The Actuality Dramas Of Allan King Warrendale A Married Couple Come On Children Dying At Grace Memory For Max Claire Ida And Company Eclipse Series 24 from Criterion Collection
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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