Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Contempt (Le mépris) A Film by Jean-Luc Godard (1963)

At first glance, Jean-Luc Godard's Contempt may have seemed to the international art cinema audience of the 60's a first step towards commercialism for the previously radical director. The French theatrical poster borrowed its look from the sensational Hollywood advertisements of the time: one of the film's subjects, the gorgeous Brigitte Bardot, is painted prominently across the front, giving her the implication of a radiant Hollywood starlet rather than her Godardian counterpart - a cynical, utterly impenetrable woman. Contempt also had direct ties with America, both in the casting of Jack Palance as the hot-headed producer and in the involvement of American executives who asked Godard out of marketable interests to include Bardot's behind at least once in the film, a request that Godard did indeed heed in the opening minutes of the film. Although they wanted more than his brazenly dispassionate observation of Bardot's body while her playwright husband selflessly lauds it - a scene in which red and blue color filters are added with a seeming lack of motivation - Godard's story, based off of Alberto Moravia's A Ghost At Noon, does not call for any more sensuality as its central couple steadily disconnects.

Palance's character, Jeremy Prokosch, a stern American producer who must constantly speak through a cute interpreter, hands Paul Javal (Michel Piccoli in his first role), a failed, artistically flimsy French playwright, the job of commercializing a film script for The Odyssey which is to be directed by Fritz Lang. Prokosch does so with determination, taking Paul to see Lang (played by himself) in his studio and then capping off the request by inviting Paul and his wife for lunch at his place. Paul is mildly reluctant about the whole affair, in part because he wants to attempt to balance his artistic integrity and the prospect of payment but also because upon finishing lunch with the producer, he finds his wife Camille (Bardot) out of love with him. Is it because he took the job so spontaneously? Could it have been his offhand stab at flirtation with the producer's interpreter? Or is it something that perhaps he was entirely oblivious to?

This confusion is something that is frequently felt in the males of Godard's films, who are always artistic, aloof, and quietly apprehensive. It's always tempting to read these characters as Godard's onscreen surrogate, with their respective partners as his wife of the time. Little else would explain the aching honesty and firm handle of the thirty minute disintegration between Paul and Camille in the high-rise apartment that follows their lunch with Prokosch. Jonathan Rosenbaum observed a likeness to Antonioni in the film, and nowhere is that comparison more apt here. Camille shifts emotions like a chameleon in the scene, first calmly expressing discontent to Paul, then teasing him with love that doesn't exist, and finally growing cold and non-confrontational, pushing Paul into feelings of deep confusion and anger. The apartment, with its inhospitable, hygienic look - blank white walls, an occasional beaming red couch, and utterly underdeveloped design (there is a door that appears to have glass in the middle but proves to just be a wooden frame) - act as a perfect architectural counterpart to the unfolding drama. Godard shoots in long, distant takes that pan around the flat, usually leaving only one character in the frame while obscuring the other behind the empty modern walls. The labyrinthine structure of the interior acts like a funhouse, baffling Paul while the object he attempts to become close to seems to be perpetually receding into the layers of white. Not only is the scene dramatically involving, but it is also choreographed with deftness.

Godard's narrative flow isn't exactly polished, because the apartment scene lasts for so long it seems for a moment that it may even conclude the film. However, the two go to the pastoral shores of Capri to meet Lang and the producer to work on The Odyssey. In doing so, Godard makes an acute statement about the public and the private. Camille's behavior takes a visible leap from talky and incomprehensible to absolute silence and impenetrability. Here is where she makes her boldest statement of contempt, and although the beautiful setting seems ideal for love, Godard's camera, which remains restrained, absent of the frenetic visual style he introduced with Breathless, and almost completely without close-ups, emphasizes the irresolvable damage done to the marriage. This dichotomy between the public and private display of emotions also mirrors Paul's uncertainty about his art and whether he's selling out. He too oscillates between expression and stifling. Therefore, Godard's stance is that when cinema becomes an industry instead of an art, it interrupts on a personal level, a sentiment that is echoed in a shot of Paul and Camille seated on opposite sides of an aisle at a theater with a photographer placed in between, and also in the absurdly frequent interjections of Georges Delerue's overtly tragic and "cinematic" score.

