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Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King

Warrendale: Man of Action

Allan King was one of cinema’s most acute chroniclers of unadorned reality, but the term documentary seems too puny to describe the intense, passionate stories he contrived to fashion from that reality. King’s early nonfiction features are generally considered part of the 1960s cinema verité and Direct Cinema schools of filmmaking, named alongside works by such pioneers of those movements as Jean Rouch, Richard Leacock, D. A. Pennebaker, and the Maysles brothers. King shared with these artists a desire to capture life as it happened, as well as a questioning of the ethics of that desire and a self-reflexive acknowledgment of the camera’s inherently mediating presence. But King’s films, known best in his native Canada because of limited distribution elsewhere, stand out from the field for their sheer sense of drama; indeed, the term he coined for these unique filmic experiences was actuality dramas. From moments out of time, captured as unobtrusively as possible, King sculpts narratives with the finesse of a great scenarist. And in each of his five most renowned films—Warrendale, A Married Couple, Come On Children, Dying at Grace, and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company—he does so from the lives of people (or characters, as he often called them) who are situated at some remove from society, whether due to emotional instability, disease, youth, or old age. Taken together, his films paint a compassionate picture of humanity along a startling continuum of estrangement.

Born in Vancouver in 1930, King wasn’t initially artistically inclined. The child of a tumultuous, ultimately broken marriage, he spent summers as a logger when he was a youth, becoming a union representative by the time he was fifteen. His interest in filmmaking was sparked by a teenage friend, Stan Fox, with whom he would eventually run the Vancouver Film Society. In 1954, after graduating with a degree in philosophy from the University of British Columbia, King got a job as an assistant editor at Vancouver’s first television station, CBUT. Soon he was directing his own shorts for broadcast on CBC, Canada’s national channel. Late in life, he would say, “I’ve always made films for a purely selfish reason—which is to answer the question, Why?” And this inquisitiveness was apparent from his first film, the nonfiction short Skidrow (1956), a respectful portrait of derelict men in Vancouver that was King’s attempt to understand not only life on the other side of the tracks but also his own alcoholic father. This and his other early films were influenced by the documentaries of British filmmakers Humphrey Jennings and Lindsay Anderson (King called Anderson’s Thursday’s Children “a model for my work”). These were purely emotional, nonpolemical works—including Rickshaw (1960), about pedicab operators in Calcutta, and A Matter of Pride (1961), about a family stricken by unemployment—and they paved the way for King’s breakthrough, Warrendale (1967).

The origin of that film was a pitch King made to CBC for a documentary about a school for gifted children in Britain; a producer at the network preferred that the project be set in Canada, and he recommended Warrendale, an experimental Toronto rehabilitation home for emotionally disturbed kids. This environment would prove ideal for King, who would discover there the mix of distance and compassion that became his trademark, and further refine the vérité aesthetic he had been developing over the previous decade: no talking-head interviews, no voice-over, no readily apparent narrative structure. King, having gotten his first portable camera from Albert Maysles, credited the Boston-born filmmaker with helping him adapt to these methods. Released from the burden of bulky equipment, King’s crew maneuvered their new lightweight cameras effortlessly around the interiors of Warrendale, gliding from one electrifying moment to the next, capturing the children’s tumults as easily as their occasional joys. As with all of King’s actuality dramas—which would be interspersed throughout his career with television work, fiction features, and more straightforward documentaries—this is drama ripped from life but drama nonetheless, a blurring of commonly observed cinematic boundaries.

Warrendale was certainly a place where intense human experience could be located: what the school’s founder, John Brown, was trying to establish was not just a treatment facility but a kind of utopian community where complex psychological wounds would be treated with physical contact and confrontation rather than medication. One of his most striking techniques was the “holding method,” involving the creation of a sort of human straitjacket by wrapping the children’s arms across their own torsos and pinning their wrists to their sides when they acted out, which we see practiced on-screen by Warrendale’s staff. The care is extreme and appears borderline violent at times, an attempt to get the children to regress to an infantile state. There’s a moment, for instance, when King dissolves to an image of Irene, one of the home’s teenage residents (and one of the film’s most dramatic personalities), suckling on a baby bottle while being cradled by a counselor. At other times, King’s camera watches as the caregivers allow the children to indulge in cigars and beer.

