Jun 17, 2009

Allan King (1930 - 2009)

In late April, TVO ran a week-long retrospective of Allan King's work (in which the legendary filmmaker introduced some of the films personally), perhaps introducing his work to another audience apart from those who chanced upon whatever theatrical runs or revivals would be accorded him. Among my film friends, getting the opportunity to see a collection of his films from the comforts of our homes was a big event. Once again, Allan King was big news. This is one more reason why his passing just a few weeks later is saddening.

At 79, an age when most artists would have retired (or if they still worked, became in danger of repeating themselves), he was still at his craft, developing a new project as recent as this spring, before learning of his medical condition. As evidenced by his incredible career resurgence this decade, as long as we had Allan King, we could still expect to be challenged, disturbed and moved by his ongoing explorations of human behaviour.

It was in the 1960's when he came to the fore upon the release of two feature-length cinema-verité documentaries, Warrendale (1967) and A Married Couple (1969), both trail-blazing pieces which put in the same league with Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles Brothers, who practiced the same style south of the border. The cinema-verité approach disregarded the usual voiceover or talking-to-camera so customary to the documentary genre, and instead wanted to record activity as unobtrusively as naturally as possible. (The seeds of his work can be seen in earlier short films like Skid Row or Rickshaw, produced for the CBC, not necessarily in style, but for introducing you to people previously not seen as documentary subjects.)

Of course the controversy about the cinema verité movement centers upon the debate of how much on screen is in fact real. Whether one speaks of such work of the 1960's, or even today's "reality TV" (to coin an example of how this style has been distilled for the masses), the camera is still a powerful tool that its subjects can't easily ignore. But people like Wiseman or King would spend time with their subjects before introducing a camera into their worlds, so they would be less influenced (or inhibited) by it. At worst, one could say that we're seeing a magnification of reality.

Warrendale, named for the disturbed children's hospital it documents, would make for an interesting double-bill with Wiseman's Titicut Follies (released the same year). The latter film documented the poor conditions at a mental hospital, yet perhaps its target differed from King's. Warrendale instead focuses on the kids, not the institution, and we eventually see the humanity beneath their dysfunction. Although originally produced for the CBC, the network refused to air it because King wouldn't edit out the childrens' profanity. Instead, it was released to theaters, and received international acclaim, even having a good run in Canada- something unheard of for a homegrown film, let alone a documentary. It was banned from broadcast until TVO ran it in 1997 (where I first caught it).

But perhaps A Married Couple more questions the authenticity of filmed reality, as we witness the disintegrating marriage of Billy and Antoinette Edwards (who fight about everything). On screen we witness what appears to be a chronological study of how their relationship declines, however the scenes were not filmed in that sequence. One could say that the movie was edited in a more linear fashion, but still I don't think that we're seeing anything untrue (as the Edwards' eventually divorced), despite the couples' knack for performance.

Allan King also made commercial fictional features, and despite the earnestness of these (Who Has Seen The Wind; Silence of the North; Termini Station), one learns that the dramas of his "reel" worlds pale before those of "real" life. In this decade, King received some of the best notices of his career with the release of Dying At Grace (2003) (featuring terminally ill cancer patients at the palliative care ward of Grace Hospital), Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005) (whose subjects have Alzheimers) and Empz 4 Life (2006) (about black youth in Toronto).

Every time I see one of King's documentaries, I ask "How the devil did he make this?" (which one can interpret as tribute to how affecting and unique they are). For example, how does a 75 year-old white male produce such a film like Empz 4 Life? How does he get terminally ill people to consent to have their final days recorded? Perhaps his greatest gift was winning the trust of his subjects to present risky topics matter in an honest, unbiased fashion. I remember one quote of Allan King (and I'm paraphrasing) where he says that when he begins a project, he never knows how it's going to end. Thus, one gets the sense that the moments of every new film is unfold with as much surprise to us as they did when King rolled the cameras.

It was his relentless curiosity to explore different facets of human nature, and the constant thrill of discovery, to make such remarkable films that may shock and upset us, but also change us in some way. These overwhelming experiences enrich us all the more for helping us to comprehend some of the harsh realities of life. Allan King was a true visionary--- and of the few filmmakers today (let alone in Canada) that are deserving of that title.

For more on Allan King, CBC has collected three videos and an audio interview which are accessible here.