Le fond de l'air est rouge
directed by Chris Marker
by Travis Mackenzie Hoover Chris Marker lays down the theme of A Grin Without a Cat fairly early on. As he intercuts the Odessa Steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin with more recent footage of police clashing with protesters, he centres on one of Eisenstein's navy men calling out one word: "Brotherhood!" Brotherhood, unfortunately, is a tricky thing to achieve when you're trying to pull together the left, and Marker's three-hour quasi-documentary opus gives disappointed testimony on the revolution that almost happened in May of '68, when it looked as though the old and new left were about to conquer France and the world until the movement collapsed in confusion and indifference.
A Grin Without a Cat is sometimes not an easy film to view: Hurtling as it does from the lead-up of Vietnam and various Latin American struggles to the dispersal of the movement and the re-stabilization of the right, it makes a few shortcuts that will confuse those unfamiliar with left-wing infighting. But if you have any interest (and enough education) in the history of the left, you'll find it bittersweet and mournful, tinged with just enough of Marker's signature wit to keep it from becoming entirely morose.
Marker wastes little time in establishing the flashpoint that allowed the protests of the 1960s to happen: Vietnam. With some shocking footage of a fighter pilot taking great pleasure in napalming the Viet Cong, he identifies the mentality that was poisoning the landscape and uses images of a U.S. military tradeshow to display what the war's masters were using to help pacify its client states. For a shining moment, however, it appeared as though the devil had tipped his hand, as the conflict unleashed what Marker calls "World War III"--a moment when the bureaucratic, statesman-like old left seemed to be continuous with the new guerrillas who were fighting either metaphorically in the streets or literally in the wilderness.
For a time, the impossible seemed possible. Mao's revolution proved--apparently--that ideological entrenchment could be overthrown, and the example of Cuba offered another example of successful resistance. True, even here, there were cruel lessons to be learned, such as when Ché Guevara's perhaps hubristic attempt to foment revolution in all of Latin America came to a bad end in Bolivia; Marker also notes the disorderly conduct of the first-world left, such as the hugely self-interested "radicalization" of American students. But his impressionistic account sets us up for a battle royale, which first happened--then petered out--on the streets of Paris in 1968.
After that, all was darkness. Marker points to the non-event that was the Watergate hearings, at which point there should have been a mountain of protest; instead, people watched it on television. Meanwhile, the fragmentary French left betrayed its own confused principles in a series of parliamentary alliances that eventually ended in their irrelevance. And in the previous hotbed of Latin America, the lesson of Cuba was learned in its need to protect itself--there would be little surprise at leftist freedom fighters, and if there were, as in the case of Salvador Allende's Chile, America could be counted on to topple the troublemakers.
All this goes as a watered-down outline of the sprawling, impressionistic film that Marker has assembled. It's not really a streamlined history of the left--it's a king-sized greatest-hits collection, a physical history of the times from someone who manned the barricades and wants to show what he felt. It's not just about figures and places, it's about knowing the little tricks that Fidel Castro used to play with microphones and the tenuous link between street protests and a Belgian cat festival. This is the film's great advantage and biggest stumbling block--as it tries to naturalize a way of living and thinking about politics, its greatest appeal is to those who lived the fight or have the learning to fill in the blanks, making no concessions to the outsider. A Grin Without a Cat suggests a bunch of leftists nudging each other and saying, "Remember when?" There's nothing wrong with this, but the novice should be warned that he or she won't be sucked in so much as spit out onto a mountain of intellectual and sensory data.
Even the uninitiated should be able to understand its ultimate melancholy, though, as well as be able to mourn the passing of a moment when it looked as if the imperialist worm was about to turn. And in the film's coda (added, after much tinkering, in the early '90s), Marker seems less defeated than frustrated, knowing that the show must go on no matter how many setbacks he faces. This is the life of a communist intellectual, and it serves as a reminder of how to live as much as how to protest. Originally published: November 29, 2002.