Some montage cells on Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat
‘Editing, one would hope, restores history’s polyphony. No place here for gratuitous linkages or mean spirited attempts at forcing people to contradict themselves (who hasn’t contradicted himself at least once?)’ (Chris Marker, 1977)
‘There are endless themes to film in Capital: the one we want to film is Marx’s method…we know now that the basic proposition of Capital (its goal) is to teach the worker how to think dialectically. To show the method of the dialectic.’ (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928)
Brothers! It starts with what is not a revolution, but its representation. This isn’t just any representation though: a voice tells us about the first time they saw Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and the familiar images fill the screen: the Tsarist soldiers advancing, the utter solidarity of the workers, the chop, cut, tear and roar of the editing, tinted Red by Marker to evoke not just the sepia of yesterday’s utopia, but to efface it yet more: make it familiar and strange. Then we see them making the same clenched fists, facing the same guns and bayonets (or CRS truncheons), the same gestures recurring. The voice in 1977 tells us that in 1967, his generation wanted their own 1917.
What we see isn’t 1917: it isn’t even the 1905 of the Potemkin mutiny in Odessa, a battle in a failed revolution whose ghost would take glorious revenge 12 years later. Then the montage shifts to the steps in Odessa where the famous massacre of the innocents was filmed, and an Intourist guide cheerfully talking about the attraction. Revolution is mediated two, three, fourfold. The question is: if a revolution has been transmitted through representation, and if the imitation of that representation is the image of revolution, does it stop being revolution? A Grin without a Cat’s answer is ‘NO!’
Methods of Montage. Irrespective of its opening with Eisenstein, in the fight between his ‘Kino Fist’ and Dziga Vertov’s ‘Kino Eye’, Marker is clearly a descendent of the latter. However, his work is one of the few genuine deployments of what Eisenstein considered cinema’s highest possible form. In his essays of the late 1920s he outlines the development of the method: Metric Montage, Rhythmic Montage, Tonal Montage, Overtonal Montage, and finally: Intellectual Montage. Eisenstein’s critics, then and afterwards, saw Intellectual Montage as confirmation of the dryness and aridity at the heart of Eisenstein’s theorising. On the contrary, Eisenstein was advocating an intellectual agitation no less fierce than the physical.
As he puts it, in terms rather more technocratic than Marker’s, ‘if under the influence of ‘jazz montage’ (the syncopated montage used in places in his October) one’s hands and knees rhythmically tremble, in the second case such a trembling, under the influence of a different degree of intellectual appeal, occurs in identically the same way through the tissues of the higher nerve systems of the thought apparatus’. As Marker asks (describing, in his own voice in the French version of the film, his inability to keep the camera still when filming the insurrection), ‘Why do the Images start to Tremble?’ Intellectual montage, as much as any other, is based on friction, and is physical. Eisenstein writes that this cinema will exploit the dialectical tension at the heart of this divide, not veer away from it in some utopian aufhebung. The intellectual cinema is kinaesthetic: somewhere where you feel what you are thinking and think what you are feeling. ‘Only an intellectual cinema has the power to resolve the dispute between ‘the language of logic’ and ‘the language of images’ – on the basis of a language of cinedialectics…a cinema with the utmost commitment to sensuality as well as investigation, and which draws upon its universal access to channels of action through visual, auditory and bio-motor stimuli’.
A fair description of what we have here. Images, played through filters and electronic distortion, chopped and reassembled, which offer immediate pleasure, soundtracked with electronic tonalities and sibilances providing psycho-sensual commentary, overlaid over (or is it vice-versa?) an allusive and formidably dense meditation on ‘the Third World War’ of 1967-77: one which, the Situationists thought, was a war against representation itself, which wouldn’t be over until the last bureaucrat was hung with the guts of the last capitalist.
Slow Motion. Marker must be the only director who has ever paid equal attention to the two antipodes of the Soviet cinema: the ferociously fast editing and agitation of the 1924-34 Leftist directors, and the meditative tracking shots and transcendental slowness of half a century later, in the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Schematically, the cinema of World Revolution, and the cinema of Brezhnevian stagnation.
What links them is that the speed, whether fast or slow, is registered, never becomes something merely taken for granted: the tempo is all. The length of the montage cells, in the MTV version of kinetic montage, only lets up when it lingers over the platinum rims and the girls’ arses. Otherwise its motion can never slow, it can never use what the later Eisenstein described as ‘montage within the shot’: the becoming-montage of the cell/component itself. Marker’s montage is mostly careering, which makes the moments when it slows incredibly shocking. The scene where for several unedited minutes Japanese women from a village that had been poisoned by a company's dumping of waste in their water supply confront a suited shareholder, screaming with grief about their murdered sons: their furiousness and his immobility presented in uninterrupted footage. Or alternately, a long extract from Allende addressing a factory meeting, his patience before them, forcing the viewer to pause amid the melee, listen, evaluate.
A fireside chat with Fidel. Recently, on Hugo Chavez’s show Alo Presidente, its host received an unexpected caller. After a while its host twigged – ‘my God, it’s Fidel!’ He’d phoned in, presumably in order to inform its host that he wasn’t dead, or to talk about football, or whatever. If this film, in which, as with Eisenstein, the advancing crowd is the ‘hero’, has a ‘protagonist’ then it’s Fidel Castro. His repute as a militaristic Stalinist apparatchik is belied by footage, frequently inserted, from a film of Castro talking. Several things here are odd: his obvious shyness, his tendency to embarassedly hide his face after a particularly extravagant rhetorical flourish, his lengthy, explanatory mode of speech, and, frankly, the fact that he’s crouching in some grass during the whole performance.