In order to capture such occasionally shocking intimacy, King had to establish a relationship of complete trust with his subjects. He found that when he was in the room with the kids, they were more apt to goof off, so after getting to know the principal subjects and the building’s layout, he mostly retreated and let his crew take over. He wanted the camera to become part of the scenery as well as a tool to encourage confession. (He would continue to employ this method in all of his actuality dramas.) The authentic pain and outsize emotions King ultimately captured in Warrendale place the film high in the Direct Cinema pantheon. And few set pieces from any film are more wrenching than the extended sequence in which the already fragile kids are informed of the death of their beloved cook, Dorothy, which results in a screaming, wrestling, tearstained frenzy of titanic proportions; Carol’s incessant howling of “I don’t want nobody!” while being held down by caregiver Walter Gunn, his shirt soaked through with perspiration, is a particularly vivid evocation of immutable human agony.

Though it provides the climax of the film, this fraught scene actually occurred early on in the five-week shoot; as King later said, “The rest was filling in the background.” Knowing this provides insight into the careful craftsmanship involved in his seemingly off-the-cuff cinema. And mediation didn’t occur in postproduction alone, of course: when watching King’s actuality dramas (and most other vérité films, for that matter), viewers have often wondered how much of the subjects’ behavior is the result of the camera’s presence—whether they are, in a sense, performing. King once stated, “It’s not that in any of these films the people aren’t aware of the camera and using it.” Indeed, the prepubescent Tony, one of Warrendale’s most memorable players, appears to relish spouting what sometimes seems a constant stream of expletives in the camera’s presence.

Little Tony’s outbursts contributed to a ruckus outside the walls of Warrendale as well. Once executives at CBC saw the footage, and heard the number of times the word fuck was uttered by these damaged young souls, they refused to air the film. But King was allowed to retain theatrical distribution rights, in Canada and abroad, and Warrendale went on to great success, winning special prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and the British Academy of Film and Television Awards. King’s arrival in the cinema world was cemented when he found a fan in none other than Jean Renoir, who wrote to the filmmaker’s publicist that “Allan King is a great artist,” and that while watching Warrendale he was “under the impression of being hidden in a corner of this children’s hospital and of actually witnessing the events registered on-screen.”

That sense of being a part of the world that King presents, almost too firmly ensconced in it, would come to typify King’s actuality dramas, all of which are severely contained in time, space, and action. The entrapment is part of the point, perhaps. His films are essentially the opposite of what most people expect from movies: escape. As he put it,  “Escape is wonderful, but as a diet, you end up with a funny society. And I don’t know that it’s that much fun.”

A Married Couple: Domestic Disturbance

Warrendale’s critical and financial success drove Allan King to immediately begin work on another actuality drama. Once again, he would take his cameras inside a closed world. Here, though, the institution King engaged with was one that most people find themselves in at some point: marriage. Given unlimited access, King and his crew entered the daily life of one husband and wife, living with them for seven weeks, from daybreak to lights-out. Outlining the project, King wrote, “They will appear at first glance to be a typical married couple. But people are not generalities. They are individual, unique, and special.”

The twosome of A Married Couple (1969), Billy and Antoinette Edwards, turned out to be not only individual, unique, and special but also thrilling subjects for a film. King and his wife had met them while they were all living on the Spanish island of Ibiza in the early sixties. Now lapsed bohemians, the Edwardses were trying to adjust to middle-class domesticity in Toronto, toddler Bogart and dog Merton in tow. At times, the suspicion that Billy and Antoinette are enhancing their idiosyncratic behavior for the cameras is difficult to avoid: he wears colorful and increasingly outlandish outfits (a Sherpa vest, a ridiculous orange jumpsuit, and most frequently, a pair of tiny red briefs, apparently the only undershorts he owns); she needles him with requests for overpriced nonnecessities (harpsichords, Moorish arches, instructional records) to elicit explosive responses. And the fact that they agreed to the project betrays a certain self-regard—as King later said, “They were very nervy people, interested in exploration and new experience.” Even their harmonious moments are performative, such as an impromptu interpretive living-room dance to the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life.”

