Allan King: Controversial Canadian film-maker whose documentaries lighted on the dramas of everyday existence
Monday 03 August 2009
Allan King was the foremost Canadian documentarian of his generation. Filming "the drama of everyday life as it happens, spontaneously without direction, interviews or narrative", King and the "direct cinema" movement led to the fly-on-the-wall documentaries of Frederick Wiseman and Paul Watson, but his techniques and ideas are as controversial now as when he pioneered them.
King was born in Vancouver, and studied philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Joining the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC), he worked his way up from production assistant to director.
His breakthrough came with Skid Row (1956), about Vancouver's homeless. The National Film Board's John Grierson duly hailed it as "one of the greatest Canadian films ever made." But, accused of voyeurism, it sparked the sort of ethical debates that were to continue to surround him during his career.
Launching himself as an independent film-maker, King moved to Ibiza, then London, employing and inspiring film-makers including Chris Menges and Roger Graef. Initially broadcasters needed to be convinced that the new, lightweight equipment he used could produce broadcastable quality, while unions resisted the move to smaller crews.
Much of the work came from CBC: interviews with Brendan Behan, Anthony Eden, Orson Welles and others, and occasional TV dramas. A Matter of Pride (1961), a documentary about Canadian unemployment, led to claims in parliament that King had fabricated the subject family's suffering. Outside Canada he made Rickshaw (1960) in Calcutta, and Joshua: a Nigerian Portrait (1963).
King's concern for those left behind came from his own family, which had been torn apart by his father's alcoholism, but the resulting dread of worklessness also drove him to notch up a huge filmography.
His 1964 films were particularly wide-ranging. They included The Sound of Christopher Plummer, a relatively conventional portrait of the actor on the set of The Sound of Music, while the fully scripted docu-drama Running Away Backwards ironically profiles Canadian expatriates in Ibiza. He also worked on the groundbreaking series This Hour Has Seven Days, which combined challenging journalism with satirical sketches.
King's social commitment was also demonstrated by Warrendale (1966) about a school for emotionally disturbed children, which pioneered the use of "holding sessions" in which two or three adults cling tightly to their charges. Despite being commissioned by the CBC, it refused to show it and it was released theatrically. It marked a critical high point for King, being praised by Jean Renoir and sharing Cannes' best-picture honour with Antonioni's Blow-up. In 1970 he re-edited the material as Children in Conflict, 18 half-hour TV films. When Warrendale itself was finally closed, its director, John L Brown, founded a similar institution, Browndale, with King as chair of the board of governors.
In 1969's A Married Couple, a portrait of a couple in crisis shifted from tenderness, to violence and tirades of obscenity, and was seen as an attack on the institution of marriage itself. "What we don't know," observes the husband, "is whether we really hate each other or not." Time magazine said that it "makes John Cassavetes' Faces look like Doris Day." The couple initially found the film helpful, although ultimately the marriage failed.
But King began to attract criticisms that he was not so much recording events as creating them. Come on Children (1973) sent 10 teenagers to live without adults to see how they formed a community. Channel 4's recent Boys and Girls Alone reworked the idea with younger children and was widely condemned.
King's production company began to falter and he moved into fiction. He worked with Carol Bolt, adapting her plays Red Emma (1976) and One Night Stand (1978). In between, King also directed the film Who Has Seen the Wind, based on W O Mitchell's prairie-childhood novel. Silence of the North (1981) stars Ellen Burstyn as a woman living in the far north of Canada during the depression, and Termini Station (1989) is about an alcoholic woman and her daughter living in small-town Ontario.
There was also television, including several episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1985-88), Road to Avonlea (1991-96) and Kung Fu: the Legend Continues (1994-97). The four-part Emmy- winning miniseries By Way of the Stars (1992) is a transcontinental drama whose hero journeys from Europe to Canada.
By now, although King's documentaries were rarer, they still remained controversial both for their subject matter and for his approach. In 1983 he produced Who's in Charge? (Sig Gerber directed), inviting 30 unemployed Canadians to a "symposium" on their situation. It outraged some who thought it was as much about the spectacle as the issue and King was described as a "media monster", an appellation he particularly treasured. In 1999 he made The Dragon's Egg, about post-perestroika Estonians' and Russians' begrudging attempts to cooperate.
Then, entering his 70s, he made an affecting pair of films about aging and dying. As he explained: "Self interest is the reason I make most of my films. I'm getting older and I'm going to die. I thought I'd better find out what it's about." Dying at Grace (2003), about palliative care, was "an exceptionally difficult film to make" but it nevertheless elicited a tremendous reaction from viewers who had encountered or were preparing themselves for the deaths of loved ones. Ironically, its on-screen deaths predate Paul Watson's Malcolm and Barbara (2007), but it avoided the firestorm of criticism. Equally compassionate is Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005), looking at dementia and its impact on its sufferers and their families.
King's aim always was to ask why things were the way they were, and to stimulate debate. For what would become his last film, he turned back to children, making Empz 4 Life (2006), about black teenagers facing racism in Toronto.
Allan Winton King, film director: born Vancouver 6 February 1930; married firstly Phyllis King, secondly Patricia Watson, thirdly Colleen Murphy (four children); died Toronto 15 June 2009.
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