This is in no way accidental: what this represents is a long-deceased mode of propaganda, a method which, like Eisenstein’s propaganda, is notable for the respect it gives to the recipient’s intelligence. The prototype here is actually Franklin Roosevelt’s radio fireside chats, where the head of state talks to you as an equal, explains complex political phenomena, goes on a bit. Fidel’s public appearances punctuate the film, and we see his obvious discomfort as he realises that power is slipping out of the hands of the likes of him, and back into the hands of the likes of Leonid Brezhnev. We see his torturous attempt to justify the crushing of the Czech humanist Communists, with a shrieking electronic drone reinforcing, commenting on (or providing) his discomfort; or we have a droll discussion of his nervous gesture of adjusting the microphones during speeches, then see him speaking in Moscow, wincing with horrified embarassment as he realises that these ones are stuck, immovable.
What is to be done? Much of the footage is taken from films made on the ground, and here the sources are frequently as remarkable as the montage that they eventually find themselves a cell of: some seem to be from the ‘Cine-Tracts’, the short films made quickly and edited in camera, and shown anonymously at meetings in May (Godard had to feature his own handwriting in his, presumably to stamp his identity as auteur even here). Marker had been working like this even before ’68, with A bientot, j’espere being a piece on the strikes of late ’67, followed by Critique/Autocritique, made with the strikers who disapproved of Marker's left-wing melancholia. One of the most fascinating components is William Klein’s Grands Soirs, Petits Matins. This is a film made on the streets of Paris in 1968, a montage of conversations.
Nothing really happens in Klein’s film: we see some fights with the CRS, the torched Stock Exchange, but this isn’t really the point, the real crux is everyone, ideologues, workers, students, schoolchildren, old men, all arguing – what do we do now?? Frequently the question is asked whether or not this is a revolution or not, and if it is, what they should do, seize the state, get the support of the army, not to mention what to do on the day after. But that isn’t all: there’s the voices, people who get up in the middle of huge crowds who explain that they haven’t spoken in public before and then go on to discuss the new society that they intend to create, their voices shaky but unafraid. Throughout there’s the sense that – isn’t revolution something that one might see represented, but doesn’t do? The shock of finding oneself in one: a way of dealing with this is to deny its existence, a train of thought that the Communist Party were all too willing to assist. Not that de Gaulle himself was in any doubt, as he fled Paris and begged the army for its support.
Televisionaries was Jillian Becker’s rather smug term to sum up the Red Army Fraction, a phrase taken up as a term of approval by Tom Vague in his appraisal of the ‘Baader-Meinhof Group’, who are in fact one of the groupuscules that turn up here and there in A Grin without a Cat: footage that would have been visceral to the 1977 viewer, at the time of the RAF’s endgame. After a description of a mock-‘Wanted’ poster for one of the Shah of Iran, whose visit to Berlin galvanised the German New Left, we see the real one for Ulrike Meinhof. Her fate was essentially that of a certain class, an intellectual Left doomed to suicidal confrontation or mere commentary: she was basically akin to a Maspero or Marker, a media intellectual and sympathiser with the students and workers of ’68, who gave up her lucrative career, her family, her life, in order to engage in praxis at its most extreme, unwilling to be a mere ‘commentator’ any longer, and accordingly earning the romantic respect of said commentators (‘for me, the terrorists are still the the inheritors’- Godard, 1980). Then we see women – an anonymous RAF member, then Meinhof herself – dragged along by German riot police, who try to present their faces to the camera. They struggle, desperately, not to become an image, and eventually fail.
The relationship of the Gauchiste to the media is a horribly conflicted one. It provides the images of revolt that they imitate, as in the rupture through repitition of the enacting of Potemkin, and yet its imitation can be horribly reactionary: the Jim Morrison posing of Andreas Baader for instance. David Caute’s 68: the Year of the Barricades cites a Black Panther, like those handing out the Little Red Book in A Grin without a Cat admitting that he’d watched too many films. But what is the alternative? To pretend the media doesn’t exist? To ignore it entirely and talk only to ‘our members’, as do even the most Left-wing Union leaders? Then again, television is not, ever, to be trusted: Marker’s dismissal of Watergate, over a montage of nonsensical US TV, is ‘it all happened on television’. The USAF bomber, cheerfully talking up the napalm he’s just spread over a Vietnamese village as if he’s a sports commentator.
‘A Montage of any old Trivia, taken up and Animated’ is how Eisenstein describes the methodology and the components of his mooted film of Marx’s Capital. Like Brecht, he knows that a picture of a factory tells us almost nothing about the factory itself, and instead its depiction must be made from fragments. His ‘Notes on Capital’ (also a source for Debord’s 1972 film of The Society of the Spectacle, which resembles A Grin Without a Cat in many respects) suggests that the montage cinema should take its cues from Marx’s method of dialectical juxtaposition, a method he likens to Ulysses: that it must ‘present the idea of exchange not by a depiction of the Stock Exchange, but by a thousand ‘little details’’. Lists. This is what we have in some of the finest moments of A Grin Without a Cat, as in an extraordinary chain which, over a Citroen bureaucrat posing, more explicitly than any of the Gauchistes here, the choice between workers' control and administered capitalism – shows us angled shots of factories and construction, a highway and the glacial, Corbusian new city, then advertising showing us the labour saving devices that accompanied the postwar settlement, then Marker’s ever-present quizzical Cats. Five years later in Sans Soleil, he will take as his exemplar of montage Sei Shonagon’s 9th century Pillow Book, a fragmentary construction made up of endless lists: in particular, ‘a list of things that quicken the heart’. In the future, he claims, everyone will make their own list of things that quicken the heart, ‘and poetry will be made by all.’