As a tribute to the great French film essayist Chris Marker, who died July 29, MARK SINKER and ROB WHITE discuss the director’s epic history of the New Left, and reflect on the tasks of the critic.
Photos: A Grin Without a Cat. © 1977 ISKRA-Ina-Davidis. DVD: Icarus Films.
Rob White: Chris Marker’s A Grin Without a Cat (Le Fond de l’air est rouge) was first released in 1976, then re-edited in 1993 for broadcast on Channel 4 in the U.K. It remains a remarkable chronicle of the New Left in the 1960s and 70s. A Grin Without a Cat is a three-hour, two-part (“Fragile Hands,” “Severed Hands”) assemblage of documentary footage (much of it shot by Marker himself over more than a decade, combined with found footage from numerous sources), some cinema clips (beginning with shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin), music by Luciano Berio, and a first-person narration written by Marker (but spoken by a group of actors). This chronicle of radical struggle moves from heroic insurrection to reactionary retrenchment, from a great energy of protest to authoritarian clampdowns. It is often profoundly moving, but a steely skepticism counters any effect of romance.
Though Marker refers in his DVD notes to the “true generosity” and “genuine inventiveness” of ’68, he also laments the internecine squabbling which almost immediately accompanied the movement: “The main enemy is no longer an almost abstract Power … but the other party, the other sect, the other groupuscule.” Ambivalence, anger, and even despair surface in the narration. Marker does not, however, condemn from the pulpit. The device of multiple narrating voices crucially complicates the analysis and its sentiments; polyphony refracts polemic. Furthermore Marker lets editing do the work of argument. Events in Paris or Berkeley are juxtaposed with those in Mexico City, La Higuera, Santiago, or Havana: Mexico City, where in 1968, ten days before the start of the 19th Olympiad, state forces massacred student and labor demonstrators; La Higuera, where Che Guevara was assassinated; Santiago, where democratically elected president Salvador Allende shot himself rather than be captured in the 1973 army coup which brought Augusto Pinochet to power; Havana, where Allende’s daughter Beatriz (known as “Tati”) spoke to a huge crowd about her father’s unwavering commitment to the communist cause—a speech shown in A Grin Without a Cat and made terribly poignant by the narrator’s terse explanation that she too would commit suicide in 1977. (The crucial battles were fought—and mostly lost—in Latin America.)
Marker’s technique is essayistic, digressive, fleet-footed, conjunctural rather than anything more authoritative or sociological. A Grin Without a Cat works by engineering connections, generating reciprocities. Rejecting textbook history, it instead offers op-ed, montage, jokes, questions, a chorus of voices. These give rise to a remarkable fluidity of meaning and emotion, which is a hallmark of Marker’s work, but reminiscent also of other radical practitioners. I am thinking, for example, of a group statement by Alf Brustellin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, and Bernhard Sinkel, co-directors of a contemporaneous nonlinear film account of Left militancy, Germany in Autumn, which seems to me to sum up a lot of what is also going on in Marker’s masterpiece: “we are not the chief justices of contemporary affairs. As filmmakers it is not our concern to provide another statement about terror here and abroad, about ‘the penal role of the state from a to z,’ to add to the hundred thousand theories the first correct one. That would be a film without images anyway.”
Mark Sinker: Certainly the sentiment in that group statement is familiar, the sense of exasperated frustration at self-important or simply un-self-aware modes of engagement. As a sub-class, political and critical theorists sometimes remind me of the kinds of people who collect Star Wars figurines—or perhaps, to be a bit less unkind, of kids excitedly collecting Pokémon cards, fascinated by the funny names and the associated clusters of attributes (or “theories”) and how these interact. Masters, on their own somewhat parochial terms, of an exhaustive list of political writers and activists, arrayed in increasing order of obscurity (and value); with politics—and thinking in general—reduced to battles between disembodied ideas, the names avatars of these ideas (X would have us believe THIS, but as Y teaches us…). The ideas may be important—they may be life-and-death—but where this cartoon contest takes place is designed to keep many of us as spectators only. Outside the specific collector-obsessive loop, it’s hard not to feel a class-bound sense that you’ve armed yourself with the wrong kinds of knowledge. The “we” of that statement is a “we” of filmmakers, refusing to pay fealty to professional theorists on theory’s undeclared terms.
