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DVD Review: Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King

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The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series is dedicated to uncovering underappreciated classics and making them widely available in a quality DVD presentation — often for the first time ever in this country. Many of these releases have focused on lesser-known films of undisputed masters (Ingmar Bergman, Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa, Kenji Mizoguchi), but some of Eclipse’s most exciting entries are those that feature a filmmaker almost entirely unknown and reveal a set of films so brilliant, you’re amazed you’d never heard of them before.

That’s exactly the case with Eclipse Series 24: The Actuality Dramas of Allan King, which presents five documentaries from Canadian director Allan King, who oscillated between fiction and non-fiction projects, but is most known for his verité-inspired “actuality dramas” — nonfiction films without narration or talking heads. These are works of raw drama — humanity on display with the unblinking eye of the camera there to capture it all. But the films are also notable for their elegant construction — King knows how to glean impacting drama from the mountains of footage without the need for typical documentary structuring devices.

The films included in the set are:

Warrendale (1967)

King’s feature film debut sets the tone for the rest of the films  in the set — works that are equally fascinating and difficult to watch. Warrendale, shot in high contrast black-and-white, takes us inside the Warrendale Home for Troubled Children.

The center practices a number of experimental techniques — the most prominent and unsettling being a “holding” practice where staff members physically restrain children during outbursts by essentially hugging them tightly and encouraging them to get out all their frustration. They tell the children they are not responsible for their actions during these sessions, and they shouldn’t hold back any emotion.

The intentions of the staff members are obviously noble, but it’s hard to be anything but ambivalent about the manner in which they are treating the children. King’s film is unblinking, and shows his uncanny ability to retain authenticity and immediacy while subtly guiding the footage into a smartly devised structure.

The film’s climax comes as a result of the sudden death of the center’s cook — a beloved figure by the children — and the difficulty in informing the children and dealing with the subsequent emotional outpour. It’s a fitting summary of the film — dealing with raw emotions — and it sets the stage for even more emotionally ravaging films to come.

A Married Couple (1969)

A Married Couple is probably the most potent example of the difficulties inherent in creating direct cinema — namely, that the observer effect ensures that the presence of a camera will alter the “real life” that the camera is there to capture. To some degree, it’s inevitable — and that’s hardly a knock on King’s work, which remains vital despite that fact.

With this film, the effect is felt more because King’s camera is essentially trained on only two people — Billy and Antoinette Edwards, former Bohemians looking to fit into middle class bourgeoisie living. The film reveals plenty about the nature of marriage, and the boiling pot of frustrations that can erupt suddenly in its midst, but it’s hard not to get the feeling that both, especially Billy, are exaggerating for the camera a bit.

Still, the pain and the (less obvious) joy are real, as they seesaw from harmonious living to violent outrage. A Married Couple’s exploration of a cursorily happy home life strikes a chord.

Come on Children (1972)

In some ways, Come on Children acknowledges the problems inherent in direct cinema by creating an explicitly artificial context for its characters — 10 teenagers who King and crew bring to a farm to live for 10 weeks, away from the pressures of parents and school.

The kids are mostly literate, funny and (at least, learning to be) well adjusted. Several are recovering drug addicts and one is pregnant, and many speak with wisdom that hard experiences have taught them.

The film doesn’t hit nearly as hard as any of the others in the set, and for that reason, it’s a welcome middle entry. The most gregarious of the group, John Hamilton, fancies himself to be some kind of Bob Dylan-like troubadour, and his music creates a laid-back and loose backdrop on which the personalities of the teenagers (one of whom is Alex Lifeson, future guitarist for Rush) to come forth.

Dying at Grace (2003)

Thirty years after his last actuality drama, King returned with gusto with Dying at Grace, an extraordinarily moving and difficult film to watch. It is among the best documentary films ever made.

Now, with the capabilities of lightweight digital cameras on his side, King and his crew took to the palliative care ward at Toronto’s Grace Health Centre, where they followed the final days of five terminally ill patients. King, in his 70s at this point, expressed a desire to learn more about death, and this film is an essential portrait of the indignities, the beauty, the finality, but mostly — the aloneness of dying. This is the kind of film that can fundamentally change you, especially if death hasn’t made its presence felt in your personal life much.

Four of the patients — Carmela Nardone, Joyce Bone, Eda Simac and Richard Pollard — have various forms of cancer and are all elderly or approaching it. The fifth is Lloyd Greenaway, only in his 40s and stricken with a brain tumor that renders him almost motionless. Each story is heartbreaking in its own way, but his is incredibly difficult to bear watching.

King elegantly crafts the film, giving us intimate, but not exploitative looks into each one’s inevitable journey toward death. All five patients gave King unlimited access.

Dying at Grace also reveals the height of King’s ability to craft a film without relying on structural crutches. He fades in and out of each patient’s story with a quiet grace and uses the nightly reports of the nurses as de facto narration.

This is a remarkably beautiful film about a fact of life we all must face. King doesn’t sugar coat death, but he doesn’t demonize it either. As hard as it is to get through, Dying at Grace is essential viewing.

Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005)

Exploring some similar territory as Dying at Grace, King’s second-to-last film, Memory, is nonetheless moving and lovely and sad on its own terms as it goes inside a Jewish nursing home in Toronto, where many of the patients are suffering from dementia and memory loss.

Like Dying at Grace, the events of this film are not presented at as a horror, despite the terrible sadness that comes with the memories of the past slipping away. Rather, the film is about yet another cycle of life — sometimes as traumatic as the childhood of Warrendale, the teenage years of Come on Children and the adult life of A Married Couple — but part of life all the same.

As is the custom for Criterion’s Eclipse releases, the set does not come with any bonus features, save for cogent and enlightening liner notes from Michael Koresky for each film.

With this set, King’s status as a great chronicler of life and all of its vagaries is firmly established. It’s one of the best DVD releases of the year.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.