You expect a new Jodorowsky movie to be bonkers, and I was skeptical because movies this bonkers are usually wannabe-cult empty-headed nonsense. Text descriptions of a boy with a huge-breasted mom whose dialogue is all sung opera-style and a dad who gets surrounded by miners missing limbs all singing their woes would raise a few red flags, but AJ makes it all seem rich and wonderful, then tones down the circus act and pulls off a surprisingly emotional second half.

Explores AJ’s own childhood in 1930’s Chile, the same way Guy Maddin explored his childhood in Brand Upon The Brain and My Winnipeg, keeping emotional truths and memorable details and poetically inventing the rest. Young AJ is followed around by wise old AJ (playing himself as a phantom narrator), and as usual it’s a family affair, with AJ’s son Brontis (the little kid from El Topo!) playing the father (and I’m guessing a real opera singer as the mom).

Jaime is an ex-circus performer (see also: Santa Sangre), volunteer fireman and passionate communist ashamed of his timid, long-haired art-loving son Alejandro. Jaime’s wife (they run a shop together) is obsessed with her dead father, thinks he is reincarnated in her son because of the long hair, which Jaime finally has cut off, causing family disharmony. Jaime tries to man-up his son, giving him painful challenges, while young Alejandro’s other influences are the colorful characters around town.

After the death of his fire chief and a failed attempt to help plague-afflicted slum-dwellers, Jaime regroups and decides to journey to the capital and assassinate tyrant president Ibáñez. First Jaime protects the president from a fellow communist in order to earn a position as the president’s personal horse groom, planning a more insidious revenge. But after poisoning the president’s prize horse according to plan, Jaime can’t murder the man, his hands becoming useless claws, then loses his memory and disappears into the slums, while back home Alejandro’s mom teaches her son a different way to disappear, showing him how not to be noticed to avoid antisemitic discrimination from the locals. Jaime regains his self-worth only to be captured and tortured by nazis on the way home – but he does get home, and the family flees their fucked-up town.

Colorful, beautiful movie that can’t go five minutes without doing something different and amazing, also with judicious use of digital effects. I love a good imaginary history, and after all the family affection (and pain, let’s face it) in this movie, I was shocked to read wikipedia’s cold version of AJ’s childhood. AJ: “My father had no humanity. So here, look, I am making him human.”

P. Bradshaw:

For the first time, Jodorowsky is coming close to telling us how personal evasiveness has governed his film-making style; his flights of fancy are flights of pain, flights from childhood and flights from reality. And now he is using his transformative style to come to terms with and change the past and to confer on his father some of the heroism that he never attained in real life.

Quintin in Cinema Scope:

The Dance of Reality works as an exorcism of an era where false and destructive dreams were also the hope for mankind, and when children were educated through abuse by their parents and by society. But Jodorowsky, one of these abused children, finally became as brave as young Alex is told to be in the film: he dares in his film to take on all of those issues, to speak freely about love and sex, fascism and communism and sorrow and pain and happiness, and to make his personal circus travel the world with brilliance.

My 2000th blog post!

“Why sometimes do images begin to tremble?”

From the film:

1967 saw the arrival of a rather peculiar breed of adolescents. They all looked alike. They would immediately recognize each other. They seemed to posses a silent but absolute knowledge of certain issues but to be totally ignorant about others. Their hands were unbelievable skillful at pasting up posters, handing paving stones, spraying on walls short and cryptic messages which stuck in the memory, all the while calling for more hands to pass on the message they’d received but had not completely deciphered. Those fragile hands have left us the mark of their fragility. Once they even wrote it on a banner. “The workers will take the flag of struggle from the fragile hands of the students.” But that was the following year.

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Watched the 3-hour 2008 edit with English narration. There are so many versions of this out there… maybe next time I can watch the 2008 or 1977 French with subtitles.

I thought I’d have more to say about it… three hours’ worth of Chris Marker’s most celebrated film, but I don’t really. Marker is mainly credited as an editor here, arranging others’ footage to show a bigger picture. There’s no wall-to-wall narration, just pops up occasionally. And I’m starting to notice a real sadness beneath many of Marker’s films… the same feeling in Chats Perches is present here. Glad I prepped a little by watching Sixth Side of the Pentagon and Battle of Chile, but I still had to check on wikipedia to see what exactly happened in Bolivia (Che Guevara killed Oct. 1967) and Prague (Jan-Aug 1968, attempted reform of Czech socialism led to 30 years of Soviet military occupation). The movie isn’t here to teach basic history of revolution – assumes you know something already, and since I quit reading The People’s History of the United States before it reached the 1900’s, I do not. Still, was able to follow the movie, thought lots of the footage was excellent, enjoyed watching and learned a little. Some segments have little gems of Marker wit in their editing or narration, but much of it is making connections between different scenes of revolution, both real and wishful, and thinking about what has been achieved, what might have been achieved. Really have to watch again sometime.

