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A loaded question for you: Are you happy?

The question plays a pivotal role in 2 films: 1960 French documentary 'Chronicle of a Summer' and 1967 Chicago documentary 'Inquiring Nuns'

Christopher Borrelli

2:26 PM EST, March 1, 2013

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The other day, somewhat on a whim, I walked around downtown Chicago for a while and stopped random strangers and asked if they were happy. I carried a notebook and identified myself as a reporter and wrote down what they said, and though I've done my share of man-on-the-street interviews, the off-putting baldness (and boldness) of the question made me skittish.

"How are you?" may be conversational wallpaper, delivered generally in a polite, uninterested mumble; "Are you happy?" is loaded, unexpected and full of regret, an invitation to existential assessment.

Which may be why, at first, this didn't go so well. I stopped a man with a handlebar mustache who, though polite, brushed past wordlessly when I asked, “Are you happy?”

The next two people — “So, I just have one question: Are you happy?” — grinned and glided around me in an impatient hurry, with loud sighs, assuming, presumably, they were being punk'd, and I was not sincere.

Though I was.

In fact, there's a long, strange, deeply influential history to this exercise, and it winds through Chicago.

It begins with the documentary "Chronicle of a Summer," shot around France in 1960 by filmmaker Jean Rouch and sociologist Edgar Morin. Though relatively obscure, even among many film buffs, it is one of the most seminal works in all of media, an early experiment in cinema verite that, in a roundabout way, is responsible for everything from "Gimme Shelter" to "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo." Even the term cinema verite, meaning film in which life is captured with the barest of filmmaker intrusions, was coined by Rouch and Morin, who, ironically, intruded quite a bit.

In the liner notes to the great new Criterion Collection DVD of "Chronicle of a Summer," French studies scholar Sam Di Iorio writes that Rouch and Morin's initial idea was tidy, "a film about life itself, using nondirective interviews with ordinary subjects." The result, however, proved so radically different, contradictory and forward-thinking that, as Criterion producer Issa Clubb said in a phone interview, “if you can't, in 2013, see the evolutionary importance of 'Chronicle,' that may be because it's everywhere, a victim of its own success, just soaked into the world."

At first, “Chronicle” starts simply, with Rouch and Morin asking Parisians — via a pair of women they hired to do the asking, wrangling in anyone who'd wait a sec — the same question: “Are you happy?” And the initial responses are ugly. People angle around, squeeze past, bark “What do you care?” But a few stop, then more. Some lean in and confide calmly that, yes, they are happy, maybe. A man says he has his share of troubles; his sister died, at 44, “in a bad way, I don't try to understand.” A pair of girls, as though playing the part of callous youth, shout, yes, they are happy, of course, “we are young, and the sun shines!”

This segment is charming and brief, just a few minutes. The filmmakers, unhappy themselves and at odds over how to proceed, ditch the exercise and dive instead into the lives of their subjects. In doing so, however, they predict the next 50 years of media. They allow their interviewees to wander Paris with then-innovative lapel microphones, revealing intimate pains, suggesting novelistic depths in even the most random stranger; they interview people with early sync-sound recorders (developed themselves); they conduct walking interviews that would look familiar to anyone who's seen a shaky camera follow, say, Jason Bourne across Europe; and in their most prescient bit, they pull a Charlie Kaufman (or, perhaps, an MTV “Real World” reunion special), panning from a screen showing “Chronicle” to reveal their subjects, watching themselves.

Then the lights come up.

And their subjects bicker, accuse one another of not being genuine enough for the cameras, debate the contrivances of filmed reality. In other words, here's one more thing to blame on the French — reality TV.

Anyway, jump ahead seven years, to Chicago, and Gordon Quinn and Jerry Temaner, freshly graduated from the University of Chicago, are scouting ideas for Kartemquin Films, their new documentary collective, which, almost 50 years later, is best known for its own cinema verite hits, “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters.”

They had seen “Chronicle” at U. of C.'s Doc Films. Quinn, now 70, told me: “We got excited by how it let the filmmakers take a role in their own film and become directly engaged with the subjects. Plus, that question, ‘Are you happy?' Wow, I mean, coming out of University of Chicago we felt deeply philosophical and were interested in something that touched on a platonic sense of happiness and good. Not to mention, what else would a couple of nice Jewish boys do but make a movie for a Catholic group?”

