The Red and The Black
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."
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.
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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