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The Moving Image 3.1 (2003) 167-170

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Chris Marker's A Grin without a Cat(1993, France). Reedited from Le fond de l'air est rouge, 1977

Chris Marker, who turned eighty in July 2001, belongs with Jean-Luc Godard and Agnès Varda on the very short list of French New Wave filmmakers who not only have remained continuously productive since the 1950s, but in recent years have produced some of their most important work. Yet Marker is much less known than these others, both because he has always worked on the margin between documentary and fiction and because his work only sometimes takes the form of a conventional feature film.

During the 1990s, Marker's multimedia installations, films for television, videos, and CD-ROMs have been shown in the most prestigious [End Page 167] modern museums and alternative cinema showcases, yet the general public is still most likely to hear of him as the maker of La jetée (1962), the film that "inspired" Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (1994).

This speaks not only of the cost of feature filmmaking and of the drift away from celluloid film exhibition, but also of a filmmaker for whom features have never been really typical; Marker's filmography includes many shorts and a number of films that considerably exceed the standard running time of a feature. Among the latter is Le fond de l'air est rouge, an extraordinary 230-minute montage of New Left struggles from 1967 to 1973, ranging from Paris to Prague to Belfast, from San Francisco to Washington to New York, from Havana to Mexico City to La Paz, from Tokyo to Peking to Reunion Island. The title means "The Bottom of the Air Is Red"; more idiomatically, this could be rendered as "Deep Down the Air Is Red" or "At Bottom the Air Is Red."

Le fond de l'air est rouge was first released in France in 1978, and was at the time criticized as too populist by the militants of Cahiers du Cinéma. Marker responded amusingly by taking a sentence from Cahiers that characterizes the film as typical of the mindset of Editions Maspero, and placing it as an epigram at the beginning of the film's script, published in 1978 by Editions Maspero. The film was also shown on French television in two parts, an edit that can still be seen at the Forum des Images (formerly the Videothèque de Paris). In 1993, Marker reworked the film for English-speaking audiences. He cut a total of fifty minutes, changed some of the voice-overs, and introduced a concluding commentary on terms unknown in the 1960s, like "AIDS," "Ayatollah," "Occupied Territories," and "glasnost." The result, still in two parts, was given a new title, A Grin without a Cat, and was shown on Channel 4 in Britain. Since 1994, this version has had occasional video screenings at such venues as Anthology Film Archives, Pacific Film Archives, and Harvard Film Archive.

The original title is redolent of the revolutionary euphoria of the late 1960s, even if the second half of the film is quite hardheaded about the dashing of those hopes. The later title concedes that this fervor has vanished into air, but also suggests that something still remains. Such wryness is typical of Marker, as is the reference to the most totemic of his many totemic animals, the cat, which the film tells us "is never on the side of power." The specific context of the title is a segment in the film discussing a split between the Venezuelan Communist party and the guerrillas of Douglas Bravo that left the latter like "a spearhead without a spear, a grin without a cat." Note that Marker spent the last year of the Second World War fighting fascism with a detachment of American paratroops, and is thus quite capable of wordplays in English, such as the pseudonym "Marker" itself. Often said to have been taken from the brand name Magic Marker, the term is also reminiscent of the shout "marker" that...