Chronicle of a Summer (1961)
Directed by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin
Thursday, July 26 at the Spectacle Theater
Drama is so confessional by necessity—how else can a character grant us access to their thoughts? —and also so integral to culturalization, that lucid honesty in real life can feel suspiciously like acting. Chronicle of a Summer, an experimental documentary from 1961, balances itself on this bulbous paradox, and teeters in three distinct rhetorical directions in the hopes of accurately representing various subjects from France's working and immigrant classes. The first approach is sociological, contributed by Edgar Morin: A woman conducts quickie vox-pop street interviews ("Are you happy?") and then Morin himself profiles a struggling mechanic, an alcoholic Italian émigré, and others. The second approach is political, via ethno-filmographer Jean Rouch: Africans from the Congo and Nigeria discuss their war-torn countries and daily lives in Paris, then engage in frank debate with the film's white subjects—some of whom view their darker-skinned compatriots as a kind of novelty, despite sympathizing with Nigeria's clawing towards independence.
We learn throughout the running time that many of these conversations have been staged or at least "cheated" as the filmmakers reflect upon what we've seen thus far, and as pre-existing relationships between participants are explained. This nebulousness is what makes the movie's third voice so crucial: Canadian camera operator Michel Brault, using a then-spanking new 16mm rig with synchronized sound, formally abstracts the study through handheld dollies and jump-cuts. His spry visuals occasionally metaphorize urban isolation too forcefully, but the talking head interviews—plainly filmed and stitched together with showing seams—seem to drift in and out of the conversations they document, mimicking the dynamic cadence of human interest. A trip to St. Tropez late in the film appears hazy and grubby, as if distantly remembered; when a desperate woman describes her suicidal tendencies the lens crowds her face, as if daring her to do it. Morin and Rouch set out to discover the extent to which the camera deceives; what they instead prove with Brault's assistance is that the camera cannot help but confront.