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Allan King: cinema's best kept secret

Billy, Antoinette, their son Bogart and their dog, Merton in A MARRIED COUPLE

It’s no exaggeration to say that Canadian director Allan King made some of the most searing, most intimate, most stunning and remarkable documentary films of all time, but chances are you’ve never heard of him. And before the Eclipse Series from Criterion, “The Actuality Dramas of Allan King,” was released two weeks ago, neither had I. King pioneered a cinéma vérité style he preferred to call ‘actuality dramas,’ spontaneous portraits of the everyday. The Eclipse Series contains five of his best known and most critically acclaimed works, WARRENDALE (1967), A MARRIED COUPLE (1969), COME ON CHILDREN (1972), DYING AT GRACE (2003) and MEMORY FOR MAX, CLAIRE, IDA AND COMPANY (2005).

WARRENDALE, which chronicles the lives emotionally disturbed children in a Toronto institution, is perhaps his best known film; It won the Prix d’art et d’essai at Cannes, as well as a BAFTA and New York Critics’ Ciricle Award for Best Foreign Film. As in all his work, King is able achieve unlimited, up-close-and-personal access to his subjects by becoming extremely familiar with them first so that his camera becomes just another unobtrusive part of their day. For A MARRIED COUPLE, King and a few members of his crew lived with Billy and Antoinette Edwards for seven weeks in order to capture on film what are some of the most unrelenting scenes of a couple in crisis. At first, Billy and Antoinette are your typical former hippie couple trying to adjust to suburban life. “But,” as King wrote, “people are not generalities. They are individual, unique and special.” We learn that while Billy, an ad man, may parade around his house in outlandish outfits (a sherpa vest, an orange jumpsuit, bright red briefs) and Antoinette is interested in an open relationship, they are stuck in gender roles that seem positively pre-Victorian. They argue about money, namely how he makes all of it and how she wants to spend it. They have separate bedrooms, a necessity he’s outgrown but she maintains. Their conversations are so laced with subtext no screenwriter could have done it better. While not as financially successful as WARRENDALE, the New York Times film critic at the time of its release called it “quite simply one of the best films I have ever seen.”

COME ON CHILDREN may not be any more optimistic but it’s somewhat lighter in tone. King approached this project by interviewing between three and four hundred teenagers from middle-class Toronto suburbs about their lives, and almost all of them said how much better things would be if only they could get away from hassling cops and their nagging parents and teachers. So King selected ten of them, five boys and five girls, ages 13 – 19 to live on a remote farm in the winter for ten weeks without supervision (Like an early Real World). It turns out that all these kids want to do is hang around with a steady supply of drugs and talk and play the guitar and generally space out. None of them look forward to leaving the house and returning home. Some, like Alex, whose girlfriend gives birth during their stay, vow never to return to school. Instead Alex dropped out of 12th grade and formed Rush.

The most amazing part of King’s work is the level of intimacy he’s able to achieve and the stories he captures because of it. All of these actuality dramas have the markings of a painstakingly composed narrative script: compelling story, compelling characters and a perfectly-timed arc that sends it over the top. But King’s work is so natural that they don’t come off as documentaries at all. There are no staged scenes or ‘talking heads’ to recap or give commentary. So seamlessly does his work trigger your emotions that more than once I had to remind myself that I was watching real people in a real situation, not a preconceived narrative. The five films in Criterion’s Eclipse Series are a much-needed step in getting King the recognition he most definitely, if posthumously, deserves.