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The key work in the controversial new school of cinema verite!
Imagine for a moment that you're walking down the street in the middle of some bustling city. You're just strolling along and minding your own business when a cameraman and an interviewer begin approaching you. They just want to ask you a couple of quick questions about social issues, the President or the price of tea in China. Regardless of whether you felt like participating, it's unlikely that you'd find such a thing particularly surprising. We've grown accustomed to living in a society where nearly everything is being documented for one reason or another. As such, it's quite amusing and revealing to observe the ordinary people seen in the 1961 documentary Chronicle of a Summer regarding a cameraman and interviewer as creatures from some alien planet. It's a groundbreaking endeavor that provides modern viewers with the opportunity to witness one of the earliest and most significant chapters of cinema verite.
Early in the film, co-directors Jean Rouch (generally regarded as the founding father of cinema verite) and Edgar Morin (an esteemed sociologist) discuss whether or not it's possible to really capture truth on film. Is it possible to have a natural conversation with someone in front of a camera, or does a camera automatically turn everyone in front of it into actors? Despite the fact that the airwaves are now littered with just about every sort of "reality show" imaginable, it's a question that still hasn't been definitively answered.
In an attempt to explore this question further, Rouch and Morin gather a diverse collection of ordinary people and ask them some simple questions about life. As the documentary begins, we witness a host of people on the street being asked the same question: "Are you happy?" Some say yes, some say no, some aren't sure and many flee from the camera. As things proceed, the focus narrows to a handful of distinctive individuals and the questions get more specific. Life, philosophy, death, the Algerian War and other subjects are examined, and eventually some of the participants begin to interact with each other and develop friendships. It's all interesting enough to keep the viewer engaged, though at times it's a bit frustrating that none of the assorted themes being discussed are really explored as fully as they ought to be.
As the film winds down, it suddenly indulges in a fascinating bit of metatextual self-commentary. The assorted interview subjects featured in the film are shown a rough cut of the movie and asked for their thoughts. Suddenly, everyone transforms into a film critic, offering their opinions on what worked, what didn't, who was honest and who was posing for the camera. One of the most intriguing criticisms that pops up is that some people are being too forthright. One woman argues that people shouldn't be sharing their intimate secrets with viewers, that some propriety must be maintained when the camera is running. The filmmakers are discouraged by this attitude (claiming that such views are essentially encouraging people to act dishonestly in front of a camera), but they're nonetheless mostly pleased with the results of their experiment. The film concludes with a memorable (and artfully-staged—especially for a film so focused on realism) shot of Morin and Rouch walking down a hallway, discussing their findings and moving on to the next adventure. Watching them scheming and plotting, I could only wonder if they ever imagined just how many people would eventually be imitating them.
Chronicle of a Summer: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray) offers a sturdy 1080p/Full Frame transfer that does what it can with the original source material. The movie was shot on 16mm film, so it obviously looks pretty gritty and grainy throughout (an approach that works well enough considering the film's format). Sharpness is inconsistent, but depth is pretty satisfying and there are very few scratches or flecks remaining. The PCM 1.0 Mono track is effective but underwhelming—there's nothing much of note to hear aside from the dialogue, which is clean and clear. The supplemental package is highlighted by the 75-minute documentary "Un ete + 50," which offers a combination new interviews with some of the film's participants (including Morin) and extended outtakes from the film itself (many of which are more compelling than the interviews actually included in the film). It's an excellent watch and an essential companion piece to the feature. Also included are older interviews with Jean Rouch (6 minutes) and Marceline Loridan (7 minutes), a video essay by Faye Ginsberg (14 minutes) and a booklet featuring an essay by Sam Di Iorio.
While Chronicle of a Summer is only moderately engaging on its own terms, it's an important piece of cinema history (more specifically, cinema verite history) that deserves the attention of serious film buffs. Criterion's Blu-ray release is exceptional.
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