Contempt is shot in CinemaScope and Technicolor by one of Godard's most noted collaborators, Raoul Coutard. Godard was not entirely keen on shooting the film in this format, after the bulk of his previous films were so much of the opposite, but in truth it was a blessing in disguise. The splashy colors in the film and the expansive, eye-catching compositions foreshadow much of Godard's subsequent work, especially Pierrot Le Fou, also lensed by Coutard. It is a film that sticks out in Godard's oeuvre for its uncharacteristic restraint and its focus on dissolution that owed a great deal to his influences. Also, it is one of his more deceptive films on the surface; despite the whiff of commodification it hinted at, it is actually a thoroughly rewarding art piece with a tapestry of visual and conceptual ideas.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Color Me Kubrick (2005) A Film by Brian Cook

I was drawn to this film completely on a whim when I saw that Stanley Kubrick's name was in the title and that John Malkovich sported the lead. Malkovich is an actor whom I truly appreciate, given his ability to bring such exuberance to a truly wide range of characters, and Kubrick is one of my favorite directors, so I was hoping the film would offer some additional insight on him. However, it turns out Color Me Kubrick is based on the true story of a Kubrick hack, a homosexual eccentric who persistently passed himself off as the director out of a longing for celebrity treatment, all the while having very little knowledge about Kubrick whatsoever. In this regard, I couldn't have been more wrong. The film was directed by one of Kubrick's longtime assistants, Brian Cook, which provided another possibility for the film to be infused with a never-before-seen sense of Kubrickian wisdom. Cook seems less interested in Kubrick though than he is in the seductive notion of celebrity and how it can cause fanzines to act immorally.

Malkovich's character, Alan Conway, is an absolute hoot, but is simultaneously set astray from reality. He quite voluntarily lives in a world that is outside of himself, never once hesitating when someone asks him his name before answering in James Bond-like fashion, "Stanley...Stanley Kubrick". A new day and frequently even a new hour means an entirely distinct new outfit for Alan, who plays dress-up with himself as if he were a doll. Furthermore, his accent seems to change sporadically with his clothing, sometimes bearing no relation at all. He can be muddled and dispassionate or sociable and drunkenly rambling within a short period of time, giving little concentration to the way that the actual Kubrick would behave in public, given he was in public in the first place. Along with Chris Marker, Kubrick is one of the most standoffish filmmakers in the history of cinema, but Conway goes out of his way to confront people and coax them into speaking about "his films".

Undeniably, Conway is an enormously interesting headcase, if only because he chose to imitate, out of the countless other more bombastic and flighty celebrities this world has to offer, a cerebral artist. He gets his due in the end though when delivered to a mental asylum after romping around the streets of London for years unabated. Throughout the film, we see him using his fraudulent name to hitch rides, pick up men, slip out of payment for drinks, and most importantly, levitate his self-confidence. Often times he will offer fake crew positions to these people, and in one instance, guarantees fame for a young metal band named after a Buñuel film ("The Exterminating Angels"), who would reportedly receive a central role in an upcoming film of his named after a neon sign he sees in passing on a taxi ride. Malkovich has a grand time as this character, sometimes going over the top but never becoming dull. He even makes a point to give his career another case of self-quotation, citing John Malkovich as an actor he considered for a part, bringing to mind Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, a film that revolved around him.

