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The Criterion Collection's subsidiary Eclipse label has again opened up a new avenue of film appreciation. The Series 24 offering The Actuality Dramas of Allan King collects work by the Toronto-based director Allan King, who engaged in television and feature film work but returned repeatedly to a kind of film he dubbed "Actuality Dramas". Part standard cinéma vérité but openly acknowledging the presence of the film camera, the five pictures included here illuminate some of the basic problems raised by scholars of documentary theory.
Each of the films examines a particular human situation. King doesn't film with a pre-arranged thesis in mind and he doesn't use a guiding voiceover, yet he acknowledges that the people in his films are often influenced by the presence of his camera. The liner notes by Eclipse's Michael Koresky inform us that for some situations King sent his cameraman in alone, as just having a director's personality in the room altered the behavior of his subjects.
King rejected the documentary label because he manipulates film just as does any director -- by which subjects he chooses to put at screen center and other choices of editorial emphasis. His movie about a troubled marriage contains many cutaways to the family dog. Sprawled on the living room couch, the dog seems to be 'reacting' to the rancor coming from its masters. We're also told that King will alter a film's time sequence to place his most dramatic footage at the end, to serve as a third-act high point. True cinéma vérité would consider that a cheat.
A couple of the films resemble today's fraudulent Reality TV programming, that supposedly presents spontaneous "real" events but is actually tightly controlled into a commercial format. Some of King's film subjects also seem to be performing for the benefit of his camera. What sets his Actuality Dramas apart is their strong sense of humanist concern. The best of these emotionally engaged films pull us into the drama in a way that no fiction film ever could.
1967's Warrendale, the only entry in B&W, is King's most celebrated show. King filmed in an experimental home for disturbed children, following the residents of a living unit from dawn until lights out. The kids are between 13 and 19. We learn about them by observing their behavior, which includes a lot of uncooperative arguing and fighting. A group of trained counselors labor to force the children to engage socially; at times getting through the daily routine seems like too much to ask. The counselors deal with physical aggression with the "holding" technique, an embrace-grip that functions as a straitjacket. The counselors then calm the troublemaker into communicating rationally. At least, that's how it's supposed to work: the point of the physical restraint is to avoid managing behavior with drugs.
We can't help but think that many of the outbursts are inspired by the presence of the camera, as more than one child is clearly competing for attention. But the cameras do capture convincingly intimate moments. The show builds to a traumatic, exhausting scene in which the kids are told that their beloved house cook has died, a shock that results in a very trying day. According to the liner notes, the film was made for Canadian television but ended up as a theatrical release -- the TV guidelines forbade the constant profanity on the film's soundtrack.
1969's A Married Couple shows the limitations of the documentary form. King knew his film subjects, who were amenable to having their marriage transformed into another unblinking actuality show. Nonconformists Billy and Antoinette Edwards also show themselves to be prime exhibitionists, and seem eager to externalize their marital tensions for posterity. We see them playing with their baby son and the family dog, and bathing nude on a vacation, but the core material is a series of filmed arguments that (in this viewer's opinion) seem staged for the camera: not necessarily untrue to their relationship, but performed-improvised just the same. Billy and Antoinette constantly abuse each other verbally. They argue about money and their roles in the family. Billy expects to call the shots because he's the breadwinner, while Antoinette delights in raising his blood pressure by proposing expensive purchases. Although the point seems to be that gender roles in marriage are changing, it's obvious that the marriage is in desperate need of basic respect and courtesy. The movie comes off as a psycho-theater experience, with a couple acting out their hostility in search of their true feelings.
Also encountering some difficulty is 1972's Come On Children, a topical look at teenage alienation that sounds identical to a Reality Show. King interviewed disaffected teenagers and selected a group that wanted to get away from adult influence -- school, church, parents. The movie grants them that wish for ten weeks of filmed residence at a remote farm. The kids range from 13 to 19. Our first reaction is to wonder how the permission to do this with a group of minors was ever secured: at least one couple appears to be sleeping together, most smoke marijuana and an ex- junkie is shown helping a pal shoot up. King also seems to have chosen some kids for their musical ability -- one is a passable folk singer and another is quite adept with an electric guitar. This leads to several musical interludes.
