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Smiles all around

Marker’s cats; Bujalski and the Times
By GERALD PEARY  |  January 17, 2007

MUTUAL APPRECIATION: Manohla Dargis wrote a dream Times review, but what about A.O. Scott?

Born in France in 1921, the spry octogenarian Chris Marker plays detective with a camera in Chats perchés|The Case of the Grinning Cat, which is playing all week at the Brattle Theatre. He finds bemused cartoon felines with half-moons of teeth drawn high up on Paris buildings. What gives with this anonymous public art, a homage to both Japanese manga and Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat? Those familiar with such classic, rapturous socio-political filmic essays as La jetée (1962) and Sans soleil (1982) won’t miss this rare theatrical screening of a Marker work, though it’s a modest one, simply and informally shot, and with few self-consciously poetic visual moments.

It soon became obvious that he isn’t really looking to catch the artist in the act. The search is an excuse for Marker on a lark: familiar walks through his Paris with a hand-held video camera. Having no plan, he films whatever catches his interest, from a live cat lounging on the metro stairwell to a frightened one caught up a tree, from bands playing for spare change to students protesting the immigration philosophy of rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Wherever he shoots, Marker seems to find, thank Heaven, pretty girls. Is that the still-libidinal eye of the filmmaker, or is it just France?

For stretches of the documentary, smiling cats vanish from the screen and the political issues of the day, 2001–2004, are played out on the streets: the French reactions to Bush’s invasion of Iraq; a popular front of center and left ensuring Chirac’s presidential victory over Le Pen. But the cat returns one magical day, now on a stick, on placards with an anarchic Marx Brothers message: “Make Cats, Not War.”

It’s not only Globe and Phoenix critics who have been kind to local-lad filmmaker Andrew Bujalski — he’s had amazing luck pleasing the seen-it-all New York Times reviewers. Manohla Dargis’s essay on this year’s Mutual Appreciation was a dream review for a young filmmaker: she compared his two movies (the earlier one was Funny Ha-Ha) to major works of the French New Wave’s legendary Jean Eustache. A.O. Scott has also been a Bujalski booster — so what to make of his peculiar remarks in his recent Best Movies of 2006 article? Praise or provocation? “I wish that some evidently talented young filmmakers, who have so far focused on the small concerns of their own entitled kind, would find a way to expand the scope of their ambitions without blunting the keenness of their insight. (Yes, Andrew Bujalski. That means you.)”

Hmm. Scott is telling Bujalski to stop making little chamber comedies starring his former Harvard roommates, no matter how charming and effective they are, and work on a bigger canvas. No more miniatures! Instead, Bujalski as Michael Bay? A blue-collar, multi-racial, multi-generational tale of sin and strife, with CGI explosions? But still keen and insightful?

I e-mailed Bujalski in JP to see whether he had any thoughts about Scott’s arm-twisting missive. “It’s nice to know that he cares, though it did feel distressingly like reading a bad review of a film I haven’t made yet. At any rate, my relatives (several of whom were gathered around for Christmas) are all very impressed any time I get my name in the paper. I did make a New Year¹s resolution in ’06 to stop reading my press, but I broke it hundreds of times over. I’m making a halfhearted attempt to reinstall the resolution this year.”

Related: Paper or plastic?, Feel-bad cinema, Notes from underground, More more >
  Topics: Film Culture , Entertainment, Movies, Michael Bay,  More more >
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