Monday, June 26, 2006

Theater vs. Home

Here’s something that’s been on my mind lately: making an inventory of the nuances of difference between the theatrical and home video movie-watching experiences.

It is of course a happy truism that watching a movie in a theater is the inarguably ideal way to experience it. For a movie-lover, the theater is a sort of temple, and the experience touched with religiosity. You look up in hushed awe at the screen—in contrast, you look down at a TV screen, as Godard once noted—and the darkness dispatches all distraction, leaving only the light and sound emanating from the screen.

And then there’s the enveloping scale of the image, which you can regulate in relative terms by sitting closer or farther away from the screen. Cinephiles often have their favorite rows and vantage points (when I’m alone: usually fourth or fifth row center; when I’m with others: based upon a process of grumbling and negotiation). Most of all, you relinquish control over the movie by submitting to its (unbroken and continuous) terms, accepting its rules of temporality.

And yet, and yet….there’s a part of me that sees this hushed, worshipful submission to the terms dictated by the work of art as….a tad stifling. Here’s one thing I believe with all my heart: art is meant for use. For use in our daily lives, to be incorporated and integrated into the very fiber and fabric of our quotidian existence. Home viewing can allow this to happen in slightly unique and different ways from theatrical viewing.

I like the “impurity” of the home video experience—the way you can enter the work in new, unfamiliar and changeable ways, interactively, both as a whole and in fragments, disrupting unity and linearity, developing an intimacy with it, committing aspects of it to memory, and thus making use of the work and making it part of yourself in fresh ways.

I’m reminded of the memorable opening passage of Calvin Tomkins’ 1965 book, The Bride And The Bachelors: Five Masters Of The Avant-Garde:

One day in 1957, speaking as a "mere artist" before a learned seminar on contemporary aesthetics in Houston, Texas, Marcel Duchamp proposed a somewhat surprising definition of the spectator’s role in that mysterious process known as the creative act. The artist, Duchamp said, is a "mediumistic being" who does not really know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is the spectator who, through a kind of "inner osmosis," deciphers and interprets the work’s inner qualifications, relates them to the external world, and thus completes the creative cycle. The spectator’s contribution is consequently equal in importance to the artist’s, and perhaps in the long run even greater, for, as Duchamp remarked in another context, "it is posterity that makes the masterpiece." Like so many of the ideas put forward by Duchamp, who has for years been the most enigmatic presence in contemporary art, this theory tends to make a great many artists uncomfortable. Artists, as a rule, do not like to think of themselves as mediumistic beings who blindly perform only one part of the creative act, and their attitude toward the spectator is not always one of respectful collaboration.

Much as the theatrical viewing experience richly allows this collaboration to take place, I think that home viewing, by giving the spectator a certain degree of control, can make available alternative avenues and opportunites. Even before the age of home viewing, this mode of watching films was not entirely unknown. Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in his essay on Manny Farber:

Discontinuous viewing was [Farber’s] way of watching a movie, a method he shared with Godard; if a movie he liked such as Ordet was being shown several times in the campus screening room over a given week, he’d turn up each time for a different reel or two—or maybe even for the same reels, whatever happened to be on.

Sometimes, I even imagine the possibilities of software that will allow us to make “mixtapes” of shots and sequences on DVD, assembled together in some personally designed order. Or alternatively, watch a mixtape DVD on “shuffle” to set off new resonances and make unexpected connections.

There is nothing I love more than a theatrical screening, but the fact that I live in a smaller city forces me to look extra-eagerly to exploiting the capabilities of the DVD format. Watching movies in a theater is a big deal for me. There are no repertory theaters in Buffalo, and so the theatrical experience becomes part of a larger project of careful planning, road trips, and anticipatory preparation like reading. I cherish these experiences—they are real "events"—but for me they are limited to only a couple (or at most, a few) times a month. The rest of the time, what I have available to me is DVD/video.

Now I’d like to ask you: What your ideas on the subject? Your signal theatrical experiences and memories if you want to share any? The benefits and drawbacks of how we watch movies? How do movies affect you, or stay with you, any differently in the theater than at home? Are there certain kinds of cinema better suited to theater, or to home? In what ways does home viewing compromise the work, or attenuate it? In terms of production of critical thought on movies, how do these two viewing environments differ? How is film criticism enhanced—or hampered—by widespread reliance on DVD? And any other aspects of theater vs. home that you'd like to bring up or chat about.

