A Grin Without a CatA Grin Without a Cat/Le Fond de l’air est rouge (1977/1993 France 240/180 mins)

Prod Co: Grupo Iskra/Institut National de l’Audiovisuel/Dovidis Dir, Ed, Sound: Chris Marker Mus: Luciano Berio

Cast: Simone Signoret, Jorge Semprun, Davos Hanich, Sandra Scarnati, François Maspere, Laurence Cuvillier

The crepuscular period of post-’68 left-wing militancy in France saw the appearance of a number of cultural objects, events and phenomena that served to instantiate an increasingly deflationary cultural turn, one largely founded upon the premise that the events of May 1968 had, at the very least, not lived up to their wildcat expectations or ludic promises. The representation of this crisis took many forms: there was the awkward self-promotion of the New-Philosophers and their entrance into the intellectual limelight, as well as Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman’s massive two-tome, tale-bearing Génération, a book that functioned as a summary of the French left’s sometimes tawdry decline (1). If faith in Chinese Communism had sustained itself as a viable option for a period of time, its collapse is best articulated, in terms of cinema, by Cahiers du cinéma’s proclaimed move away from a hard-line political stance and its subsequent return to a presumably political cinephilia in 1974 (2). And although their timing is somewhat anachronistic, there is the kind of baleful bookending of Pierre Goldman’s unsolved assassination in 1979 (most commonly attributed to a right-wing gang) (3), and former Positif critic Michèle Firk’s suicide in Guatemala in 1968 (4).

Chris Marker’s filmic summa politico, A Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de l’air est rouge), is one of the documents that marked the melancholic end of the post-’68 decade. What is striking about Marker’s film is, in fact, not the overwhelming despair that’s common to many soixante-huitards, but his emphatic fidelity to the epoch as he lived it. While A Grin Without a Cat bears the stamp of a cineaste firmly entrenched in leftist history, and of a generation profoundly marked by Stalinism, it emerges equally from the social practices Marker was engaged in, alongside any number of collective and individual militant cinematic projects over the previous decade. One of A Grin Without a Cat’s great accomplishments is to take these social practices and render them as formal strategies.

About a year prior to the events of May ’68, Marker established the production and distribution company Société pour le Lancement des Ouevres Nouvelles, or SLON, which was created to distribute the collective film project Loin du Vietnam (Far from Vietnam, 1967). SLON was established in Belgium – due to its permissive censorship laws (and because of France’s particularly strict ones) – and went on to serve as the production and distribution company for Marker’s 1968 documentary on striking workers in Besançon, À bientôt j’espère (Be Seeing You, co-directed by Mario Marrett), which in turn acted as the motivational spark for the foundation of the factory worker film collective Les Groupes Medvedkine (5). The period shortly before 1968, and the decade following, saw an increase in the number of collectives, configurations that acted as a means of creating and facilitating improved social and cultural forms of participatory organisation. Groupes Medvedkine and other militant collectives (Unicité, Cinétique, Cinélutte, etc.) functioned as points of convergence for various formal and social tendencies: by virtue of the collectives’ heterogeneous nature a kind of object lesson in inherent mobility, connectivity and hybridity of the work created was demonstrated.

The way in which A Grin Without a Cat maintains its aesthetic, political and historical relationship to the militant films of the period is not just through its subject matter – that of the compacted and selectively immediate history of the radical left – but via formal “escape strategies” that were the hallmarks of militant cinematic practice. These strategies operated as a mode of representation (here a dialectic between the singular and the collective); relied on various realisms; used the technique of détournement; employed hybrid film forms (A Grin Without a Cat is at once an experimental, documentary and pamphlet – or more specifically, treatise – film); and turned towards an engagement with Third World Cinema. These strategies also suggest methods that attempt to productively flee from both a bourgeois and often mournful cinema that presented itself as the only option after the “failure” of May ’68, and the weighty historical demands of a Western Marxism in crisis (as was articulated in the radical film journals of the period). They equally maintain a fidelity to both the cinematic and the militant, a kind of double flight from pure propagandistic activism or apolitical formalism. These concerns, found throughout Marker’s work up until this point, were unified in A Grin Without a Cat.

One of the struggles that arose in this type of cultural, militant practice was that, while the working class was often approached to take part in the creation of a dialogue (because of a difficulty in shaking class categories and intellectual hierarchies), it was trapped in interrogation and objectification. This dialogue devolved into unidirectional explication, producing often tedious, didactic and even condescending militant films. In opposition to this tendency towards objectification, Marker managed to create, alongside any number of other collective participants, a filmic space in which an active and collective subject could emerge. In place of militant filmic fieldwork, Marker presented the possibility for a counter-model of popular cinematic historiography. In her book on May ’68, Kristin Ross outlines the methodological aspirations of the history collective Revoltes Logiques, and notes that the “Logics” in their name serves as a dialectical quilting point, one which sets up the interdependency between the logic of the historian and that of the object of study. Ross argues that the logic of the historian is dependent on the transformation of historical data into historical knowledge. Through the logic of the object (itself an inverted homology of the logic of the historian), a study of the truth emerges from the lived experience of the worker (who is unfit for the task of recounting this truth). It is therefore the task of the historian to pry the truth from the mouth of this allegedly mute body (6). The way in which A Grin Without a Cat is able to move between the contradictory collusion of these two poles is to take up the position of the observer and the observed, and work to create a collective – and immediate – filmic history.

The question that A Grin Without a Cat leaves us with is one related to the object’s docility: How can we make this polyocular cacophony do what we want? One way to frame this question is to think about it in the terms of one of the questions raised by Third Cinema: Does a Third Cinematic object retain its “thirdness” outside of the contexts and purposes for which it was created? These questions and categories are perhaps reductive, but like all questions they are a means of provoking thought (usually the answers to these questions are a constellation of references, possibilities and – especially – contradictions). Like the Third Cinema, A Grin Without a Cat is many things, and resists being reduced to a discrete object. It provides a militant fidelity to the immediate history of the international radical left, but is equally a critique of that very same left. It also provides a complex formal montage that mirrors then contemporary social interactions while remaining a Chris Marker film that bears his stamp and points to the formal direction of his subsequent work. It is ultimately a goodbye and a reminder, a realist document, and many, many more things beyond that as well.

Endnotes

  1. See Hervé Hamon and Patrick Rotman, Génération, Tome 1: Les Années de rêve,Seuil, 2008. And Rotman and Hamon. Génération, Tome 2: Les Années de poudre,Seuil, 2008.
  2. See “Cahiers Today” in David Wilson and Bérénice Reynaud (ed.), Cahiers du cinéma: Vol. 4, 1973-1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle: An Anthology from Cahiers du cinéma, nos 248-292, September 1973-September 1978, Routledge, London and New York, 2000, pp. 47-55.
  3. For more on Pierre Goldman see J. P. Dolle, L’insoumis vies et legendes de Pierre Goldman, Grasset, Paris, 1997. See also Michael Prazan’s documentary, L’assasinat de Pierre Goldman, available on Google video.
  4. Michèle Firk was a film critic for, amongst other publications, Positif. Firk became a militant for the Rebel Armed Forces (FAR) in Guatemala and in September 1968 shot herself as police arrived at her home to question her.
  5. Marker’s work with Les Groupes Medvedkine was exceptional, and although the Group worked largely unaided by professional filmmakers (except perhaps for Bruno Muel) after Classe de lutte (1969) – which was created by the Group along with a number of factory workers and established filmmakers – he maintained a relationship with the collective, often finding film stock for them and editing their later projects.
  6. Kristin Ross, May ’68 and its Afterlives,University Of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2004. pp. 126-127