It seems very frequently that documentaries are an underwhelming genre. I’ll sit down to a documentary, expecting to have my mind blown, but instead am treated to two hours of people patting each other on the back. If you ever watch a biography of an artist, or a behind-the-scenes doc on filmmaking, it’s usually talking heads saying dull, monotonous things, interspersed with footage that’s often interesting but all too brief. On the other end of the spectrum, you have Michael Moore styled docs that are still full of interviews, but in between go into manic depressive episodes where one minute they’re spastic and the next maudlin. With Chris Marker, you have documentaries that are, at the very least, watchable. I find his work to be quite provocative, but not everyone will share my view.
One of Chris Marker’s most recent documentaries is The Case of the Grinning Cat, a film that follows the appearance of cat graffiti as it pops up in different places around Paris. No one knows who is stealing out into the night to paint the cats on walls and sidewalks and signs (and even in subways), nor does anyone know why. Marker then sets out to film and record the cat’s existence, and in the process captures much of contemporary France’s culture. In the search for the cat, the film incorporates footage of workers’ protests as well as protests by Tibetan emigres, juxtaposed against footage of George W. Bush declaring Mission Accomplished and French politicians making promises.
One of the big reasons why I enjoy Marker’s documentary style is that he does away with the talking head. There are no specialists or scholars yammering away. Instead, what we get is a steady stream of footage edited together into a one-hour montage, with a laconic narrator filling in the gaps. I’ll admit, some parts of the film were boring, and other parts I could barely follow, but overall this was a thoughtful and inspired film.
The important thing this movie does is turn the cat graffiti into something very beautiful. You will finish the film thinking the world’s a better place with the cat in it. The Case of the Grinning Cat is a paean to free expression.
If you haven’t heard of Chris Marker, make sure to check out his classic short film La Jetee. It’s a 20 minute movie told entirely through photographs and narration. Marker’s made a huge amount of films, but only a handful are available in the US. Sooner or later I plan to watch all of them.
If you enjoy The Case of the Grinning Cat, you should also read my review of Godard’s La Chinoise.