Canadian director Allan King is one of cinema’s best-kept secrets. Over the course of fifty years, King shuttled between features and shorts, big-screen cinema and episodic television, comedy and drama, fiction and nonfiction. Within this remarkably varied career, it was with his cinema-verité-style documentaries—his “actuality dramas,” as he called them—that he left his greatest mark on film history. These startlingly intimate studies of lives in flux—emotionally troubled children, warring spouses, and the terminally ill—are riveting, at times emotionally overwhelming, and always depicted without narration or interviews. Humane, cathartic, and important, Allan King’s spontaneous portraits of the everyday demand to be seen. Films Include: Warrendale; A Married Couple; Come on Children; Dying at Grace; Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company. Warrendale: (1967 - 101 minutes – Black/White - Monaural - 1.33:1 aspect ratio) For his enthralling first feature, Allan King brought his cameras to a home for psychologically disturbed young people. Situated inside the facility like flies on the wall, we get full access to the wide spectrum of emotions displayed by twelve fascinating children and the caregivers trying to nurture and guide them. The stunning Warrendale won the Prix d’art et d’essai at Cannes and a special documentary award from the National Society of Film Critics. A Married Couple: (1969 - 96 minutes - Color - Monaural - 1.33:1 aspect ratio) Billy and Antoinette Edwards let it all hang out for Allan King and crew in this jaw-dropping documentary of a marriage gone haywire that “makes John Cassavetes’s Faces look like early Doris Day” (Time). Intense and hectic, frightening and funny, A Married Couple is ultimately about the eternal power struggle in romantic relationships, as well as entrenched gender roles on the cusp of change. Come on Children: (1972 - 95 minutes - Color - Monaural - 1.66:1 aspect ratio) In the early 1970s, ten teenagers (five boys and five girls) leave behind parents, school, and all other authority figures to live on a farm for ten weeks. What emerges in front of Allan King’s cameras is the fears, hopes, and alienation of a disillusioned generation. Come on Children is a swiftly paced, vivid rendering of one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable—and ultimately directionless—countercultures. Dying at Grace: (2003 - 143 minutes - Color - Monaural - 1.77:1 aspect ratio) An extraordinary, transformative experience, Allan King’s Dying at Grace is quite simply unprecedented: five terminally ill cancer patients allowed the director access to their final months and days inside the Toronto Grace Health Care Center. The result is an unflinching, enormously empathetic contemplation of death, featuring a handful of the most memorable people ever captured on film. Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company: (2005 - 112 minutes - Color - Monaural - 1.78:1 aspect ratio) Allan King brings us close to the people who reside and work in a home for geriatric care in this beautifully conceived, powerful documentary. For four months, King follows the daily routines of eight patients suffering from dementia and memory loss; the result is searing, compassionate drama that can bring to the viewer a greater understanding of his or her loved ones
The revolutionary aspects of Canadian director Allan King's "actuality dramas," cinéma vérité documentary precursors to reality television, are what make them both interesting and challenging to watch. The five documentaries included in this set creep along at real-life pace, each at close to two hours in length, and cover deeply disturbed characters that are ever more depressing because they are truly suffering people. The most troubling films: Warrendale
, about a children's group home in which counselors struggle with psychologically troubled kids; Dying at Grace
, documenting three months at the Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre for palliative care; and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company
, chronicling geriatric-home residents grappling with life in their twilight years. These are not the kinds of films one wants to view back to back. At the outset, one questions why King would subject his viewers to witnessing such strife. As a warning, the hardships documented here are extremely sad and sensitive viewers should beware. However, the films are more than exploitative glimpses of trauma, and they quickly reveal themselves to be sincere treatments of life's unpleasant mysteries. King's documentary style is impressive; scenes roll by with a feeling of reality, yet on the flip side sensitive editing evidently happens to sequence King's tales into careful dramatic portrayals. Angry fits, breakdowns, and voiced fears comprise large parts of each piece, but right before one feels compelled to hit the off button, a cut happens that brings slight, momentary relief. Thus, King's editing becomes his conceptual and moral stance, as if emulating what he calls moments of grace.
Two of the films, Come On Children and A Married Couple, are easier to swallow thematically, containing more moments of humor and less relentlessness. For Come On Children, King enlisted five female and five male teens to live in a farmhouse for 10 weeks, mid-winter, free of parental supervision. Drugs, parties, and general adolescent ennui ensues, making for some charming moments as well as some real downers as the kids lament the directionless lives they lead. The charismatic star, John Hamilton, plays Dylan-esque guitar for the group and speaks candidly about his addictions, namely, "preferring needles to friends." Scenes, stacked theatrically, move from the hospital where one girl delivers her baby, for example, to a snowy day on the beach with two boys rolling in sand dunes, to the stoner, Ken, thrashing the house, to an LSD party, until one identifies their rebellious romanticism. A Married Couple's humor lies elsewhere, as Bill and Antoinette Edwards power-struggle their way through the tail-end of a marriage, with their toddler, Bogart, stuck in the middle. While their living room arguments are far from funny, and their separate bedrooms feel downright glum, Bill's gallivanting around in red underwear, or scenes when they trip out to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's as a newly released album, connote stylish '60s nostalgia. In total, while Allan King's documentaries are not easily digestible, they contain historical value in understanding where documentary has come from and where it may move. --Trinie Dalton