I always liked the sound of the term ‘film essay.’ It sounds so intellectual, like something more than fiction, more than documentary, some kind of employment of image and narration that I can’t quite picture but must be wonderfully engaging. But I recently saw Grin Without a Cat, and I’m not sure there exists any film that more deserves to be called an ‘essay’ than this epic assemblage of words and images.
The film was created by French New Wave director Chris Marker in 1977, detailing the rise and fall of Leftist movements in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly in France and Latin America. After its original release in 1993 it was cut from four to three hours, and retooled a bit with a new post-fall-of-Communism closing dialogue.
The title, which from the original French Le Fond de l’air est rouge translates literally to something like “the base of the air is red,” is so strange and somehow awkward it almost resists interpretation. But the idea is actually central to Marker’s non-linear, impressionistic, sprawling depiction. The film is almost an elegy to the heady ideals of the 1960s and ’70s, ideals to which Marker himself was deeply devoted, and this is the importance of the red air and the cat-less grin — that despite their undeniable power, those ideas could somehow never become reality, and the world they envisioned could never exist.
Marker works through juxtaposition, weaving together collected footage of protests, televised press conferences, guerilla fighters in Venezuela, interviews with Castro, countless speeches, conversations with theorist after theorist, and oblique but constant references to cats, including periodic footage of raccoons in trees. He analyzes Leftist/Socialist/Communist movements across the globe, their dreams, their splinterings, their failures, their alliances with sometimes China and sometimes Russia, all the while circling through and around and between ideas. Marker’s own narration, read by a small cast of luminaries including Yves Montand and Simone Signoret, is less an explanatory or guiding voice and more a kind of parallel text to the footage and interviews.
This is all to say that Grin Without a Cat is not like any film I have ever seen, and rarely have I felt so electrified by any book, movie, TV show, or other information-delivery system as I did attempting to follow Marker’s diffuse ideas. Three hours is a long time to watch a film like this, and I never did quite understand the raccoons in the trees, but I left wanting to see it again, and soon. The film is an education, and it most certainly still holds value for the young revolutionaries of the world — and anyone else who likes to think about things.
As one last comment, I’ll leave you with a rare moment of wisdom from an Amazon.com reviewer: “It’s some kind of work of genius, rent it, watch it, don’t get mad at yourself for falling asleep twice, you might emerge thinking that, in spite of all that, it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen.”