Are You Happy?

'Chronicle of a Summer' dares to ask the important question

Is there a film with more lasting grace and influence than 1961's Chronicle of a Summer? Is there a classic as rarely seen? From its enduring obscurity, you'd think this cinema-vérité landmark was hopelessly stranded in place and time. To be sure, directors Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin turned their handheld camera on a photogenic cityscape--Paris circa 1960--that could poster any dorm room: the endless stairs and cobblestone streets of 1956's The Red Balloon multiplied by the emerging cool of the youth culture. (Among other things, this movie is an advertisement for the beauty of smoking.)

Yet Chronicle of a Summer remains fresh, so high on its ideas that you can inhale its buzz across four decades. The idea was to film a variety of French citizens--some friends of the filmmakers, some merely pulled off the street--and to ask them the same question: "Are you happy?" The picture that unfolds is almost musical in structure: As prelude, Rouch and Morin recruit a proxy "interviewer" on camera, discussing the very concept of the film with her. Exchanges and arguments ensue of differing moods and settings, often with the cordless microphone in view and one or both of the directors participating onscreen. Then the coda: lights coming up on a movie theater, where participants have just watched everything we have seen so far. With an effect that's still jarring, the interview subjects argue among themselves about whether the emotional responses elicited from them were genuine or acted.

"Part of it was very boring," says one, leaning forward testily from his seat. "But the rest of it was quite indecent."

That scene is like a freeze frame of cinema at the precipice of "reality" media--and it captures the discomfort and thrill of anyone who suspects that what you see is not what you get. It was with this philosophy that Rouch, who died in a car accident in Niger earlier this year, provided the tectonic shift beneath the French New Wave with his ethnographic 16mm films documenting the tribal rituals of West Africa in the 1940s, '50s, and '60s. Rouch utilized film technology for mobility rather than smoothness, liberating the camera from the tripod, utilizing synch-sound wherever he could, and cutting as it suited him. He also appeared onscreen among his subjects, a tactic that Pennebaker, Leacock, Drew, and the Maysleses would have fled as a form of contamination.

What Rouch did was destroy the illusion of an unseen eye. Where his Russian predecessor Dziga Vertov sought to record events, Rouch had no problem with creating them. And even as his techniques pass on through Godard and Warhol into MTV's The Real World, the former military engineer's layered skepticism about "reality" and "fiction" was lost. Documentaries today would benefit--both morally and commercially--from Rouch's insistence that the camera is always an instrument of provocation, never just, or even, an objective observer.

Rouch's generous spirit found a complement in the probing questions of fellow anthropologist Edgar Morin, whose most evident delight in Chronicle of a Summer is sparking a verbal shitstorm at the dinner table over the question of Algeria. Much as the recent rerelease of The Battle of Algiers felt prescient this year as the war in Iraq ground on, Morin's simple questions about whether events in another country can feel urgent and real to Parisians are worth asking again among ourselves. (It helped that Rouch counted African immigrants among his friends and invited them to hang out with the whites, whose own stories emerge from the exchange. At one arresting turn, an Ivory Coast native asks if a Jewish woman's concentration-camp tattoo is her phone number.)

Like all bad fiction, the pale contemporary imitations of Chronicle of a Summer regard actual life as not worth noticing--and, by subconscious extension, not worth living. Within a brisk 85 minutes, this movie inverts that philosophy. Alive to the world, Rouch and Morin let a bikini model on the beaches of Saint- Tropez anticipate the bored male observer near the end. She delivers her reproof with a laugh: "Boredom comes from within."

 
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