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By Phil Hall | May 1, 2002

The global cinema is not lacking for high-quality films which are unable to obtain American theatrical release. For many years, one of the most conspicuous titles in this sub-genre has been the epic documentary on the rise and fall of the international leftist movement during the late 1960s, “A Grin Without a Cat” (also known as Le Fond d l’Air est Rouge) from acclaimed French filmmaker Chris Marker. First released in 1978, then updated for re-release in 1993, had long been recognized in Europe as one of the most dramatic and important political documentaries. At long last, “A Grin Without a Cat” is finally arriving in the United States… but to call its arrival a theatrical release is a bland understatement. This is hardly a release, but rather an event of major importance.
With no apologies for being overenthused, “A Grin Without a Cat” is one of the most towering and extraordinary films to grace the screen. Under Chris Marker’s masterful guidance, history is written with a blowtorch: in this production the most remarkable collection of news footage, interviews and biting commentary are assembled for a monumental political elegy to a not-so-distant era when the status quo was pummeled by a new wave of youth who rose across the globe with the grand hope of remaking the world. Unlike a film like “Forrest Gump” which reinvents the turbulent past into a dangerous lullaby of soft-focus nostalgia, “A Grin Without a Cat” presents the late 1960s and early 1970s for what they really were: a lava field boiling and scalding with hatred, violence, confusion, foolishness, and the ultimate tragedy that something worthwhile was brutally stomped down by all parties swirling in the geopolitical mælstrom. If “A Grin Without a Cat” proves anything, it would be the lingua franca of both left and right is the idiom of idiocy.
“A Grin Without a Cat” opens with clips from the classic silent film “Battleship Potemkin,” highlighting the horror of the Odessa Steps massacre. The film ironically intercuts Eisenstein’s silent epic with newsreel footage of soldiers and police officers attacking unarmed protestors in the exact same manner which the Czarist troops attacked the Odessa crowd in the old film. (Please be warned: while the post-September 11 mood has elevated the popular opinion of the military and the police to the point of beatification, this film offers more than enough film evidence to remind the audience why men in uniform have long been viewed with contempt.) “A Grin Without a Cat” also notes that the year 1967, which is generally considered the birth of the New Left, was the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the young people of that year (who grew up without knowing the deprivations of the Great Depression or the misery of World War II) embraced a utopian concept of socialism and began to openly question the problems facing their world.
The key concern to many of that time was the American obscenity known as the Vietnam War. “A Grin Without a Cat” begins its political ride in a U.S. fighter jet racing across the North Vietnamese landscape, with a youthful pilot (chatting happily with a down-home twang) who gleefully explains the personal satisfaction he receives dropping napalm bombs on the ground below. The pilot, however, never bothers to explain just who is he fighting or why, nor does he acknowledge that the bombing has yet to achieve any substantial victories for the American military. This trip is followed by scenes which the pilot perhaps never considered: children lying in Vietnamese hospitals, their bodies burned by the heat of the napalm and their limbs mutilated in the rain of weapons.
Back home, American youth began to openly question the goals of the Vietnam conflict. Lacking access or positions within the traditional channels of power, they borrowed one from the civil rights movement and took the streets in widely organized protests against the war. Emboldened by how American youth used street theater politics to get their messages across, students across Europe and Latin America (and to a much weaker degree, Japan) began to create open air forums which challenged governmental policies in their own countries. But not unlike the American anti-war rallies (which ultimately did not end the war), these rallies failed to make changes and often resulted in bloodshed when military and police authorities responded with unprecedented viciousness (this was most lethal in Mexico City in October 1968, when hundreds of protesting students were gunned down only days prior to the opening of the Olympics in that city).
