The Red and The Black

Chris Marker dissects the corpse of the Sixties revolutions

Sometimes history allows itself to be written by the losers. In 1967, Paris anarchist Raoul Vaneigem opened his book The Revolution of Everyday Life by trying to conceive of the apocalypse sprawl of the 20th Century. "The history of our time calls to mind those Walt Disney characters [ sic] who rush madly over the edge of a cliff without seeing it: The power of their imagination keeps them suspended in mid-air, but as soon as they look down and see where they are, they fall."

In that spirit, let's take a look at a movie about the suspended lives of dead coyotes. Vaneigem was talking about the impossibility of running headlong into a historical moment without coming out the other side looking like a cartoon--a post-Sixties sentiment a decade ahead of its time. He was also talking about the brutality of history itself. And his lines could easily be spooled into fellow French radical Chris Marker's self-described "three hours of reminiscence" on the New Left, 1977's A Grin Without a Cat, an incredibly dense, violently impressionistic meditation on political memory and personal loss. A Grin dumpster-dives through the myth of the Sixties with wicked resignation and kick-in-the-teeth honesty.

"History only tastes bitter to those who want it to be sugarcoated," Marker wrote in a 1984 essay recently republished in Hatred of Capitalism: A Semiotext(e) Reader. He wraps that harsh reality around the legend of the era like a velvet noose, reviving his nasty memories with an exhausted lyricism that has more in common with the oneiric illegibility of Mulholland Drive than with the sobriety of movement standards like Seeing Red.

The film is, in the strictest sense, a leftist postmortem, with Marker dissecting the story of the anti-imperialist struggle he calls "the 'Third World' War." The events are not that obscure. Fueled by Castro, Mao, and, most poignant, Che, a new generation of anti-Stalinist radicals played in the space between old-line Communist bearcats and Guevarist guerrillas, a "revolution within the revolution." On college campuses and in jungle camps, in European metropolises and Venezuelan mountains, this insurgence stayed alive for about a decade, despite Che's death, Castro's kowtowing to the Soviets, and the superpower interventions in Czechoslovakia and Chile. Marker begins the story in the Vietnam of 1967--the "point of convergence for all the world's contradictions." These ideological tremors resonate from the streets of Prague to the jungles of Bolivia, from Munich to Brazil. Along the way, Marker's camera visits the Cultural Revolution ("the new 1917") and Watergate (a TV non-event), with an unsatisfying bit tacked on in 1993 to add post-Soviet context.

The bulk of the film predictably hovers over the much-mythologized student-worker uprisings of Paris known as May '68, a swamp of giddy exhalation and crushed hope that Marker slogs through in deep detail. (We finally run out of gas with the French Left's last mid-Seventies capitulations.) Yet we still find time to pinball all over the global and ideological map. We see imperialism's face in a U.S. bombardier over Vietnam ("Outstanding!" he exclaims, dropping a load of napalm). We talk tactics with Fidel and talk turkey with striking French workers ("Vote as red as you like," one urges. "It will fade in time"). We see Panthers passing out Little Red Books; we see Mao purge the party. We visit Che's funeral, de Gaulle's funeral, Pompidou's funeral, Malcolm X's funeral. Lots of funerals. Oh, yeah, and there will also be bullshit: We plow through more sexy garret renegades than Winona Ryder at a Strokes/Hives double bill.

If some of the history is familiar (and a lot of it won't be, unless you're big into cats like Douglas Bravo and Régis Debray), the genius is in the retelling; A Grin's pleasures are primarily aesthetic--not something you can say for a lot of leftist postmortems. It almost feels like we're watching a whodunit. The clues are sketchy and the criminals are sometimes indistinguishable from the victims. The hunt is furious, the amount of information nearly unmanageable, the mythical distance oh-so-romantic. Finally getting its first American theatrical release, A Grin seems to have descended from some netherpast in which, for a second, everything seemed up for grabs--a time when Mao's image was the stuff of trading cards and you could squeeze the phrase General Confederation of the Workers into bar conversation and still get action. Or at least come home from the Sorbonne with a little blood on your sweater.

 

Marker's own story isn't without blood and myth itself. Famous for shrouding his biography in apocrypha, the 82-year-old fought with the French resistance during World War II and seems to have been around for many upheavals he depicts. While his most famous movie is 1961's sci-fi La Jetée, he makes the film encyclopedias for developing the hyper-subjective documentary style called the "essay film." A Grin's rush of images comes from newsreels, TV interviews, propaganda films, censored material, and Marker's own far-flung footage. The filmmaker sews this Frankenstein together with the thread of ambiguity and doubt--his own wracked perspective remaining front and center. At times, he almost seems to derive a grim pleasure from the profundity of the left's myriad failures, as he plays with the iconography that Jacques Lacan called "the narcissism of the lost cause."

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