Judge Bryan Byun is making a cinéma vérité-style documentary about his childhood, but needs a new title since Puppet Master: Axis of Evil is already taken.
It's tempting to wrap up the career of Allan King, a Canadian filmmaker best known for his cinéma vérité-style documentaries, in a clever, soundbite-ready wrapper—say, "the father of reality TV." But King, who died in 2009 at the age of 79, didn't fit very well into labels. His career ranged from non-fiction and fiction films to TV series (his "Dream Me a Life" episode of the 1980s Twilight Zone revival is one of the handful I actually remember from that otherwise forgettable series), and even his most notable work, the documentaries he preferred to call "actuality dramas," are impossible to fit neatly into genres.
King shares some stylistic and philosophical similarities to filmmakers like D.A. Pennebaker and the Maysles Brothers—documentarians who did their best to blend invisibly into the background and avoided voiceovers, explanatory titles and talking-head interviews—but he never pretended to be anything other than a storyteller. In order to avoid the pretense of total objectivity, he called his works actuality dramas as a deliberate admission that he was not merely documenting but also participating in the unfolding of the narratives before his camera.
In Warrendale (1967), the earliest of the actuality dramas collected here, we are introduced to King's trademark approach to his subject. Set at a group home for emotionally disturbed children, Warrendale mainly follows two counselors, Terry and Walter, and three children, Tony, Carol, and Irene, as they undergo a therapeutic technique known as "holding," where children are permitted—even encouraged—to freely vent their anger and pain as they're tightly held by counselors. King's presence here appears minimal; his face and voice are never present, and the camerawork never makes itself apparent. The subjects are allowed to speak for themselves, without evident editorializing or moralizing. If King has a position on the validity of the "holding" treatment, he never makes it explicit.
Yet, the story behind the story reveals King's hand in shaping the narrative. There's a definite emotional rhythm, a fall and lift, to the events we're seeing, and as the supplementary materials in the set make plain, King edited certain pivotal events to sculpt and enhance the drama. King, here, is not merely a passive observer of events, but an active (if unheard) voice, telling a compelling story. And unlike reality TV, the effect here is not sensationalistic or exploitative, but empathetic; for King, drama is not an end in itself, but a means of conveying the humanity of his subjects.
A Married Couple (1969) brings King's techniques into the realm of the modern Western family unit. For seven weeks, King and his crew lived with a Toronto family—Billy and Antoinette Edwards, and their young son Bogart—and captured their relationship in all its colorful tumult. More than any of the other features presented here, A Married Couple resembles something you might see today on extended basic cable: seriously dysfunctional, self-deluded egotists, all too aware of the camera, engaging in theatrical confrontations, shouting matches, and hyper-dramatic gestures. While it's all quite amusing, in the sort of grotesquely compelling way that even the worst of today's "reality" series can be, it's all a little too contrived—and not necessarily by the filmmaker—to rise very far above the level of a domestic freak show.
The next film in the set, Come On Children (1972), continues the reality-television-style contrivance, bringing together ten teenaged boys and girls to live in a farmhouse, left mostly to their own devices without any adult supervision. If it sounds a bit like MTV's The Real World, but without any family-friendly limitations, that's pretty much what this ends up being. The kids, predictably, spend most of their time drunk or stoned. Come On Children, despite the sensational premise, ends up being mostly pretty dull, which in an odd way is to King's credit—having created this highly artificial scenario, he seems content to merely observe the resulting action (or lack thereof), without resorting to injecting phony drama into the proceedings.
King's career meandered considerably after Come On Children—during this time he mostly worked in (mainly bad) television fare like Kung Fu: The Legend Continues, but he returned to actuality dramas in 2003 with Dying at Grace, an emotionally crushing film about five terminally ill cancer patients at a hospice care center. King, with respectful but brutal honesty, offers the viewer a painfully intimate portrait of five human beings in the final days of their lives. His subjects here range from frail, quiet women to tattooed ex-bikers, facing their approaching ends with dignity, humor, denial, and anger. It's in a documentary like this that the breathing room of a feature-length running time fulfills its potential. King is willing to spend as much time as he needs to in order to capture the full breadth of humanity in his subjects, capturing their experiences and personalities in careful detail. It's often heartbreaking stuff, but suffused with a reverence for life and the simple, honest humanity that flows through all of King's documentaries.
Two years later, King returned to the subject of elderly patients in Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, this time following eight elderly men and women suffering from dementia. As painful as Dying at Grace is at times, Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company is even more, perhaps unbearably, so; the subjects of the earlier film had the blessing of being aware of, and coming to terms with, their mortality. Some of the patients of Memory aren't so fortunate. One woman, Claire, is in an advanced state of mental decay, and cannot remember the passing of her dear friend, Max. Every day, she is told for the first time—from her perspective—of her friend's death, and every day she must suffer fresh grief, in an unending repetition that, to the outside observer, seems absolutely hellish. As in the previous film, death is less a tragedy than a release from suffering and the burdens of flesh, but Memory lacks that film's sense of eventual peace. We're left with a sense of horror and pity from which King doesn't permit us any easy reprieve.
Criterion's Eclipse releases, unlike their regular offerings, are focused more on archiving lesser-known films than providing polished-up special edition packages of masterpieces, so the films packaged with The Actuality Dramas are not loaded with extras, and don't display much if any attempt at restoration. As a result, sound and video quality vary drastically within the series. Come On Children, shot on color film, fares the worst of the lot, with a faded, worn print and compression artifacts. A Married Couple, also shot on color film, looks a little better, but not by much. Surprisingly, the two most recent features, Dying at Grace and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company, despite (or rather, because of) being shot on digital video, look none too pretty, with excessive edge enhancement and artifacting throughout. It's the oldest feature, Warrendale, shot on 16mm black and white, that surprisingly comes out on top—score one for the old ways.
Audio varies throughout the set as well, Warrendale faring the worst here with a deteriorated Mono soundtrack, and the recent features sounding considerably better, in Dolby Digital Stereo—although the vagaries of location filming inevitably cause inconsistencies in sound and often muddy or muffled dialogue.
Extras are nonexistent; this is a bare bones collection, although some helpful liner notes (by Criterion editor Michael Koresky) are included.
Allan King isn't the kind of familiar name, like Pennebaker or Frederick Wiseman, that naturally comes up in a discussion of documentarians, and that's a shame. King may not have been a particularly dramatic or sensationalistic filmmaker, but he had a true gift of achieving, and conveying, intimacy with his subjects, and of communicating his curiosity and affinity with their mundane, yet endlessly fascinating humanity. I'm not sure this collection will expand his reputation beyond diehard fans of the documentary format, but kudos to Criterion for making this material available and preserving it for the ages.
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