The New Left was hungry for heroes, though in retrospect the pickings were on the slim side. Many people foolishly embraced China’s Mao Zedong, who encapsulated his brand of Communism in the famous “Little Red Book” and who promised to reinvent China in his Cultural Revolution (which was marketed as reorganization, but which actually presented an act of horrifying fratricidal madness with tragic results that would not be known until after Mao passed away). A somewhat better writer than Mao, the revolutionary philosopher Regis Debray, languished for years in a Bolivian jail for trying to practice what he preached; the fact that anyone listened or cared about he said was a minor miracle of the day.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro successfully challenged Washington’s hegemony in the New World through his revolution, but Castro himself later publicly disassociated himself from Marxist guerrilla movements throughout Latin America for their purported failure to intelligently embrace the Communist cause. And then there was Castro’s fabled comrade-in-arms, Che Guevera, who wandered the world trying to incite revolutions before being captured and assassinated by a Bolivian army which was specially trained by the American military for the sole purpose of hunting Che and disposing of him.
While the gap between left and right seemed too wide to bridge, there were two attempts to create a new way which embraced both philosophies into a nascent brand of social democracy. But neither Washington nor Moscow would accept this hybrid: Soviet troops rolled into Prague in 1968 to crush Czechoslovakia’s tinkering with its Communist set-up while Washington did everything it could to topple Chile’s democratically elected Communist politician Salvador Allende, eventually bringing about his death in 1973 amid a fascist military coup.
Of course, time clearly points out where the New Left failed and “A Grin Without a Cat” provides cold-hard facts regarding this downfall. Public opinion was far more conservative than many leftist leaders would acknowledge, which was evident in the US elections of 1968 and the French elections of 1969. (And, admittedly, many of the New Left protestors were fairly obnoxious and rather dumb.) Nor did the governments of that time relish the idea of being told what to do, and they were not shy about sending military units or excess police battalions out to reign in and knock about those who chose public dissent. Eventually, the New Left either imploded (in France, there was a turf battle between socialists, Communists and Trotskyites) or became impotent and were delegated to the political fringes. By the time of Watergate, politics was removed forever from street theater and put on television; the placard-wavers had no voice in Nixon’s downfall or any other issue to follow.
Of course, by the early 1990s the whole East-West conflict became history when the Soviet bloc collapsed and died and the few remaining Marxist states began to reinvent their economies to embrace the capitalism they once ardently loathed. And no one bothered to pay attention to the Islamic world, where a new form of fundamentalist theology was slowly taking root.
For those who believe history documentaries can only be served in the bland, neat one-hour History Channel offerings, “A Grin Without a Cat” comes in like a heaping grand banquet for history gluttons to dine upon. The film moves at breakneck speed, rollercoastering around the planet from Washington to Paris to Caracas to Tokyo to Prague to La Paz to Beijing to London to Moscow at a blistering pace. The wealth of historic footage is staggering in its depth and scope: the rueful graffiti in Prague that welcomed the Soviet occupiers (“Lenin Wake Up: Brezhnev is Talking Bullshit”), a very rare recorded broadcast by Che Guevera condemning the Vietnam War, the opulence of the Shah of Iran in celebrating his own importance, the rabid cheering of the Chinese Communist Party delegates at the appearance of a somnambulistic Mao, the dramatic strikes that crippled the French economy in the late 1960s, and the utterly bizarre sight of Fidel Castro sharing Italian recipes with a visiting European delegation. Equally dramatic is the film’s visual style: much of the old newsreel footage is tinted in dramatic hues of red, blue and amber. It is hard to recall any historic documentary packing so much information without running into acute overload (don’t worry…the film has an intermission 90 minutes midway through).
Towards the end of “A Grin Without a Cat,” there is a brief but jolting scene when Salvador Allende is trying to address a labor mediation conference. Allende is briefly booed for comments and he looks sadly at his audience and calmly replies: “I didn’t come here to be hissed or cheered. I came to talk sense to you.” In an era when posturing and hostility reigned, Allende seemed to offer a rare chance of intelligence and logic. Among the many tragic consequences of his death was the possibility that the chaos of that era could have brought forth a new chance of sincere and intelligent leadership. In this scene, “A Grin Without a Cat” reminds us of the four saddest words in the vocabulary: what could have been.

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