As Marilu is interviewed, her face evades and confronts the camera with trembling simultaneity; we can’t tell if she wants to escape from its gaze or dive right into it. She appears unstable, unhinged, her hands a fidgety blur; we find it difficult to imagine a woman in this much emotional distress will survive in Paris for long. (She mentions suicide longingly, as an option unavailable to her only because it would be too “phony.”) We wonder: is the camera observing this raw-nerved woman’s emotions, or is it heightening—even creating—them? Is she truly this distraught, or is she merely performing her suffering for the filmmakers’—and our—benefit?
The film answers the question for us. “Chronicle of a Summer” cheerily concedes the effects of Morin and Rauch’s experiment on its subjects, acknowledging that without the intervention of their project, Marilu’s dislocation, her existential despair, and even her poverty would’ve existed at a low boil, unwitnessed, never blistering through into the spectacular emotional performance that forms the film’s centerpiece, its nakedly beautiful beating heart. In this way, the film itself becomes the cure for the disease(s) it so powerfully documents: alienation, indifference, impotence, dehumanization, despair. Marilu is transformed by her radical act of on-camera self-exposure: the next we see her, she has gotten a better job, has opened herself up to relationships beyond one-night stands, and now trembles onscreen with a happiness as vivid and bracing as her former despair. The movie argues that through the act of speaking and performing our grief and our disappointments on camera—owning our roles, as Marilu does when she plays her part of “Unhappy, ‘Loose’ Urban Woman”—having our performance documented, and then, crucially, sympathetically witnessed by the audience—we can transcend our circumstances and reclaim our power. We can finally affirmatively reply to the question posed by Morin and Rauch at the beginning of the film: “Are you happy?” It goes without saying that their conception of the power of documentary testimonial is breathtakingly, brazenly utopian.
After the film’s “end,” the lights dim and the cameras turn to a brightly-lit screening room, peopled by all of the film’s subjects, having just seen themselves—not to mention each other—on a film screen, likely for the first time in their lives. The workers, the students, and the professionals have dressed up for the occasion, and seated in the same room and in the same chairs, they are an audience of equals, each as qualified as the other to criticize or comment on what they’ve just seen: “Boring,” “fake,” and “shameful” are three recurring negative reactions. When I realized what Morin and Rauch were pulling off—a masterstroke of postmodern reflexivity and auto-critique that yet embodies the most humanistic and egalitarian of ideals—I broke down in tears of wonder and joy. I might be alone, but I’d rank the moment among the most sublime and revelatory moments in all of cinematic history.
To say that “Chronicle of a Summer” has lost none of its power in the fifty years since its release would be an understatement. It has only gained in depth and relevance in our era of instantaneous self-exposure: for better and worse, we now live on the other side of a wall it smashed down.
One of the middle-aged female subjects in the screening room is scandalized by what she’s witnessed: Marilu’s extreme disclosure offended her sense of propriety, and she loudly calls her and the filmmakers out for their indecency. Was it Marilu’s allusion to casual sex that so offended her? Or was it the fact of the camera, the whole modern project of making the “personal” public? Is she merely “slut-shaming” Marilu or is she condemning the entirety of the film we’ve just watched/are still watching? This raises a larger and more contemporary question: is this woman an antique moralist, or is her kind alive and well, in the form of those stoical, prim-seeming holdouts from our Facebook/reality TV culture? We at first judge this woman harshly—Morin himself, so outraged and disappointed by her unexpected response to Marilu’s story, even punctures the spirit of open critique he’s fostered among the participants in order to berate the woman, bemoaning her small-mindedness—but in a culture as awash in televised intimacy and internet self-exposure as ours, so much of it so sordid, her petit-bourgeois moral reflex can almost be retroactively viewed as a prophetic last gasp in defense of stoicism and privacy… perhaps something vital got lost in the age of self-revelation ushered in by “Chronicle of a Summer?”
Part of what makes “Chronicle” so stirring to a contemporary viewer is the experience of tracing back the tropes of so much current docusoap programming (what is that screening room segment but the original “Real Housewives” Reunion Special?) to their source, and discovering with a shock—though, really, it shouldn’t surprise us—that they sprung from an idea and an ethos so cultured, so humane, and so fundamentally anti-commercial. There are many levels on which “Chronicle of a Summer” is no different in its form and methods than “The Real World” or “The Real Housewives” franchises, and so many ways in which it is fundamentally different… perhaps the most resonant difference being that the subjects of “Chronicle of a Summer” did it all—revealed themselves, played themselves in front of the camera—for the first time. What Morin and Rauch and their band of subjects did has been repeated a million times since but, as with all first times, it can never truly be repeated. Reality TV has its vices and its virtues, but watching “Chronicle of a Summer” it is hard not to feel a sharp stab of regret to live in our ersatz, copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy present and not in the shimmeringly naïve black & white—they could never know what they were in the process of unleashing!—of the participants’ historical moment.
I had a dream I was Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre. But I couldn’t quite bring myself to kill anyone with my chainsaw, and with all the tentative swinging of my roaring saw and then my recoiling from landing the killing blow, I accidentally dropped the chainsaw and sawed myself in half.
