Chris Marker's Le Fond de l'Air est Rouge (A Grin Without a Cat)
Chris Marker's Le fond de l'air est rouge (A Grin Without a Cat) is a three-hour documentary about the rise and fall of the New Left movement that emerged after the Vietnam War. Even though all Marker did was to edit the footage that he found, most of which shot by anonymous cameraman, he creates a very personal film. Unlike the ones in many other documentaries shown in History Channel or in theatres, images in A Grin Without a Cat do not pretend to present "a historical reality". Marker understands that the truth and memories cannot be represented in their totality on the screen and therefore prefers to use them as poets use words, to create a new reality beyond the political agendas or convictions.
Many people on the Internet criticize A Grin Without a Cat for not giving enough background on the subject or for not being intellectually convincing. Obviously there is more to the subject than what film presents and there are probably other ways to look at the subject. However, objectivity, persuasiveness and recreating the past are exactly the goals Chris Marker tries to distance himself and his movie from. Rather, he uses the images to try to recapture the emotions that lead to the violent events and the downfall of the movement. The movie does not claim to present "the" feeling of the era but "a" feeling of "a" specific point-of-view that Marker seems to endorse.
The editing in A Grin Without a Cat de-emphasizes the narrative structure and instead stresses the poetical interrelationships of the sequences by putting almost all of them out-of-context. The narrative editing techniques (such as an establishing shot - medium shot - close-up series), which would be an attempt to recapture the drama of the reality in the film, are never used. Instead, the sequences are edited according to their poetical values. For example, Marker cuts from the revolting university students' angry faces (shot by a frantic hand-held camera) to the sad faces of children (shot by a very calm hand-held camera) whose fathers are in strike. There is obviously some logical connection between them but the effect created is much more significant than that. The cut gives a deeper meaning to both sequences: The students' innocence and the children's potential anger is revealed.
The sound is also used in a similar way. In ordinary documentaries what the interviewee or the narrator say either coincides or conflicts with the images and thus, a point is made by the filmmaker. There are never such simplistic conclusions in A Grin Without a Cat. Marker even considers the narration that he wrote himself (read by multiple people) as a way to approach the subject and not the ultimate way of interpreting the images. Paralleling the visual editing, the sound editing is more based on poetical considerations than on intellectual ones. For example, in one scene, the calm images of a factory exterior are shown. There are no people around as all the workers are on strike. The depth of field, the nature on the background and the emptiness emphasize the idea of peacefulness. However, at the same time, an emotional narrator starts telling about the clashes between the workers and the police. Whether we assume the workers are the same ones or not, the synthesis of the serene images and violent voice-over is a complex moment where the violence is romanticized (and maybe the peacefulness is questioned).
Because there is very little attention paid to the intellectual arguments and because the style goes beyond making statements about a political ideology, A Grin Without a Cat becomes much more than a left wing documentary about the left: It achieves to be a poem about revolting against the system (and not just the political system), the conformity and the order. It suggests that it is an eternal struggle that is supposed to fail (as was in the case of the New Left) most of the times. This universality, achieved by Marker's distinctive style, is what makes the film great.
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