Perhaps this is just the bad bored flippancy of a professional cultural journalist. But for the sake of argument, let’s trust boredom a bit further. Because we’re all well aware that political or critical or academic subcultures and avant-gardes, with their armatures of highly localized and professionalized expertise, their demand that we laboriously teach ourselves to gaze askance, are pretty often choked up with panics about self-justification, the fear that curiosity and the free play of the imagination will somehow lure us haplessly away from our supposed higher goals.
This is where I connect with Marker, I think: he isn’t afraid of curiosity. His is an avant-garde that goes out into the world, open to the unexpected encounter. Something I was struck by, while reading around the topic, was his self-association with the “Direct Cinema” movement. Given his highly elliptical approach, “direct” seemed a curious word for him to choose; but a suggestive one. He allies himself to such pioneers of cinema as Dziga Vertov and Alexander Medvedkin, but you don’t need to know this to decode his films. For me, “direct” simply means that he trusts the viewer’s responses to images and montage, words and sound, deploys them without need of elaborate pre-viewing initiation into techniques and precedent and learned cultural reference. Subtle, complex, novel ideas are explored via means that depend for their impact on the fact that we share response to them, and know we do. Vertov’s and Medvedkin’s early audiences, let’s not forget, weren’t necessarily even literate, let alone deeply educated.
By contrast, there’s a deeply recessive strain of avant-gardism that seems to gain ascendancy round about 1968, the start of the era of the attempted realization of Gramsci’s “long march through the institutions,” which has constructed ramparts and bulwarks of specialized knowledge, critical jargons, and rent-seeking priestcrafts, microcultures of ferocious difficulty, which—by dint of these complexities—lend themselves a bit too well to a kind of cultural policing of interpretation, and all associated anxieties. Vanguardism of this type too often seems shot through with a brittle seriousness, a terror that the channels that bring us most of our information and understanding are irrevocably tainted.
But an avant-garde needn’t fearfully set aside all our ordinary trust in our ordinary reactions and responses. It simply isn’t the case that avant-gardes are by definition a kind of anti-pop: the dominant avant-gardes of the early and mid-twentieth century—by which I mean cinema, jazz, science fiction, as much as futurism or Surrealism or indeed Bolshevism, were popular as well as demanding: could confidently and cheerfully function in, or adjunct to, the mainstream, even as they conjured with challenging emotional or sensual material. And it isn’t an accident that Marker introduces his “peculiar breed of adolescents”—the generation whose defeat this film records—with images from some rock festival or other. The rock counterculture arrived as left vanguardism was teetering into hermetic self-quarantine, the bastions of theory as pseudo-critical retreat: Marker is exactly right to treat them as intertwined, connected yet distinct.
In its current sectarian norms, avant-garde politics remains far too much wedded to figurine armies of gurus, with their flawlessness of vision, received authority casting itself as iconoclasm. It ceaselessly comments on these other territories of culture, setting itself pompously apart. But these other territories, stratified as they may be by dozens of intervening specialisms, are often better energized by their own flaws and contradictions, and wrangling more honestly with lack of confidence, impatience, confusion, and of course the amused scorn of the seemingly excluded. Certainly these are values it seems pretty urgent we don’t filter out; and there’s always this crackle of inappropriate encounter in Marker’s work, where the fighting and the flirting, the space for irreverence and genuinely creative interplay between quite distinct elements of our minds and our desires, tells us something important about ourselves. The center of mass politics is—to me—what we share as humans, rather than what we mostly lack.
Rob White: Your idea of the film’s directness puzzles me to an extent. When I first watched the film, I found it maddeningly hard to grasp. I felt unprepared, uninitiated. I yearned for on-screen name tags; I had no idea at first what was going on in A Grin Without a Cat or who was speaking. All those voices: quoting, musing, occasionally getting cross. During my second viewing, the polyphony became less disorienting, but something else had me spinning—a chaotic feeling of anxiety and sadness, cued up by the many funerals we see, the narration’s use of associated metaphors (“that great cavalcade that was the 60s”), the roll call of dead rebels in part 2. After further viewings, the chaos of the sadness diminished and I could see it as an appropriate response to the content, right from the beginning: the bloodied protestors, the arms dealers and junta thugs, the corpses in Vietnam, the CIA apparatchik discussing Guevara’s death, and on and on. How could one not feel shattered and sorrowful? But for a while, A Grin Without a Cat upset me so much it messed with my ability to get any grip on the film. Directness might imply functional, unmediated communication, not this sound–image grapeshot and my whirlpool of feelings. Of course, you could say the film got to me right away, got directly into me, and this is why I was so upset; nevertheless, the tangle of clips and voices can be baffling—a set of clues, allusions, puzzles—even though, yes, Marker trusts viewers to try to figure them out.
