1970s

We’re All Mad Here: Chris Marker’s ‘A Grin Without a Cat’

A Grin Without a Cat

Midway through Chris Marker’s 1977 essay film A Grin Without a Cat, one of its many disembodied narrators offers a reflection upon the footage playing out on screen, a depiction of the street protests that rocked Paris in May of 1968. The narrator says, “This type of situation is doubly misleading. All of a sudden, the state reveals its repressive side — the one which is more or less diluted in daily life to a greater or lesser extent. But now, it has to make a show of strength. And to do so, it sends in the police force, with all kinds of gear and contraptions that you didn’t know existed. Fine. For the demonstrator, the state appears like a vision. Like the Virgin Mary at Fatima. It’s a revelation. In extreme cases, someone has the power to decide which side of the street you can walk on, and, if you pick the wrong side, to kick you back into line. The thing that prevents you crossing the street is the state, but if you do cross it, you force a thing to step back. It’s the state that steps back.” The idea is that state authority lies in wait, but when it is called upon to act, it can do so forcefully and with a great show of its own power, accompanied by the visual signifiers of oppression: riot gear, batons, guns drawn, uniforms that collapse individual identity into an appendage of the state itself. However, somewhat optimistically, the narrator suggests that the act of social protest, when carried out, can actually succeed in knocking the state back on its heels. The rest of A Grin Without a Cat is not so sure.

Marker is probably most well-known for his short science fiction film La Jetée (1962), which would become the basis for Terry Gilliam’s American remake 12 Monkeys (1995), starring Bruce Willis as a time-traveler attempting to stop a deadly virus from wiping out all of humanity. A Grin Without a Cat (its French title translates more directly to The Essence of the Air Is Red) is likely a close second, a lengthy exploration of the forces that led to the leftist social uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s around the world, and the backlash of the state that sought to suppress their dissent. Tracking both the Vietnam War and the protest movement against it in the United States and France, as well as the leftward political turn in South America that led to the rise of Fidel Castro in Cuba and other leftist leaders in the region, Marker covers the distance between the idealized sense of possibility promised by those social movements and their limited ability to realize dramatic change through either political or cultural means. He gathers a remarkable collection of film footage from around the world, combining newsreel images with television broadcasts, narrated by a collection of unseen participants who offer fleeting observations about what they did (or did not) accomplish when they took to the streets. 

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A Grin Without a Cat

Credit: Courtesy of Icarus Films

In typical essay film tradition, Marker’s weapon is the use of montage, which connects historical movements across time and place, crashing images (both fictional and non-fictional) together the draw connections between social movements around the globe. He offers a reflection on one of the most iconic sequences in narrative film history, the Odessa Steps attack scene from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), which offers a dramatic rendering of a dynamic that will play out in documentary footage throughout the film: a group of peaceful demonstrators, set upon without mercy by the repressive agents of the state who are all too willing to exert authority through excessive, violent force. The bloodshed of the Odessa Steps sequence, thoughtlessly perpetrated by the robotic steps of the Cossack troops who march and fire their weapons into the crowd like an advancing army, has left an indelible impression on cinema history, its images restaged and parodied by a number of filmmakers. Marker adopts the scene as a fictionalized representation of the scenes he will include from various historical moments of social protest in the late 1960s and early 1970s, suggesting that real state power is no less vicious and bloodthirsty than that which Eisenstein depicted through heightened use of montage. 

The repetition of these images across place and time reveal something important about the struggle between the people and the states which govern them: our arguments are not new. In fact, they may not even be “arguments,” plural, but one ongoing debate about who has power and who doesn’t. Later in A Grin Without a Cat, Marker extends one of Eisenstein’s most famous moments of montage by pairing a succession of roaring lion statues (Eisenstein’s montage dramatizes the awakening of the proletariat, no longer willing to submit to tsarist rue) with a shot of a similar statue in the streets of Paris, with French students hanging on it during their own moment of protest. A French radio announcer recounting the protests for his listeners overtly draws a parallel between the May 1968 uprising and the storming of the Bastille in 1848, a detail that underlines Marker’s thesis throughout the film — that these battle lines have been in place for much of human history. 