* * *

I’d like to send a shout-out to Jen Macmillan at Invisible Cinema and her Leonard Cohen blog-a-thon. What I’m bringing to her party is a small cooler containing mp3’s:

  • I like Cohen’s music a lot, but I have a special—perhaps heretical!—weakness for the period that begins in 1987, when he (1) discovered synthesizers, and (2) dropped his singing voice to the bottom of the ocean into the bass register. “Everybody Knows” is off the album I’m Your Man, and I will always remember it from the disturbing strip club scene with Mia Kirshner in schoolgirl uniform in Atom Egoyan’s Exotica. Off The Future, here is the title tune, and “Waiting For A Miracle”.

  • I’m a big fan of the Detroit duo Was (Not Was) who made several eclectic records in the late 80s/early 90s. Neither of them—Don or David Was—was comfortable with his own voice, so they wrote twisted ditties for famous guest vocalists to sing. (I’ll be doing a full entry of these warped match-ups soon.) On the record Are You Okay?, here’s Leonard Cohen singing (or should I say rapping?) a mighty strange tune called “Elvis’s Roll Royce”.

  • Jennifer Warnes made a Leonard Cohen cover record in 1986 called Famous Blue Raincoat. The best tune on it is the opener, “First We Take Manhattan”. I have fond memories of buying this on vinyl and discovering that it was the best-sounding LP I had ever heard: the immaculate recording and mastering; the clear shiny arrangements; and a delicious snare drum thwack! that leaps right off the wax. (You’ll see what I mean when you hear the tune.) The little vinyl snob in me still thinks that the LP sounds a tad better—warmer—but the CD sounds really great too. The highlight of the tune: fantastic lead guitar intro, fills and solo by a then-little-known session player, Stevie Ray Vaughan.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Cinephiliac Moment

Proceeding off a tangent from Manny Farber, I'm now midway through Christian Keathley’s tremendously engaging book Cinephilia and History, Or The Wind in the Trees. It has a central idea that's been clattering around in my head all week. Let me lay it on you and ask you what you think.

Keathley defines and develops the idea of “cinephiliac moments”—these are small, marginal moments that detonate an unforgettable little frisson in the viewer. The important thing to remember is that these are not moments carefully designed to exert great dramatic effect—not that there’s anything wrong with those—but instead they are fleeting "privileged" moments writ small that we find ourselves strongly attracted to, perhaps even disproportionately so given their scale and possible (lack of) intention. We end up fetishizing these cinephiliac moments:

[Paul] Willemen cites his own fascination with “the moment when the toy falls off the table in [Douglas Sirk’s] There’s Always Tomorrow,” while Noel King, citing the famous dropped glove scene from On The Waterfront, writes, “I tend to notice the number of times Eva Marie Saint tries to retrieve the glove and the things Brando does to delay this happening.” Other cinephiles have their own cherished moments. Of director Nicholas Ray, critic David Thomson writes, “it is as the source of a profusion of cinematic epiphanies that I recall him: Mitchum walking across an empty rodeo arena in the evening in The Lusty Men, the wind blowing rubbish around him; that last plate settling slowly and noisily in 55 Days At Peking;….the CinemaScope frame suddenly ablaze with yellow cabs in Bigger Than Life.”

The American critic Manny Farber regularly devoted space in his reviews to such privileged moments. In an essay on the work of action genre directors like Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh, and Anthony Mann, Farber wrote that, although these directors’ films “are filled with heroism or its absence, the real hero is….the unheralded ripple of physical existence, the tiny morbidly lifeworn detail.” Indeed, far more than plot or character these marginal bits are what stick in his memory. Years after seeing these films, Farber writes, one most vividly “remembers the way a dulled waitress sat on the edge of a hotel bed [or], the weird elongated adobe in which ranch hands congregate before a Chisholm Trail drive.” In the course of celebrating Howard Hawks’s The Big Sleep, a film that “ignores all the conventions of a gangster film to feast on meaningless business and witty asides,” Farber provides what is perhaps an extreme example of a cinpehiliac moment: “One of the fine moments in 1940’s film is no longer than a blink: Bogart, as he crosses the street from one bookstore to another, looks up at a sign.” As Greg Taylor put it, if American auteurist Andrew Sarris offered in his criticism a connoisseurship of lists, Farber offered in his a connoisseurship of details.

