"It is a great asset in life, not to know what you are talking about." Chris Marker
It starts as a mystery, albeit a modest one. Video essayist Chris Marker (La Jetée) notices a series of whimsical cats painted atop a handful of Paris buildings. Orange with insanely toothy smiles, the graffiti cats are perched on rooftops and hard-to-reach walls tagged only with an "M. Chat" signature. Who made them and why? Taking to the streets, video camera in hand, Marker searches for the felines, finding them in Metro stations, on billboards, even in the nook of a tree. Their hysterically cheerful grins are strangely reassuring even if their creator's intent and identity remains unknown.
Unexpectedly, however Marker's hourlong video walking tour of Paris becomes a run-in with the ever-present street theater of political protest. As Sept. 11 and its aftermath unleashes a succession of marches and demonstrations, his light-hearted quest to uncover M. Chat's work becomes a meditation on an emerging, politicized generation that seems to be more enamored of fashionable poses than meaningful protest. Everywhere Marker goes the voices of political activism fill the air. From President Jacques Chirac's re-election campaign against a crowd of leftist candidates to a stream of anti-war demonstrations on the eve of the Iraq invasion, Paris is depicted as a never-ending parade of chants and slogans and signs. These events become an opportunity for Marker to offer insightfully droll comments about the duplicitous nature of politics, the self-defeating naïveté of idealism and the short attention span of youth.
Like a captivating dinner guest, Marker's off-the-cuff ruminations and erudition bespeak 85 years of keen observation. Grinning Cat is not meant to be a timeless cinematic document but rather an unpretentious reflection on this moment in time, when trivial flash mobs and World Cup fever become as important a reason to gather as social injustice and political unrest. It's an abbreviated follow-up to A Grin Without a Cat, his three-hour lamentation on the death of leftist idealism. But rather than rail against the folly of our times, his narrative (provided in English by actor Gérard Rinaldi) this time around is filled with snarky humor.
American audiences may find Marker's films intolerably unconventional. There is no plot to follow or story to tell, only a freeform conversation with deceptively casual images. If audiences surrender to his impressionistic review of art and politics, however, they just might find The Case of the Grinning Cat a charming and provocative distillation of our time. Like the best of essayists, Marker is able to make unexpected connections between people and events while expanding our intellectual horizons.
Just when you (and Marker) think that real-world politics will dictate the course of his conversation, M. Chat reappears at a protest rally, his giddy goofy grin bobbing amid the solemn declarations. Marker's quest is reignited as the Cheshire smirk pops up in more and more protest marches and rallies. Above the earnest grimaces of one set of demonstrators, M. Chat graces a banner that reads "Make cats not war!" and the filmmaker sees the elusive and enigmatic feline as a cheery sign of hope, a reminder not to take life or art too seriously.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 5, and at 9:30 p.m. on Friday-Saturday, April 6-7.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].