I suppose there is something catlike in the twists and turns and ungraspability of the film. And A Grin Without a Cat is certainly a mischievous creature, beginning with its Lewis Carroll-derived English title; it may invoke a vanished feline, but cats keep on popping up to provoke wry smiles. I am thinking in particular of the digression which Marker undertakes at a crucial juncture, just after he has for a second time shown the 1972 funeral of Renault picketer Pierre Overney (killed by a corporate security guard), calling it “the last parade of that dreamt-of revolution which they so wanted to be a joyous one.” The film cuts to dignitaries at Georges Pompidou’s 1974 funeral, including Nixon (a few months away from disgrace). And then: “Nixon looks unwell on the steps of Notre Dame, troubled. In fact this whole collection of chiefs of state looks pretty sickly. Power must be bad for the health: just look at them. Compare their expressions with the clear eyes of a cat. That’s the ultimate test. A cat is never on the side of power.” Often in A Grin Without a Cat, horror and even tragedy get a sardonic gloss, and the joking matters, the metaphorical digression, the little poetic detail. Again I would stress the way in which Marker’s technique is impossible to codify or monumentalize. It is very much in tune with your idea of “a crackle of inappropriate encounter … where the fighting and the flirting between quite distinct elements of our minds and our desires tells us something important about ourselves.” Marker keeps on instigating such confrontations. He lights fuses and fireworks, sparking those back-and-forth encounters (between glassy-eyed Nixon and Overney’s proud mourners, for example), and the effect is like a wake-up call. You just need to compare the ebullient, irreverent manner of the cat digression with a solemn TV funeral commentary, all whispers and deference.
A Grin Without a Cat never substitutes anti-establishment piety for Establishment piety. Marker’s commitment is of a fiercely independent, insubordinate, individualistic kind. He is withering about the guru of the French New Left, Louis Althusser, in his DVD notes and there is, I think, a fellow-travelling dilemma constantly in play in this film (notwithstanding its worn-on-the-sleeve sympathy for left unity). How to speak out against tyranny without the dull and heavy jargon of, for example, post-structuralist theories of ideology whose language is nearly as alienating and infuriating—and as inaccessible to a nonspecialist audience—as the awful, monotonous management speak we hear being born in the mouth of a Citroën technocrat in part 1? Joking is part of it, metaphor too, and angsty flippancy—and the extent to which anyone admires A Grin Without a Cat will probably depend upon how vital and dynamic she or he finds these heterodox modes to be. Which is not to forget, however, that sometimes the film is unmistakably direct, as when Marker’s narrator lets rip about French Maoism: “Your intelligence was fortified by the lies. It faced this vertigo of stupidity like mountain climbers face the real vertigo: with a sense of victory and pride. Thus while explaining everything, justifying everything, you aligned yourself on the most traditional side attributed to the intellectuals by the tyranny. Your only single originality lay in the fact that you did it while proclaiming the end of tyranny and persuading yourself you were at work to destroy it.”
Mark Sinker: Well, let’s dig a bit further into the words “directness” and “initiation.” The whole can be direct, as can the details—but these are different layers of directness. Initiation renders the whole more graspable; to clue you in to where you should be going, to help you react to a whole complex artwork as it were “unmediated,” as you put it. But if we have our heads in a map, we may well miss elements we’re need to be seeing: to be experiencing unprepared. Maps are “spoilers,” to use the useful internet term for it. A critic can hardly avoid frontloading expectation into that reading or observation which animates his or her enthusiasm, especially—though perhaps not always—when it arises from the processing of surprise. An apt sample in a pop song, some funny little drop-in arrangement or chord alteration: the shock, if that’s not too strong a word, triggers first a bafflement, then the important pleasurable energy of making for yourself the connection that they made before you. If you stress this as a reviewer—exposing the history and the machinery of your own engagement—you always also risk denying it for your readers: it becomes an element anticipated, overemphasized, possibly consciously resisted; distorted, anyway. In a highly compressed, deliberately throwaway work like a pop song this may strip it of its entire best effect—the potential you’ll be ambushed by unexpected emotion or image or juxtaposition, and forced to process your contradictory responses. A Grin Without a Cat is three hours long, not three minutes, so unlikely to be decisively spoilered by any reading, but there’s still a politics, or anyway a necessary etiquette, to how you best intercede on its behalf, as a reviewer or a critic, given the necessary selectivity of any written guide or analysis; not to mention all the irreducible little quirks of translation between the visual or the aural, and the verbal.
