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Lessons of History

Chris Anderson
Date Published: 
July 14, 2002

A Grin Without a Cat
Dir. Chris Marker

French director Chris Marker is best known in America as the director of La Jetee, a short film that inspired Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi classic Twelve Monkeys. Internationally, Marker is justifiably famous for his 1977 documentary Le Fond d l’Air est Rouge, a sprawling three-hour film that chronicles the trajectory of the New Left.

Largely ignoring the traditional touchstones of American sixties mythology, it isn’t surprising that this documentary wasn’t released in the United States until early this month, under the title A Grin Without a Cat.

Part One opens in Vietnam, and quickly shifts focus to the student-worker uprising of May 1968 in Paris. Marker next examines the aborted uprising in Czechoslovakia that same year – the first and only time in modern history that a Stalinist political system internally de-Stalinized, in hopes of creating a more just communist system.

“Look closely at these pictures,” says the narrator as the camera passes over revolting Czech Communist Party leaders. “What is happening here is impossible, as both the Americans and the Soviets will tell you.” Indeed, it was impossible: Soviet tanks rolled into Prague, the population was pacified, the offending Communist Party leaders were shot, and the Cold War continued for the next twenty-one years.

Part Two focuses on South and Latin America. Fidel Castro is the documentary’s most enigmatic figure, alternately embracing guerilla revolution, arguing that the revolution must be “institutionalized,” and discussing the finer points of Italian cooking with a group of amused European journalists.

If Castro is the riddle, Chilean President Salvador Allende is the most sympathetic character. Allende is seen trying to walk the fine line between revolution and dictatorship, all the while obviously aware that a single slip could cost him his life (which it did).

In a jolting moment, we watch Allende say to the crowd of impatient, disgruntled workers at a labor mediation conference, “I didn't come here to be hissed or cheered. I came to talk to you.” Coming from a man who was murdered less than a year later in a US-backed military coup, this attempt at dialogue is almost heartbreaking.

Revolutionary struggle

Throughout A Grin Without a Cat, Marker seems torn between two distinct but interconnected themes. The first is his valorization of the pure, revolutionary struggle. “The two most noble men I ever saw,” says a narrator at the close of the film, “were Che Guevara and Chou En Lai”—not surprisingly, two idealistic guerilla leaders, largely untainted by the compromises of political power.

If Marker is doing little more than railing against the ideological equivalent of “selling out,” we might find ourselves uncomfortably close to the analysis of the film put forward by the arch-conservative weekly The New Republic. Michael Potrema writes, “Marker contends that the collapse of Communism was not the result of American actions, nor of the internal contradictions of a brutally oppressive system: It was a failure simply because it wasn’t radical enough.” (TNR, May 1) Not a very flattering conclusion.

This critique misses the second, (and in my view more important) theme of A Grin Without a Cat. The political compromise that proved fatal to the Left was not solely the result of philosophical inflexibility or a suffocating need for ideological purity. Attempts to navigate a middle passage between the shoals of the Cold War, between the corrupt American and Soviet empires, were doomed to failure as a result of the actions of the two superpowers themselves.

Compromise was attempted on a geopolitical level. When the Prague Spring and the Allende socialist project attempted to challenge the dominant Cold War system, Soviet tanks and Augusto Pinochet were, in the end, that system’s final answer.