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With: Jim Broadbent, Cyril Cusack, Robert Kramer, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret, François Maspero, François Périer, Jorge Semprún (voices)
Written by: Chris Marker
Directed by: Chris Marker
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Language: French, Spanish, English, German, Vietnamese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 180
Date: 03/18/2013

A Grin Without a Cat (1977)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Left Behind

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

81 year-old Chris Marker is one of cinema's most phenomenal figures. He's credited with creating the essay-film, a form that few others have bothered to take up. He's a bit mysterious -- a Frenchman with an American name -- whose 39 films remain very difficult to see, except for his most famous and his most atypical, La Jetée, the short time-travel film said to have inspired Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys. His 1982 Sans soliel, probably runs a close second; it was recently released on a Criterion Collection DVD. A third one, A Grin Without a Cat (a.k.a. Le Fond de l'air est rouge) surfaced in 2002. Marker made it in 1977, re-worked it in 1993, and it arrives on DVD in 2009.

Clocking in at three hours and divided up into two halves, "Fragile Hands" and "Severed Hands," the film explores the history of left wing politics through world events of the 60s and 70s. A Grin Without a Cat jumps around from Vietnam to Bolivia to Paris to Chile to Czechoslovakia and to the Soviet Union, occasionally stopping for glimpses at seminal figures like Che Guevara, Mao Tse-tung, Fidel Castro and Salvador Allende. The film begins with clips from Sergei Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin (1925), a film that still routinely turns up on lists of the greatest films ever made, even if it's a fairly difficult slog for casual moviegoers to watch. Still, Eisenstein created the idea of "montage," a series of images cut together to form a new idea not necessarily related to the original images.

In that vein, Marker's incredible collection of newsreel footage -- TV footage from various countries, home movies and other celluloid wonders -- eventually forms a scattered, pinwheel idea of the era's attitude. Liberals -- ranging from Communists to Stalinists -- actually believed for a while that they could cause change in the world; that their ideal picture of what the world should be like could actually happen. Many of the liberals depicted in the movie wear long beards and sit around in meetings talking about Stalin. Others march for rights for the workers. One group wants to oust the boss of one factory, only to replace him with another -- secure in their belief that the new boss will be better than the old boss.

I wasn't even born when most of these events occurred, and I found I had a difficult time identifying any of them as any more than footnotes in history. And certainly our ideas of "liberal" and "conservative" have changed quite a bit in the ensuing 30 years. Marker might agree. He employs several narrators (Oscar-winner Jim Broadbent among them) to illustrate the onscreen happenings, and their commentary ranges from enthusiastic confirmation to wry comment. Still, the film crystallizes often enough to hold one's attention: listening to an American pilot happily babbling about how he's just bombed a Vietcong encampment, seeing the charismatic Che Guevara come to life. Indeed, unlike many documentarians, Marker wants not only to get his ideas across, but he wants to get them across without resorting to the usual PBS "talking head" documentary formula. A Grin Without a Cat plays more like a creative mix tape than a standard hunk of journalism. Viewers will feel bombarded, but some of the images and ideas will stick.

DVD Details: The DVD from Icarus films comes with the film split into two separate parts (each with its own "start" button). It's available in five languages, with subtitles. The only extra is the helpful 16-page liner notes booklet, with an essay by Marker, a review, and other notes.

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