Technically speaking, Color Me Kubrick is so heavily referential that it ceases to be its own film. Granted, Cook is purposely making continuous allusions to Kubrick's work, both visually and aurally, but their interjections become so obvious that they are clunky. On a scene to scene basis, the film plays more like a game of spot-that-Kubrick reference, whether we're watching the spin of a dryer to Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, a man getting tossed off a dock to the A Clockwork Orange theme, or Alan stumbling through the opulent lobby of the mental asylum to the distant sound of the lounge music that reverberates in one of the many ghost scenes of The Shining. Stripped of Kubrick's phenomenal photography, these scenes are nice homages at best and substantially inferior evil cousins at worst. Dramatically, the film is also thin, progressing more like a series of disconnected rehearsals than like a coherent narrative. Fortunately, these rehearsals are quite entertaining and Malkovich's daring performance does not hold back.

Cherry Blossoms (Kirschblüten - Hanami) A Film by Doris Dörrie (2008)

Rudi and Trudi are both nearing a point in their lives when it becomes increasingly essential to communicate true feelings, release inhibitions, celebrate inner desires, and break routine. Trudi, the wife, is aware of this. Rudi, who mechanically goes about his habits from day to day, is not. Trudi is also aware of Rudi's impending death from a terminal illness. Rudi is not. When Trudi manages to pry her husband from his humdrum groove and take him on a trip to Berlin to visit two of their equally disinterested children, Franzi and Klaus, Trudi startlingly dies in her sleep. These events, which bear a striking resemblance to Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, make up the initial half of German filmmaker Doris Dörrie's Cherry Blossoms.

The film is not just narratively akin to Ozu's seminal benchmark in humane cinema though; Dörrie's approach here - which to be sure, is quite arbitrary when looking at the rest of her unpredictable career (she may have the only film about a talking penis in film history to her credit) - is just as attune to the rhythms of life as the Japanese master. Documentary-style editing and camerawork is frequently interspersed with pleasant cutaways that are a product of Dörrie's impressionistic eye. Her camera has a way of vibrating every last ounce of life out of flies, flowers, trees, ocean waves, and even the most spiritless Toyko buildings. This, along with her ability to extract stellar, authentic performances from her cast, give Cherry Blossoms a genuine feel of verisimilitude, intimacy, and lightness even when the story moves towards more tearjerking territory.

Following Trudi's death, which rhythmically feels very much like a second half, Rudi departs for Tokyo to stay with his other son, the disenchanted Karl, while attending the Cherry Blossom Festival. He does so upon learning through hidden paraphernalia of Trudi's disguised personality, which withheld passionate interests in Japan and their sense of spirituality, embodied most tellingly by Butoh dancing, a form of dance in which women paint their faces white, wear vibrant clothing, and evoke the concepts of birth and death with an alertness to past memories. Although Rudi is somewhat shocked by this unearthing at first, he slowly becomes more and more enamored by the idea of living out Trudi's unfulfilled hopes, even going to the length of wearing her favorite sweater during the process. At the Cherry Blossom Festival, a celebration of the omnipresent flower which is a symbol of the beauty of ephemerality, Rudi encounters Yu (whose name is the source of one of the film's many bouts of light humor), a vagabond Butoh dancer who he uses as both a channel to transcendence and a sweet friend indicative of a new beginning.

His meeting of Yu also brings about the final stage of his existential journey: Mt. Fuji. Cherry Blossoms' "second half" is not quite as satisfying and well executed as its first though; sometimes, Dörrie views Rudi's sorrow with such diligence that he becomes hopeless and awkward, and she also overpronounces some of her symbols, specifically the cherry blossoms and the flies, which arrive repeatedly to remind us that all things come and go. More perceptive are the ongoing images of shadows, a motif that is imitated by the reflection of Mt. Fuji against a lake towards the end, quietly emphasizing people's capacity to harbor separate, more discrete personalities. Dörrie could have worked out some kinks in the finished product, but there's no denying that Cherry Blossoms has a staying intimacy and truthfulness about it.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Up (2009) A Film by Pete Docter

When Pixar releases a film, it seems its reception is either bound to snowball into a mountain of acclaim or a mere anthill of interest. Recently, they've hit the former three consecutive times, with Ratatouille (2007), Wall-E (2008), and now Up (2009). Wall-E took Pixar's traditional ethos and turned them on their head, and it is safe to say that Up does the same. The film is no piece of cute anthropomorphism, nor is it a prosopopoeial message movie; in fact, Up is the first time, as far as I can tell, that we've seen real human blood in a Pixar film. Pete Docter delivers a very grounded, human tale with an elderly, secretly tender curmudgeon at its center. However, along with Wall-E, Pixar has proven to couple their new wave of refreshing animations with a similar set of flaws.

