The iconic promotional image from Allan King’s A Married Couple, all offending iconography dutifully cropped. Photo by Richard Leiterman, courtesy of Allan King Film Ltd.
If you’re still naive enough to think that romantic relationships won’t sour, or that love is something other than an arbitrary concept cooked up by Romantic poets, you could probably stand to see Allan King’s seminal documentary (or “actuality drama”) A Married Couple. It’ll rinse the taste of romance and true love and all that other warm-fuzzy nonsense right out of your mouth. Call it the original Blue Valentine.
Released in 1969, King’s film takes an unobtrusive, fly-on-the-wall approach to the marriage of Toronto couple Billy and Antoinette Edwards. A Married Couple follows their marital bliss for a period of 10 weeks, from the highs (sharing a tender moment while listening to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band) to the lows (everything else). Though highly controversial when it was first released—it was rejected by the CTV, who commissioned it—it went on to become one of the most fascinating and highly regarded documentary films ever produced. “King creates a drama that, in its utter nakedness, makes John Cassavetes’s Faces look like early Doris Day,” Time Magazine wrote. “The emotionally exhausting result achieves the ultimate artifice of the documentarist, the feeling that it was somehow made without a camera.”
As part of their commitment to screening remastered, restored prints of iconic Canadian films, TIFF Bell Lightbox is opening their vault on A Married Couple Friday through Sunday as part of its (wait for it) Canadian Open Vault series. It’s also a nice way of remembering King, who passed away in his Toronto home in June 2009.
And as an added bonus, the Friday and Saturday screenings will be introduced by Zoë Druick, associate professor at Simon Fraser’s School of Communications and author of the recent monograph on King’s A Married Couple co-published by TIFF and the University of Toronto. And as an added added bonus, Druick took some time this week to talk to us about the film, Allan King’s unique approach to documentary, and his relationship to Jon and Kate Plus 8.
Torontoist: At a This Is Not A Reading Series event a few years ago, you talked with Marc Glassman from POV Magazine about King’s films, and you made a point to connect, or maybe explicitly distance them, from contemporary reality TV. You said something about how his films offer an “alternative genealogy of reality TV.” What do you mean by this?
Zoë Druick: Well in a sense he is the grandfather of reality TV. What he invented with A Married Couple was this idea of bringing a camera into private lives, into domestic lives, to look at the world beyond what the public might see. That was really radical in its moment. But what I was trying to argue is what we have now is quite far from what he was experimenting with in 1968. I kind of think that if his experimental approach had been followed, we’d have very different looking reality TV.
It is reality TV, in a way, or the progenitor of it. A Married Couple was made for TV, so it has the stylistic marks of being made-for-TV. But the thing that makes it so different is that [King] was implicated in the process. He was there to explore this institution of marriage and the social implications of regulating intimacy. It’s one of the things that King really pioneered was this sense of trust. He gave [the couple] the right to veto any of the footage. And they only reason they took part is because they were interested in exploring the very thing he was exploring, which is the nature of intimacy. So that’s very different than this Jon and Kate Plus 8 culture where it’s all about getting yourself out there and get sponsored and get the trappings of upper class life by being part of a reality TV franchise. It’s so different than this idea of taking part in an experiment to get to the bottom of what it means to live an authentic life.
King, here in Canada, has a lot in common with a filmmaker like Frederick Wiseman in the States. They’re also documentary filmmakers who often get labelled as “sociologists” because they’re very non-intrusive and explore institutional structures, which may discredit their roles as “filmmaker.” Because as much as A Married Couple is this experiment in observing marriage, it also functions incredibly well dramatically. So where do these lines between documentarian and filmmaker proper exist?
Well Wiseman and King even shared cameramen. And they shared many of the same ideas. Also, they both came up with new terms to describe what they were doing. Wiseman came up with the term “reality fiction” and King came up with the term “actuality drama.” Which was not coincidental. They were both trying to explore that line between a sociological experience and something that was satisfying as a film. Both of them also rejected chronology as a structural principle for their editing. Both would shoot for four to eight to 10 weeks, and then take all this footage and put it in whatever footage they wanted, to reflect their experience of the truth that they were shooting. The editing is an important a part of the filmmaking as the shooting. That’s where I think the film art comes in, and makes it more than a surveillance camera. What was different about the two of them was that Wiseman was interested in the kind of performances you could see in public institutions. But with A Married Couple, King is obviously more interested in the private realm.
Antoinette, Billy, and baby Bogart Edwards in A Married Couple. Still courtesy of TIFF.
How does this institutional basis play out across a A Married Couple?
An institution doesn’t have to be something disciplinary, but in this case what we see is this spiral structure, where in the beginning it seems very playful but by the end they feel very trapped. In this sense it follows the conventions of domestic melodrama, where characters feel very trapped by the institution of the film. But that’s where the film leaves you. Nobody dies. Nobody gets divorced. Not like you might find in a conventional melodrama. You’re just trapped in that relationship.
This is kind of a big question. But all things considered, how would you situate Allan King within Canada’s larger documentary tradition, both when he came out and presently?
Well he’s one of the most prolific filmmakers that Canada has ever produced. He’s typical in the sense that he came out of the institutions that were in place. But what makes him really interesting to me was that he wanted to push the boundaries of the genres he was expected to work in, which was public service documentaries. He was trying to find an individual voice within a more official public culture, which is also very typical of Canadian filmmakers. But it’s all different now. Those institutions, the CBC or the NFB, don’t exist in the same way. So what’s available to people now is reality TV.
A Married Couple screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, April 15, Saturday, April 16 and Sunday, April 17 at TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King Street West). Click here for tickets and other information. Be forewarned: it’s probably not a great date movie.