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A Grin Without a Cat

Credit: Courtesy of Icarus Films

Elsewhere in A Grin Without a Cat, Marker tracks the impact of the Vietnam War on both France and the United States. Footage of a group of young white men chanting “Bomb Hanoi” plays like an eerie forerunner of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, equal parts fury and elation, fueled by white supremacy. In one particularly chilling moment of documentary footage, an American bomber pilot grins for the camera while conducting a bombing raid, absolutely thrilled by the total devastation he is dropping on the Vietcong fighters on the ground below. “That’s great fun!” he shouts, while excitedly describing his mission — death from above. Marker juxtaposes the pilot’s gleeful recounting of the effectiveness of his weaponry with footage of the consequences of the attack, a passage reminiscent of the napalm sequence in Peter Davis’s landmark Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), in which a nude Vietnamese girl screams in pain at the burns that stretch across her back. The state’s professionalization of violence is the natural outcome of industrialization. The war is a particularly salient issue for Marker, as French and American fates in Vietnam are intertwined — the Americans moved in to Southeast Asia just as the French were beginning to withdraw after a humiliating and demoralizing defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1955. This is a dynamic memorably evoked in the oft-maligned “French Plantation” sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now Redux (re-edited and re-released in 2001 after the original film’s 1979 date). Though Coppola returned once again to his Vietnam epic for yet another reworking, the 2019 “Final Cut,” in which he excised some scenes which had appeared in the Redux version, it is telling that he retained the French Plantation scene in its entirety, despite the criticism that it earned from those who argued it bogged down the film’s journey towards its destination at the end of the river. Coppola’s point, like Marker’s, is that the state is incapable of totally abandoning its commitment to its own power, even after suffering apparent defeat. The leader of the French Plantation (Christian Marquand), when asked by Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) how long they will remain on their farm in the jungle, says, without a second thought, “We stay forever.”  

Another movement of A Grin Without a Cat focuses on the leftward tide in Latin America, with particular focus on Cuba (Fidel Castro appears throughout the film in archival footages from interviews and news conferences), Venezuela and Chile. One of this section’s major characters is the guerilla revolutionary Che Guevara, about whom many of the subjects speak admiringly. To them, Guevara is a true believer who refuses to compromise his own ideals in the face of intimidation. Marker’s portrayal of his assassination in 1967 (in which the American C.I.A. played a significant role) makes the fallen leader into a martyr; his images linger over Guevara’s face as he lies dead, his open eyes staring up into the heavens from his stretcher, and he shows a press conference given by Castro, who flips through photographs of Guevara’s body, performing outrage for the news media. His image lingers into the immediate aftermath of his death, a symbol of protest that animates protests in Latin America and elsewhere, a kind of patron saint of those fighting on the side of the oppressed the world over. Neither Marker nor the subjects of the footage he has collected could have fully anticipated, of course, the way that Guevara’s image has been commodified, his familiar portrait emblazoned on dorm room posters and t-shirts hanging on the rack in shopping mall retailers. 

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A Grin Without a Cat

Another group of great leftists, the band The Clash, knew that the capitalist system was powerful enough to co-opt the most committed ideologues: “Turning rebellion into money,” as Joe Strummer sings in “White Man (In Hammersmith Palais),” a track from the band’s debut album. The Clash too would turn their focus on Latin America with their record Sandinista!, released in 1980. Most overtly, the track “Washington Bullets” dramatizes the historical record of political struggle in Latin America from a decidedly leftist point of view. The song’s lyrics are of a piece with Marker’s subject: “As every Cell in Chile Will Tell / The Cries of the Tortured Men / Remember Allende and the Days Before / Before the Army Came / Please Remember Victor Jara in the Santiago Stadium / Es Verdad, Those Washington Bullets Again.” Marker’s own film tracks the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile that ousted Salvador Allende, a Marxist who was democratically elected on a socialist platform in 1970, as does Costa-Gavras’ 1982 film Missing, a narrative drama about an American businessman (Jack Lemmon) who travels to South America to find his son, who has disappeared in the aftermath of the coup.  Few narrative films, especially those in American cinema, are able to effectively harness the dread menace that agents of the state are capable of instilling through their overt performance of authority. The riot gear that renders the individual officers behind the masks faceless, an act of self-dehumanization in the name of the state’s power to exercise violence, allows these officers to inflict harm upon peaceful demonstrators. Oliver Stone’s 1989 film Born on the Fourth of July is a striking exception, evidenced by a protest midway through the film, one which serves as a pivot point for the paraplegic veteran Ron Kovic (Tom Cruise), heretofore a true believer in his country’s cause in Vietnam despite the injuries he suffered in its service and the dismissive treatment he received in the veterans’ hospital. Kovic, seeing black-clad police officers descend upon a crowd of protestors on a college campus where he is visiting an old friend, changes his mind about the war and the government he agreed to fight for. It is not hard to see why — Stone’s camera finds close-ups of the anonymous officers, their faces behind black riot shields that make them seem like automatons sent to crush dissent by any means necessary. 

