The Reeler


December 20, 2006

The Case of the Grinning Cat

Marker documentary a striking blend of lyricism and political commentary

Few political diatribes carry the good humor and depths of philosophical inquiry found in Chris Marker’s fascinating documentary essay The Case of the Grinning Cat. Those familiar with the filmmaker's output won’t view this one as a surprise, but for audiences unfamiliar with the name, this is a good place to start; Marker, one of the legendary talents of the French New Wave, has been sadly neglected in the United States. Very few of his films from the past forty years are readily available, although you can find La Jetee on DVD; a brilliant 1962 sci-fi yarn which unfolds entirely through still images, it eventually became the basis for Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys.

The Case of the Grinning Cat, a strikingly lyrical blend of mystery and political commentary, is a labor of love that took Marker three years to make, and provides poignant insight into a global zeitgeist ravaged by divisive twenty-first century politics. The movie functions as an international take on the rallying cry of Fahrenheit 9/11, but you'll find no clownish Michael Moore tactics here. Marker narrates an increasingly bizarre story of upheaval in France, and though he's conceivably behind the camera in nearly every shot, he remains an observer, pulling together seemingly disconnected local events and uniting them into a remarkable poetic discourse. Marker begins with a quest, wandering the streets of Paris to look for a cartoon cat, whose smiling visage -- the handiwork of an unknown graffiti artist -- has been spotted around town. The sketch pops up everywhere from subway stations to rooftops, sidewalks and even political protests. Marker notices the cat when it appears on television during an anti-war rally as the United States was on the brink of invading Iraq in 2003.

At this point Marker allows his imagination to take over, showing the yellow-tinted creation making appearances in Renaissance paintings and other historical landmarks. Gradually, Marker's surreal humor develops a motif: "The grin of the cat was a gate to a different Paris," he says in his friendly English voiceover (generously prepared specifically for American audiences). For Marker, the drawing represents the unknown -- everything that is at once intriguing and intimidating about a world in motion.

And what motion: The French government places a ban on wearing Muslim headscarves; China continues its merciless occupation of Tibet; and George W. Bush issues an ultimatum to Saddam Hussein. "Imagine," muses Marker, after exploring that last development, "if Churchill had given Hitler 48 hours to leave Germany." His sense of irony elevates the movie beyond the level of facile satire and into a fresh form of quixotic literature. The filmmaker offers no easy answers, but he does suggest the possibility that the confusion of this post-9/11 environment is not hopeless. The drawing, which was produced by a group of artists calling itself "Mr. Cat," eventually shows how art can triumph over the barriers of bureaucracy. Credits point out that "no cat has been treated impolitely in this movie," and indeed, the feline entity is ultimately the most content creation in Marker’s vibrant body of work.

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