CB 248: Gordon Quinn & Jerry Temaner’s “Inquiring Nuns,” 1968.
Sister Arné: Are you happy?
Woman: Well… I could be happier.
Sister Arné: What would be some things that would make you happier?
Woman: You know, being able to relate to people. Being able to give a lot. I find that people don’t always want it or expect it; they kind of put up a barrier. And I’m having to find a way to make myself fit in, you know. Feel comfortable. Someone told me the other day that I needed someone that would… want… me. You know, that would need me. And I think that’s probably true. [forced laughter] Are you happy?
Sister Arné: Yes, it’s interesting that you should turn the question around to us. Yes, I’m very happy.
Woman: Well, that’s unusual.
"That’s the trouble with you Americans," observes The Sopranos’ Svetlana Kirilenko, “You expect nothing bad to ever happen, when the rest of the world expects only bad to happen. They’re not disappointed.” Unhappiness and modern American disaffection are major themes of the celebrated HBO drama, particularly in “The Strong, Silent Type”—an episode title that alludes to the likes of Gary Cooper and John Wayne. This long-suffering, masculine stereotype has proven to be somewhat of a myth, or at least a mask for dysfunction. Now our iconic leading men all have inborn weaknesses; they weep openly as they sabotage relationship after relationship with a maddening compulsion. “You have everything, and still you complain,” continues Svetlana, “You’ve got too much time to think about yourselves.” In a country so preoccupied with happiness, where fulfillment has become a contact sport, is it even possible to answer that most loaded of questions: “Are you happy?”
Earlier in the year the Chicago Tribune’s Christopher Borrelli wrote that Kartemquin’s Inquiring Nuns ”is as American, direct and straightforward as ‘Chronicle’ is impossibly French and elusive.” The ‘Chronicle’ in question is Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s momentous 1960 French documentary Chronicle of a Summer, a cinéma-vérité classic where real life subjects are filmed discussing questions of happiness and French society. Afterward the subjects are then shown footage of their conversations and asked to comment on how well the filmmakers managed to capture reality. It’s impossible to overstate the film’s influence. The term itself, “cinéma vérité,” which translates as “cinema-truth” and originates from the Russian term, “kino-pravda,” was suggested by Chronicle’s publicist and coined by the director Rouch. As Criterion Collection producer Issa Clubb remarked to Borrelli in the same article, “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.”
We jump from the banks of the Seine in 1960 to the banks of Lake Michigan in 1967. In the intervening seven years Gary Cooper solidified his status as the strong, silent type—dying in 1961—and Chicago eagerly prepped for the Democratic National Convention, an event guaranteed to go off without a hitch and showcase on a national scale the city’s two biggest resources: prudence and integrity. Two recent University of Chicago grads, Gordon Quinn & Jerry Temaner, picked a pair of nuns from the Southwest Side to explore the city’s streets with a microphone—their mission: to ask whomever caught their eye the thorny question, “Are you happy?” It’s evident from the outset that Quinn and Temaner were inspired by Chronicle. In the film’s opening moments the directors attempt to clarify for the nuns their mission: “There was a French film that did a similar thing to this, not with nuns but just with a couple girls asking the same question, and the comparison might be interesting; we might look at it afterwards and see what different kinds of things were said.”
The first thing one notices about the interviews conducted by Sisters Marie Arné & Mary Campion is how dependent people’s reactions are on who’s asking the question and where the question is being asked. This is part of what makes Inquiring Nuns, as Borrelli mentioned above, so impossibly American (and quintessentially Midwestern). From the outset the interviewees are polite to a fault. They glance at the camera and scan the faces of the two young women looking for answers, trying to discern their intentions. What is it you want me to say? How can I make this encounter most agreeable? Therefore, on the steps of a church, what makes you happy? Going to Holy Communion and having children in Catholic school. At the Museum of Science and Industry, what makes you happy? Being intellectually curious and learning new things every day. Turn the camera on foreign tourists and immigrants, what makes you happy? America and democracy. It’s worth noting the most consistent talking point in Inquiring Nuns, irrespective of the subject’s background, is the Vietnam War. End it, and everyone agrees they’d be much happier.
