a nuclear missile. For me, that’s the way it will end. In the meantime, the figures of an intricate game are developing… A weird game. Its rules change as the match evolves… During the last ten years some groups of forces (often more instinctive than organized) have been trying to play the game themselves — even if they knocked over the pieces. Wherever they tried, they failed. Nevertheless, it’s been their being that has the most profoundly transformed politics in our time. This film intends to show some of the steps of this transformation.”

It is no coincidence that the game Marker describes suggests the chess and croquet games in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After all, the film’s English title refers to the Cheshire Cat, which can appear and vanish suddenly or “quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin,” which can remain “some time after the rest of it ha[s] gone,” leading Alice to reflect that “I’ve often seen a cat without a grin… but a grin without a cat! It’s the most curious thing I ever saw in all my life.”

And it is the Cheshire Cat from whom Alice receives advice we may all wish to consider as we reflect on this film, whose French title translates as “Revolution Is In the Air:”

(Alice)  “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

“I don’t much care where,” said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

“ — so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

“Oh, then you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough.”

As we speak the game goes on at the WTO meeting in Cancun…

(Note: Marker died July 2012, nine years after this screening and introduction.)

This introduction was presented on 12 September 2003.

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About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester's unions.