A Grin Without A Cat
Chris Marker. Photo: BFI Stills Collection
France 1977, 4h.
The current exhibition about filmmaker Chris Marker (1921-2012) at Oslo’s Kunstnernes Hus (Artists’ House) features a unique historical-political witness on the revolutionary left wing. The exhibition centers first and foremost on the topics of time and memory, with travel and the museum as motives. Despite this, the exhibition is named after his most politically-oriented 1977 film, Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge, or in English A Grin Without a Cat. The majority of Marker’s films represent a thinker concerned with human condition and basic values. His extensive knowledge is expressed in his running commentary. He travelled the world for 60 years, and produced almost as many films. The theme of many of the films were revolutionary movements, and especially the film the exhibition is named after, expresses revolutionary dreams of a better society. Hi narrating style features prophetic-philosophical undertones, especially in the photo films La Jetée (1962) and Le Souvenir d’un Avenir (2003), where he commutes between past and future. The film essay La sixième face du Pentagone (1968) describes the 1967 Vietnam demonstration. Peaceful demonstrations break out into an onslaught against the Pentagon in Washington. The placards stated “Hell no, we won’t go!”, “No taxes for the war machine!” and “How many kids, Lyndon?”. Those protesting yelled “direct action!” on the stairs of the Pentagon in front of a number of nervous soldiers. They set fire to their military calls and several climb the building’s façade. Many left wing leaders are arrested, but this only increased the popularity of the protest and creates prison celebrities such as Norman Mailer. The event was a breakthrough for the Vietnam-protests whereby «the protestors political attitude became political actions», according to Marker.
Made fun of Castro. Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge is Markers greatest work. It is a unique historical montage of the revolutionary ‘60s and ‘70s, and skips between Berlin, Bolivia, San Francisco, Beijing and Paris. Marker cross-edits protest extracts from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) with Paris’ street scenes prior to peace-loving demonstrators are overrun by men featuring Nazi symbols in Washington. They shout: «Bomb Hanoi; Gas the Vietcong!». Thereafter, in Vietnam, a smiling American pilot boasts how fantastic bombs and napalm are in the battlefield.
Through his distinctive editing, Marker asks the spectator to consider who the world’s criminals really are. He shows the Shah of Iran visiting Berlin in June 1967, where the Shah’s secret police attack protestors and a student is killed. The narrator tells of the 2,500 year old kingdom where opponents are tortured, money wasted and great parties are held for the world’s leaders. The state power leaders avoid being called criminals, whilst the revolutionary, which Marker then cuts directly to, are repeatedly arrested or killed. We witness policemen pull Ulrike Meinhof by the hair as if a wild animal. Then pictures of several revolutionaries; there is Tania, Ben, Miguel, Malcolm, Camille, Dixie, Julien, George, Carlos and Pierre, who all died for the cause. In another extract, Fidel Castro reads a quote from Che Guevara just after his death: «Looking back on my life, I worked faithfully to assemble the revolution. In a revolution you either win or die. » Through this lengthy historical review, we meet a number of political people and are introduced to optimism, hindsight, naivety, despair and visions.
Through Cuba, Market shows how the revolution is not necessarily unambiguous. In an extract, Castro distances himself from the Soviet communism by criticising the Marxist-Leninist manual for being full of clichés, stereotypical descriptions and obvious lies. Marker has no longer the same faith in Castro as he displayed in the 1961 Si Cuba where he hailed Castro and criticised the USA. Disappointed in Castro’s utopia, in Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge Marker is unable to restrain himself and makes fun of him. Castro has a tendency to adjust the microphone during his speeches. One time in Moscow we witness Castro struggle with the microphones which, hilariously, remain immovable, no matter how much he tries to twist and turn them.
Conflicting information. Marker points out that a number of revolutionary leaders said that the greatest challenges happened once they seized power. Contrary to Mao and Castro, there is evident admiration for Salvador Allende. The manner in which Marker edits and portrays him in the film On vous parle du Chili: Ce que disait Allende (1973), speaks volumes about the faith he had in the Chilean dictator’s political agenda. In it, Allende is interviewed by the philosopher Regis Debray on economy and nationalising, his assassination thoughts, and the anti-capitalist project.
In Le Fond de l’Air est Rouge, the «red» Allende is an example of a leader who knows how to govern a country. During a panel discussion at a labour conference in Santiago in the early-1970s, Market portrays Allende as the voice of reason. The president enjoys the presence of the foreign press, and says «let them stay and witness a true democracy, something others can only pretend to be. » Allende wants direct political involvement from the workers, that they know the basic political values and partake in discussions. As all factories now belong to the people and the workers, he states that a lazy worker cannot expect a regular salary. There is no dividend for laziness. He adds: «The incompetent will not be able to expect protection from a party membership! A party membership card does not issue titles and honours. Every man must earn the right to be respected! » He warns against salary increase, and when someone boos, he replies: «I am not here to be booed or praised, but to talk sense to you. » He believes that increased salaries will lead to a racing inflation. However, Allende states that he will never coerce or use violence against striking workers. He will not use the police in an opinion exchange. No, his only tool is reason. If this does not work, «I will have no other option than to step down, for what else can I do? » In retrospect, we know fully well what Pinochet did in 1973 to seize power.