All of this is swirling beneath the word “initiation”: the question of who’s leading you where, and how, and why. A distinction you could a little sweepingly make, between a consumer review and criticism proper, is that the former is really mainly to save you time, to give you solid excuses to skip something altogether where appropriate, and good steers to jump straight to the speed-read summary of what the busy brain “needs to know.” Whereas the latter assumes you intend to engage, to make journeys and discoveries on your own, and therefore provides you with the information you’ll need to plunge most fruitfully—perhaps even most truthfully—right into the key details. By declining to provide the map of conventional documentary form and device, Marker is trusting his viewers to care enough to make the leaps themselves; and in that trust, presumably, rests his belief in how his ideas and images and emotional clusters will impact on this same kind of viewer.
I suppose this gets us right back to the politics of teaching, really. How do you direct people into the best place, in the best state of readiness, to discover for themselves from the work—or the facts in the history or the world—what it is you discovered; what helped and changed you. And what about what will help and change them? There are teachers and artists and critics who are—basically—saying: “Think for yourself! And here’s exactly what I want you to think for yourself!’ And others who assume that “If only everyone were able to think for themselves, they would without doubt think exactly like me!” For whom education, as valued as it is, is nevertheless subtly instrumentalized, into a form of self-replication. What’s exciting about Marker I think—though it’s intimately related to what’s difficult and even traumatic about him—is how much more open he is. His surprises are not merely instrumentalized shocks in the service of a predetermined affirmation; you could almost call them tentatively shared jokes, a reciprocity of tenderly teasing affection, about the possibility that all his assumptions could be wrong. He seems endlessly to allow that they could be about to encounter something which will deeply challenge and change them; that, whatever this something is, it may be, will be, already there—seen but not seen—sensed but not sensed—in whatever he’s filmed and presented. And that he’s not afraid of this.
Rob White: That word “direct” is still not quite resolved for me! You just wrote in relation to “the politics of teaching” about how to “direct people into the best place, in the best state of readiness, to discover for themselves from the work—or the facts in the history or the world—what it is you discovered; what helped and changed you.” I would be very hesitant to characterize Marker’s work as pedagogical. I much prefer the idea of criticism to that of pedagogy. I define criticism as a practice that does not second-guess its own effect—as pedagogy must: its impact on less-formed minds—and whose allegiances lie, first, with close reading of the work at hand and, second, with the critic’s own preoccupations and obsessions (some of which might be unresolved, insistent). A critic is neither parent nor professor, neither friend nor guru.
What you say about spoilers is interesting, but what about the well-tested convention of the spoiler warning? Reader, beware—if you read on your pleasure may be spoiled by the upcoming disclosures. I think you are being too careful of etiquette and live-and-let-live civilities. In your account, critical discourse is a communal affair; you hold open the door into this or that cultural world for the readers entering after you. It’s a nonhierarchical community which you conjure up, a place of a certain warm conviviality and shared purpose—of “tentatively shared jokes, a reciprocity of tenderly teasing affection.” Tender, tentative, reciprocal, affectionate. Well maybe. But is this truly relevant to the affect or indeed the politics of Marker’s work, A Grin Without a Cat especially? Let me throw in a spoiler here—and I will mind the etiquette enough to give fair warning—at the end of A Grin Without a Cat, in a passage which Godard excerpts and reworks powerfully in the last part of Histoire(s) du cinéma, Marker shows footage of wolves being shot by a rifleman in a helicopter, but the narration’s last words, albeit spoken as another of the animals falls to the ground, are: “some wolves still survive” (il y’avait toujours des loups). I suppose I worry that your account risks making Marker’s film kittenish—cute and tender and polite in company—whereas it really is, in my opinion, something wilder and much less easily tamed (or spoilered).