....Roger Cardinal, another critic who has written suggestively about the fascination with marginal filmic details,.…explains, “What I notice, or elect to notice, is necessarily a function of my sensibility, so much so that a list of my favorite details will equate to an oblique mirror-image of myself…”

I thought I’d record, off the top of my head, three cinephiliac moments that are stuck in my memory. If I had to do this tomorrow, three different ones might come tumbling out. A word of assurance: they are all spoiler-free.

(1) Early in Whit Stillman’s The Last Days Of Disco (1998), Chloe Sevigny and Robert Sean Leonard meet at a disco over drinks, and go back to his place. She’s just been told by her not-very-kind best friend Kate Beckinsale that guys find her stiff and schoolmarmish. To overcompensate, she asks him to pour her a Pernod and upon seeing his first editions of Scrooge McDuck comics, remarks—with sweet ridiculousness—that she finds Scrooge really sexy. He puts on Andrea True Connection’s “More, More, More,” and they dance slowly away from the living room, almost but not quite accidentally heading into his bedroom. We never go inside the bedroom but discreetly watch from a distance as they close the door; they’re still dancing.

And then—here’s the moment—a sharp straight cut to the bright morning and Sevigny emerging from the front door of his building, the cool wind lightly whipping her coat about, the last strains of the song fading quickly. I’m not sure why this moment affects me so strongly; perhaps it has something to do with the understated but deeply sad contrast between the romance of the night and the reality of the morning after, contained—perhaps not even intentionally—in that brusque throwaway cut.

(2) In Truffaut’s Small Change (1976), a young girl and her dad (played by Truffaut) visit a small town that happens to be located right at “the center of France.” She mails a card to a friend; we cut to a classroom and her friend reading the card in class when he’s supposed to be paying attention to the teacher. The teacher notices this, and instead of punishing him—as he might have done if this were The 400 Blows—quietly takes the card from him, turns to the blackboard, and uses it as a springboard for a geography lesson. It’s a casual moment that lasts all of a few seconds, but it always stops me short by reminding the teacher in me that there are two ways to go with every situation that arises in a classroom: you can suppress an errant impulse by punishing it, or you can constructively use it to collective benefit.

(3) Jean-Paul Belmondo is driving his babysitter Anna Karina home in Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965). They're having a long conversation, but I can never remember what it’s about even though I’ve seen the film three or four times. Here’s why: The streetlights passing by are reflected on the windshield in crisp, crackling colors—electric blue, flaming yellow, tart orange—moving diagonally across the windshield like little comets, one every few seconds. It's so visually gorgeous, and hypnotic—due to its metronomic regularity—that I find myself doing little more than following the shifts of color and light that streak across the car, forgetting all about story, character and dialogue for the rest of the scene.

So, your thoughts on cinephiliac moments? And/or your own example(s), if you like.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Robert Bresson

Michel with coin in Pickpocket: "My fingers needed exercise to become supple."

Sometimes the things you feel closest to are the hardest to write about. Robert Bresson is my single favorite filmmaker but I’ve never been able to bring myself to write about his films. They produce such strong overpowering emotions in me that I’m afraid of being reduced to blubbering "ain’t-it-cool?-ishness," unable to do the films any justice.

I first discovered Bresson on videotape about ten years ago, and started out admiring his films from a distance. The turning point came in 1999, when I caught most of his thirteen films at a retrospective put together by James Quandt at Cinematheque Ontario in Toronto. Seeing them on the big screen in pristine prints blew my mind, and recalibrated my eyes and ears. It wasn’t a passing fancy either; if anything, the power and personal meaning of these movies has grown stronger with time. I watched Pickpocket again recently, and figured it was time to make a tentative attempt to put some words down about what (I think) attracts me to his films. Bresson-philes will likely find much of the following quite familiar.

Let’s lead with the big one. What I probably love best about Bresson is that for me, his films are projective surfaces. We don’t want a film to give us, all tied up with ribbons and bows, pre-digested and completely determined, an experience that does not include us or ask anything of us. An artwork should provide a place for the viewer to project herself into it, constructing meaning in a process of collaboration with the artist. (E.H. Gombrich in Art and Illusion calls this the “beholder’s share” of the aesthetic experience.) Bresson creates this projective surface, for one, by means of an aesthetic of withholding. He creates absences which draw us into the work; we find ourselves filling these absences for ourselves by projection.

