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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

Reviewed by Stefaan Van Ryssen
Hogeschool Gent


Paris, 2001. Images of a stylised, widely grinning cat appear on the walls of the city. Hiding on rooftops, climbing on chimneys, squatting in metro stations and clinging to the walls of industrial buildings, it seems to come from nowhere, appearing and multiplying overnight. A cat. A grinning, yellow manga-ish cat that reminds us of Alice’s Cheshire cat even as it is definitely a contemporary, twenty-first century postmodern and poststructuralist, cynical, well-fed animal.

In the streets of Paris, the 2001 presidential elections cause unbelief with the scattered left, and in the following years demonstrations are held against the war in Iraq, against the prohibition to wear (Muslim) scarves, against the oppression in Tibet and the genocide in Kurdistan, for and against the Raffarin government and for any number of other reasons. Sometimes the cat participates, sometimes it doesn’t. So what has this mysterious pet in common with French street politics? Nothing, I suppose, if it weren’t for the masterly art of Chris Marker who observes and ironically comments on whatever happens in the streets of the French capital. Edited in a free, associative collage-like style and interspersed by old-fashioned silent movie-like pancartes, Markers documentary doesn’t try to make a point or prove a thesis. He registers but doesn’t lament the general loss of memory and historical awareness. He simply lets the camera zoom in on a cat, a beautiful Parisienne in a demonstration, the rhetorical gestures of perfectly interchangeable media figures and politicians, a tourist feeding sparrows and tits and the unending rediscovery of old slogans: liberté, freedom, democracy, La France bien-aimée. Unlike many other left wing documentary makers, Marker doesn’t lecture. He shows. And of course he selects the images and cuts them into a visual poem, but he does so to show the poetry that resurfaces time and again from the streets. ‘Beauty is in the streets’, he used to say during the ’68 revolt, and it still is, if now in the form of a grinning cat.

Chris Marker (1921) is probably best known for his revolutionary sci-fi documentary La Jetée (The Jetty, 1962), a dark film consisting entirely of stills. (Terry Gilliam was inspired by it for 12 Monkeys and Brasil, which doesn’t mean Marker is as exuberant and satirical as his American fan). From the early fifties till today he has made more than 40 films, most of them documentaries, memoirs (about Akira Kurosawa among others) and commentaries on the evolution of the European (New) Left. The Case of the Grinning Cat may well be one of his last films, but the master has by no means lost his touch. His mildly ironic comments — here added by an actor with an endearing French accent — serve as an audio double of his visual acuity and add a few more layers to the already intricate picture.



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