Etiquette certainly matters, but I think it is relatively unimportant here. There is some interesting contemporary commentary that can be usefully folded at this point. In January 1978, Cahiers du cinéma published a round table on Marker’s film. Around the table were critics aligned with the magazine’s roughly New Left politics, including Jean Narboni, who attacked the film precisely for what he saw as its teacherliness: “this is the film of a spiritual adviser, a morose instructor of the Communists and the traditional left.” He is echoed by Thérèse Giraud: according to her, Marker is “acting as a classical historian, in fact—on the basis of a supposedly all-inclusive knowledge, a position of superiority (it’s his specialty).” When Giraud has finished, Jean-Paul Fargier intercedes: “But why can’t you grant Marker the right to think differently from you, to think for himself and others? Why don’t you want to hear an argument other than your own? You should make your own film, from your own documents and with your own vision of ten years of history. I think the film reflects a subjective despair, and that’s one of the reasons it’s interesting.” Despair is a necessary part of the experience of A Grin Without a Cat and I agree with Fargier against the others. Theirs is the pedagogical mindset, at least in my conception of it, whereas Marker’s approach—its opinionated eccentricities together with its respect for documentary detail—is better described as critical.
Mark Sinker: It’s a sort of radical higher-ed version of the charge of selling out, isn’t it? “You’re nothing but a CLASSICAL HISTORIAN!” No surprise, perhaps, with the very nature of studenthood, active or passive, a founding issue in the 60s events, and everything about teaching—its institutions, its social role—thrown into question. That’s part of the background of this film: cinema and its discussion were a political wedge into those institutions, and Marker’s critics are accusing him of adherence to an unspoken orthodoxy, in the service of his own sect’s discredited line. But thirty years on, isn’t he the one releasing the tradition from its drearier parochial bonds, while they’re the pedants defending tiny turf-patches? It’s pretty hard to be fair without a much more detailed grasp of which participant was up to what, in film and in politics.
But a late-70s micro-map of these local far-left details would—and this is where the unfairness comes in—distract you from and obscure what Marker is surely achieving. Which is cutting us loose from the drag and the burden of the immediate context, the pseudo-urgency of the tactics of the moment, the relentless filibuster of a once-pressing now against all broader re-evaluation. It puts us back in contact with why we might have embedded ourselves in this seemingly impossible thicket in the first place, reconnects us with what ultimately matters—hence perhaps at least some of the bridling. Because this kind of reconnection is never a small matter.
As much as anything, Marker’s film is a dense and complex act of mourning: mourning for projects that failed, mourning for possibilities that turned in on themselves, mourning for a togetherness that somehow, as it encountered obstacles, increasingly became a horrible, contorted, endless, spiteful internal quarrel. The act of mourning itself would have seemed dispiriting, even insolent, to those activists or artists in 1978 who felt their projects, yet to be tried, might make all the difference. But even if the call to mourn is premature, it remains an acknowledgment of one of the deepest shared realizations of the era being mourned: a recognition of the unusual primacy of desire in the politics of the 1960s: as an impulse obviously, but as an object of discussion and exploration and potential mutuality. Mourning grows out of desire: it is the acceptance of the loss of possibility. And with it comes this conundrum: how to reanimate such possibility?
Well, one of the roles of a critic is to raise the question of this loss of possibility, this burying of a founding potential in a filibustering morass of professionalised duties and protocols and uneasy habits. And yes, you’re right to insist that the role of critic mustn’t merely get folded into the interests of other, seemingly related professions. Critics are no more teachers than they’re transformational revolutionary leaders—though they can share qualities with both. Literary criticism is doubtless as old as writing, but art criticism as we know it today pretty much arrives in culture with Denis Diderot, about 250 years ago. And it was raised as a shout, of a polymorphic, almost chaotic, kind, on behalf of both the rising but still-excluded educated bourgeoisie and the various craft virtues of the artisanal petty bourgeoisie, against the corruption—in particular the corrupted art—of the ancien régime. Now self-defining groups should focus on their own craft concerns, as these reflect their own temperaments and technical gifts—forensic, aesthetic, military, even social. The roots of this or that groupuscule’s coming together, their shared goals and wants, should not be cast aside carelessly. And criticism as a craft takes its stand on behalf of good work as its own morality; and this, you might say, is the form its own politics continues to take. Which is a politics that it’s also important to keep distinct from the plans and simplifications of (for example) professionalized political agitation, however radical this is, and however compatible with the critic’s own hopes and passions. And one of the routes to maintaining this sense of distinctness, I believe, is precisely to work to bring all these scattered layers and divided labors back into impertinent juxtaposition—to trust that the spark of their encounter worked to counter the timid and the small and the self-limiting impulse within any given craft discipline, political or artisanal or professional.
