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A Grin Without A Cat

Grinning at the recent past

May. 1, 2008
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History is memory writ large, with as many authors as disagreements, as many recurrences as digressions. Like personal memory, the larger narratives of history are always forgetful and are telling for what they omit as well as what they include.

The enigmatically titled documentary A Grin Without a Cat begins with the admission by its author, French filmmaker Chris Marker, that he was inspired first of all by Sergei Eisenstein’s classic of historical fiction, The Battleship Potemkin (1925). He doesn’t add that Eisenstein’s account of an actual incident was in many respects false, dramatized to serve the official narrative of Communist Russia but so effectively that it largely displaced more sober memories of the real events. A Grin Without a Cat, Marker’s idiosyncratic history of the 1960s New Left, draws from Eisenstein’s storytelling strategy of montage, the serial juxtaposing of images. Sometimes Marker samples Potemkin with intentional irony: cut from the revolutionary Red sailor of Potemkin shouting “Brothers!” to footage of Red tanks crushing the 1968 revolution in Prague.

But where Battleship Potemkin had an adamantine agenda, A Grin is more allusive in its perspective. The octogenarian Marker not only sympathized with New Left but was a participant, carrying a hand-held camera into demonstrations, riots, rap sessions and interviews with Fidel Castro. He has survived too much, and seen the world turn too many times, to strike forward with the cocksure confidence of revolutionaries from an epoch for whom raising high the banners of Utopianism seemed romantic and thrilling. Most of the talking heads featured in A Grin—Communist Party bosses, student radicals, even guerilla leaders in Latin American jungles—were proven wrong by the march of events.

Marker is certainly aware of the greatest irony at the heart of his narrative. The Marxist-influenced left was convinced that history was governed by laws whose provisions were elucidated by Karl Marx. According to them, history was moving inexorably along a certain line of development. It was coming their way, with red banners flying. But as Marker says through a voiceover, history “always seems to have more imagination than we do.”

Some of the images collected by Marker have lost none of their resonance. The grinning American pilot, chatting enthusiastically to the camera as he ignites the Vietnamese jungles below with napalm, is reminiscent of “shock and awe” episodes from a more recent war. Rare footage of American soldiers torturing Vietnamese suspects casts a familiar chill.
Most of A Grin will be unfamiliar to those whose notions of the ’60s are defined by selected images of war protests and Woodstock. He goes deep into the street battles of Paris and Berlin, where he found the “revolutionary vanguard” biting off its own tail, squabbling with itself as much as its “imperialist” enemies. Marker recorded the director of the avant-garde Living Theatre being shouted down as “bourgeois” by student radicals, and French Communist Party thugs hurling the word fascist, followed by their fists, at Trotskyite protestors. The Maoists of Western Europe appear especially delusional when juxtaposed against the Hitlerian devotion lavished on Chairman Mao at a Beijing party congress.

History will continue to remember as well as forget the many conflicting impulses and meanings of the ’60s. The masses never rose in rebellion but, Marker seems to imply, the axis of the history tilted a little from the weight of events in 1967 and ’68.

May 2-4, UWM Union Theatre


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