Yet as the film plays out, such matters seem increasingly irrelevant—the profound chasm between Billy and Antoinette becomes devastatingly clear, no matter how much they try to cover it with playfulness. Their confrontations, usually starting with arguments about money, intensify, and A Married Couple reveals itself as an excoriating snapshot of marriage in the late sixties—on the cusp of change yet still beholden to outmoded gender roles. Billy, an adman, expects the housewife Antoinette to be at his beck and call, and during arguments stakes his claim as the family’s financial provider; Antoinette chafes at her bonds, claiming he treats her like a slave. Their anger climaxes in a hair-raising physical altercation that, like the emotional explosion in Warrendale, gives the film a natural, remarkably coherent dramatic center.

“It can’t all be really real,” insisted a Saturday Review critic upon the film’s limited New York release, and indeed the picture became a topic of discussion wherever it played. Of course, the question of what remains “really real” once the cameras start rolling is what gives this work its twisted authenticity. Ultimately, for King, his first two features were dramas, and “reality” was just the raw material: “In essence, the form of Warrendale is a dramatic structure, and with A Married Couple, it is directly a dramatic structure with two central characters. The fact that they’re documentaries, for me, has always been coincidental.” Billy and Antoinette did continue as real people, not characters, naturally, and divorced in 1972, after having another child.

Come on Children: Generational Anxiety

Hopes were high for A Married Couple after Warrendale’s popularity, but Allan King’s second feature didn’t recoup its costs. Undeterred, King moved headlong into his third actuality drama, which he hoped would pick up where Warrendale left off. The teenagers in Come On Children (1972) were approximately the same age as the kids from Warrendale would have been by that time. But these youths weren’t wards of any institution. 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.

Come On Children clearly differs from King’s previous films, and from his Direct Cinema roots, in its use of a constructed environment. In this sense, it often plays more like a forerunner of such reality TV programs as The Real World and Big Brother, which bring together groups of disparate people in controlled settings, than his earlier, observational films. But it’s soon evident that the film’s gathering place is merely a blank backdrop on which a disenchanted generation can project its frustrations. The source of the tension is clear from the start: what will these kids do when left to their own devices, with no parents lording over them, alcohol and drugs readily available, and a camera confessional at their disposal?

The absorbing answer, perhaps disappointingly for those expecting an exposé about wayward hippies, is not much at all. Despite their youthful bewilderment and lack of motivation, and one brief scene in which two shoot up heroin, these kids are mostly all right. John, the de facto main character due to his charisma, songwriting ability, and stylish hats, is already a recovered speed addict. Even the most outwardly angst-ridden, Alex, chafing at his supportive parents’ pleas that he stay in school rather than pursue music, comes across as wise and self-possessed (and, as it turns out, the band he had founded with some neighborhood friends, Rush, would go on to enormous success, which throws his mother and father’s worries into amusing relief). In fact, the biggest problems we see these youngsters grappling with are cleaning a filthy kitchen and figuring out how to cook a frozen ham. Even in such moments, King lends them awkward grace.

As a timeless evocation of youth on the precipice of frightening adulthood, the film is invaluable; as drama, many found it sorely lacking. It didn’t make it to theaters when it was new, and soon after its completion, King’s Toronto company dissolved. For the next two decades, King, no longer able to support himself with theatrical documentaries, turned primarily to television dramas (The Twilight Zone, Road to Avonlea) and to the occasional fiction feature, such as the acclaimed Who Has Seen the Wind (1977) and the butchered Universal Studios effort Silence of the North (1981). That last experience was final proof that the director’s talents were better suited to work in which he could exercise his own authority.

Dying at Grace: To the Other Side

Allan King made only two nonfiction features in the eighties and nineties, both for television: Who’s in Charge? (1983), about unemployment in Canada, and The Dragon’s Egg (1998), about tensions between native Estonians and ethnic Russians in post-Soviet Estonia. Though those films were well regarded, it wasn’t until 2003’s Dying at Grace that King returned to actuality drama form—and the consciousness of the cinematic world. This extraordinary work came about when King, after turning seventy, realized, as he said, “I’d avoided thinking about death like the plague . . . so I thought I’d better find out about it.”

Now, with the use of lightweight digital video cameras, King and his crew were able, more unobtrusively than ever, to navigate the small spaces they inhabited, in this case in a palliative care ward for the terminally ill in Toronto’s Grace Health Centre. The film, shot over the course of one winter, focuses on five patients nearing the end of life. Each agreed to share this most solitary of experiences in the hope that it would be instructive. As usual with King’s actuality dramas, we are not afforded talking-head interviews or voice-over; the patients’ experiences are conveyed only by what the camera captures. The result is a more profound intimacy than is possible with any other documentary format—we live with these people, even as they die.

