The Actuality Dramas of Allan King
Canadian director Allan King is one of cinema’s best-kept secrets. Over the course of fifty years, he shuttled between features and shorts, big-screen cinema and episodic television, comedy and drama, fiction and nonfiction. It was with his cinema-verité-style documentaries, though—his “actuality dramas,” as he called them—that King left his greatest mark on film history. These startlingly intimate studies of people whose lives are in flux—damaged children, warring spouses, the terminally ill— always done without narration or interviews, are riveting and at times emotionally overwhelming. Humane, cathartic, and important, Allan King’s spontaneous portraits of the everyday demand to be seen.
For their 24th release in their Eclipse line, Criterion presents The Actuality Dramas of Allan King, featuring the films Warrendale, A Married Couple, Come On Children, Dying at Grace, and Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company over five discs. The first two films are presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on their own dual-layer discs (and the transfers are not windowboxed,) and Come On Children is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1, enhanced for widescreen televisions, on a single-layer disc. Dying at Grace and Memory… are then presented in the aspect ratios of 1.77:1 and 1.78:1 respectively on their own dual-layer discs and are also both anamorphically enhanced.
The picture varies from film to film, depending on the source material used for the transfers. The best looking one may oddly be the oldest film, Warrendale, the lone black-and-white film in the set. The print is in fairly good shape with some minor damage limited to some marks and scratches still present. Blacks and whites look fairly good with excellent contrast, and the image does remain surprisingly sharp throughout. The digital transfer itself also manages to handle the film’s grain structure and never looks like noise.
A Married Couple also has some minor damage present (marks, debris, a few scratches) but it’s still clean overall. The digital transfer itself is also strong and again the film’s grain comes off looking mostly natural. Its colours do look a little off, leaning heavily towards yellow, but this could again be the condition of the source material or even a condition from the shoot, maybe from the lighting.
Come On Children is possibly the grainiest of the bunch and the digital transfer doesn’t handle it as well as the transfers for the other film, coming off more like compression artifacts and noise, looking a little blocky. Edge enhancement seemed a little more obvious on this one as well.
The final two films were made in 2003 and 2005 respectively, and were filmed in digital so I assume these transfers come directly from the digital source. Unfortunately since they were shot in standard-def (with what I guess were cheaper cameras) this severely limits the transfers and unfortunately these films, despite being the newest, look the worst of the bunch.
Both are interlaced, which creates all sorts of jagged edges and ghosting problems. Things can also look blurry and fuzzy, most notably in Dying at Grace where the text credits that appear on screen are almost impossible to read. Edge-enhancement is an issue throughout the two as well, along with other compression problems like noise and blocking, which seems to be made worse when upscaled on a high-def television. But I’m pretty sure these are all inherent in the digital source and cannot be improved upon.
I was sort of surprised by the quality of the image for the newer films, but since they were shot on digital (which I guess shouldn’t be too much of a surprise considering that this style of shooting would have made capturing the subjects of the films easier) I doubt they would get much better. The earlier films have their problems with their source materials as well, but they do end up coming off looking better than the newer films. In all it’s a mixed bag but in the end it doesn’t hinder viewing.
All films are presented in English (with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired) with the first two films presenting Dolby Digital 1.0 mono tracks, and the remaining films presenting stereo tracks.
They also vary in quality, but not by much in most cases. The worst track would probably have to go to Warrendale, which I actually found hard to hear. Dialogue comes off flat and low and is very hard to make out. Background noise, including a Rolling Stones album playing in the background at the beginning, actually sounds clearer than the spoken dialogue. I eventually had to turn on the subtitles for this film to understand what was being said. I suspect it’s the source materials again and maybe it comes down to the equipment used but it’s a bit odd that background noises come off so much clearer, and at times louder, despite being far away from where filming was occurring.
The remaining films all sound much better with dialogue easier to understand. Come On Children has moments where the audio will completely drop but I suspect this was related to the recording equipment. The other tracks have no problems that I can recall, and the stereo tracks for the last two films actually open up the sound field a bit (though I should emphasize the “a bit” part.)
Similar to every other set in Criterion’s Eclipse series there are no features other than the text notes for each film by Michael Koresky, covering King’s career, and then focusing primarily on the films in this set (of course.) Again an excellent collection of notes that offer some welcome analysis of the films.
The films are all quite fascinating. They’re incredibly engaging and at times absolutely devastating (the last two, Dying at Grace and Memory… in particular.) I was especially surprised by the fact that they all move briskly despite their style, which is lingering and purely observational. And, other than A Married Couple, where the protagonists can feel to be acting differently because the camera is there—which actually does make it more interesting—the films also feel completely authentic and honest, and also leave plenty for the viewer to think about.
Criterion’s set is yet another great addition to their intriguing Eclipse line, presenting some fascinating films that would probably have gone under the radar otherwise. The quality of the video and audio do vary because of the source materials (and it would have been great if we could have managed to get supplements to some of or all of the films) but in all I was pleased, and any short comings found in the audio/video presentation really come from how the films were shot. In the end the set comes highly recommended.