Home Video Hovel- Chronicle of a Summer, by David Bax
1961’s Chronicle of a Summer, directed by Edgar Morin and Jean Rouch, is a vérité-ish look at Paris in the summer of 1960 through the eyes of a bunch of the filmmakers’ friends. It’s an entrancing portrait of that particular time, when a discussion of interracial marriage is fodder only for fringe-dwelling anti-establishment types and when a Holocaust survivor can be a hip, young woman. The most intriguing aspect of viewing the film now, though, is the comparisons it inadvertently draws to our current world and way of life.
Morin and Rouch employ a number of techniques, from following the aforementioned survivor, Marceline, as she approaches Parisian pedestrians and asks them, “Are you happy?” We also see more straightforward interviews, with the filmmakers both in and out of the frame. In another section, Marceline narrates her memories while the camera follows her, then passes her by and leaves her alone, far away down a shadowy street. Other subjects include a model, a couple of starving artists and a handful of other workers and intellectuals. Some of them are old friends and some meet each other for the first time on camera, such as Angelo, who works at a Renault factory, and Landry, a young man who has somewhat recently come to France from the Ivory Coast, where he grew up.
One of the topics that sets Angelo off in that conversation is the facile social ambition of some of his coworkers. They make no more money than he does but they blow their incomes on superficial things like cars and clothes while scrimping their way from paycheck to paycheck, broke but looking rich. Angelo repeatedly calls such people “losers.” Such ferocious, losing consumerism has only grown in Western culture but what really makes an impact is that, if Angelo had referred to his social strata as the 99%, this discussion of hollow aspiration preventing the lower classes from discovering their own strength wouldn’t be a bit out of place at an Occupy rally today.
Satisfying as it is to see that the basic tenets of subversive liberal thought haven’t changed in 50 years, the most compelling comparison to the modern world comes when the subjects and the filmmakers discuss how the presence of the camera changes the outcome or influences people’s behavior. 21 years after the debut of The Real World, eight years after the advent of YouTube and a few minutes after the invention of Vine, it’s almost alien to see people so ill at ease with a camera. Morin and Rouch display a sense of humor about the subject by including their own highly performed-seeming discussions of the topic at the beginning and end of the film. But the question of whether we’re seeing the real person or even any part of the real person is not a joke. One of the things the directors seem eager to address is the minor ways in which we reinvent ourselves for each situation and each person with whom we interact.
Some of the discussions in Chronicle of a Summer get very serious, even personal. Yet Morin and Rouch never lose a certain sense of loose fun. They may have set out to explore some weighty aspects of life in their time and place but they also knew from the beginning that they would likely fail to get what they wanted. What’s more, they find that futility funny and invite us to do the same. That’s another element the film possesses that would only become more prevalent in our culture: irony.
Special features include a documentary about the film made 50 years later with unused footage and new interviews, interviews from the time with Rouch and Marceline and a lovely booklet with an essay by Sam Di Iorio.