Of course, those are the ostensibly democratic governments — especially the United States and France, whose surface commitment to liberal democracy includes the entrenchment of the right to dissent and protest the dominant social structure without violent reprisal by the state. In the second part of A Grin Without a Cat, Marker turns to the communist states, the Czech Republic (then part of the Soviet bloc) and China, exploring the degree to which these regimes become inseparable from the authoritarian, cult-of-personality leaders who hold power within them. The domination of autocrats in these countries undermines the faith in the socialist project around the world; relatively mainstream French politicians appear in documentary footage from television interview programs, expressing skepticism that a leftist or socialist program would work in their country, no doubt fearing the rise of Soviet or Chinese-style autocracy and centralized state control. The muddying of terms (socialist vs. communist) works to the advantage of the political figures and power brokers who maintain the status quo, a process that Marker reveals through careful selection of film footage, as political figures deliberately align the two ideologies despite their differences in practice. Some academics who appear in Grin Without a Cat are a bit more charitable, lamenting the ways in which Vladimir Lenin, in leading a supposedly Marxist revolution in Soviet Russia, deviated from the Marxist ideals that he purported to espouse and instead presided over the instantiation of a party apparatus whose only true ideal was power, most clearly personified by Josef Stalin. The result, whether due to obfuscation on the part of political figures or historical rationalization by the literate elite, is that little changes in the material conditions of the working and the poor.   

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A Grin Without a Cat

Credit: Courtesy of Icarus Films

Though Marker’s ostensible subject is the social uprisings of the 1960s, in response to the atrocities perpetrated by various nation states in Southeast Asia and Latin America, the film is also concerned with the efficacy of images — their ability (or inability) to participate meaningfully in the act of social change. From the film’s opening moments, which uses Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin as a kind of lodestar for the visual depiction both of social protest and the state’s violent efforts to suppress it, A Grin Without a Cat relentlessly interrogates the role images play in the ongoing struggle. The very nature of documentary cinema and essay films like Marker’s illustrates the power of Eisenstein’s defining belief in the essential nature of montage. Images are endlessly malleable, shifting their meaning depending upon the context in which they are placed. Such acts of montage can create powerful historical parallels, as jackbooted agents of the state, rifles drawn, march down the Odessa Steps in Potemkin, through the streets of Paris and Prague in 1968, and on college campuses in the United States during the protests against the Vietnam War — these historical rhymes speak loudest when captured in pictures and placed in comparison with one another through artful juxtaposition. And yet, the act of montage unintentionally reveals its limitations; the film can identify these historical parallels, but it’s comparatively powerless to arrest them. Why else would these images continue to recur? Marker, were he still alive to do so, could seamlessly integrate footage of riot-gear police gathering to put down the uprisings in Tahrir Square circa 2010; in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri in 2014; protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019; the ongoing protests against the kleptocracy in Belarus; or the increasingly violent reactions of American police, their fit-of-pique vengeance meted out against protestors marching in defiance of their excessive uses of force in cities and small towns across the country in the summer of 2020, reaching their lowest point when the President of the United States ordered federal officers to tear-gas demonstrators outside the White House so he could pose for a photograph in front of a church. The continued salience of these images, which carry historical echoes across geographical space and recorded time, both universalizes human experience and reinforces its apparent stagnation. Images have been ultimately ineffectual.

In fairness to the moving picture, so too have human beings themselves been unsuccessful in remaking society in a more equitable way. Marker’s collected film footage bears witness to a history of oppression and those who rose up against it, but it also documents the collective states’ relative ease in batting the revolutionary impulse away, like King Kong swatting away the diving biplanes. Of course, King Kong eventually fell from the tower, unable to withstand the sheer volume of gunfire brought to bear against him. Throughout the historical footage collected in Marker’s film, and the images that contemporary audiences might self-supply to extend the historical continuity, the state reveals itself to be remarkably resilient; unlike Kong, it has shown few signs of toppling.  

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A Grin Without a Cat

Credit: Courtesy of Icarus Films

For a film about anger — both that of the social movements animated in protest and that belonging to the state which will brook no challenge to its authority — A Grin Without a Cat is surprisingly without its own anger. The meandering nature of the essay film is such that it tends towards the exploratory, locked in circuitous inquiry rather than didactic calls to action. The clinical approach Marker takes gives the entire proceeding something of the feel of an autopsy; it is a reflection on the failures or shortcomings of the protests of the 1960s in bringing about real change. The Vietnam War ended in the middle of the 1970s, but at best, these social movements fought the authority of the state to a draw. One particular interview subject sums up the feeling quite aptly. Speaking in French, he says “Some said that the United States of 1968-69 was the Russia of 1905. We have 12 years to see if that’s true.” Ronald Reagan, who had been one of the governors so ardently putting down protests in his state, declared victory in the presidential race on election night 1980, offering a defiant answer that, though it postdates the release of A Grin Without a Cat, feels like a looming epilogue that hangs over its entire second half. To watch the film in re-release is to know that the promised revolution has not yet been televised; perhaps even more than in its own time, A Grin Without a Cat wonders aloud whether it ever will be.

A Grin Without a Cat is currently available to stream at OVID.tv.

Brian Brems (@BrianBrems) is an Assistant Professor of English and Film at the College of DuPage, a large two-year institution located in the western Chicago suburbs. He has a Master’s Degree from Northern Illinois University in English with a Film & Literature concentration. He has a wife, Genna, and two dogs, Bowie and Iggy.

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