The Actuality Dramas of Allan King: Eclipse Series 24
Warrendale/A Married Couple/Come On Children/Dying at Grace/Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company
Directed by Allan King
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1/1.66:1/1.77:1/1.78:1
Running Time: 552 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0, 2.0 stereo English
MSRP: $ 69.95
Release Date: September 21, 2010
Review Date: September 6, 2010
With the glut of reality-based television programs hogging the airwaves over the past decade or so, it has become second nature for viewers to watch such “true life” programming with a jaundiced eye. After all, the cameras aren’t hidden, and it’s always suspicious to watch the often outrageous behavior being exhibited and not suspect that certain subjects are playing to the camera making what we’re seeing anything but actual reality. But the idea of filming real life and fashioning it into some kind of narrative context isn’t a recent one. Canadian filmmaker Allan King spent his career off and on alternating between shorts and features and fiction and nonfiction subject matter. The five films that constitute this latest Eclipse box set are five of King’s “actuality dramas” (his term for reality-based films), a form of cinéma vérité that attempts to portray life in special situations as it is actually lived without the taking heads, on-or-off-camera narrators, or the like. The problematic nature of camera and sound crews present while real life is attempted to be lived naturally is still present, but these films come as close as any reality docudramas can in showing us real living with warts and all on display.
Warrendale – 3.5/5
Twelve emotionally disturbed children of varying ages inhabit a group facility at Warrendale with a group of six mentor/counselors attempting to get them through days both typical and atypical. Small issues like a reluctance to get up and go to school or refusing to discuss problems are dealt with with loving but firm physical compassion, but larger issues like a borrowed car and the death of the facility’s cook bring on great coping challenges for both the children and the adults.
King’s first feature film is an eye-opening, visceral experience as these damaged youngsters need firm but tender handling to get through periods of great anxiety. Three of the facility’s twelve children get singled out for special attention: the kinetically emotional Carol who can move from sweet and playful to murderous in seconds, the profane youngest child Tony, and the moodily unhappy Irene. Scenes of tough physical management (a technique called “holding” developed by John Brown) alternate with those of loving tenderness and real affection between the children and the adults, and it’s special when some of the older children help out the often overcome adults when a child gets particularly physical and obstinate. But other issues receive major attention and then are never resolved (the car borrowed without permission stands out) giving a sense of frustrating incompleteness to the stories being captured.
A Married Couple – 3/5
Billy and Antoinette Edwards are a Toronto couple who have been together for eight years, not all of them as husband and wife. They have a lovely little boy Bogart who is three and a playful, loving dog named Merton. Billy works in an advertising agency while Antoinette is a stay-at-home mom. But their married life is starting to unwind. Antoinette isn’t physically attracted to Billy any more, despite the fact that he’s often making overtures to her and parades around their home often in the nude or in bikini briefs. None of it inspires her to seek him out for sex, and she even has her own bedroom instead sharing Billy’s king-sized bed. The couple squabble about her buying whims, her feelings of being taken for granted or being treated like a servant, and her disinterest in the marriage. There are idyllic moments still for the family, but they are few and far between.
Because director King does not interfere in the lives of his film subjects but films them behaving as they normally do, we aren’t really privy to what’s going on in Antoinette’s head, and this makes for somewhat frustrating viewing. She admits to a girl friend that she still has interest in men, and there’s even a moment when it appears she’s fielding a call from some man whom she’s carrying on with. She also flirts openly with another man at Billy’s birthday party, but we never see any of the effects of her dalliances, if that’s what they are. We do see that both adults are desperately unhappy with the way things are in the marriage. For a housewife, Antoinette does very little to keep the house in order, and she even has trouble operating a vacuum cleaner correctly. She certainly emerges from the film as a spoiled, self-involved woman whose independent spirit keeps her at arm’s length from her demanding husband and needy child. There’s no epilogue or end title card giving us information about the couple’s subsequent life, but the film doesn’t paint an optimistic picture of this particular marriage’s future (notes in the keepcase clue us in on the couple’s ultimate fate). King does film the couple’s comfort with nudity unblushingly. A vacation at a lake finds the entire family swimming in the nude with full frontal shots of all three of them, pretty bold imagery for 1969.
