Wednesday, July 15, 2009

the revolution is still boring

DVD Review: A Grin Without a Cat and Inquiring Nuns
by Pat Padua

Director Chris Marker is best known for his masterpiece La Jetee, a 22-minute film consisting almost entirely of still images. This meditation on time and memory, which inspired Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys, is one of the very few fiction films in Marker's vast oeuvre. (Less known is the music video he directed for Electronic's "Getting Away With It," which pays homage to La Jetee in its brooding remembrance of things past).

Marker's primary work has been in the documentary genre - but not the documentary as practiced by Ken Burns or even Errol Morris. Rather, Marker is a film essayist. Where La Jetee masterfully edited and juxtaposed the elements of still photographs to fashion a chilling science fiction, his documentary work, at its best, works such magic on the historical and cultural detritus of celluloid. His Sans Soleil (available on an essential Criterion DVD with La Jetee) is the pinnacle of this form, with layers of image and narrative that transcend the ordinary documentary to create a multi-faceted dreamscape of fact.

There may not be a more thorough document of the international student uprisings of 1968 than Marker's A Grin Without a Cat (aka Le Fond de L'air est Rouge). The director/essayist weaves a celluloid tapestry juxtaposing footage of explosives instruction with a television ad where an elderly couple boasts, "Now we're a TWO-set family." Copious tinted stock footage of army training films, pilot's-eye footage of a napalm attack on a village in Vietnam, and of course Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin battle for semiotic significance. But the talking heads (which include the likes of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, natch) and onslaught of revolutionaries fail to incite the fervor of this non-student of the revolution. For the large part (Grin originally ran at what Marker himself admits was a megalomaniacal four hours) the released print is merely three hours) the film lacks the cross-disciplinary layering that makes Sans Soleil so fascinating. While essential classroom viewing, A Grin Without A Cat probably won't interest many outside the academy. But for those who were there in 1968, there's probably plenty of fodder for both sides of the political spectrum.

Inquiring Nuns sounds like a good concept for a half-hour television special: set two young nuns loose on the streets of Chicago asking passersby, "Are you happy?" The problem is that despite the seeming cross-section of the 1968 Chicago zeitgeist - both the hippies and the straight-laced, the religious and the non-believers - there's something about two young nuns asking "Are you happy" that prevents the interviewee from saying anything truly interesting. The respondents who the sisters speak to outside church - fresh after Sunday mass, even - are particularly polite and predictable. Which is too bad, because most of the people they speak to look interesting—you wonder what did the blue-collar worker, the businessman, the African-American grandmother, really think about what was going on in 1968? Many responded that they would be happier if America pulled out of Vietnam but that is all they have to say on the matter.

An occasional score by Philip Glass lends some minor chords to the proceedings but that's the extent of the tension onscreen. More interesting is the bonus material. Interviews with the nuns today reveal that both of them left the order, inspired by the times and each other to question authority (but not their faith) and pave a path that certainly contained more drama than the two television episodes on this DVD.

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