Rob White: I do not know the ins and outs of the disagreement between those Cahiers people and Marker, but I agree with you that what is interesting, and wrong, is this assertion that Marker is toeing a party line. What Giraud and Narboni cannot seem to acknowledge is Marker’s independent-mindedness; so they just fling their own groupthink back at him. And surely this is the flipside of critical etiquette: the tendency on the part of “self-defining groups” to degenerate into smugness and orthodoxy. You rightly have cautionary words to say about pedantry, defensiveness, and complacency, but at the same time you hold to the notions like embedding, tradition, “shared realizations.” (I confess your references to artisanal groups summon up a vision of men in smocks!) You have a strong stake in “we.” I am not so sure; the idea of the fellow traveller is the best I can do to approximate that.
I absolutely agree with you that mourning is crucially important in all this. It is worth reiterating that A Grin Without a Cat is full of funeral footage and funerary words: “cortège,” “cavalcade,” “the old merry-go-round of death.” This is of course a political matter too. Just think of the difference between Guevara’s shabby end in La Higuera and the full state pomp of Pompidou’s funeral. The politics of burial go all the way back to Antigone—which is strikingly referenced in Germany in Autumn in relation to the huge controversy over the internment of Red Army Faction members (footage of which concludes that film)—and there is a galling clip forty-five minutes into A Grin Without a Cat in which, from an office in some high-rise headquarters, a tie-wearing member of an American “military training team” that drilled Bolivian soldiers hunting Guevara denies that it would have been better to have kept the guerilla leader alive and so prevent the myth that grew up after his death.
But what you say about mourning seems to be based on the assumption that it is essentially a therapeutic process in which mourners come to terms with a loss and recover from the grief. This at any rate is the sense conveyed to me by your string of words: “acknowledgment,” “realization,” “recognition,” “acceptance” … and then “acceptance” again. This is a standard psychological vocabulary, to be found also in Freud’s “Mourning and Melancholia” or in the endlessly referenced “Kübler-Ross model” of grief, the last of whose five stages is acceptance. But there is another idea of mourning too: Jacques Derrida’s account of demi-deuil—“half-mourning,” unfinished or unfinishable mourning—elaborated in such books as Specters of Marx. I would say that the continuing and distressing and indeed (as you call it) “insolent” power of A Grin Without a Cat is bound up in the feeling it may give us, or into which it may tap, that we have to carry on mourning the defeat of the New Left.
Now it is essential to remember that there is plenty of pleasure in A Grin Without a Cat, plenty of impudence punctuating the grimness—and Marker’s craft, and his artistry too, holding it all together. Marker is not a nihilist or pure melancholic. But there is no soothing, no state of acceptance to mark mourning’s end. Let me go back to something I mentioned at the beginning: the footage of Pierre Overney’s funeral near the start of A Grin Without a Cat. One of the pall-bearers, grave-faced and clear-eyed, has his right arm raised in the revolutionary salute. What is so moving about this image perhaps is its suggestion that refusal is what matters not acceptance—that grieving and protesting go together. A Grin Without a Cat is a painful and upsetting work and what may be most important about it is the extent to which it can can seem, as to those Cahiers detractors, unacceptably upsetting. This is a film which should weigh heavily on its viewers. You can try to shrug it off, I suppose, or you can, like that pall-bearer, carry it proudly and defiantly even though it is a burden.
Mark Sinker: Telling, I think, that we began with flippancy and we’re ending with mourning—or actually, not ending, because we’re reached a point in this exchange where more cans of worms are opened than we have space to explore. One is certainly this fraught issue of the “we.” Can your proposed solitary critic really maintain integrity of insight by aggressively belonging nowhere? Films—and magazines—are works of collective endeavour; there’s no politics that doesn’t entail a “we,” just as very few wes don’t contain conflict. We all exist in nested communities and tangles of obligation, political or professional or familial, formal and informal: these shape our choice of tone as much as topic. And sometimes the comfort zone of an undeclared “we,” with its distorting loyalties and interests and aspirations and rivalries, hides beneath a comfortably shared taste for directed spite. We need to be honest about affection as well as anger, about comfort as much as uncertainty, unease, the unknown.
