The Red and The Black

Chris Marker dissects the corpse of the Sixties revolutions

Unlike the flower people he dismisses out of hand, Marker derives scant joy in generational elitism. A wrong-place/wrong-time sense of survivor's guilt informs even the most dynamic moments. A Grin's first and most immediately powerful images are extracted from the bit in Battleship Potemkin where the mutinying Russian marines pull revolution out of thin air with one word: "BROTHERS!" Marker, however, doesn't quite have Eisenstein's nerve for polemic. "I didn't see Potemkin when it first came out, was too young," he admits. Next, he juxtaposes Potemkin's epiphany with images of statist violence throughout the century, as if to apologize for his elder's glowing agitprop idealism.

This shame threads through his direction like a germ. When Marker's own shot at 1917 rolls around 51 years later in Paris, his lens is literally shaking in the tide of events, an inadvertent embodiment of one of May's many catchy slogans: "The workers will take the revolution from the fragile hands of the students." What develops is a key formal dilemma, a mistrust of the camera's ability to record facts, or of facts to stay facts long enough to be recorded. When May '68's energy fizzles, we go scrabbling for hope in Prague and scenes from the 14th Congress of the Communist Party, annulled after the Soviet invasion. "Have a good look at these images," the narrator offers. "They show something that never took place."

That's pretty upsetting, but the effect on the filmmaking itself is exhilarating. In spots the pace and dissonance make it feel as if the camera is leading Marker, not the other way around, and this helplessness leads us further into the formal margins. In one especially striking sequence we hear "a letter to a few comrades about China," as we watch two Chinese dancers whose push-me-pull-you ballet represents the "upside-down dialectics" of the Cultural Revolution. That's one of the more obvious bits. Certain allusions go totally unresolved, connections dangling like severed limbs.

Next stop Baghdad: Chris Marker looks at the contrails of the revolutionary Sixties
New Yorker Films
Next stop Baghdad: Chris Marker looks at the contrails of the revolutionary Sixties

If some of this sounds a little flaky, don't sweat it. There's plenty of hard-knock documentary realism to keep you grounded: a long scene where Salvador Allende addresses besieged Chilean factory workers in amazingly direct terms, another scene where his daughter addresses Cuban communists after his death, a lecture from Pentagon higher-ups on the training of anti-guerrilla forces in Bolivia, Castro struggling with immobile Soviet microphones. These stories, and many others, seem like the building blocks to an actual understanding of events--some are inspiring, others stultifying.

Yet if A Grin teaches anything, it's that spectacle always short-sheets history. By the time Marker runs out of Sixties, he has long since run out of illusions. Watching footage of the march on the Pentagon, he's stunned by how easily protesters were allowed right up to the gates only to turn back at the door, a collusion between power and the powerless. "I filmed it and I showed it as a victory for the movement," Marker explains. "But when I look at these scenes again, and put them against stories the police told us about how it was they who lit the fires in the police stations in May '68, I wonder if some of our victories from the Sixties weren't cut from the same cloth."

In other words, maybe there could never be real insurrection on the steps of the Pentagon, maybe a well-policed display was what the movement needed anyway. He's admitting that the left is just as guilty as the right for turning staged victories into ideological salves--for turning history into kitsch into politics. It's the poetry of his revelation that hits so hard. We can always construct our own narratives--plug in our 1917s, our Chicagos, our Seattles. Trouble is, we have to live in them.

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