Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Actuality Dramas of Allan King

The first time I heard a film described as an actuality was when Allan King mentioned it in the Q&A session following a special screening of his film A Married Couple. The word perfectly described A Married Couple because the film was an actual documentation of the ups and downs of a married couple’s relationship. Sadly, a few months after the special Calgary Cinematheque screening Allan King passed away. That made the screening of A Married Couple even more special.

The 2008 screening of A Married Couple meant that the film was once again starting to get some attention almost four decades it was released. Then last year, Criterion released a box-set of Allan King’s films, naturally called The Actuality Dramas of Allan King. Having already seen A Married Couple, the other four films were part of this spotlight.

Warrendale (1968)
A Married Couple (1969)
Come On Children (1972)
Dying at Grace (2003)
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005)

The subject material of all five films is sensitive and intimate. Warrendale captures day to day life in a rehabilitation home for emotionally disturbed kids, A Married Couple shows the turbulent and tense moments of a marriage, Come on Children brings forth some teenage concerns and attitudes, Dying at Grace shows terminally ill patients in their final moments of life and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company sheds a light on behaviour and moments associated with human aging.

The only film out of the five that is not shot in its original location is Come on Children. Warrendale is shot exclusively inside the rehabilitation home, A Married in Couple takes place in either the couple’s home or their office and both Dying at Grace and Memory... are shot respectively in the health center and nursing home where the patients lived. On the other hand, Come on Children required the subjects to leave their natural homes to go live in selected location. This is how the idea for the film came about:

King interviewed three or four hundred people between the ages of thirteen and nineteen from the middle-class suburbs of Toronto about their unsatisfactory presents and desired futures. The most common comment he heard was that they wanted to be left alone by hassling cops, teachers, parents, and other authority figures. So King granted their wish, inviting a cross section of them (five boys, five girls) to live on a remote farm for ten weeks, without supervision, to be filmed at all times.

The end result is a cinematic experiment decades ahead of its time. Basically, the film predicts modern day reality shows such as Big Brother by having a camera capture the life of its subjects round the clock. Initially, the constant presence of the camera draws hostile reactions from two teenagers with one of the teens trying to place his hand on the camera and telling the camera man to get lost. But eventually, the teens go about their lives naturally as the camera becomes a part of their lives.

Memories and Death

We have a desperate need as human beings to understand reality, and we go to desperate ends to avoid that reality......

The curious thing is that when you do look at reality and face it, it is no longer fearsome.
-- Allan King

Both Dying at Grace and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company go to great lengths to portray that reality and as such present plenty emotionally touching and tearful moments. It is hard to imagine how Peter Walker shot both films objectively because the material certainly would not have been easy to film, especially that of Dying at Grace where some of the patients pass away in presence of the camera. At times, it feels intrusive to observe intimate family moments when a loved one has passed away but the film was conceived with the blessing of the patients and their families. In that regard, one hopes audience find positives in observing such tender moments.

Interestingly, Allan King’s first and second last feature complete a cinematic circle. In Warrendale, there is a significant moment when the staff talk to the children about the death of a cook. This discussion leads to the film’s main crisis point as some children emotionally break down and become difficult to control. In Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, the nursing home staff talk about the death of Max to the other residents. Naturally, given their age and health, the reaction of the other residents is muted and different from the children in Warrendale. Yet, the discussion about death is similar in both films even though the people listening to the news are on opposite ends of an age spectrum.


Personally, A Married Couple is my favourite overall film from the five. Also, it is a film that one can objectively observe without letting any emotional filters get in the way. Any person who has experienced a relative losing their memory as they aged would find Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company a tough viewing while Dying at Grace would be more difficult to view for anyone who has ever lost a loved one. Warrendale is an amazing film from a cinematic technique but some of the methods for the children's rehabilitation are not the easiest to digest. The weakest film in the group ends up being Come on Children. That has a lot to do with the subjects captured on camera. The children had total freedom to do as they pleased but after a few days, they settled into a routine of singing and lying around. Their biggest struggle came when they had to discuss who had to clean the kitchen. No amount of editing could have enriched the material but still the film offers an interesting case study about the behavior and concerns of some teens in the early 1970’s.

Actuality = Direct Cinema - embedded presence

Allan King’s debut feature Warrendale is an incredible piece of cinema that lays out the actuality filming style King would follow in his subsequent films. This style involved shooting primarily in an indoor location, acutely observing humans in tender and sensitive moments without the presence of a director or a narrator. Allan King removed himself from the room while his cinematographer lived and filmed freely without inhibitions. The fact that Allan King was not present in the room during filming is what probably differentiates his actuality style from Direct Cinema which required the filmmaker to be embedded constantly in their shooting environments. The tender and sensitive subject material of Allan King’s films necessitated him to be absent from the room because his presence would have indirectly influenced his subjects or would have broken the intimacy that could be offered by a silent cinematographer whose job was to shoot everything without any filters or editing.

Allan King’s techniques should be treasured and his works deserve a wider appreciation. His topics may not find many takers but the technique used in his actuality films can certainly lead to a more rich and pure form of cinema.

note: The subject material of Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company reminded me of Jean-François Caissy’s Journey’s End, a Canadian film that I saw at last year’s CIFF. Journey’s End also observes its elder subjects without any voice-over narration and offers an unfiltered look at their lives.


Sam Juliano said...

This is a fascinating consideration, Sachin, of the films of your fellow countryman Allan King. And it's especially interesting to me, as it's a reminder that I need to move to correct the current gap in my movie going, since to this point I haven't seen any of these films. Similarly I haven't even yet purchased this Criterion Eclipse set, despite owning every other one, and acquiring nearly every new Criterion monthly. I haven't yet read anything until your magnificent piece taking a close look at this obviously essential lot, and I was especially riveted by your discussion of Clark's debut film, WARRENDALE.

Sachin said...

Thanks so much for your warm comments Sam. A Married Couple is an incredible film which floored me when I saw it few years ago. After that film, I had wanted to correct my gap regarding Allan King's films which is why I was so glad to see this box-set. I hope you get a chance to see some of these films.