Come On Children – 2.5/5
Ten teenaged suburban children aged 13-19, all nonconformists and tired of living by their parents’ rules and regulations, are allowed to live in a country farmhouse where they make their own rules and live as they please. They spend most of their ten weeks together smoking dope and making music. A few pranks are played, one pregnant teen gives birth and then after a few days of dealing with the infant decides she wants her mother to take the baby, some personal relationships begin and end, and at the end of the time, their parents visit where the children display pretty much that they’ve learned nothing and are still obstinate about not conforming to society’s expectations for them.
One aspect of reality filmmaking that’s an absolute must is in finding subjects that make for interesting viewing. Of the ten children rounded up for this experiment, only two or three display anything like an on-screen personality that makes one interested in what they have to say or what they do. John Hamilton, the troubadour of the group, composes his own music and also sings Bob Dylan when he’s in the mood. He also reminisces about his efforts to break his heroin addiction, spoken while fellow musician Alex Zivojinovich shoots up. The soft spoken and sole drug free member of the commune Lesley Henry plays the flute and generally looks after the other housemates even though she appears to be one of the younger members of the household. The two most potentially interesting segments involve a prank that goes wrong (three of the younger teens trash the house while the others are away) and the parental visit where the children argue about not wanting to go to school or obey rules but offer no solutions for earning money to support themselves. Neither segment resolves fundamental differences between participants, and both seem inevitably pointless. This is by far the weakest of the five films in the set.
Dying at Grace – 3.5/5
Five terminal cancer patients at Toronto Grace Care Clinic give permission for a camera crew to film their final months of life. Two patients – Carmela Nardone and Joyce Bone – go relatively quickly with ease and grace: one attended by loving family and the other dying completely alone without a single vistor. The other three have long and torturous paths to death. Richard Pollard dying of lung cancer and hepatitis C recounts a long life of heroin abuse and hard life living on the streets. Lloyd Greenway with a cancerous brain tumor is surrounded by a loving family and an older brother who suffers through every moment of his agonizing death with him. Of the five, Eda Simac’s story is the most disconcerting as she enters the facility looking very healthy and with hope after treatment of leaving the hospital and moving into an apartment or into assisted living, but her deterioration is shockingly rapid and her cadaverous final days are gruesomely and ghoulishly haunting.
King’s major problem with Dying with Grace is its too lengthy running time (almost 2 ½ hours) which stretches long, excruciating death scenes into endurance tests for the audience. Watching almost to the final death rattles in the throats of the last three patients simultaneously amounts to overkill reducing the film’s potent message that death arrives at its own pace which is sometimes unpredictable (Lloyd, for example, appears ready for death and then has a reversal extending the distress for his very emotional family) into a bathetic flood of sorrow and loss. The caregivers at Toronto Grace emerge as the true heroes of the piece, their kindness, patience, comforting presences, and professionalism a beacon for the institution all captured by the camera crew while staying out of the way of the major players in these real-life dramas.
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company – 4/5
The elderly residents of Apotex Centre, a Jewish home for the aged in Toronto, allow cameras into the corridors and rooms to reveal some of the horrifying ravages that age produces in individuals. Though eight different patients get the main attention, four stand out: the quietly shambling Max Trachter, the forlornly lonely Fay Silverman, and two women who were both young widows once upon a time and who now have aged into thoughtful, vivacious elderly women: Claire Mandell who has a special relationship with Max, and Ida Orliffe who often recalls her husband’s contributions to Toronto.
