Chris Marker’s remarkable documentary about the rise and fall of the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s was originally released in 1977, but was reworked in 1993 in the wake of the Cold War’s end and the collapse of the Soviet Union. A Grin Without a Cat (the idiomatic French title, Le fond de l’air est rouge, can be literally translated as The Essence of the Air is Red) is divided into two parts. The first part, called “Fragile Hands,” focuses on the emergence of leftist movements circa 1967, the Vietnam War serving as the lightning rod for radicals of all stripes to come together to agitate for their utopian dreams. The second part, entitled “Severed Hands,” details the slow demise of the invigorated left, from forces within (the discord between different factions) and without (the role of the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in keeping the countries in their backyards in line). This three-hour epic offers a stunning assemblage of period footage. For younger viewers, excerpts of iconic historical figures such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevarra, Mao Tse-tung, and Salvador Allende should be particularly eye-opening. For all its expansiveness, A Grin Without a Cat flits by with blithe disregard for the audience’s level of acquaintance with the events and figures discussed. Consequently, viewers well-versed in the history of the period might find Marker’s essay on the New Left more fulfilling than those without any background on the subject.
“I write to you from a far-off country…”
Information regarding the early life of Chris Marker, photographer, filmmaker, videographer, poet, journalist, multimedia/installation artist, designer, and world traveler, is scarce and conflicting. The year to which his movies, videos, and multimedia projects are dated depends on which source you use, and in which country you live. Personal data is in a state of complete disarray: Derek Malcolm, writing about ¡Cuba Sí! (1961) for The Guardian, reports that Marker was born in Mongolia, of aristocratic descent. Geoff Andrew of Time Out London isn’t sure (Andrew, 146), and most sources, along with the Internet Movie Database, use the location I’ve listed above as his place of birth. Some say his father was an American soldier, others that he (Marker) was a paratrooper in the Second World War. Still others, that he comes to us from an alien planet. Or the future. Throughout his career, he has rarely been interviewed, and even more rarely… read more
"Our author marvels at the ingenuity of history that seems to have more imagination than ourselves."
A transition from being smart to wise as he observes the internal contradictions of the international leftist movements of the 60s and 70s and gives those contradictions a humanist meaning in the 1993 cut. What remains of the '77 cut is an ethnography depressed to talking heads documentary containing and keeping alive the figures and events of an ignored and disappearing history. --PolarisDiB
Grin Without a Cat (1977)
Le fond de l’air est rouge (original title)
Chris Marker’s rambling survey of leftist fortunes shown in contemporary news footage and augmented… read review