The most overt strategy to accomplish this is his use of emotionally "inexpressive" acting. When actors don’t “emote,” the viewer steps in and projects emotions onto their "tabula rasa" faces and bodies. Bresson called his actors “models;” they were often nonprofessionals who had never been seen on screen before (“virginal models”), and he never used them again. When asked if he’d cast Claude Laydu of Diary Of A Country Priest again, he said: “No….how can I?....I robbed him of what I needed to make the film. How could I rob him twice?” His ultimate casting coup of the neutrally expressionless model was undoubtedly (and perversely!) the donkey which is the title character in Au Hasard Balthazar.

The absences and overall minimalism in Bresson are accentuated by repetitions. (In Pickpocket: repeated scenes in Michel’s room, the Metro, the racetrack, of staircases, writing in his journal etc. ) Paradoxically, this combination creates a sort of hollowed-out, emptied-out vessel into which we pour….our own projections, ideas, feelings, and (very important) spiritual yearnings. But we don’t see the spiritual in his films; we see the material. Concrete surfaces are paramount here; and yet they are the portal to the spiritual. We intuit an inner life, a metaphysical life, via our immersion in the material. Quandt has called Bresson’s cinema both minimalist and maximalist for this reason.

But co-existent—again, paradoxically—with this spiritual aspect is the less-noted sensuality in Bresson. The Gare De Lyon scene of three pickpockets working the passengers in symphonic concert is nothing less than an orgy, with its erotically charged close-ups of hands caressing purses and wallets, “penetrating” them and “violating” their owners without their knowledge. When Michel returns home from the racetrack after having filched money from a woman's handbag, he lies down and sleeps till dawn (post-coitum....).

A similarity that Bresson shares with Hitchcock: neither of them particularly liked to keep the audience suspensefully in the dark for long (ironic given that Hitch was the “master of suspense”). Both revealed significant plot points well in advance so that the audience could immerse itself in the “how?” rather than the “who?” or “what?”. Bresson took this to an almost hilarious extreme: the original untranslated French title of A Man Escaped is A Man, Condemned to Death, Escapes, which gives away the ending in the film’s title itself. Before we see a single image in Pickpocket, we see Bresson’s written text: “The style of this film is not that of a thriller,” which proceeds to then blithely disclose the movie’s ending.

Bresson’s sound design is legendary: he used sound not to exaggerate or amplify images but to replace them. The world offscreen—or more precisely, certain selected aspects of it—is evoked lucidly by means of sound. For example, in the racetrack sequences of Pickpocket, we never see horses, though you’d almost swear you did; such is the ringing force and limpidity of their sound. Bresson’s use of sound is not naturalistic—he does not include, Altman-like, a dense spectrum of ambient sound and chatter. Instead, he chooses certain sounds and pinpoints them with clarity and volume in the mix. The sound mix of a Bresson film, though rich, never sounds muddy.

Another manifestation of Bresson’s aesthetic of withholding: his thrilling use of ellipses, abrupt reversals, fast elisions. Balthazar’s happy moments last no more than a few seconds, and are elided quickly, just as we spend long periods of time watching Michel picking pockets in the Metro or in his room, but two years go by in a flash (seconds, literally) when he goes away to Milan and London. Naturally, we discover little of what occurred to him during that time.

As time passed, Bresson's films began to change: they became harsher, more pessimistic; the use of music decreased or was eliminated entirely; he stopped using (lyrical) dissolves and opted for (blunt) straight cuts starting with his first color film, Une Femme Douce, in 1970; and the amount of text (spoken dialogue, etc) dropped drastically. “As I grow older,” Renoir once said, “I listen to Mozart.” But there was no mellowing for Bresson: his last two films, The Devil Probably and L’Argent, are among his blackest works, the former probably the most borderline-nihilistic teen film ever made.

As I close, I realize that there’s more I love about Bresson than I’ve had time to touch on. Quickly: his rejection of psychological realism; his abjuring of overt and gratuitous pictorial beauty (“No beautiful images,” he once wrote, “only necessary images.”); the lack of both establishing shots and facial close-ups; his way of “dismembering” the human body with careful and plentiful shots of hands and feet. He was also, along with Lubitsch, the filmmaker most in love with….doors!

Monday, June 05, 2006

Termite Art vs. White Elephant Art

A bit of self-searching: It's taken me a few years to come to appreciate Manny Farber's writing. For a long time, every time I read him, I'd constantly stub my toe on some casual slamming of a movie or filmmaker I held close to my heart, and that would be enough to distract me from the flow of reading and sometimes close the book altogether. I'm not sure why it's become easier for me to read him now, but I suspect it might have something to do with my own pyschological response: It's possible that I feel a bit more secure about the films and directors I value and the reasons why I value them. This is a relief: Rather than feel compelled to kick reflexively into defensive mode, it frees one to concentrate on the ideas engendered by the discourse surrounding a work, even if one may not agree with all the evaluations that are part of that discourse.