The best of the five actuality dramas in this collection, the film stares unblinkingly at the process of aging, not so much as a curse but as an inevitable circumstance which most people will need help at some point in their lives to deal with. Though Alzheimer’s is an ongoing concern for most of the people King directs his camera toward, it’s only one of the issues these senior citizens must deal with. Loneliness proves to be a major problem for many of the residents of this center, and Fay Silverman’s pathetic wails for her son Lionel to visit her remain etched in our brains throughout the entire film, even after he surprises his mother and shows up on his way to Florida. The death of one of the residents has a traumatic effect on several of the adults, its shock value exacerbated in one case by the patient’s Alzheimer’s choosing that moment to become more pronounced thus forcing the staff to have to continually inform the person of the sad news leading each time to a deeper, more tragic despair. Despite the sadness of memories fading, one grows to admire the pluck and spirit of these indomitable troopers, meeting what bricks life throws at them with courage and resilience.
Warrendale – 3/5
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and is not windowboxed. The black and white cinematography boasts only an average grayscale with rather milky blacks and gray whites. Sharpness is adequate with some decent detail in skin and fabric textures, but age has begun to take its toll on the film with scratches and dust specks present from time to time. The film has been divided into 9 chapters.
A Married Couple – 3/5
The film is framed at 1.33:1 and is not windowboxed. Color fidelity is erratic in the movie as some reels seem to be on the verge of turning a bit pink while other scenes have good color values and appear pretty natural. Sharpness is also irregular but usually pretty good. There are signs of age in dust specks and chipped emulsion. The nude swimming scene is much softer than the rest of the film, possibly softened to make the nudity less graphic. The film has been divided into 14 chapters.
Come On Children – 2.5/5
The film is presented in its 1.66:1 theatrical aspect ratio and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. Many scenes in the film are in poor shape, with both horizontal and vertical scratches marring the image at regular intervals. The film is never quite sharp enough though color saturation is adequate and flesh tones look real. The film has been divided into 11 chapters.
Dying at Grace – 2.5/5
Shot using digital cameras, the image is framed at 1.77:1 and is anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions. The digitized image quality is only fair, and the source contributes to the terrible amount of moiré and aliasing that is constantly present and often distracting. Color is rather blocky and pasty and sharpness ranges from fair to good. The movie has been divided into 17 chapters.
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company – 3/5
Once again shot with digital cameras, the image is framed here at 1.78:1 and with anamorphic enhancement exhibits better color fidelity and sharpness than in the previous film. There are still plenty of problems with aliasing and moiré patterns, but the image overall is much more satisfying than in the previous film. The movie has been divided into 16 chapters.
Warrendale – 2.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track features dialogue that is sometimes soft and will require turning on the subtitles to catch the words. There is some hiss present in the quiet moments, and there is occasional fuzzy distortion when shouting reaches a high volume. The fluttering mechanism of the camera as it shoots the film is also easy to hear during the softer scenes.
A Married Couple – 3/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track has the expected age related hiss that’s noticeable in the quieter scenes, and there is also flutter to be heard off and on. The sound is relatively tinny at some moments, and when Billy puts on the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP, the sound is sometimes distorted and trebly.
Come On Children – 2.5/5
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio track doesn’t have the hiss that the previous two movies contain, but there is flutter occasionally and some slight crackle as well. When Alex revs up his electric guitar in a lengthy imitation of Jimi Hendrix, the distortion at the increased volume levels is very noticeable.
Dying at Grace – 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio mix is effective but unexceptional. There is certainly no distracting hiss or other audio artifacts that plague the earlier films in the set, and while dialogue is easily ascertained, secondary music sources sometimes offer some distortion, especially when a Salvation Army band plays and sings Christmas carols in the hallways for the patients.
Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company – 3.5/5
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio track features some surprisingly immersive music over the main and end titles, and there are even some sound effects at the nursing home that resonate in channels other than the center one.
The Eclipse line of films from Criterion do not feature any bonus features on the discs, but each slimline case contains interesting and informative liner notes written by Michael Koresky giving background on the filmmaker and on each individual work.
3.5/5 (not an average)
The Actuality Dramas of Allan King is a mixed bag. Reality films work best when a story is being told rather than when random snippets of lives are presented without an end for the viewer to achieve some sense of closure or at least dramatic satisfaction. Some of the films in this collection offer such a sense of fulfillment while others do not.