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Chats Perchés — The Case of the Grinning Cat

by Chris Marker
First Run Icarus Films, NY; Les Films de Jeudi, Paris 2004
57 mins., col., Video/DVD, NP
Distributor’s website: http://www.frif.com

Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


Cats and grinning – that’s culture but where’s the science and technology? Well, non-feature films can be strange animals. Chris Marker is a French film-maker, making 40-odd films since the 50s. He is famous for the extraordinary film La Jeteé (1962), a 30-minute sequence of still photographs with voiceover that constructed the apocalyptic landscape of a post-nuclear world – technology was the bogeyman of the times, the handmaiden only of kings, princes and despots. Television and the telephone were part of the electronic technologies only just beginning to affect lesser mortals and produce an evident social impact. Marker’s films ruminate upon the social impact, not only of machine-importations of the modern age, but its ideological baggage, too. The widely seen Sunless (Sans Soleil 1982), shot mainly in Japan, considered the complexity of memory and place. Well before MyPlace.com, we see MyCity and a society "toppling into the modern world". Under a relentless stream of verbal comment, the complexity of the electronic image reflects the fall: "I wonder how people remember things who don’t film, don’t photograph, don’t tape . . . . How does mankind remember to remember?"

The image of the cat features in Sunless as in a film made in 1993 (A Grin Without a Cat), a reflection on the rise and fall of the Left in the 60s and 70s. Is it the symbol of innate independence, of guile, of cool, the anarchist co-traveller with humans throughout the ages? In Chats Perchés, the graffitied images of the cat with a broad grin appear in various part of Paris: on rooftops and gable ends; on trees and railway tunnels; and later, in media channels and street demonstrations. The cat images come and go as the pleasant relaxed voice with the French accent weaves stories, reports, comments about what we see, descriptions of events too big to be seen in anything other than the symbolic form – this project began shortly after 9/11 – from an onward stream of captions and grabbed images, a la verite, interjections and diversions: pre-War French cinema; the Taliban; Russian musicians playing Bach in the Paris Metro; the genealogy of le chat through Carroll, manga, cave painting and Constructivism; AIDS; Falun Gong . . .

Marker was a central player in the new cinema of France in the 60s: Godard, Chabrol, Rivette, Klein et al, admirers of revolutionary film-makers of another age – Eisenstein and Vertov. The Kino-Eye is transposed by Marker into the 21st century in Chats Perchés as Le Morph-Eye, the computer eclipsing the kinomatograph in the world of cinema, here re-animating the politicians who parade before the medias’ cameras. It is early 2002 and the French presidential election is running – Paris comes alive with exquisitely crafted, voiced and staged street demonstrations, the parades of seasonal causes, youth and gorgeous women to the camera foreground.

The bombing of Bagdad, the looting of the museums, is the cue for popping into the Louvre to gaze briefly at mummified cats from the Pyramids. We track the world as icon, as the auteur’s imagination explores the possibilities of the material arrayed. The links continue with the observation that searching for le chat on the Web produces a myriad array of chat-rooms! And so the video continues, moving here and there around a clearly beloved Paris, pulling in occurrences and comment from Marker, part visual poet, part crafted writer. Like the author W.G.Sebald and the film-maker Agnes Varda, this is Place, where events are distinctly history and memory, never having the same significance, but skilfully deployed by these artists, without moralising, as a means of mapping our collective and individual identities . . . and implicitly, our responsibilities.

There is much that is French here, the discursive and the rhythmic, in language, music and image. Captions are on the screen just long enough for a native French reader to absorb, with the English voiceover helping with some but often diverging in the original French as a counterpoint measure, loosing at times intended effect. However, the material is rich and resonant, worthy of repeated viewing and ideal for collective responsiveness in seminar and community contexts. It is the work of a contemporary essayist and poet combining the tekne of literacy with the tekne of the digital — video and sound. The new oral culture, which potentially, as Marker has observed, is capable of making poets of us all.




Updated 1st July 2006

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