Because Up is such a deceptively simple film, it is all the more disappointing when it pounds us with action-packed, increasingly convoluted magical realism. The film opens with the same kind of economical, dialogue-free set-up that was impressive in Wall-E's Chaplinesque beginning. Carl, a four-eyed boy with a penchant for romanticism (following the newsreels he views of Charles Muntz, a heroic explorer with a zeppelin, he imitates Muntz's actions on the street near his house), runs into Ellie, another wannabe adventurer who clings to a desire to reach the South American oasis dubbed Paradise Falls, grows old with her, and sadly witnesses her death in a matter of minutes. The film is effortless in its ability to document their entire lifetime with poignancy (thanks to the incredibly realistic facial expressions), and despite the sequence's inevitably prompt structure, it is not schmaltzy and melodramatic but rather sentimental and nostalgic in the best possible way.

At this point Carl is left alone in the couple's lifelong home, a retired balloon salesman who holds tight to his memories of the past which are literally nailed to the walls. When a retirement home committee arrives one day to claim Carl, he cleverly assembles a balloon-oriented rig in the chimney that is released all at once, ripping the house from the bedrock and sending it straight into cumulus clouds. The next morning, while drifting peacefully in his home through the crystal-clear blue sky, he hears a knock at his door and finds Russell, the young boyscout who pledged at his door Jehovah's-Witness style the previous day, clutched against the siding. A hyper-passionate globetrotter hopeful himself, Russell joins Carl - much to his dismay as he chatters nonstop - on his excursion to Paradise Falls, aspiring to plant the house beside it so that Ellie's spirit, which is preserved inside, can bask in the glory. Docter does a terrific job of engaging in this section; the story is taut and the imagery, when seen for the first time, is conceptually marvelous. It is perhaps Pixar's biggest visual triumph ever to have juxtaposed so perfectly the petite house with its multicolored balloons looming above, the floor of puffy white clouds (an extension of the short that precedes the film in its theatrical showing), and the spotless blue sky. When they encounter a threatening thunderstorm and the house sways convulsively in the stratosphere, it hints at an entirely separate direction the story could have taken, one that would take place more prominently in the sky.

Unfortunately however, with Russell's surprisingly skillful steering techniques, the house lands in a majestic canyon in Venezuela directly across from the Falls. The visual invention still does not suffer in the slightest, most notably with the heavenly light that sprays the canyon, but the story takes a turn that is ultimately detrimental. Carl and Russell trudge around the canyon, tugging the house now like disciples dragging their weary camels, and pass through a mysterious jungle that houses talking dogs (not in the normal way, but with electronic collars) and a monstrously large but friendly parakeet-like creature. These unusual animals, they find, are being kept by Charles Muntz, whom Carl is ecstatic to meet at first. In classic Pixar fashion though, Muntz is revealed as the bad guy and the remainder of the film is spent lounging in lethargic good vs. evil conventions, with Carl as the truly unlikely hero. This is not the direction that was meant for Up, a simple story at heart about one man's search for meaning, no matter how small, just as humans were not the direction for Wall-E. After the wonderful opening, it seemed that the only place that Up could go was up.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Rushmore (1998) A Film by Wes Anderson

Nearly every Wes Anderson film has its own special setting, a world that is considerably unique even in the face of distantly recognizable forebears. The only exception is Anderson's first film, Bottle Rocket, where it felt like a mildly creative director was tuning his strings rather than the pedantic artist that Anderson has become. Therefore, Rushmore, his sophomore effort, arrived as the first shimmering foray into Andersonland, a place that is perpetually changing on the surface but which is unquestionably crafted by the same man. Rushmore's antecedents are well cataloged, with 60's coming-of-age films being the salient reference point: Lindsay Anderson's If.... (1968), with its tight private school community, Mike Nichols' The Graduate (1967), and Hal Ashby's Harold and Maude (actually from 1971), both of which contain highbrow main characters and young man/older woman relationships that can also be spotted in Rushmore.