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Either this was an early use of the electronic soundtracks that Marker would use in Sans Soleil and beyond, or the sound on my copy of the movie was pretty badly distorted. Or, more likely, both. The sound got worse during part two – there were some sections when I couldn’t make out any of the (English) dialogue.

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Video and audio footage by: Pierre Lhomme (Mother and the Whore, Le Joli Mai, Army of Shadows), Etienne Becker (The Spiral, Le Joli Mai, Malle’s Calcutta), Michele Ray (Latcho Drom), Francois Reichenbach and his crew, Harald & Harrick Maury (The Owl’s Legacy, Day For Night, In the Year of the Pig), Théo Robichet (Band of Outsiders), Pierre Dupouey (Silence… on tourne), Raymond Adam (Jodorowsky’s Tusk), Paul Bourron of the Dziga Vertov Group, Willy Kurant (Far From Vietnam, Masculin-Feminin, Pootie Tang), Peter Kassovitz (Jakob the Liar), Paul Seban (Welles’s The Trial), Michel Fano (Rivette’s The Nun), Fernand Moskovitz (Last Tango in Paris), Yann Le Masson (Je t’aime moi non plus), Mario Marret & Carlos de los Llanos (À bientôt, j’espère), Jimmy Glasberg (Sans Soleil, Shoah), Robert Dianoux (Africa, I Will Fleece You), Jean Boffety (Thieves Like Us, Je t’aime je t’aime, Adieu Philippine), Robert Destanque (Joris Ivens’s The Threatening Sky), Hiroko Govaers (Terayama’s Fruits of Passion), Michel Cenet (Celine and Julie Go Boating), and an excerpt from Volker Schlöndorff’s The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum. That is quite a list of collaborators, though you never hear anyone talking about them.

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English voices: Jim Broadbent (Brazil), Cyril Cusack (Fahrenheit 451), Robert Kramer (dir. Ice, Against Oblivion), Alfred Lynch (The Hill), and numerous British 1970’s TV actors.

“You can never tell what you might be filming.”

Quotes and other reactions:

Icarus Films calls it an “epic film-essay on the worldwide political wars of the 60’s and 70’s: Vietnam, Bolivia, May ’68, Prague, Chile, and the fate of the New Left.”

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J. Hoberman: “Marker begins by evoking Battleship Potemkin, and although hardly agitprop, A Grin Without a Cat is in that tradition—a montage film with a mass hero. Unlike Eisenstein, however, Marker isn’t out to invent historical truth so much as to look for it. (The untranslatable French title, Le Fond de l’air est rouge, is a play on words suggesting that revolution was in the air but not on the ground.)”

Paul Arthur: “In its rhythms and editing structures, Grin tries to embody the very shape and textures of historical transformation, rendering the abstraction of change as an amalgam of rapid, plurivocal, uneven, and, at times, contradictory forces aligned in provisional symmetries encompassing past, present and future perspectives.”

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Y. Meranda: “The editing de-emphasizes the narrative structure and instead stresses the poetical interrelationships of the sequences by putting almost all of them out-of-context. … Paralleling the visual editing, the sound editing is more based on poetical considerations than on intellectual ones. … Because there is very little attention paid to the intellectual arguments and because the style goes beyond making statements about a political ideology, A Grin Without a Cat becomes much more than a left wing documentary about the left: It achieves to be a poem about revolting against the system (and not just the political system), the conformity and the order. It suggests that it is an eternal struggle that is supposed to fail (as was in the case of the New Left) most of the times. This universality, achieved by Marker’s distinctive style, is what makes the film great.”

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Excerpts from the Lupton book:

“Marker explicitly pitched the film against what he saw as the historical amnesia surrounding the period promoted by its treatment on television, where ‘one event is swept away by another, living ideals are replaced by cold facts, and it all finally descends into collective oblivion.'”