The artfulness with which King weaves these souls together is a wonder to behold. Four are afflicted with cancer—Carmela Nardone (ovarian), Joyce Bone (bladder and bone), Eda Simac (breast and liver), and Richard Pollard (lung)—while Lloyd Greenway, in his forties and the youngest of them, suffers from a brain tumor that has had a debilitating, strokelike effect on his entire body. The five float in and out of the narrative. And the elegant, climactic crosscutting among the agitated final days of three of them grants their presences, and the film’s narrative, a powerfully affecting shape and nobility. Dying at Grace is firmly nonconceptual—it is a direct, humane film about individuals, and King refuses to insert them into a preexisting ideology or idea. But out of these shared moments in their disparate lives, King creates something transcendent.

King instructed his crew not to get caught up in hospital procedure or nurses’ and doctors’ routines, that what was happening to the patients wasn’t as important as letting the audience see from their point of view. And because the video cameras could record so much so cheaply, King was able to capture a remarkable amount of footage—and in some cases even the very moment of passing. The intimacy of these scenes can be unbearable, but as the film continues, the overall feeling becomes one of tranquillity, even elation, after initial frustration and rejection (in this way, the film reflects the Kübler-Ross model, from denial to acceptance). Dying at Grace is an intensely humanistic experience, compassionate and connected while at the same time an affir­mation of our essential aloneness. Said King, “It was about being in awe of being human in a very large, enormous universe.”

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company: Being There

Allan King explained that he made his actuality dramas “so we can experience what they experience when they experience it.” It’s that sense of being there, in the here and now, that defines such films as Warrendale and Dying at Grace, in which the patience and rigor of the cameramen result in the capture of extraordinary moments that would otherwise be gone forever. King’s Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) is perhaps the purest of his experiential works. Taking place within the confines of Baycrest, a Jewish nursing home in Toronto, Memory is a spiritual sequel to Dying at Grace: instead of surveying the final days of terminal patients, it brings us in close to a group of elderly people coping with dementia and other forms of memory loss. Rapidly losing their connection to the past, they are constantly living in the moment, just as King’s camera does.

Much of the crew that worked on Dying at Grace returned, two years later, for Memory. There are again no interviews or voice-overs, but we get a direct conduit to the film’s eight principal characters through conversations initiated with them and questions posed to them by loved ones, nurses, and social workers. As the film opens, we meet Claire, on her eighty-ninth birthday. She’s friendly and vivacious, enjoying her family’s company and embracing her closest friend, Max, another resident, distinguished by his cane-assisted Chaplin-esque shuffle and his often unintelligible but always warm chatter. It is the touching bond between these two, along with Claire’s gradual mental deterioration, that forms the core of the film, though they are surrounded by a wealth of lovely, memorable people. These include the relatively lucid Ida, determined to find the photograph of her long-dead husband that she insists graces the entrance to the nursing home, and the heartbreakingly vulnerable Fay, who feels every emotion as though for the first time, whether it’s daily, tearful despair at not seeing her family or giddy elation at her son’s eventual visit.

These characters, with their varying levels of degeneration, form a beautifully spare, poignant picture of old age, as well as a valuable testament to a dying group of first-generation immigrant Jews in North America. There’s a distinct sense of camaraderie among them, especially the women (early on, Claire and Ida gossip that a fellow patient was once married to a goy). And that community extended to King’s crew, whom the residents began to treat as fixtures.

The most jarring recurring event in Memory, Claire’s painful reliving of the moment she learned of a friend’s death, brings King’s career full circle, connecting us to Warrendale’s epic fallout when the children are informed that their cook has suddenly passed away. These are the kinds of rare, brave moments, confrontations with life’s harsh eventualities, that define the work of Allan King, who died of a brain tumor in 2009, after directing one last film, the documentary EMPz for Life (2006), about poverty and racial discrimination in urban Toronto. “We have a desperate need as human beings to understand reality, and we go to desperate ends to avoid that reality,” he wrote late in life. “The curious thing is that when you do look at reality and face it, it is no longer fearsome.”

Thanks to Adam Nayman for his invaluable assistance.

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