Susan Sontag once said: "Manny Farber is the liveliest, smartest, most original film critic this country has ever produced...[his] mind and eye change the way you see," and Dwight Macdonald called him "an impossibly eccentric movie critic whose salvoes have a disturbing tendency to land on target. I often disagree with him but I always learn from him." I'm beginning to see just what they were talking about. Here, then, is an attempt to briefly respond to what is probably his best-known essay, "White Elephant Art vs. Termite Art" (1962). It's available both in the (essential) Farber essay collection "Negative Space" and in the (equally essential) recent anthology, "American Movie Critics," edited by Phillip Lopate.

In the essay, Farber attacks "white elephant art"—grand and ambitious High Art which strives for Masterpiece status (“the idea of art as an expensive hunk of well-regulated area…”):

Masterpiece art, reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago, has come to dominate the overpopulated arts of TV and movies. Three sins of white elephant art are (1) frame the action with an all-over pattern, (2) install every event, character, situation in a frieze of continuities, and (3) treat every inch of the screen and film as a potential area for prizeworthy creativity.

An exemplar of white elephant art, particularly the critic-devouring virtue of filling every pore of the work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity, is François Truffaut. Shoot The Piano Player and Jules Et Jim, two ratchety perpetual-motion machines devised by a French Rube Goldberg [leave behind] the bladelike journalism of The 400 Blows.

The common quality or defect which unites apparently divergent artists like Antonioni, Truffaut, [Tony] Richardson, is fear, a fear of the potential life, rudeness, and outrageousness of a film. Coupled with their storage vaults of self-awareness and knowledge of film history, this fear produces an incessant wakefulness.

The absurdity of La Notte and L’Avventura is that its director is an authentically interesting oddball who doesn’t recognize the fact. His talent is for small eccentric microscope studies, like Paul Klee’s, of people and things pinned in their grotesquerie to an oppressive social backdrop. Unlike Klee, who stayed small and thus almost evaded affectation, Antonioni’s aspiration is to pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.

(That last bit always makes me laugh out loud.) Farber goes on to extol what he calls “termite art”:

Good work usually arises where the creators [here he cites Laurel and Hardy, and Hawks] seem to have no ambitions towards gilt culture but are involved in a kind of squandering-beaverish endeavor that isn’t anywhere or for anything. A peculiar fact about termite-tapeworm-fungus-moss art is that it goes always forward eating its own boundaries, and, likely as not, leaves nothing in its path other than the signs of eager, industrious, unkempt activity.

[John Wayne in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance] is a termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging overactor (Lee Marvin)….Better Ford films than this have been marred by a phlegmatically solemn Irish personality that goes for rounded declamatory acting, silhouetted riders along the rim of a mountain with a golden sunset behind them…[in other words, white elephant art]

[Kurosawa’s Ikiru] sums up much of what a termite art aims at: buglike immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.

Now, my own beef with Farber centers on white elephant art. I don’t think ambition or a grand vision or an impulse to fastidiously and thoughtfully “design” each frame in an "all-over pattern" is necessarily a bad thing (at all). There can be “good” white elephant art (and in this category I include both of Farber’s whipping boys, Antonioni and Truffaut!) and there can be “bad,” inflated, pompous and pretentious white elephant art. Or so it seems to me.

But truth be told, the zone of my personal interest in this essay is that of termite art. Farber writes in a dense, baroque, impressionistic, associational and not-always-easy-to-parse style, so I can only conjecture all the things he means by the term. To sum up, in my understanding, it appears that termite art: is un-precious; aims for small pleasures; does not strive for great Significance; values small throwaway details; prizes invention and imagination, not towards any grand objectives, but merely delighting in risk-taking for its own sake, thus constantly "eating away at its own borders"; values personal vision and idiosyncrasy; possesses vitality; and is unselfconscious. Right off the top of my head, it strikes me that two American filmmakers I love, Howard Hawks and Samuel Fuller, might fit the bill well.

So, your thoughts on termite art and white elephant art? And/or your candidates for termite filmmakers, films, performers, or moments?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

First Love & Chats Perchés

Over the weekend, I motored up to Toronto to visit with la famille de Sirène before they fly off to Paris and move their household to New York soon after. I also took the opportunity to catch a juicy double bill at the Cinematheque. I was looking forward most to the new Chris Marker, and while it was terrific, it was the Kieslowski on the bill that unexpectedly proved to be the knockout of the evening.