Movie is partially composed of outtakes from other projects. “Introducing the published script, Marker wrote that he had become curious about all the material that had been left out of militant films in order to obtain an idealogically ‘correct’ image, and now wondered if these abandoned fragments might not yield up the essential matter of history better than the completed films.”

“As a groundbreaking work of visual historiography, Le Fond attempts nothing less than to give cinematic form to the chaotic and contradictory movement of world history during the tumultuous decade that it covers.”

“The reappearance of cats, even in this thoroughly politicized context, is a signal that Chris Marker was beginning to re-emerge from the anonymity of unsigned militant productions and to reintroduce into his work the familiar tokens of his own distinct presence.”

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Chris Marker:

Scenes of the third World War 1967-1977

Some think the third World War will be set off by a nuclear missile. For me, that’s the way it will end. In the meantime, the figures of an intricate game are developing, a game whose de-coding will give historians of the future – if they are still around – a very hard time.

A weird game. Its rules change as the match evolves. To start with, the super powers’ rivalry transforms itself not only into a Holy Alliance of the Rich against the Poor, but also into a selective co-elimination of Revolutionary Vanguards, wherever bombs would endanger sources of raw materials. As well as into the manipulation of these vanguards to pursue goals that are not their own.

During the last ten years, some groups of forces (often more instinctive than organized) have been trying to play the game themselves – even if they knocked over the pieces. Wherever they tried, they failed. Nevertheless, it’s been their being that has the most profoundly transformed politics in our time. This film intends to show some of the steps of this transformation.

More images:

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The Chairman:
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Funeral in Prague:
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Last footage ever shot of Salvador Allende:
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Allende’s daughter, who would commit suicide in 1977:
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Fidel in Russia:
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Enormous cats (no owls):
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Nixon looks on:
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Embassy, 1973
When I first watched Embassy in February, I didn’t like it very much, and never dreamed I’d be watching it again in three months on a commercial U.S. DVD… but here we are! Nice of First Run/Icarus to release it, but it would’ve been even nicer to provide a translation for the opening titles that claim the film was found in an embassy. Maybe it’s mentioned in the packaging. Anyway, clearer image for this not-clear-at-all film, and after watching The Battle of Chile this one is making more sense, since I know what Marker was reacting to. It’s still never gonna be a favorite film, but it’s a cool idea to make something that immediate as a reaction to current events.

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The Sixth Side of the Pentagon, 1967
Filmed during “World War III: Vietnam, Bolivia, Israel” on October 15-16, 1967, a recording of the anti-war march on the Pentagon in which Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies participated. Marker gets to combine his budding obsession with anti-authoritarian political protest with his love for filming faces of people on the street. One of his most famous images was in here – an angry man shouting, his head covered in blood – I always thought that was from Grin Without a Cat. Co-director François Reichenbach would later act as cinematographer and producer on F For Fake.

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Vive la baleine [Long Live The Whale], 1972
A short film about and against industrialized whale-hunting using mostly illustrations with some archive footage, saving the gruesome modern footage for the last few minutes.

Petit bestiare
Cats and owls! In and out of zoos, off and on pianos. Bullfight and the reminder that these animals are behind bars bring a touch of darkness to otherwise straightforward set of nice animal shorts.

UPDATE DEC. 2008: Wow, check out these stills from the new restoration. DVD box set will be out soon – check http://www.ivens.nl/ for updates.

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—————
Directed by Ivens, narration written by Chris Marker, assistant camera by Patricio Guzman. Wow! Not to discount Ivens’s achievement, but this plays just like Marker’s travel documentaries. Definitely belongs with that group in some imaginary DVD box set, hopefully with far improved image quality over the awful version I just watched. I want to say this had better camera work than the Marker docs, but in this state, it is hard to tell.

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A decade before the Battle of Chile events would begin, Ivens and crew give us an overview of life in this port city built on a series of steep hills. Focus is on things that affect the residents (like the funicular system) and events they participate in (huge annual fireworks show, a kite flying festival), not the popular tourist sites and historic buildings mentioned on wikipedia. Or maybe Ivens just hired a local tour guide and didn’t check wikipedia before going over there. A humorous tone to the commentary (when appropriate), shots of penguins, seals, pelicans and cats (no owls in town), a fire, some jump-cutting in line for the funicular. One very non-Marker-esque bit when a staged (I assume) bar-fight shatters a mirror and leads to a splash of blood, audio dissonance, a kaleidoscopic shot cutting to a burning pirate flag to introduce a history of colonialism in the state… awesome.

buildings that look like ships:
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Wikipedia: The opening of the Panama Canal and reduction in ship traffic dealt a staggering blow to Valparaíso, though the city has staged an impressive renaissance in recent years.
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Senses of Cinema gives a shout out to Ivens:

… à Valparaiso has regularly been regarded as more of a Marker film than one truly belonging to Ivens. This reading prioritises and favours sound over image – a common mistake even when reading Marker’s wholly “owned” work – and fails to recognise the range and often explicitly lyrical nature of Ivens’ broader filmography.

