Marx is in the cold ground, and America's Founding Fathers aren't feeling well: Anti-Constitutional counterrevolutionaries have all but seized one-party rule. So there couldn't be>"/>
Marx is in the cold ground, and America's Founding Fathers aren't feeling well: Anti-Constitutional counterrevolutionaries have all but seized one-party rule. So there couldn't be a more appropriate time for A Grin Without a Cat, the three-hour funeral dirge for the left by bizarro French documentarian Chris Marker (made in 1977, revised in 1993, and now running a week at the Grand Illusion beginning Friday, Jan. 17). It's excruciating, inspiring, obscure, witty, nutty, and more doleful than his best-known film, the sci-fi short La Jet饼/I> (playing Wednesday and Thursday at the Grand Illusion), which inspired 1995's 12 Monkeys.
Marker starts with the mutiny and Odessa steps scenes from Eisenstein's Potemkin: Soldiers target the innocent, yet some government thugs convert to the cause when one rebel shouts, "Brothers!" Cut to a more-dizzying-than-Eisenstein montage of global protest: the Shah's bloodied 1967 Berlin visit; France's 1968 insurrection; Ch魥ra Latin American uprisings; the 1967 March on the Pentagon—at least I think that's where the snippets come from. Marker collected endless fascinating footage, which he seldom bothers to explain for those not encyclopedically informed.
But even when he makes no narrative sense, he often makes exhilarating cinematic sense: He blends gesticulating hands from multiple events into a choreographed whole. An interview with a U.S. bomber pilot exulting over the VC he's napalming gets even more monstrous when juxtaposed with shots of possibly non-VC victims, skinless and legless. In voice-over, Marker describes Latin American mountain guerrillas who've been abandoned by city-dwelling Communists as "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat." Later, he shows a Belgian folk parade of citizens dressed up as cats and juxtaposes real cats dancing and drooling from some horrific neurological affliction, then shows drooling victims of the Minamata, Japan, mercury poisoning outbreak of 1968 (first signaled by poisoned cats dancing in the street) and a Minamata mother shrieking at the corporate official responsible for the scandal.
Marker is not one for fine distinctions; his politics seem cracked even by the standards of the Left Bank. I'm not sure, but I think his film sanctions Ch駳 advocacy of world war, sanctifies terrorist Ulrike Meinhof and mass murderer Mao, and argues that the left died because it stabbed its guerrillas in the back. Yet he also excoriates Moscow for crushing the Prague Spring. Ultimately, his film is an emotional outcry, not a rational analysis.
MARKER FINISHED his film in grief right after the fall of Communism and the ruin of his dreams. Does that mean the left is really dead forever? His 1968 pals may have been May fools, but a May breeze can stir even in the deep of reactionary winter. Look at the current triumph of Michael Moore, whose Bowling for Columbine has been playing now for 13 weeks (it continues at the Metro), long after its rivals at the box office—Sandler and Lecter star vehicles with far greater commercial promise—have vanished.
Moore is at least as leftist as Marker; as mad, bad, and dangerous to show; as infuriatingly irresponsible—he stages scenes, fudges facts, and, according to one newspaper, suggested that the doomed 9/11 passengers did not fight back because, "being middle class, they expected others to save them." Pundit Andrew Sullivan mocks him as falsely claiming that five-sixths of the U.S. defense budget went to one plane, and Forbes magazine charges him with four falsifications in Columbine. (Read them at www.forbes.com/forbes/ 2002/1209/059.html. Moore responds on his own site, michaelmoore.com.) I think the film manages to miss the barn door that is the NRA, and win sympathy for Charlton Heston, the Moses of gun nuts. Moore's voice-over attributing 9/11 to Osama's "expert C.I.A. training" is less crazy than the Saudi officials' theory that the Jews did it, but not quite sane either.
But Moore gets results! Despite the apparent misfortune of being published on Sept. 10, 2001, his Bush-bashing book Stupid White Men was the year's top-selling nonfiction hardback at Barnes & Noble, according to Moore's site. Bowling for Columbine is the top-grossing non-concert film documentary in history, beating 1991's Madonna: Truth or Dare. When the International Documentary Association voted on the top 20 documentaries of all time, Bowling for Columbine was No. 1, Roger & Me No. 3. Ken Burns' The Civil War only ranked 10th.
Most critics would doubtless agree with me that Burns is the infinitely more serious and trustworthy artist—he's Gallant to Moore's bad-boy Goofus. Yet Moore's very wickedness is what makes him valuable. Moore scores precisely because he doesn't play fair. If you try to outdebate the right, you perish like Gore. What America responds to is vehemently unreasonable emotion-mongering, not actual argument. The left lacks all conviction, while the right is full of passionate intensity—except for Moore, who fulminates as brightly as any hydrophobically foaming, fact-intolerant reactionary Regnery author. It just won't work to call the president a fissilingual liar—you've got to fight back with an equally barbed tongue. Moore plans to do so with his Bush- bashing next movie, due for the 2004 elections, Fahrenheit 9-11: The Temperature at Which Freedom Burns.
How does Moore explain his popularity? "You've got millions of people who are demoralized by the political situation," he told one reporter, "so where do they go? To a movie. To me, that just shows the level of despair." Or hope.