Tuesday, October 25, 2005


Most movie fans if they've heard of the French filmmaker Chris Marker at all, probably know him as the maker of La Jetee, the short film upon which the screenplay for Twelve Monkeys was based. (And I know there should be an accent in there.) But to film scholars, Marker is renowned most of all for the groundbreaking nonfiction films he's made. ("Documentaries" somehow seems an inadequate term for them; they're more like filmic essays.) The best-known of these (and the only one widely available on DVD as far as I know) is the stunning Sans Soleil, which ranges from Japan to Iceland to Guinea-Bissau, with the overall theme being the fate of the revolutionary impulse in the present-day world. Also outstanding is The Last Bolshevik, a film made in the Gorbachev era which used the life and works of the Soviet filmmaker
Alexander Medvedkin as a frame for examining the history and fall of the Soviet Union.

Recently, courtesy of the invaluable Odd Obsession Video, I had the chance to watch Marker's A Grin without a Cat, a three-hour film originally made in 1977 (but with the last few minutes of the soundtrack replaced with Marker looking back on the film from 1993) examining revolutionary politics throughout the world, from the worldwide anti-Vietnam War protests in 1967 and May 1968 in Paris, to the coup that overthrew Allende in 1973, and after. Marker is himself pro-revolutionary, and the film reflects disappointment, and awareness of the mistakes made by revolutionary movements, but not the disillusionment evident in The Last Bolshevik (apart from the 1993 coda).

The first four minutes of the film are a montage intercutting shots from Battleship Potemkin with "matching" shots from contemporary newsreel and documentary footage: it's a brilliant, rousing piece of political filmmaking. The body of the film is less spectacular, but does an excellent job of conveying the spirit of the times from a radical perspective. Personally, I have never been tempted to romanticize either Che Guevara, or the French (or any other) Communist Party, but the first half of Marker's film helps to make it understandable why people would.

There's a lot of great interview and documentary footage in here. One particularly fascinating bit shows Salvador Allende speaking to the workers of a factory. He does come across as very much the college professor, lecturing and even scolding the workers at one point for not attending factory meetings enough. But while he's somewhat patronizing, there's also something attractive in his willingness to be frank with the workers, rather than flatter them, and his belief that the workers will accept this. He says: "No, I didn't come here to be hissed or cheered. I've just come to talk sense to you," and you feel that he means it.

If you don't have some knowledge of the political history of these years -- particularly France and Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Chile in the Allende years -- you'll probably find the film confusing. But if you do know something about this period, the film is well worth searching out. Note that the copy at Odd Obsession has the narration, which was originally French, dubbed into English, but the interviews and documentary footage are left in the original languages and subtitled.

On a previous visit to Chicago, I'd watched Level Five, another Marker film available at Odd Obsession. This is a lesser film, but it's worth watching for its harrowing portrait of the aftermath of the Battle of Okinawa, when thousands of Okinawans committed mass suicide in the wake of the Japanese defeat, having been convinced by Japanese propaganda that this was the only honorable course and that the American troops were monsters who would rape and torture them. Here's an article on the film. Odd Obsession also has documentaries by Marker on the directors Andrei Tarkovsky and Akira Kurosawa (cinema being Marker's other great love) which I haven't seen.

This website has info and lots of links on Marker (via GreenCine Daily). And First Run/Icarus Films has A Grin without a Cat, The Last Bolshevik, and three of Marker's other films for very expensive sale or rental.

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