When people drop the name "Chris Marker" in this country (if anyone's dropping it at all outside of art school these days), it's usually in reference to La Jettee, a 28-minute short composed almost entirely of still photographs, which is often mentioned as the source material for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys. Elsewhere in the world, Marker is known as the master of the non-fiction personal essay film. Like La Jettee, his documentaries (if you can call them that; the term applies better in some cases than others) are often structured as letters -- sometimes to the subject, sometimes to the viewer, sometimes to himself -- and always represent the sum of years spent collecting images across various media. Over the course of his 40 year career, the now-84-year-old Marker has seen technologies come and go, and has adapted with the ease and speed of an artist a quarter of his age. The Case of the Grinning Cat (released as Chats perchés on French TV two years ago; the version screening here has a just-finished, English-language narration) finds Marker rolling confidently into the age of the flash mob, and coming out with his own smirk surprisingly strengthened.
Grinning Cats starts not long after September 11, 2001. Marker's rough thesis: how did we go from Le Monde's September 12, front page declaration that "We Are All Americans," to French teenagers protesting American policy on a daily (if not hourly) basis? Video camera in hand, Marker takes us on a tour through three years of international political events, and the various public happenings they spawn. Along the way, he develops an obsession with a graffiti artist who has emblazoned the roofs, walls and public fixtures of Paris with his signature wide-grinned cat, which he signs, "M. Chat." What begins as a curiosity for a filmmaker with an affinity for felines hits a fever pitch when he spots the work of Chat in an Election Day rally on television. At that point, Chat seems to begin to infiltrate demonstrations of all kinds, and Marker follows. Political demonstrations, we see, no longer resemble street fights, but street parties (if not street orgies), and causes, Marker concludes, are like fashion. And certainly, there seem to be plenty of well-scrubbed young women interested in each.
It's unclear whether the English title of Cats is meant to reference Marker's own A Grin Without a Cat, a sprawling, 1977 treatise on the ultimately unfulfilled promise of the assorted social movements of the previous ten years. Marker is enough of a lover of language that such a coincidence being merely that would seem odd; then again, the French title of the later film translates literally as "Perched Cats." But there's no doubt that the two films seem like a thematic pair, and if viewed as such, it would be difficult to overstate the extent to which time has softened Marker style of address. In some ways, The Case of the Grinning Cats feels like Marker's attempt to implicitly reconcile his own advanced age -- or, at the very least, acknowledge that one is bound to see history repeat itself in full, ignorant swing, if one lives long enough.
Refreshingly, Marker's response to such a sad fact is to laugh. The Chris Marker on display here is more casual than I've seen him before, and certainly less angry than in other recent efforts, such as The Last Bolshevik. It's almost as if he's finally accepted the futility of protest, of any sort of impassioned stab at political action. This new Chris Marker, it seems, has stumbled onto what I take as a truism, that the only act of subversion worth its labor is the in-joke. And so he uses video effects to paint George W. Bush as a sad little boy whining for his way; he notes the confusion inherent in doing a Google search for an artist named "Chat." Yep, that's right: the new Chris Marker is content to sit on the sidelines, cracking search engine jokes.
Or maybe not: First Run/Icarus Films, Marker's U.S. distributor, has organized an event this coming Monday to coincide with the film's Tribeca premiere. Anyone who shows up on 34th Street, between 8th and 9th, on Monday afternoon at 2:15, and revelers have been invited to march with their own grinning cat mask. The very fact that the event is happening is puzzling -- Marker has not been confirmed to attend the Festival, and none of the propaganda regarding the march seeks to explain exactly why people should show up for the privilege of holding a cat on a stick. One gets the feeling after all the work he's done over the years to stoke and document them, that there's something about public political performance that Marker simply gets off on -- no matter how scant the cause, or how negligible the effect.