Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Case of the Grinning Cat

REMINDER: The Brattle Movie-Watch-a-Thon is in progress. Drop me a line if you would like to sponsor me, go here to make a donation, and check back on a near-daily basis to see how well I'm doing. With this films, I'm at 4 Brattle film seen and 9 elsewhere, which means 17 "points" total (or 8.5, depending on whether Brattle films count for two or other films count for ½)

Another movie! I have to admit that I might have liked the shorts that came before it a little more: Since The Case of the Grinning Cat is only about an hour long, the Brattle attached "Chris Marker's Bestiary" to it, five short videos he shot with animals. There's something delightful about these little snippets, whether they're as straightforward as "Chat écoute à la musique" or sort of freaky like "An Owl Is an Owl Is an Owl" (that extra eyelid creeps me out, though not so much as zooming out to show that the owls are in captivity).

The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chats Perchés)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2007 at The Brattle Theater (Special Engagement) (Movie Watch-a-Thon)

Chris Marker likes cats, and owls, and subways, and street art. He has interest in politics although he's reached the age where what happens now is is inevitably compared to history. Where younger men might have a blog, he has a video camera, and in The Case of the Grinning Cat, he trains it on Paris to see what connections he can find between them.

He starts in late 2001, mentioning the attacks on New York City and briefly commenting on how a French newspaper ran a headline stating "we are all Americans", though that didn't last for one reason or another. He soon notices an interesting bit of street art: An orange cat with rounded paws and a Cheshire grin is painted on various rooftops above the city. The artist, he ponders, must be a combination of Charles Schulz and Spider-man, and though his attention over the next few years will be diverted to politics and war, "M. Chat" is never far away: He'll see it on subways, in crowds during demonstrations, and in other likely places.

Marker does not appear to have any particular agenda to push with Grinning Cat, except perhaps to contrast the whimsy of the cat with the growing discontent of the world. Indeed, the American name implies a quest for knowledge that the film does not engage in (in French, it's just Chats Perchés, "Grinning Cats"). The film gives the impression of a man who always has his camera with him in case he finds something interesting, which is all but guarranteed because of his curious nature. I imagine him with a tremendous stack of tapes, pulling from them in roughly chronological order as he finds something interesting to comment on.

He does have interesting and amusing comments - noting that Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to vacate Iraq and then compared him to Hitler, he wonders whether Churchill would have offered Hitler a similar ultimatum. He notes that activism has fashions and fads, far-right leaders appropriating poetry written by communists for their own purposes, and that advertisements featuring France's World Cup team bear a passing resemblance to Stalinist propaganda. At least in the English dub shown at the Brattle, the narration comes off as amused, as well it probably should; a man of 80 years is entitled to chuckle at things that might enrage younger people.

Just because Marker has been around a while doesn't mean he's set in his ways. He's trying new things, although it's not always successful - the "Morpheye" sequences that give a different look to political speeches don't really work. A segment where he "reveals" M. Chat in various artwork all the way back to cave painting got big laughs out of the audience, though, and in another sequence he seems to find more artistic merit in what he sees on the street than what is on display in the Louvre.

The Case of the Grinning Cat is kind of a slight work; it's less than an hour long, made for French television, and doesn't really have a point. The film is over before it gets too self-indulgent, but Marker is a man I'm willing to indulge.

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