Indeed, “Inquiring Nuns,” their fourth film, was made for about $16,000 for Chicago's Catholic Adult Education Center, which Quinn said never suggested changes or requested a single edit. It was not so much inspired by that first “Are you happy?” segment of “Chronicle” as it was a straight-up American remake of it. You see Quinn and Temaner, then in their 20s, zipping about the edges of the frame, and the trancy organ soundtrack is from Philip Glass, who was paid $100 (though it did give him his first film credit), but “Inquiring Nuns” is as American, direct and straightforward as “Chronicle” is impossibly French and elusive.

It's also centered on two actual nuns, chosen from a pool of about 18 at St. Denis Parish on the Southwest Side. Sister Marie Arne and Sister Mary Campion, dressed in full nun habits and as unsure of what they are doing as Quinn and Temaner seem to be with a camera, step up awkwardly to Chicagoans they spot along Michigan Avenue, on the South Side, in the West Loop, and in unsteady voices they ask: “Are you happy?”

It's 1967, and Vietnam immediately comes up, as often as the Algerian war comes up in “Chronicle.” But generally, Chicagoans, in an odd, Stepford Wife manner, agree, yes, they are happy. A man mentions the Cubs; a well-to-do woman mentions Notre Dame just won, so yes, she is happy. Randomly, they run into legendary African-American actor Stepin Fetchit, who shows a few publicity shots of himself and says he's happy too. In fact, the documentary is less revelatory than it is literally a telling documentation of 1960s Chicago, nicely of a piece with street photography from the decade and the everyman interviews of Studs Terkel.

It also became — since being reissued on DVD a few years ago by Kartemquin and occasionally shown at film festivals and on public television (and found on YouTube and Netflix) — something of a cult item for local film students, an ideal template for learning how to interview people. A Grayslake Central High School film group once made an update of “Inquiring Nuns”; Judy Hoffman, senior lecturer in the cinema and media studies department at U. of C. (and an old friend of Rouch, who died in 2004), routinely asks students to delve into the idea. The question “Are you happy?” she said, still carries a shock, and when asked randomly on the street by a young film student “can sometimes crystallize their limitations, what can or can't be done.”

Jeff Spitz, associate professor of documentary film at Columbia College, uses “Are you happy?” as a way of asking students about context: “We brainstorm which type of costumed characters … (asking) this question would solicit which responses. Does the appearance of two nuns affect replies?” But he's tried having students replicate the film, and “they're students, not journalists. They're not curious about people, which is why ‘Chronicle' and ‘Inquiring Nuns' is still compelling. Those people were interested.”

“Chronicle” is deeply political, revealing disparities of class and opportunity; instead of arriving at a definition of happiness, it identifies with a silent majority. “Nuns,” as a portrait of a time, is arguably even more nuanced: Though most people tell the inquiring nuns that they are happy, as the film goes on, discord wafts in: A man says he would slit his throat (“I would”) if he thought deeply on the question; a visiting European mathematician says he is happy but has noticed many small, subtle moments of discontent. Indeed, it's a year before Martin Luther King Jr. is assassinated, setting off riots across the South and West sides, a year before heads crack in Grant Park during the Democratic National Convention.

And the nuns?

Arne left the order a few years later and became a family counselor in the suburbs (she's now Kathleen Westling); Campion left the order only a year later, got married, moved to Florida and became a school superintendent. In fact, she met her husband, a former priest, after he saw the film at a Chicago screening. Campion, now Catherine Rock, told me: “It's not that I was unhappy, it's just I didn't want to do it for life. I should have joined the Peace Corps.”

But she adds that when she sees late-night talk show hosts like Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno walk out on the street during their shows and interview people about their feelings, she gets a little flashback.

As for my own attempts …

People came around. The lesson of these two films, that everyone has a story, panned out, as of course it would. Three hygienists from Grand Rapids, Mich., told me they were happy because they just had drinks; also, one just got her divorce finalized, so she was thrilled. A woman told me she just passed her exam to become a social worker, “so you caught me at a good moment.” And a guy named Wesley Friedman, making sandwiches in a lunch spot off Michigan Avenue, when asked if he was happy, stopped cold.

“I am happy. I met my wife at 28 and I have been happy ever since. I decided my goal is to be happy. You know the Red Bull Flugtag? You build and fly a homemade thing? I piloted a 16-foot dolphin. We flew 28 feet! Everyone is getting older in my life, my friends and my parents, and so I just decided one day to not be stressed out anymore, that this is what life is supposed to look like. I am very happy. Thank you for asking.”

cborrellit@tribune.com
Twitter @borrelli