“Popular unity against the criminal bourgeoisie!”
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Other street protest chants:
“Bourgeois shit, the street belongs to the left!”
“We need an iron hand!” (?!)

I alternately see this referred to as an epic 1979 movie, a long two-parter with a third-part postscript, or three separate movies. I guess they were presented theatrically in different ways in different countries. The 2/1 split seems right to me, as I’ll explain.

Part one drops me into the middle of an election in March 1973, which I didn’t understand until towards the end of the movie. I wondered why nobody was saying Salvador Allende’s name – turns out it was a senate election, and either the pro-Allende party lost, or they just did not gain enough seats in congress to prevent the opposition from holding a majority. So for the rest of Allende’s short reign as president, the country’s senate is mostly against him, undermining his authority. Movie is on the street, taking opinions from everyone, kind of slow at the start since I don’t know what’s happening, but excitement is in the air, and things straighten out soon enough. Cameraman is terrific, patient but curious, always looking for the best thing to shoot even if it means wandering off the person talking. I can’t believe the sound guy can keep up with him, but he does.

Salvador Allende:
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A politician:
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Part two picks up right where the first one ends, with an attempted military coup on June 29 1973, and part two ends Sept. 11 1973 with the successful coup that killed Allende and instated General Pinochet as ruler. In between those dates, Guzmán covers everything that happens in the whole country, it seems, with access to the marches, the debates, worker meetings, everything but the secretive military that turns against its country (with help and provocation, it turns out, from the U.S. government). This is by far my favorite of the three parts, and could easily work as a standalone movie… I see the Film Forum in NYC thought so as well. The events themselves, a democratic country swerving communist then falling military-dictatorship, is the best movie material you could hope for and Guzmán and his crew make the best of it, watching from ground zero as history is made, producing one of the best docs I’ve ever seen.

Military man who shot and killed Argentine cameraman Leonard Hendrickson at the end of part one:
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Salvador Allende, file photo:
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Bombing of the presidential palace:
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Pinochet addressing the nation on TV:
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Military rule:
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Pinochet: “After three years of support for the Marxist cancer we have been given a disaster that is economic, moral and social, that could not continue to be tolerated by the sacred interests of the mother country.” (or something like that – I think it’s all amateur-translated)

Guzmán: “From the 11th of September, all resources of the Chilean army are mobilized to repress the popular movement with the compacency of the North American government. The first armed resistance offered by some industrial cords, agricultural populations and student centers are squashed quickly in unequal fight. Thousands of people are killed and the main sport fields become concentration camps. The longest democracy in the history of Latin America ceases to exist.”

I don’t exactly wish I’d skipped part 3, but it would’ve made a nice recap six months later instead of watching it right after 1 and 2. Filmmaking in Chile wasn’t easy during Pinochet’s rule, since Pinochet was killing and imprisoning everyone who disagreed with him, including the cameraman of Battle of Chile (to whom the completed work was dedicated), so Guzmán backs up and shows further details of the workers’ movements during Allende’s presidency, not again mentioning Pinochet or the violence. The many worker meetings and the creation of multi-factory blocs and the attempted attack on Allende’s credibility by the “Christian Democrats” (his primary opposition) via a U.S.-funded transportation strike had all been covered in the previous films, but now we see them in greater depth… “depth” meaning lots of guys with sideburns talking into microphones at meetings. Since I’m not personally interested in creating a communist worker’s paradise in my own neighborhood, part three wasn’t of much use to me, but I’ll bet it’s exactly what Chris Marker was hoping for when he helped fund Guzmán’s efforts to document what was happening in the country. Marker’s own angry reaction to the coup is documented in his short Embassy, which I’ll have to watch again now that it’s on a new, clean DVD.

The transportation strike:
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The people:
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The sideburns:
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The revolution:
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