Whenever I watch a political film from the past, I try to adjust my viewing to the present. You have to ask, “How is this relevant? What does this say about us now? What can I learn from history?” Those of you who read this blog on the regular may have noticed that, more often than not, the verdict is “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” As much as we like to think we have made progress in the last several decades, the issues that matter--class, gender equality, race, economics--feel stuck somewhere in a car park outside an abandoned mall, revving the gas with the parking brake on. I don’t even think we are more self-aware now than we were, say, 57 years ago, when filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin shot their documentary Chronicle of a Summer. That’s maybe the saddest part. We know we’re fucked, we’ve known it for a while, and we’ve not really crawled out of it.
What maybe saddens me more, though, is imaging how social media would dissemble Chronicle of a Summer. For a lot of folks, it may be the very definition of #firstworldproblems. Beginning with the question of “are you happy?”, Rouch and Morin take to the Paris streets in 1960 to talk to random citizens and try to find out what is going on in the collective consciousness. Though some of the subjects embody textbook ennui, and there is a cliché Frenchness to the whole affair, if we stop and listen, as the film intends, we hear how common problems like dissatisfaction with work and making ends meet via the wages we are paid connect just about everybody. Hell, in our current climate, where “debate” only reinforces political lines more than ever, Chronicle of a Summer is exactly the kind of thing we need: a venue for people to talk about what ails them, uninterrupted, so that we all might realize that there is more to connect us than there is to push us apart.
One standout theme emerges quite quickly in Chronicle of a Summer. Granted, this could be a trick of editing and/or the chosen willing subjects, but the #1 problem amongst French men and women of the early 1960s is that money can’t buy happiness, and the average job isn’t a bed of roses, either. As one man notes, you can no longer choose a vocation, you instead end up with what job you can get. While this fellow appears to be a middle-class intellectual (the bookshelves flanking him will cause much envy amongst readers out there), he is not necessarily the common subject in Chronicle of a Summer. Rouch and Morin don’t just talk to scholars and artists, they also spend time with autoworkers, secretaries, and even a pin-up model. Class is not entirely a motivator here, except to note how broad the definitions of lower class and middle class may be--something we should all understand when we consider the economic gaps in current society. The fact that there is a 1% and then the rest of us, that should be distressing all by itself.
Granted, there is one other clear connector through most of the interview subjects in Chronicle of a Summer: they are, for the most part, white. The exceptions are glaring, and not just for the obvious reasons. When one of the aforementioned autoworkers, Angelo, is put together with Landry, a young African immigrant, to share their experiences, the black man’s explanation of how he approaches life by walking through the doors that are open to him and moving on when he sees the door is closed inspires the white man to say, “I think you’re great.” It’s the worst impulse of liberal empathy, treating him as quaint because he somehow overcomes. That’s not great, it’s shitty that he has to think that way! And it actually echoes the shoddiest of the conservative “you gotta pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” platitudes. Even worse is when Landry is sent to Saint-Tropez along with the others, but is described as the “black explorer of holiday France.” In other words, the token “stranger in a strange land” isolated by the color of his skin. Sure, when we remember when Chronicle of a Summer was made, we can forgive the misguided technique knowing that at the time just doing this was progressive, but it’s still hard to shake the antiquity of it. (Interestingly, it’s Angelo who suffers real consequences here, having his job at Renault threatened for participating in the film.)
Chronicle of a Summer is at its best when it’s the least staged, when it’s the most intimate, such as the solo interview with Mary Lou, the Italian who ponders how her life has grown worse since moving to France, or conversely, the group lunch where a real dialogue starts between the group. The conversation is frank, touching on subjects like interracial dating (Landry lamenting that white people only notice him for his dancing skills is still an apropos observation, just as sharp as it would be years later when Spike Lee called out similar thinking in Do the Right Thing) and how race does not always unite across borders (African nations band together to stop white invaders, but they still are not united in everyday life). There is even a somewhat painful moment when Landry admits to only having heard of concentration camps through movies (Night and Fog, no less [review]). That this revelation comes because another interviewee, Marceline, shows her identification tattoo from a Nazi camp gives the moment added poignancy, particularly if we consider how much history and experience seems to be ignored by current generations even as information becomes more and more accessible.
Yet, it’s also a perfect moment for Rouch and Morin, who frequently break from their main narrative to discuss the success of the project. There is a veneer to Chronicle of a Summer that is the epitome of French New Wave/cinema verité self-conscious, in that the directors make their movie as much about the making of the movie as they do the subject at hand--complete with self-justification at the start, telling us what other important films also earned the top prize at Cannes. Chronicle of a Summer is a movie influenced by other movies, despite being a true trailblazer. For every tightly framed private confession from Mary Lou, there is a staged “conflict” between Rouch and Morin on the meaning of cinema and the truthfulness of their work. It’s as if we are watching the birth of first-person documentarians like Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, who consistently run the risk of losing the plot to their own cult of personality. The film even closes with a scene so ironic--the directors saying it’s up to the audience to ascertain the meaning of Chronicle of a Summer, even as they tell us exactly what they intend--that they had to be aware of their own fatuousness. How post-modern can you get?
It’s too bad, because that coda is totally unnecessary. The preceding sequence does all of the heavy lifting for them. Following a private cast screening of an early cut of Chronicle of a Summer, the gathered participants give their reactions to what they saw. Their feelings vary. Some see it as too honest, others as too contrived. Angelo, for one, sticks up for himself, saying he forgot the camera and made a real connection with Landry. Marceline says she was honest with what she shared, but otherwise disconnected from the process. She was playing to the camera, and yet totally being herself.
But if we go back to the point to how Chronicle of a Summer relates to us nearly five decades later, this final discussion is a perfect microcosm of the media age: everyone is having their say, but no one ends up on the same page. It doesn’t mean that no one is listening, because they all are, it might just mean that the best takeaway we can get from the film is that we don’t have to agree to get along. No need to fight, we’re all just looking to survive, and we all deserve a platform in which to outline our plans for doing so.