Chronicle of a Summer (Doc of the Week #8)

Chronicle of a Summer
Directed by Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin—1961—90 minutes

At the dawn of the 1960s, the development of more lightweight movie cameras with sync sound allowed for the intimate feeling of real life subjects with minimal intrusion. This would lead to the personalized and spontaneous documentary style that is more the norm nowadays. In America, a resulting style called Direct Cinema launched the careers of DA Pennebaker, Richard Leacock, the Maysle brothers and Robert Drew, whose 1960 film “Primary” was an unprecedented you-are-there look at a Wisconsin primary campaign between Senators Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. In France in the middle of that same year, ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin made the influential “Chronicle of a Summer”, recently restored and given the grand Criterion Collection treatment, with a booklet and a bevy of extras, including a 73-minute look-back piece that includes recent interviews with people involved in the original film, now a half-century older.

Unlike the practitioners of Direct Cinema, who were more strictly observational, Rouch and Morin’s style newly coined “cinema verite” used proactive strategies to get closer to the kind of “film-truth” they were striving for. Rouch, who previously made films on African subjects, developed this new form (dubbed by one scholar as “hometown anthropology”) by starting with the novel but now-familiar technique of ask-the-man-in-the-street. Using a shoulder-mounted 16mm camera and handheld microphone, he and Morin employ two personable female collaborators (Marceline and Nadine) to accost Parisian pedestrians with the simple (but loaded) question “are you happy?” Comical brush-offs soon yield to some touching responses from aged or struggling citizens, pointing up the fertile ground the filmmakers have broken. Soon, Rouch and Morin settle on a group of people for a more in-depth investigation into the human condition at that precise point in time.

Francophiles and film history buffs will certainly have a head start in appreciating the charms of a film like “Chronicle of a Summer.” The monochromatic allure of mid-century Paris, viewed through a persistent screen of Gitanes smoke, is the background for these earnest interviews, informal roundtable debates and day-in-the life vignettes. Issues like the ongoing Algerian War, which caused a divisive debate akin to what Americans would soon be experiencing over Vietnam, sharpen the edges of what at its core is an inward-looking concept.

So we get a thoughtful discussion between a Renault factory worker and an African exchange student, the earnest musings of an activist couple easing (perhaps uneasily) towards a middle-class lifestyle and the artsy, garret-dwelling couple who scoff at the nebulous idea of happiness (an “empty word”) or that gross material gain would bring it about (memorably noting that their rich friends “don’t have the books and records we do”). The on-camera near meltdown of a young Italian woman hints at the more voyeuristic bent that such film and TV techniques could slip towards in the future. The general self-consciousness of “Chronicle of a Summer” may not always agree with all viewers all the time. But the general impression, that you can pick someone off the street and, giving them a space in which to express themselves, use that testimony to illuminate our life and times better than any talking-head expert, comes through loud and clear.

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