I’m on what is either my third or fourth full read-through of IJ. (I honestly can’t remember which it is, third or fourth: I definitely read it once in high school, when it was published; I definitely read it once in college, for a paper; and then I think I read it another time at some point in my twenties, but I’m not 100% sure I actually did, which I don’t know what that says about my twenties, that I can’t remember.)*
Now I’m having that familiar pgs. 200-300-of-IJ-experience, where the book ceases to feel like a brilliant but exhausting and problematically sophomoric exercise and starts to seem like undoubtedly the best book ever written, ever (sic), and all of the book’s grotesquely overscaled future-historical comic inventions (subsidized time, O.N.A.N, mutant hamsters and Quebecois assassins and etc.), the humor of which has not aged especially well, begin to recede, cease seeming to be the (possibly misbegotten) point of the whole book and start to become like the essential, heartbreaking wallpaper over the shoulders of his characters’ exquisitely well-rendered miseries, which miseries we wouldn’t be able to see quite so clearly and up-close if the wallpaper behind them weren’t so lurid and fantastical and ridiculous.
*That I am doing a low-grade DFW impression is involuntary, and I think a forgivable consequence of immersing myself in this book again.
A few months before my brilliant friend Sean died, he sent me both Essential Dazzler volumes for my birthday. I hadn’t talked to him much in several years; we had worked together only briefly and, you know, it’s hard to keep these things up. Then he got sick, and I didn’t really know how bad it was. I’d like to think that if I had known, I would have been a better friend during that period but maybe I’m giving myself too much credit. But then The Essential Dazzler showed up out of nowhere. It is without a doubt the most thoughtful gift anyone has ever given me. Miss you Sean.
Reading this reminded me that I had a brief, exceedingly pleasant dream about Sean a few nights ago, in which we bumped into each other on the street and had a quick, low-key conversation about X-Men, Dazzler, and other such topics. In the dream, Sean was doing that thing that Sean always did—or that thing, at least, that he always did with me—of listening with a certain professorial, chin-stroking remove, like he was impressed and amused by what I had to say, like he could’ve said “Well done, Master Berens” at any moment. (And perhaps he did say that to me, at some point?) It was an affectation, but a deliberate and transparent affectation, one he appeared to have cultivated as much for our pleasure as his own.
And with a mind like his, what else could he do? He had to find a mode of social performance that both slyly acknowledged the gulf between his mind and the minds of others, while simultaneously diffusing the anxiety such a disparity might provoke…by making a sweet joke of it.
All pure speculation, of course.
I miss Sean too.
"Titanic" was the first movie to wed a front-and-center, starmaking youthful romance to a big budget action-adventure spectacle, and to win BIG at it. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it paved the way for current hits like "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games." But as an aspirational figure in a romantic teen epic, Rose Dewitt Bukater eats Bella Swann and Katniss Everdeen for breakfast.
Whereas Bella is entirely defined by her willful consignment to her teen dream (she has no convictions or priorities beyond “love”), and Katniss Everdeen has few clear priorities beyond the mere survival of herself and her family (this is the fun and the limitation of the dystopian protagonist), Rose combines these values…and has a few more besides.
As much as I teased Titanic’s wraparound narrative when the movie was first released—the grandma with the necklace on the boat, free to die at last; the whiff of The Even Greater Generation piousness that hovers over her scenes with the entranced members of the salvage crew; what I took to be the filmmakers’ lack of courage that we could identify with a story set in the past that stayed in the past—upon seeing its rerelease last night I take all those criticisms back. The whole point of the movie’s romantic narrative—and what makes “Titanic” such a useful corrective to the values of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games”—is embodied by that framing device: in the time between the film’s present and its past, Rose went and had a life. She lived for more than love: she lived for experience.
Sure, it’s a bit too romantic, Jack’s near-death preoccupation with her doing so (“have lots of babies!”), especially when he would’ve been saying “I’m so cold, bitch you’re lucky I’m letting you rest your fatass on that headboard.” But as an imperative for viewers—“live an actual life”—it’s a lot more challenging than anything the current youthquake fantasies currently ask of us. (As multi-film franchises, what these films ask of us is not to go out and live, but to continue indulging our escapism with them.)
And now that I’ve had time to come full circle from laughing at Celine Dion’s theme song for Titanic, to absolutely dreading hearing it, I can appreciate how the lyrics “my heart will go on” speak to the movie’s theme in ways that are less-than-totally saccharine. Rose’s heart won’t go on just for her Leo, but for herself: her life, her experiences. James Cameron’s feminism, however crude, is also potent and powerful. Gripping Jack’s hand while floating near-death on that headboard, the rescue boat passing them by, she—realizing he’s gone—says “come back, come back,” pleading with Jack not to be dead. And at some moment as she repeats her refrain, we realize she is no longer mourning Jack but weakly—and with gathering strength and insistence—attempting to call the life boat back. To save herself. (This is up there with the most beautiful moments in popcorn cinema.) Fighting for her right to work other jobs, screw other men, see other things, accomplish things and make mistakes and yeah maybe settle down at some point and have some babies.