A funny thing: I often find myself looking hard for traces of fictional elements in documentary films and traces of documentary elements in fiction films. Krzystof Kieslowski made the (ostensible) documentary First Love in 1974. It’s about a young Warsaw teenage couple, Jadzia and Romek, who have a baby. Kieslowski filmed them for a year, beginning when Jadzia was four months pregnant.

In the Faber & Faber book of interviews with him (my favorite in the series, although many others, including the Lynch and Sirk, are great too), he remarks:

When I was finishing film school I wrote a thesis called ‘Reality and the Documentary Film’ where I put forward the argument that in everybody’s life there are stories and plots. So why invent plots if they exist in real life? You only have to film them. That’s the subject I invented for myself. Then I tried to make films like that and I didn’t make any—except for First Love….There was masses of manipulation in the film, or even provocation, but you can’t make a film like that any other way. There’s no way you can keep a crew at somebody’s side for twenty-four hours a day….So I had to manipulate the couple into situations in which they would find themselves anyway, although not exactly on the same day or at the same time. I don’t think I put them in a situation in which they wouldn’t have found themselves if the camera hadn’t been there.

For instance, they are painting their apartment when a policeman knocks on the door and tells them that they are not officially registered to occupy it. Kieslowski actually found a policeman and informed on the couple (!) and filmed the visit, knowing (he says) that the cop would be lenient and wouldn’t really penalize them (or, with the shock of the visit, induce labor in the expecting mother!). Kieslowski gave the couple books (Young Mother; Developing Foetus) and asked them to read and discuss them without letting us in on it. And after the baby is born, and Romek calls his parents to tell them—through tears—the good news, we see the microphone jammed into the frame, not letting us forget that we are watching a (constructed) film. All of which I found fascinating.

The girl seems much more mature, resourceful, and worldly-wise; the boy still appears to be an overgrown adolescent. As the film unfolds and their personalities begin to emerge for us, the presence of the boy begins to recede in terms of screen time. Kieslowski simply finds the girl more interesting and the film slowly becomes more about her. Kieslowski shoots her in extended close-ups, riveted, and one can’t help but think ahead to the Three Colors trilogy and its woman-centeredness.

The other film of the evening was Chris Marker's new hour-long video, Chats Perchés ("Perched Cats," although the official English title is “The Case Of The Grinning Cat.”) Soon after 9/11, a mysterious perpetrator began stencilling large graffiti of a cat with a gigantic grin all over Paris. The images appeared on buildings, roofs, trees, and the Metro. (Coincidentally, Marker’s film about the history of the Left, made in 1977, was called Grin Without A Cat.) Marker begins to investigate the case of the grinning cat graffiti, and finds himself at a large anti-Le Pen demonstration held on the eve of the French election four years ago. (Along with a documentary filmmaker-friend, I remember spending most of the day marching in this demonstration on my last trip to Paris.) Marker spots the cat there, and then again at a right-wing rally where the speech-makers appropriate surrealist Paul Eluard’s words to their own ends. (Marker dryly mutters: “Causes are a matter of fashion. Sometimes it is an asset in life to not know what you’re talking about.”)

The movie quickly sketches a history of grinning cats, unearthing both Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat and Miyazaki’s cat from My Neighbor Totoro. Marker visits the Louvre and hunts down Egyptian cat sculptures. (Come to think of it: Agnès Varda, another Left Bank filmmaker like Marker, has a feline obsession too, as you may remember from The Gleaners and I.) But Marker’s real destination, where he spends most of his time, is la musée de la rue. He prowls the streets and the Metro looking for graffiti and discursively riffing on the Iraq war, Bush, and the French political scene. Like with all Marker, a first viewing only gets you so far; the density of allusion and epigram leaves you gasping to keep up. One gets the feeling that enjoyable though the film is, it is willfully smaller and a shade minor in comparison to Remembrance Of Things To Come (2001), his essay-portrait of photographer Denise Bellon. Still, I’ll be looking for the next opportunity to see them both again.

UPDATE: I just got an e-mail from Brian Sholis, who writes for Artforum. He pointed me to the summer issue of the magazine, which went on-line yesterday. It contains a Top Ten list by Monsieur Chat, the secret artist behind the grinning cat graffiti.