Despite these similarities, Rushmore is very much its own film, as eager to shake off its inevitable comparisons as its main character Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) is to win the heart of Rosemary Cross (Olivia Williams), a first-grade teacher he falls for at the Rushmore Academy. For Max, school is life, but ironically, this does not mean his grades are sparkling. What he cares about is extracurricular activities, the absurd extent of which seems a conscious attempt to prove his elitism to the leaders of the Academy. (In a wonderfully composed series of tableaux, Anderson documents all of them, from the Beekeeping Society to the Fencing Team.) Max is an extremely well-dressed prep with a razor-sharp wit and a constant drive to assert his point-of-view or justify the elaborate schemes he devises, which are meticulously organized but ludicrous on the outset. Miss Cross is charmed by Max's confidence only like an owner is to its pet, but Max's weakness is his emotional ignorance, and as a result he clumsily persists at becoming her boyfriend in spite of the age gap.

He finds support from Herman Blume (Bill Murray's first role in what would becoming a continuing collaboration with Anderson), a local millionaire and Rushmore alumnus who, outwardly, is the antithesis of Max: he is introverted and lonely and has been through Vietnam, putting him leagues ahead of Max regarding real-world experience, considering Max seems to have been supernaturally implanted with knowledge and is almost entirely blind to life outside of Rushmore (his attempts at universalism as a theater director result in wildly bombastic, technically astounding plays that are rife with caricatures and generalized attitudes). Max and Herman both learn in the end however that they are at the same maturity level, when after a cavalcade of ups and downs - Herman's betrayal of Max when he dates Miss Cross, Max's declaration to Herman's wife of his adultery - they meet at reconciliation.

Anderson never once judges his characters, viewing their relentless quirks and missteps with cool distance rather than treating them to a long, scrupulous eye. The film is paced accordingly; short scenes flow together with economical deftness, usually shot with a few wide and medium shots (utilizing barrel distortion), until the film's dynamics begin unfolding, in which case a few longer scenes ensue. Still, the bouts of dark drama do not lack a discernible comic edge, and vice versa. Anderson and his co-writer, his college roommate Owen Wilson, have clearly shown a knack for writing both droll one-liners ("one dead fingernail" immediately comes to mind) and spontaneous, downplayed physical behaviors (at one point, Bill Murray enters into a scene and randomly stuffs a kid's shot at a basketball hoop). Rushmore's strength lies in this sardonic humor as well as in Anderson's dedication to the visual schema: the film is told in monthly chapters which are announced by colored curtains. With this, Anderson also directly acknowledges and even foreshadows the theatrical strain that runs throughout his entire oeuvre. The film is one of his more modest successes, an always enjoyable character study before the increasingly style-heavy films that have followed.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Lady from Shanghai (1947) A Film by Orson Welles

In its first twenty minutes, Orson Welles' The Lady from Shanghai has made quick work of establishing its main characters and their scenario: an Irish seaman, Michael O'Hara (Welles himself), becomes visibly infatuated by the angelic Elsa Bannister (Rita Hayworth) after saving her from a mugging in Central Park and therefore agrees to work on her older husband's yacht on their trip to San Francisco. Mrs. Bannister has little interest in her schmucky husband, a balding lawyer with crutches, but stays with him due to some unspoken motive, likely money and prestige, whilst secretly building a romance with Michael. One of Mr. Bannister's business associates, George Grisby (Glenn Anders), arrives on the yacht and works a deal with Michael to sign a confession of the murder of Mr. Grisby so that he can disappear unscathed, claiming that O'Hara cannot be accused without visual confirmation of there being a corpse.

