A Second Look: Allan King’s ‘actuality dramas’ get a new audience

The cinéma vérité movement emerged some 50 years ago bearing the promise of lifelike immediacy and unvarnished reality. Enabled by the invention of lightweight sync-sound cameras and reflective of the larger truth-seeking and confessional trends of 1960s culture, these new documentaries shunned voice-overs, talking heads and explanatory titles. But despite the rhetoric of objectivity surrounding the vérité school, its most important practitioners were always aware that to observe a situation is also, on some level, to participate in it.

Frederick Wiseman, for one, rejected the term “cinéma vérité,” preferring instead “reality fiction.” In much the same vein, the late Allan King, the leading Canadian counterpart to Wiseman, the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker, referred to his subjects as characters and called his films “actuality dramas,” an admission that he was consciously testing and blurring the boundaries between narrative and documentary.

The subject of “The Actuality Dramas of Allan King,” a new five-film DVD set from Criterion’s Eclipse line, has long been cinéma vérité's forgotten man. This is partly because King’s films, mostly made for Canadian television, received limited exposure abroad. But it could also be because he gravitated to harsher subjects than his American colleagues (he never made a concert movie or a celebrity documentary).


After more than a decade working on shorts for Canadian and British television, the Vancouver-born King directed his first feature, “Warrendale” (1967), set at a center for troubled children in Toronto where the charges are treated with an experimental “holding method,” physically restrained and clutched during moments of emotional distress.

On paper “Warrendale” invites comparison with “Titicut Follies,” Wiseman’s account of life at a mental institution (completed the same year), but King’s film is in no way an exposé. Nor is he especially interested in an institutional portrait. His focus instead is on the immediate experience, on life as it is lived by specific individuals at specific moments. In “Warrendale,” as in all his best work, there is a powerful recognition that the fly-on-the-wall position can be both a privileged and an uncomfortable one.

“A Married Couple” (1969), perhaps King’s crowning achievement, is a chronicle of a volatile marriage that often matches the devastating intensity of a similarly themed fiction film of the period, John Cassavetes’ “Faces.” The subjects are Billy and Antoinette Edwards, onetime bohemians now living in suburbia with a young son.

As with “Warrendale,” King and his crew appear to have gained the total trust of their subjects and spent weeks with them (although King himself often stayed away once the crew was in place). Billy and Antoinette, borderline exhibitionists, often seem to be playing to the camera, which prompted reviewers to question the project’s authenticity. But King never denied the role of the camera, which he likened to an analyst, stimulating the couple to talk and act, and the film slyly exposes the role of performance in everyday life: Billy and Antoinette perform for the camera, but they also perform for each other and in social situations.

Although grounded in observation, both films also have clear dramatic structures, and King acknowledged that he took liberties with chronology for the sake of narrative balance and emotional coherence. “Warrendale” builds to a long, draining sequence, filled with tantrums and tears, that begins when the children learn that their cook has died, and “A Married Couple” alternates between playful tenderness and knock-down, drag-out fights.

Just as “A Married Couple” presaged the seminal ‘70s PBS series " An American Family,” King’s “Come on Children” (1973), a documentary premised on an artificial situation, foreshadows “Real World"–style reality TV. Ten teenagers are brought together to live on a farm, and the ensuing chronicle is both particular to a post-counterculture generation and timeless in its depiction of coming-of-age pains.

King spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s working in television and directing fiction films. Upon turning 70 and contemplating his own mortality, he returned to the probing format of the actuality drama. The last two films in the set are humane, unblinking studies of aging. “Dying at Grace” (2003) follows five terminally ill people through their final months (in some cases, through their final breaths). “Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company” (2005) observes geriatric-home patients afflicted with dementia.

King, who died last year at age 79, said his films were motivated by a single question: “Why?” Looking closely at people and situations that others would prefer not to see, his best work ranged across a remarkable spectrum of human experience, all of which he approached with a curiosity and steely compassion that are the very definition of humanist art.