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A GRIN WITHOUT A CAT

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What does "Vietnam" mean to you? How about "Che?" What images (if any) does the phrase "May 1968" conjure? Or "Prague Spring?"

All pertinent questions to ponder when preparing to go see A Grin Without A Cat, French filmmaker Chris Marker's monumental three-hour dissection of New Left politics during its international flowering in the late '60s and early '70s. If the reference points seem dated, know that the film was first completed in1977 (with the apparently untranslatable title Le Fond de l'Air est Rouge). In 1993 it was slightly amended by Marker to acknowledge, among other things, the fall of Communism. Now the film's gotten a U.S. release, 10 years late and not a moment too soon.

A Grin Without A Cat is cinematically stunning, most obviously for Marker's mind-boggling assemblage of documentary footage, most of it shot by other people. In its fast-moving three hours it shows us everything from an American bomber pilot spreading napalm over Vietnam ("That's great fun. I really like to do that") to French students rioting in the streets of Paris, guerrillas patrolling the mountains of Latin America, and the Shah of Iran being feted in Berlin. And you can sample the brilliance of Marker's editing in the film's first minutes, when he brazenly intercuts images from The Battleship Potemkin (a touchstone text) with footage of street protests -- and funerals. Marker puckishly concludes the sequence with a visit to the Odessa steps made famous in Potemkin's massacre scene, where a smiling young guide says it's a popular spot for tourists.

Marker's film is typically called an essay, which in part means it's a documentary that's not afraid to put its authorial voice up front, or to take road-tripping digressions when the mood strikes (Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine is another example of the genre). It's divided into two big parts. The first, "Fragile Hands," covers Vietnam and the American peace movement, the life and death of revolutionary Che Guevara and the student riots that turned Paris upside-down in May 1968. Part II, "Severed Hands," is mostly about the Prague Spring -- a period of Czechoslovakian liberalization brutally crushed by Soviet tanks -- post-May '68 leftist politics in France, and the brief tenure and assassination of Salvador Allende, the popularly elected Chilean Socialist president who in 1973 was murdered in a U.S.-backed coup.

With its digressions and long, looping arguments -- one passage is a crosscut debate over the meaning of "Stalinism" -- A Grin Without A Cat can be daunting to view. It also has its blind spots, including hardly any mention of feminism. But if nothing else, its footage brings the times vividly to life, in flashes like lightning. In one sequence, American peace demonstrators pray for draft resisters; they're followed by neo-Nazis at a different place and time chanting "Bomb Hanoi!" -- then by white Wall Streeters in ties chanting the same thing. At a rally in San Francisco, Black Panthers hand out copies of Mao's Little Red Book. And while people today still banter about "the '60s" and "revolution," Marker's footage and interviews from the Paris riots make clear that people thought an actual revolution -- one in which the ruling class would literally be overthrown -- was not only possible, but imminent.

Marker's well-honed sense of irony carves insights from the raw meat of history. Looking at police crack down on rioting middle-class French youth, he observes, "For the student the state appears like a vision, like the Virgin Mary of Fatima. It is a revelation." Fidel Castro (who gets more screen time than any other single person) is shown denouncing the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as illegal -- then validating it as politically necessary. And then there is the film's English title, which refers to Marker's comment about the Venezuelan guerillas who severed ties to their political base in the old-guard Communist Party, leaving them to function as "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat."

Marker himself, now past 80, is an enigmatic figure perhaps best known for his lone fiction film, the futuristic 1962 short La Jetée, shot almost entirely as a collage of still photos (and later greatly expanded to be remade as Twelve Monkeys). He dedicates A Grin Without A Cat to the New Left; he has also described the film as "scenes of the Third World War." It's a war Marker clearly believes is still going on, even if the battlegrounds have new names. One sequence depicts a shareholder riot at a corporate meeting in Japan, where a traditionally garbed woman tearfully confronts a gray-flannel businessman about the poisoning of her children. That's a conflict one could see replicated in any country on Earth. So while the Left is still at least as confused and contradictory as Marker demonstrates, it also remains indispensable -- at least to those of us with a president who's shredding the Bill of Rights, gutting environmental protections, cutting taxes for the rich and thinking of bombing impoverished people. As one of Marker's countrymen might say, Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. In French and English, with subtitles. * * * 1/2

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