For some time, Welles does not slow down the narrative drive, frequently even appearing to have skipped over some necessary bits of information along the way. The characters are roughly sketched, with Elsa and O'Hara's relationship seeming to have missed a beat. Nonetheless, Welles infuses his performances with enough gusto to keep the story intriguing, providing a strong basis for the film's final act, which was undoubtedly given the most effort. The Lady from Shanghai is based somewhat arbitrarily on a novel by Sherwood King, and Welles used the film mainly as a way to profit for future endeavors. Although the pacing is quick, the film lumbers along, and Welles' apathy regarding the material is somewhat conspicuous. What did interest him was the story's rather convoluted finale, which he renders magnificently, so what comes before is carried only by character idiosyncrasies and stylistic flourishes (the long crane shot that follows the mugging and subsequent horse and buggy ride at the beginning). While Hayworth is positively radiant as the femme fatale, serviced greatly by Charles Lawton Jr.'s delicate blankets of light, the character of George Grisby is the finest example; he is a hulking enigma who chuckles at O'Hara via suffocating close-up and has an unorthodox way of dragging out consonants ("just tell 'em you're taking tarrrrget practice").

When O'Hara carries out his fake murder and Grisby speeds off on a boat across the pier, he becomes suspicious of Grisby's true intentions, and eventually finds himself being blamed for Grisby's unexpected death. Michael goes to court being defended by Mr. Bannister, himself angrily curious of O'Hara's relationship with his wife. In the film's mesmerizing funhouse mirror sequence, the double crosses of Elsa and Mr. Bannister are revealed to O'Hara in a stunning visual arrangement. It is as if the extent of secondary personalities that the characters harbored throughout the film are multiplied perpetually against the mirrored walls and Welles takes every opportunity to manifest this climactic meeting in a tricky manner; large faces superimpose over full, duplicated bodies, characters jigsaw along the fragmented frame, and bullets then shatter their images into full-fledged abstraction. It is one of the most experimental resolutions in a Hollywood narrative film and has lost none of its audacity. Unfortunately, studio executives became the downfall of many of Welles' films, and the finished Lady from Shanghai allegedly contained much more of this Wellesian brilliance before being hacked up for commercial purposes. What remains is short and clumsy but compelling.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

On the Waterfront (1954) A Film by Elia Kazan

On the Waterfront marks a rare instance where we explicitly know a filmmaker's intentions in creating a film. Elia Kazan testified during Anti-McCarthy trials against some of his colleagues whom he was certain of Communist activity and was subsequently accused of betrayal. The road to this declaration was of course a difficult one that wore heavily on Kazan's conscience, and this is precisely what he details in On the Waterfront. Although he loosely cloaks it in a true story of a longshoreman who similarly betrayed the corrupt union he worked for, the film is really Kazan's saving grace, an elaborate attempt at using cinema as a means for self-liberation.

In this sense, Marlon Brando, who plays the role of an ex-fighter notoriously accused of being a "bum", really plays the director. When Terry Malloy (Brando) becomes unwillingly involved in the murder of a fellow dock worker, Joey Doyle, he finds himself caught between the persuasive hand of Father Barry (Karl Malden), who urges for him to testify against the Union, and the loyalties of his brother Charley (Rod Steiger) and Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), the fraudulent boss/closet gangster responsible for both Terry's former success as a fighter and his subsequent career collapse. To complicate matters, Terry finds a love in the angelic Edie (Eva Marie Saint), Joey Doyle's sister whom Terry feels guilty towards. Budd Schulberg's screenplay has all the makings of a deft melodrama but Kazan infuses it with heavy doses of neorealism. The interplay of character motivations makes for some engaging viewing; Terry's aforementioned interior battle of guilt, brotherly allegiance, and thirst to prove himself a well-meaning man, Edie's uncertain attachment to Terry, Father Barry's hard-nosed pursuit of justice, and Johnny Friendly's crooked predilection towards evil.