Come On Children bears comparison to, of all things, The Beatles' film Magical Mystery Tour, in which the Fab Four accompany a group of merry-makers on a bus tour of the countryside. The expected 'happening' failed to spontaneously emerge, forcing the producers to hire circus novelty acts and kooky "personalities" to provide the "magic". Come On Children features arguments over household chores, some spirited play in the snow and an emotional scene or two, but few if any insightful moments develop within the mostly harmonious group. When the parents visit, all we get are a few minutes of lectures: "We let you do whatever you wanted"; "We only want what's best for you". Unless the answer is beer, music and pot, the kids' inner concerns remain obscure.
The last two films in the series are masterpieces of filmmaking. After thirty years away from Actuality Dramas Allan King returned in 2003 with Dying at Grace, a penetrating look at a universal issue. Five terminal patients authorized the filming of their final months of life at Toronto's Grace Health Centre, and King dutifully recorded everything on Digital Video. A natural process previously observed only by hospital staff and other professionals is revealed in 148 gripping minutes.
As the film begins several subjects are already bedridden. An Italian-American woman goes first, quietly and without complaint. Her relatives visit her but she's beyond verbalizing her situation and sinks fast. We see three of the patients through the entire ordeal, from not soon after they're admitted. One man attended by his longtime companion slowly succumbs to a brain tumor -- we're told that his rough breathing is not as bad as it sounds. An aged drug addict passes through several stages as his cancer erases his plans to return to the streets. He loses emotional control once or twice but remains as sympathetic as the other patients. The final patient is an independently minded woman who has already cut off contact with most of her friends. When the extent of her breast and liver cancer is confirmed her cautious hope for five years of potential survival suddenly collapses to a matter of weeks. Her condition seems to deteriorate almost overnight. The final stages in each case are similar: the patients lapse into inactivity, lose contact with the world and then just stop breathing.
King's camera captures the concern and love of family and friends and the near-saintly ministrations of the nurses. A woman suffering from bladder cancer expresses concern for her dignity; she's treated with care and respect. The nurses listen patiently to the drug addict's claim that he can get $500 dollars on the street anytime he wants, aware that he's in no condition to go anywhere. The DVcam format allows the director to film for long periods of time, making possible an astonishingly intimate human moment. After witnessing a patient's labored breathing for an extended period, we see the actual moment of death occur on screen, in close-up.
The final film is 2005's Memory: for Max, Claire, Ida and Company. The subject is a nursing home specializing in patients suffering from memory loss and dementia. The cross section of old men and ladies in various stages of disorientation is fascinating: some seem simply unaware of the passage of time while others have difficulty recognizing loved ones. A dapper old fellow toddling around the corridors can't process his thoughts fast enough to carry on a full conversation, while a woman in a more extreme state babbles erratically and makes sense only when giving the staff a difficult time. Most of the patients are acutely aware of their deteriorating condition and react according to their natures. One is prone to express her feelings of abandonment by crying. When her son visits she is filled with uncontrollable, nervous joy. A proud, courteous woman constantly tells her counselor that her husband helped found the facility and that his picture is in the lobby; when they go down to find it we're afraid that we'll discover that she has invented the story. A wheelchair-bound dentist occupies his time declaring his interest in the ladies, and tries to pick up on his counselor.
In the most touching vignette of all, a rather effusive widow is proud to shower her affection on a male patient, her 'boyfriend'. When he dies she falls into a new crying fit daily when the staff reminds her that he's passed away. Along the way somebody observes that, "when you reach 80 you have the right to forget whatever you want". We see a partial blessing in the loss of memory issue when the bereaved woman finds a new male patient to bond with. He can't really respond much, but he seems to appreciate the attention.
The five DVDs in the Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King present the films in fine condition. English subtitles aid in understanding all of the dialogue. Unlike a lot of cinéma vérité efforts, the camerawork is almost flawless, with no erratic focus pulls or zooms. All of the films are fascinating from a cinematic point of view, but the last two are especially recommended. With great tenderness, they examine stages of the human condition that all of us must face, and that most of us choose to deny.
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