Friday, November 30, 2012


A Separation? Meh. Blue Valentine? Nope. What's that you said - Jungle Fever? Scenes From A Marriage? Kreutzer Sonata? The Puffy Chair? Flannel Pajamas? I don't think so. Even cinema verite icon John Cassavetes and his progressive films like Faces & A Woman Under The Influence take second place to this documentary (may sound blasphemous to some of you but that is the belief of many film scholars, critics & general all around know-it-alls). Its one thing to watch a "realistic" portrayal of a marriage or a relationship on the verge of destruction in a fictitious film but it’s another thing to see an actual REAL marriage fall apart right in front of you. Allan King's A Married Couple stands as the #1 film that'll make you think twice about getting married. Long after I was done watching this (courtesy of the criterion channel on HULU+) I found myself going; "was this real?" I was kinda floored. I mean, who would put their personal shit out in the open like that for the world to see? Think about it - I don't even know the subjects in King’s groundbreaking documentary yet I'll be critiquing their lives, personalities and relationship like I'm some marriage expert or something. But that's how personal and intimate this film is. It makes you feel up close & personal like you know them (and I’m sure there’s people who’ve seen this documentary that can either relate to the married couple or their young child who witnesses the fights & arguments firsthand). Immediately after watching A Married Couple I went out and purchased the eclipse box set (courtesy of Criterion) and came to discover that Allan King, a Canadian director I had never heard of, is a master of digging in to the corners and crevices of places we don't wanna go. It’s evident in his other work like; Warrendale - a sad & disturbing documentary on the poor conditions of a mental hospital for young children that would serve as a great precursor to Cropsey. His films makes you feel uncomfortable, tense and sometimes embarrassed for the documentary subjects (in the same way you might feel embarrassed for Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under The Influence or Ryan Gosling in that confrontational scene at the end of Blue Valentine) yet you can’t look away. A Married Couple is a hard punch in the stomach to all the preconceived notions & stereotypes about all the laid back, weed smoking, hippie parents in the 60’s.
And speaking of Blue Valentine; I’m sure this is just a coincidence, but there's even similar shots from A Married Couple in other marriage-related films which makes their connection even stronger…
L-R: Blue Valentine (2010) / A Married Couple (1969)
L-R: Scenes From A Marriage (1973) / A Married Couple

In A Married Couple we look at the day to day lives of Billy & Antoinette - a Canadian couple with a young son (Bogart) who's relationship is more than rocky. Apparently they volunteered to have their lives filmed for King's documentary in an effort to figure out what’s wrong with their marriage. They certainly didn’t let the cameras affect how they act around each other. And remember, this was the late 60’s where technology wasn’t were it is today. No tiny digital cameras, no techniques like the ones used in the documentary; Lynch (the filmmaker used a smaller camera and literally shot from the hip in order to make David Lynch feel more comfortable and not have a camera up in his face). Could you imagine trying to work your marriage out with of a big, noisy, clunky video camera in your face from the time you wake up until the time you go to bed? In the film Billy & Antoinette fight fiercely with each other (in one scene towards the end Billy literally tries to throw Antoinette out of their house), laugh & joke, argue over money, sleep in separate beds and casually discuss their son's future if they end up getting a divorce. The words; "fuck" and/or "fucking" are used quite often between Billy & Antoinette. Hell, at one point Billy calls Antoinette a "fucking cunt" over an argument about a vacuum cleaner. At times they look like brother & sister fighting over something stupid and other times they come off like an affectionate happily married couple. Billy & Antoinette both have their faults and "stuff" like any union/relationship/marriage - Antoinette is a tad bit naggy, sometimes annoying and a little childish. Billy is somewhat bullheaded, fussy and kinda thinks he's in charge of the marriage because he's the only one who works. Between the arguments, blow ups, break downs, crying and just overall embarrassing moments caught on film, I don't know if I could show my face in public for quite some time if I was Billy or Antoinette (after the documentary was released they managed to stay together for another ten years and had another child before divorcing). But what's most important about A Married Couple and its subject matter is that King doesn't use quirky music (there is background music, but it doesn’t really affect the mood or distort the viewers perception of reality) or editing techniques to make this documentary look like its exploiting the subjects. These are techniques many great (Herzog & Errol Morris) and not so great (Nick Broomfield) documentary filmmakers are guilty of from time to time and King stays away from all that. This is an honest, fair & balanced exploration in to the deterioration of a marriage (there’s no favoritism or bias towards one side). Clearly things have changed between 1969 and 2012 when it comes to the realm of marriage & relationships. Many old fashion values in terms of gender have died (although some are still around) and couples today have a lot more avenues to work out their problems than couples did four decades ago (I’m sure a lot of the different marriage counseling techniques today were considered strange & radical in the 60’s). So yes, PARTS of this documentary are a bit dated.
Thanks to the Criterion Collection, The IFC Center and the Toronto Film Festival, the United States is finally getting more exposure to Canadian cinema beyond the "usual suspects" (David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan & Ivan Reitman). Xavier Dolan has found a niche among young American hipsters and nostalgic French new wave lover, Monsieur Lahzar managed to nab an Oscar nomination last year and Guy Maddin, who should be mentioned alongside the "usual suspects", manages to break through to international audiences more and more with each film. My discovery of Allan King's work came at the perfect time of this mini-Canadian explosion. Anyone that's a fan of rare Werner Herzog films, 90's Harmony Korine, 1970's Cassavetes, Mike Leigh, William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm or the work of Shirley Clarke should enjoy this film. As I type this write-up while kinda half watching the films of Robert Downey Sr. at the same time, I’ve come to the conclusion that the eclipse series is the best thing the Criterion Collection has going for itself right now. While Criterion focuses on releasing stuff like Godzilla or re-releasing half of their pre-existing catalog on blu-ray with a slightly fancier package, their sub-label (Eclipse) continues to shine light on important & daring films that would have gone virtually lost or unnoticed.

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