Chris Marker’s Grinning Cat

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For me, and many other film history students, Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée (1962), a film about post-nuclear war and time travel told via a photo-montage, along with his poetic ruminations on culture, memory, and travel in Sans Soleil (1982), were both required viewing. La Jetée got a bit more traction when it later inspired Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys (1995), but…

A cat above the rooftops.

…comparing the Gilliam studio-backed feature to Marker’s very independent short is kind of funny when you think of how Gilliam had millions of dollars (and Bruce Willis) while Marker barely even had access to a film camera:

In the 2007 Criterion Collection release of La Jetée and Sans Soleil, Marker included a short essay entitled “Working on a shoestring budget”. He confessed to shooting all of Sans Soleil with a silent film camera and recording all the audio on a primitive audio cassette recorder. Marker also reminds the reader that only one short scene in La Jetée is of a moving image, only being able to borrow a movie camera for one afternoon while working on the film. (Wikipedia)

In the subways.

Marker was born in 1921, co-directed a film with Alain Resnais in 1953, and has worked on a slew of films since then and is still alive and well (I hope, I’m knocking on wood here). But my subject is cats. Why? Because it’s freezing cold here in Colorado, and my two cat companions, Ollie & Chief, are keeping me warm on the couch today as I watch Chris Marker’s The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004). And it’s a damn good thing that Ollie (the fat one) is keeping me company because A) his extra mass means more warmth and B) I just shelled out another $400 dollars at the vets to “unplug” him from a case of constipation that would easily make Elvis Presley drench his jumpsuit in a terrified sweat. I think Marker would appreciate this because:

Chris Marker lives in Paris and does not grant interviews. When asked for a picture of himself, he usually offers a photograph of a cat instead. His cat is named Guillaume-en-egypte. (Wikipedia)

That last bit of news makes me feel lucky, because I actually have framed above my stove a picture of both Marker AND his cat that I tore out of a Film Comment over five years ago. Not that this should take away any of the J.D. Salinger-esque mystique about the filmmaker. I’ve always felt he’s a humanist and philosopher of the highest caliber, and he clearly likes to keep his head above the senseless din of our celebrity-obsessed culture.

Elusive director and his favorite cat.

The Case of the Grinning Cat was made in homage to actor George  Sanders (who, and this is only an aside, accurately predicted at the age of 31 that he would commit suicide at the age of 65) and starts out with a flashmob that assembles a crowd together in Paris near the Pompidou, who are then given the instructions to open-and-close their umbrellas every ten seconds while still strolling. “And all that,” our narrator (Gérard Rinaldi) says, “under the eyes of a cat.” The cat in question here is soon-to-be-ubiquitous graffiti.

Another cat on the roof.

This whimsy is interrupted by recollections of September 11th, 2001, and it is from these dueling ideas, between a light-hearted feline motif (which symbolizes peace and creation) and politics-as-usual (which degrade and destroy), that Marker embarks on an hour-long contemplation of the human spirit.

The Cheshire Cat.

The Cheshire Cat coming back to life in Miyazaki's work.

The smiling cat graffiti (noted in the film as stretching from the Cheshire Cat on through Miyazaki’s work) is first noticed above rooftops, where “Somebody at night was risking his neck just to have a smile floating over the city,” but then drifts down closer to the ground and takes different places from which to greet all who pass it. One cat is seen on the wall of a church, but is then erased within a month in an act of “iconoclastic rage” that is then contrasted against a scene of the Taliban blowing up the two 1,700-year-old and 150-foot-high Buddhas in Afghanistan on July 3rd, 2001. The narrator knows his audience might view that as a stretch, so he adds: “I’m not joking.”

And it’s obvious he’s not, for religious extremism does seem to be at war with art and culture, and Marker always finds ways of bringing the cats back into the fray and in often unexpected ways. As his narrator keeps on “looking for the cats,” through Parisian politics, American politics, and indeed, global politics, there comes a moment where the plundering of the Iraqi archeological museum is contemplated, and the narrator says “if some day I had the opportunity to plunder the Louvre, I know damn well what I would pick.” And here a quick glimpse of Egyptian artifacts reveals:

Egyptian cats.

0 Response Chris Marker’s Grinning Cat
Posted By Klankabop : January 4, 2009 2:09 pm

Thanks for this, keelsetter! Chris Marker has probably been on my mind more than any other filmmaker in the past couple of years. It didn’t hurt that I was able to see Sans Soleil on a big screen at the Film Forum in that time. Compassionate and insightful inquiry has a much needed role in the world these days. This is precisely the gift that he (along with Guillaume-en-egypte) has given us.

Posted By Klankabop : January 4, 2009 2:09 pm

Thanks for this, keelsetter! Chris Marker has probably been on my mind more than any other filmmaker in the past couple of years. It didn’t hurt that I was able to see Sans Soleil on a big screen at the Film Forum in that time. Compassionate and insightful inquiry has a much needed role in the world these days. This is precisely the gift that he (along with Guillaume-en-egypte) has given us.

Posted By Stephen : January 5, 2009 7:34 am

That image of the cat is also reminiscent of a similar icon used by British band Radiohead, although they rounded the ears and called it a bear, but the similarity is striking.

Posted By Stephen : January 5, 2009 7:34 am

That image of the cat is also reminiscent of a similar icon used by British band Radiohead, although they rounded the ears and called it a bear, but the similarity is striking.

Posted By Medusa : January 11, 2009 10:59 am

Thanks for bringing this film to my attention! I just watched a short preview on YouTube and will have to find the whole thing soon!

I’m sure Ollie appreciates the colonic, too! As a fellow cat-lover — 4 plus a nice stray tom who comes by every three or four days and stays for a few days, on his rounds! — I know it’s money well spent. Best wishes to Ollie and Chief from my Nova Scotia brood!

Posted By Medusa : January 11, 2009 10:59 am

Thanks for bringing this film to my attention! I just watched a short preview on YouTube and will have to find the whole thing soon!

I’m sure Ollie appreciates the colonic, too! As a fellow cat-lover — 4 plus a nice stray tom who comes by every three or four days and stays for a few days, on his rounds! — I know it’s money well spent. Best wishes to Ollie and Chief from my Nova Scotia brood!

Posted By keelsetter : January 11, 2009 8:40 pm

Gotta love those furry little buddies… On my to-read list is LAST WORDS: THE FINAL JOURNALS OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS. It was given to me by a friend who said that it took a while for him to figure out that all these characters Burroughs was writing about in his journals were actually his cats. They might not be able to talk in human terms, but they clearly have a lot of personality.

Posted By keelsetter : January 11, 2009 8:40 pm

Gotta love those furry little buddies… On my to-read list is LAST WORDS: THE FINAL JOURNALS OF WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS. It was given to me by a friend who said that it took a while for him to figure out that all these characters Burroughs was writing about in his journals were actually his cats. They might not be able to talk in human terms, but they clearly have a lot of personality.

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