[Moving picture of popcorn]

Laramie Movie Scope:
A Grin Without a Cat (Le fond de l'air est rouge)

Scenes from protests in the 1960s and 1970s

[Strip of film rule]
by Robert Roten, Film Critic
[Strip of film rule]

April 21, 2009 -- This slapdash documentary about left wing political movements and revolutions in Europe and the Americas is probably best understood in the original French and would have been best viewed in 1977 when it was first made and was a lot more relevant. This particular DVD version of the film will be released by Icarus Films. This version of the film was updated in 1993 following the collapse of the Soviet Union and is about an hour shorter than the original film. Despite the film's poor audio and video quality, it occasionally achieves some narrative power when it isn't being bogged down by innumerable talking heads. For the average American viewer, this film is probably unbearably dull. Europeans and viewers in other countries where socialism is relevant, or has recently left its mark, may get more out of this film. Fortunately, it is split into two roughly equal parts which can be viewed separately. Those who will get the most out of it are those who are interested in the politics of socialism, and who already know, and care about, the distinctions between the effete political schools of Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Trotskyism, etc.

The film focuses on political uprisings in Europe and the Americas, during the 1960s and 1970s particularly the student riots and union strikes in France and the Cuban revolution. There is quite a lot of footage of Fidel Castro's speeches, and considerable time is devoted to the revolutionary Che Guevara and his demise at the hands of U.S.-trained troops in Bolivia. Images of riots are interspersed with similar scenes from the film “Battleship Potemkin” depicting the Russian Revolution. The Battleship Potemkin is used as an organizing theme for the film. Some of the film's saddest scenes involve speeches by the late Salvadore Allende, president of Chile from 1970 to 1973. Allende committed suicide during the overthrow of his government by General Augusto Pinochet. Later, his daughter committed suicide in Cuba. The overthrow of the Allende government is thought to have been orchestrated by the U.S., but this was never proven. Mass imprisonment of political opponents, assassinations and torture were part of the long, brutal rule of Pinochet, who was backed by the CIA. Tellingly, Allende's speeches in the film have to do with Chile's economic troubles. Allende's rule was weakened by waves of strikes, rampant inflation and shrinking exports. Allende talks about declining productivity in factories. He tells workers if they want higher salaries, productivity must rise accordingly. Productivity increases are difficult when there is a lack of a profit motive.

In addition to Allende's and Castro's speeches, there are a number of droning talking heads, discussing the evolution of the left during this period. The film argues the Vietnam War was a rallying point for the left in the same way the Spanish Civil War had been a generation earlier. Curiously, this French film fails to delve into the very heavy French involvement in the Vietnam War. A U.S. pilot of an ancient prop-driven fighter-bomber cheerfully assesses his strafing runs and napalm attacks early in the war. There are images of the American anti-war protests, but no mention of the simultaneous civil rights movement in the U.S. The film even speculates that a protest march at the Pentagon was manipulated by the government. The film also features clips from government propaganda films. There are some images of protest actions in South America, but these clips seem like a hodge podge with a scatter shot approach.

The basic idea seems to be that capitalism is bad and socialism is good. The instances shown seem to support the idea that socialism would work just fine if the capitalists would stop interfering, or it would work if it weren't hijacked by monsters like Stalin. The film even seems to have a fondness for the nightmare that was the “cultural revolution” in China. The collapse of socialism due to its own inefficiency and lack of productivity and innovation is really not broached in the film. It also fails to address the failure of socialism to provide an adequate economic base for China, a base which rapidly appeared, as if by magic, when capitalism was reintroduced into that country. The film also includes the argument that socialism will arise, “once all the other problems have been solved.” That is an interesting idea, but it isn't pursued to any great extent in the film. This thesis might form a useful framework for looking at how the United States seems to be heading toward a more European form of government and economy. Employee profit sharing and employee involvement in production and product design, including total quality management initiatives, could be part of such a discussion, but don't get mentioned in this film.

The mantra of “capitalism bad, socialism good” utterly fails to explain why other countries, like China, Russia, and former Soviet Block countries seem to be heading toward a more European and American economic model. It seems to me that pure socialism has never worked as a national economic system. As a political system, it devolves quickly into authoritarian rule. To maintain a semblance of democracy in a socialist system, massive, yet to be developed, safeguards are needed to prevent the sort of atrocities that happened at Tiananmen Square, for example. Maybe the problem with true believers of socialism is that they don't think these safeguards are needed, so they are never built into the system. Socialism itself is supposed to be the answer to all questions. The only place where pure socialism has worked over time (beyond the initial rush of idealism and optimism) is within certain religious groups, where utterly rigid religious beliefs and social structures have proved strong enough to counteract the tendency of leaders to abuse their subjects. Even there, you have the occasional nightmare leader like Jim Jones of the People's Temple who went mad and destroyed his own utopia.

The film uses a juxtaposition of comments by talking heads an bystanders to lend meaning to the riots depicted. As one who lived through the 1960s and 1970 and who participated in some of those demonstrations, I can attest to the fact that leaders of those movements, talking heads and participants speak only for themselves. They don't speak for the masses of people who took part in those demonstrations. The reasons people took part in those demonstrations were as many and varied as the number of people involved. In order to swallow this film's arguments whole, you have to be a true believer in socialism. For that reason alone, I suspect this film's appeal will be very limited in the United States, where belief in socialism is limited to a relative handful of people. This film rates a C.

The DVD comes with a 16-page booklet which includes the essay “Sixties,” written by filmmaker Chris Marker in 2008. The film comes in two sections, the first, “Fragile Hands” covers the Vietnam war protests to Che Guevara's death in 1967. The second part, “Severed Hands” covers the period including the ill-fated “Prague Spring” of 1968 to the “Union of the Left” in France starting in 1969 and the brief rein of Salvadore Allende in the early 1970s. Running time of both parts totals 177 minutes (the original 1977 version of this film was 240 minutes). The DVD includes both English, French and German versions. The English version has quite of bit of dialogue in French with English subtitles. English subtitles for the hearing impaired would have helped a lot because the English dubbing is hard to understand due to poor audio quality. Subtitles are only partial in all three versions. Spanish and Portugese subtitles over French audio is also included in the DVD. The DVD also has no chapters within the two sections of the film, making navigation difficult. This DVD goes on sale May 5, 2009.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

[Strip of film rule]
Copyright © 2009 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
[Strip of film rule]
Back to the Laramie Movie Scope index.
[Rule made of Seventh Seal sillouettes]

Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)