What binds it all together is the acting, most famously Brando's. His virile, hardened, yet gentle mannerisms foreshadow 50 ensuing years of outsider characters involved in mob business, namely the players in Scorsese films or Brando's own later turn in The Godfather. Frequently, Brando can transmute the notion of a sparring conscience into one downplayed facial expression or shrug. It is also true that he is often improvising in front of the camera, doing so with great comfort and grace. Although Kazan gets strong performances from nearly every other actor surrounding him (James Westerfield is a highlight as one of Terry's fellow workers who is supplied with several hysterical lines), the attention is always on Brando without being overwhelmingly one-sided. If any element has not aged well however, it's the grand and uplifting finale and Leonard Bernstein's intrusive score, which cuts into dialogue scenes with haphazardness. Given that the real longshoremen failed when testifying against his corrupt union, Terry's triumphant rise from a beating ("Am I on my feet?") feels enormously romantic. All criticisms aside, Kazan's cogent direction, Brando's show-stopping performance, and Boris Kaufman's stellar lighting justify On the Waterfront's stature as an American classic.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Case of the Grinning Cat (Chats perchés) A Film by Chris Marker (2004)

At 85 years old, I suppose it's not a surprise to see Chris Marker grappling with the new millennium in a way that feels as if it was being witnessed by a filmmaker in the 1980's. The Case of the Grinning Cat, his hour-long documentary on the public and political changes that have come in the first four years of 21st century both internationally and in his native France, feels, in contrast to some of his groundbreaking films of the 60's and 70's, twenty years behind. Marker's mode of observing the world has remained hands-off and his approach even has a keen similarity to an earlier film of his, Grin Without a Cat (1977).

It seems Marker has carried a very old-world disposition along with him, so his transition to video is somewhat dissonant. The film was aired on French television and understandably so; it doesn't look too far off from a low-budget PBS documentary. The images, as usual, are shot entirely by Marker and have a strictly on-the-fly feel, as if they were taken by a tourist. There is a motorcade of shaky footage as well as clumsy zooms and cuts. News footage, still photos, and intertitles are also cycled into the muffled aesthetic, making it a grab-bag of media matter surrounding events such as 9/11, the French political campaign of 2002 (between Jacques Chirac, a right-wing, and Lionel Jospin, a leftist), and the genesis of the Iraq War. In the midst of these events, Marker watches a graffiti image of his favorite animal, the cat, pop up sporadically in France on buildings, bridges, trees, and in metro stations. The cat is illustrated in sharp, bold lines, has a maniacal grin from cheek to cheek, is colored bright yellow, and is signed "M. Chat". Just as much as the mix of cultural happenings he documents on screen, this rapidly duplicating piece of street art is Marker's focus. He seems to be interested in the evolution of the symbol, at one point appearing haphazardly as if nestled inside tree bark, likening the cat to an owl, and then on a placard amidst a public protest on Parisian streets regarding Bush's decision to invade Iraq. The grinning cat matures from a whimsical street logo meant to elicit smiles from passersby to a far-reaching symbol of freedom making rounds on network news programs.

While Marker does describe this very transition quite plainly himself via intertitles, he still does not give one element in his film higher precedence than another, frequently raising a point and then moving on right when a more manipulative filmmaker would hammer this factoid home with a subjective stance. This is what lifts The Case of the Grinning Cat out of the vat of mediocrity that its aesthetics may suggest it belongs in. If one can tune out the terse narration that was added to the English-language release of the film (not a product of Marker whatsoever), what we get is a characteristic observation of society by a thought-provoking French documentarian. It's just that the film feels so minor and almost pedestrian in comparison to some of his more accomplished works.