I have a kind of rule of thumb, when it comes to distinguishing the different layers of judgment in politics, and how they can sometimes pull sharply against one another. The name for victory in your head is ethos; the name for victory in the room is tactics; the name for victory in the world is strategy. But here’s the thing: ethos, so central to your solitary journey of witness and exegesis, is also an expression—often internalized, even unthinking—of how you set yourself within or against the world as it is; and how you yourself act to make it what you want it to be; or rather, what it should be; who you team up with, who you converse or argue with; who you avoid; who you denounce. Anyway, a critic is someone who can distinguish these layers in a work—of judgment and intent and unconscious wish and habit, and effect and promises made and promises failed—and discern how they work together or work against one another. Criticism is where the avant-garde folds back into the ethos of its own roots: the “stay true to the materials” of the Arts and Crafts movement and the radical artisanal tradition of all the earlier revolutions. As writers, our materials are words and sentences and paragraphs; we push film—or whatever—back towards the unparochial daylight of the world beyond the many micro-clusters of disciplinary distortion. To subject a specialist system of knowledge to an almost randomly wider world is to test its assumptions in unprotected zones not of its own choosing; which is to say, genuinely to test them (and genuinely to trust they will pass such tests; to trust they won’t fall to dust in the light of wider day). And to journey through our own materials and tools—as these engage or clash with the work at issue—is to travel by touch, feeling for the truth of all links between ethos and strategy, and how everyone’s respective tactics square with either, or don’t.
So this tension between the crackling details of a now-past now, and any larger shapes and flows; this tension between Marker and the disputants in the Cahiers discussion; it’s important that its resolution isn’t merely a pretend resolution that declares one side victorious by occluding the other. This is a tension that has to be maintained as long as an idea—or a tradition of related ideas—needs testing.
And Marker in this film—working his craft materials, images, sound, motion, celluloid—is operating as a critic of the project in his era of a particular tradition of the artisanship of radical politics, and whatever we take its materials to be, his ethos the properly dynamic summary of all these, and all his own engagement with them: a critic whose every juxtaposition is more question than assertion, whose every assertion demands to be tested against the future as generously and as rigorously as he tests his own life, times, hopes, and dreams.
Which is another point of contact: I prefer questions to answers. Knowledge for me is more about process than conclusion; the propagation of understanding less about lists of right or wrong facts and names and ideas than about enabling a reader—this mythical, minimal “we”—to open his or herself to encounter, to the invigorating astonishment of learning something they never expected. Which I guess speaks to another of these cans of worms lying open. Pedagogy; spoilers; mourning …
Because there’s another dimension to mourning for a maker or an artist or a critic—and above all for a political leader, if the essential vanity of that calling allows them to see it—and this is the awareness that if their work is well done, they will experience the sadness all teachers are heir to: that of being surpassed, set aside, irretrievably subsumed in what comes after. To be wrong, to lose, is to discarded. But to be right—to solve a problem, to clarify a tangled history, to note an error—is to remove something also: your own lived puzzlement; your spur, the source of your energy and focus. We’re pleased when we’ve been effective, of course. But isn’t there a sense of loss that goes with this, if you pay close attention? To resolve a tension is to cast a part of yourself out of history, where it sinks away down into the larger democracy of silly forgotten detail. But the word ‘silly’ is a defence as well as a weapon.
Mark Sinker is a former editor of the music monthly The Wire, and a contributing editor at the film journal Sight and Sound and the webzine Freaky Trigger. He is the author of the 2004 BFI Film Classic book on the film if….
Rob White spent ten years as commissioning editor of BFI Publishing (and series editor of the Classics volumes) before becoming, in 2006, editor of Film Quarterly. He has been a columnist for Sight and Sound and is author ofThe Third Man (BFI Film Classics, 2003) and Freud’s Memory: Psychoanalysis, Mourning and the Foreign Body(Palgrave, 2008). His book on Todd Haynes is forthcoming in the University of Illinois Press series, Contemporary Film Directors.
Cahiers du Cinéma, 1973–1978: History, Ideology, Cultural Struggle, ed. David Wilson (London: Routledge, 2000): Jean-Paul Fargier, Thérèse Giraud, Serge Le Peron, Jean Narboni, Serge Daney, “Round Table on Chris Marker’s Le Fond de l’air est rouge.”
Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. by Peggy Kamuf (New York: Routledge, 1994).
West German Filmmakers on Film: Vision and Voices, ed. Eric Rentschler (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1988): Alf Brustellin, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Alexander Kluge, Volker Schlöndorff, Bernhard Sinkel, “Germany in Autumn: What Is the Film’s Bias?”
You can watch the film in two parts on YouTube