Speaking as an unrepentant Marxist, I don’t think I have ever seen a movie that has spoken more directly to my concerns than Chris Marker’s 1978 The Grin without a Cat, now available on Netflix. Another Marker film also spoke to these concerns as might be indicated by its title The Last Bolshevik, a study of Soviet film-maker Alexander Medvedkin who lived from 1900 to 1989. Like me, and like Marker, Medvedkin remained a revolutionary socialist till the very end—unrepentant, so to speak.
Marker was born Christian François Bouche-Villeneuve in Neuilly-sur-Seine, Hauts-de-Seine, Île-de-France, a suburb of Paris in 1921. A life-long leftist, he fought in the French resistance during World War II. His movies have frequently been sympathetic treatments of socialist countries, including the 1961 Cuba Si!
The aforementioned grin is a reference made in part one of Marker’s 180 minute documentary to the disjunction between the masses and their self-selected vanguard, the guerrilla movements in Latin America in the 1960s. At first, the narrator refers to them as a “spear point without a spear” and then follows up with “a grin without a cat”, a reference to Lewis Carrol’s Cheshire Cat. Marker’s other passion, it should be mentioned, besides Marxism is the cat. From the wiki on Marker:
Chris Marker lives in Paris and does not grant interviews. When asked for a picture of himself, he usually offers a photograph of a cat instead. (Marker was represented in Agnes Varda’s 2008 documentary “The Beaches of Agnes” by a cartoon drawing of a cat, speaking in a technologically altered voice.) Marker’s own cat is named Guillaume-en-egypte.
Despite his commitment to revolutionary politics, Marker is careful not to editorialize in his movie. Instead he presents his interviews and carefully chosen stock footage (including some amazing shots of Czech partisans fighting against the Nazi occupiers at the end of WWII) in the form of a dialectic between the full-throated radicalism of the 1960s and the old left style Stalinism and social democracy that remained hegemonic in this period. It should be emphasized that the word Stalinism appears throughout the movie, as well as pointed references to its treacherous role in keeping the mass movement bottled up in bourgeois politics.
There are some eye-opening moments with a youthful Fidel Castro, who is the documentary’s main character in some respect, calling attention to the CP’s refusal to back the armed struggle. One Communist departed from the “peaceful road” strategy and formed a guerrilla foco in Venezuela. Today, Douglas Bravo, this 78 year old former Communist, now attacks Hugo Chavez from a rightist perspective cloaked in left rhetoric. Filmed in the jungle, a youthful Douglas Bravo appears discouraged, mostly out of a failure to connect with the masses in terms of the grin without a cat. Apparently, he has been consistent in marching out of step with the masses, even now.
The movie also takes a hard look at Che Guevara’s failure in Bolivia, providing a kind of ex post facto autopsy through the words of two key participants. One is a gloating Major Robert “Pappy” Shelton who is seen in his Pentagon offices telling Marker that Che’s big mistake was relying on the Communist Party.
This is a lead-in to the next interviewee: a truly unctuous Mario Monje Molina who was the Secretary-General of the Communist Party of Bolivia and a saboteur of the guerrilla movement. There is also a fascinating interview with Regis Debray, who was arrested in Bolivia for being part of Che’s network. Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution was a kind of handbook for rural guerrilla warfare that sadly reflected the orientation of Che himself. Indeed, it was the combination of this misguided strategy and the treachery of the Bolivian CP that dashed the hopes of a generation anxious to see “Two, Three, Many Vietnams”.
With the collapse of the guerrilla movement, attention shifted to Chile where Salvador Allende’s popular front was now seen as the new opportunity for socialism to prevail. In a fascinating interview with Allende, we hear him explaining the superiority of the Chilean project in comparison to rural guerrilla warfare experiments. Unlike the substitutionist guerrilla movement, the working class of Chile was struggling to emancipate itself in accord with Marxist theory.
Moments later, we see Allende speaking to a group of grumbling working class representatives about the need to impose a wage freeze. He cajoles them: Without a wage freeze, Chile would suffer inflation. He adds that the only way to win a pay hike was to improve productivity, an analysis in keeping, of course, with what you might hear from Allende’s bourgeois enemies. Not surprisingly, this indifference to working class demands would lead to his toppling.
There is much more that I could recapitulate from this spectacularly political movie, but would only urge you to rent it from Netflix as soon as you can. There is nothing like it. Also of interest from this package put together by the Icarus Film Distribution company is a 15 page essay by Chris Marker that exhibits a kind of mastery of Marxist politics that made this brilliant film possible. Even if you for some unfathomable reason decide not to get your hands on this masterpiece, I do urge you to read the essay here. This is a telling excerpt:
In May anyway the final whistle came quickly: with the first casualty. Not too serious for revolutionaries, but it’s a fact, the murder of Pierre Overney by a Renault watchman would bring everyone back to the real value of lives, things and words. On the workers’ front, the great wave finally met its dikes, a phenomenon summarised by former minister Edgar Pisani in one sentence, ‘a terrible connivance between the conservative apparatus of the CGT (the communist-led union) and the conservative apparatus of the government’. And a great disorder fell on everyone’s mind.
Strangely, the small clannish fights used to draw a kind of overdetermination from the fact they had developed in this fuzzy space of the imaginary revolution. Left to their own devices amidst a reassured country, they became weakly and purposeless. Historical Anarchy had died – heroically – in Spain. To refer to it now made no more sense than being a royalist, unless it became an ideological business, quite profitable at that. The Communist Party had missed every helping hand offered by History and started the long spin of a motorless airplane. French Maoism would remain a landmark in the history of teratology. The foolishness of morons is a plague, but statistically speaking we have to put up with it. What is fascinating is the foolishness of clever people and in this particular case, some of the cleverest.
Elsewhere, things were more violent, more difficult than in France, but the curve was the same. For having gleaned a few traces of these luminous and murky years, I tinkered with these films. They don’t claim to be any more than that: traces. Even the most megalomaniac, A Grin Without a Cat (originally four hours long, wisely reduced to three but without modifying the content, just shortening it, with a short monologue at the end), is in no way the chronicle of a decade. Its inevitable gaps would become unjustifiable. It revolves around a precise theme: what happens when a party, the CP, and a great power, the USSR, cease to embody the revolutionary hope, what looms up in their place and how the showdown is staged. The irony is that thirty years later, the question is irrelevant. Both have ceased to exist and the only chronicle is that of the unending rehearsal of a play which has never premiered.