Conspicuously absent from the running inventory of what makes people happy: money. Some subjects allude to it, but literally no one wants to admit to a poverty-sworn nun on camera, “What makes me happy? Money! And how!” Had Quinn & Temaner tapped Matthew Lesko or the like to interview folks instead I’m sure the responses would’ve been markedly different—but no less entertaining. The choice to use Catholic nuns seemed a little ham-handed at first; a one-note joke that might wear thin. In practice though the nuns provide a clever diversion. Oftentimes the way in which people sidestep certain issues and cater to others is more instructive than candid conversation.
As the film progresses the subjects’ responses become more varied and complex. The more interviews the sisters conduct, the more evident it becomes that there are essentially three categories of people on the streets of Chicago:
(1) Those for whom happiness is a non-negotiable moral imperative. To lack it, regardless of the spiritual implications, would just be rude. Am I happy? First of all, how dare you. Secondly… simply to be, is to be happy. Now, if you could, please comply with the mutually agreed upon social contract: any questions regarding happiness are purely rhetorical. One woman on the street eagerly reports from the front lines of the war on sadness: “I’m a sociologist and I work for an organization that’s asked a number of times on national samples this question, ‘Are people happy?’ and I’m glad to report that most people say they’re fairly happy.” We did it, America!
(2) Those for whom happiness is some ineffable quality to ruminate on, but rarely if ever a thing to obtain. These individuals have a practical relationship to happiness. Am I happy? Of course not. Maybe in one aspect of my life, but not another. It’s a give and take relationship. It usually devolves into a debate over philosophy or semantics. “I would use the word ‘pleasure,’” one gentleman says, “You know, ‘happiness’ has become such a societal word.” When asked, ‘Are you happy?’ the same gentleman responds in a manner that typifies this second group: “Gosh what a question. Well, in what context? Am I professionally happy, am I personally happy? Am I religiously happy? … How can you ask a person to throw everything into one category? … I don’t think it’s an unfair question, I think it’s an irrelevant question.”
(3) Those for whom this particular question provokes a miniature life crisis. It’s as though these individuals had only moments before been asking themselves this same question, ‘Am I happy?’ when suddenly a couple of nuns and a camera crew bum-rushed their subconscious. The desperate smile on their face reads, “Oh god, who told you? How did you know?” but still the smile lingers as a reminder that in America we’re almost always born into category (1). The quote indented above is from a woman at the Art Institute who identifies as a musician in a traveling orchestra. In a cryptic aside she admits that music is “a very introspective field,” that “life is an art,” and that she’s “very involved in trying to make it all what [she] would like it to be.” Not incidentally, this is the penultimate interview in the film—the final conversation being between the sisters and the directors.
What makes this woman, this third category of individuals, and ultimately Inquiring Nuns so interesting is not some kind of documentary schadenfreude. We genuinely feel for this woman as she struggles mightily to admit that perhaps what she needs is simply “someone that would want [her].” It’s a struggle because we’re taught to equate being unhappy with being a failure. Individuals in the prior two categories utilize various rhetorical methods to parry what might ultimately be an unfair question. We witness a conditioned response. (1) Happiness is important therefore I’m happy. (2) I’m not happy but what is happiness anyway? But (3) is a combination of both: Happiness is important to me, I’m not happy, now watch me grapple with this contradiction. It’s these moments of raw, muddled emotion that help Inquiring Nuns, a film produced for $16,000 for Chicago’s Catholic Adult Education Center, transcend its humble origins and speak eloquently on the human condition.
It’s also these moments that remind me of documentarian Robert Greene’s appeal earlier in the year for a way to recognize performance in documentary. Greene writes, “People play themselves, reenact their social roles onscreen, and the documentary camera can transform this surface tension between real and represented into an eye-opening and worthy cinematic experience.” Greene goes on to suggest additional recognition and awards for “those that expose themselves for our cameras [and] are often given little in return.” The interviewees in Inquiring Nuns probably aren’t ideal candidates for such honors; they’re almost always anonymous and allowed less than a minute of screen time each. But its successes are illustrative of Greene’s general thesis. In a film with such a basic premise, where almost every auteurist variable has been isolated, when Inquiring Nuns hits it’s due almost entirely to a nameless subject’s performance.