A Grin Without a Cat
directed by Chris Marker
Icarus Films Home Video
Those who grew up in the ’60s feared the nuclear holocaust that the Godless Commies were ready to inflict on us Bourgeois Capitalists. Little did we realize the real Communist threat wasn’t war, but their ability to talk you to death on the fine points of a Revolution of the Proletariats or the Efficient Distribution of Capital Goods. Not that they were worth a damn at executing either of these grand schemes, but they could talk for weeks about them. This massive three-hour documentary focuses on the French Communists and their associated strikes, revolts, and protest marches, but does an excellent job of integrating that story into the bigger world picture of Cuba, Bolivia, the Congo, and Czechoslovakia. More importantly, it shows how the idealism of the post-World War II era fell apart as the older theoretical and conservative Communists clashed internally with the younger, more pragmatic students who wanted change now and theory be damned. In the end, the internal squabbles and demonstrable fact that communism wasn’t very good at producing material goods lost the battle to the capitalists, and now everyone would have to get a real job.
There’s a lot to think about in this film, and director Marker gives virtually no commentary to the archival footage, save a few sad words at the very end of the film. Stylistically, Marker compiles a roughly chronological compilation of footage beginning at the Odessa Steps scene in Serge Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and ending in the late ’70s, just a decade before the complete collapse of the Berlin Wall. Along the way we meet Mao, Castro, and Chè as well as various talking heads, academics, students, old-line Communists, and even a few of the workers they hoped to liberate. Most of the footage is black and white, with various color tones added to differentiate the scenes and subtly enhance their emotional value. Some scenes are jarring, such as the American pilot gleefully bombing a North Vietnamese bunker. Some are funny, like the leader of the Bolivian revolution carefully explaining why Chè Guevara’s method of guerrilla warfare was inappropriate to Bolivia. Many are just chaotic, as riots so often are, and more than a few are lengthy clips of speeches by Castro, Allende, or various French leaders. If you dig through the welter of subjunctive clauses and disclaimers, these people did have something interesting to say as long as you were able to correctly diagram their sentences.
It’s easy to discuss the plight of the working class while sipping espresso in St. Germaine, but while the Russian Revolution improved the workers’ situation briefly, it only did so for a short time until the unbridled power of Stalin took over and he settled a few million scores. When the French strikes attempted to toss out the evil bosses, they soon found out that there was some value to the Suits running sales, marketing and planning, and setting wages. One touching segment shows a Communist leader carefully explaining why there might just possibly be a need to have the old management advise the workers to keep some profitability in the system, although the old bosses should not be so crass as to ask for any compensation.
While this documentary can be read in multiple ways depending on your politics, it shows that Theoretical Economics is a poor way to run a company or a country, and there is some value in paying attention to the almighty dollar. It shows that blind faith in a theory can lead to brutality and bizarre behavior, whether that theory is based on Das Kapital or the Old Testament. It shows that despite the millions of lives and billions of pre-war dollars spent on the idea of creating a workers’ paradise, it doesn’t seem to exist anywhere under the Hammer and Sickle. Capitalism certainly has its flaws and its theories, but when the theories fail, it’s flexible enough to move along.
Icarus Films: homevideo.icarusfilms.com