Documentary is a genre of film that is generally considered to be a representation of “real events” or “reality”. This is, however, a significant misconception about documentary film. While it is true that every documentary is capturing events in life as they happen (documenting), no documentary can be made without a director or editor. All documentaries have a thesis or story they are trying to tell; every editor must create a story from the footage received and craft it to fit the director’s vision. What makes good documentaries so special is when those elements needed to create a story ““ a vision, a subject, and a crew ““ come together to make the viewer reflect on their own life in a more visceral, real way than similar events in a fictional film. This is the topic of “Allan King’s A Married Couple “, a new monograph by ZoÃ« Druick, published in 2010 by the University of Toronto Press, and it is for this reason that TIFF is presenting a re-struck print of A Married Couple this weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
Following the success of his film Warrendale , a documentary that looked at the daily lives of emotionally disturbed youth at a centre of the same name, director Allan King undertook the project of A Married Couple as a result of his desire to look deeply at a couple when they are not in the public eye. The film is a glimpse at tumultuous a period in the lives of Billy and Antoinette Edwards, their son Bogart and their dog Merton. During the course of the film, the relationship changes from one of relative functionality to one that is severely dysfunctional, bordering on violent. A Married Couple remains a very special documentary, not only in Canada, but in the larger documentary filmmaking community because King was very cognizant that simply observing this couple was bringing many of the Edwards’ underlying relationship issues to the surface. Understanding the concept that a thing changes simply because it is being observed, King was able to work with his editor Arla Saare to create a film that was less representative of the reality of the lives of Billy and Antoinette Edwards, and more representative of issues present in all marital relationships, albeit to varying extents. Thus, the film has stood as a “documentary melodrama”, or as King himself put it, an “actuality drama.”
The blending of reality with fiction is not something that is unfamiliar to us today. Reality television has rapidly outpaced standard programming, with shows such as The Biggest Loser , Survivor , America’s Next Top Model and the Bachelor/Bachelorette replacing fictional television like Friends or Seinfeld as the hottest topics of conversation. This type of programming built on foundation laid by the talk-show model, and the talk-show model built on the foundation laid by documentaries like A Married Couple ““ a fusion of drama and documentary, crafted to make a point, forcing you to ponder your own experience.
It is a difficult film to watch. Antoinette and Billy are strong personalities, but clearly vivacious and with positive attitudes toward life, especially the possibilities that lay before them. Early in the film, a conversation between Antoinette and a friend indicates that there are problems with the marriage, both interpersonal and sexual. After this point, the film presents a series of escalating fights, selected specifically to highlight issues between them. It is easy to see that both Billy and Antoinette are changing. Billy was 40, Antoinette 30 and their son 3-years-old at the time of shooting. Antoinette was moving into a time in her life where exploration and experimentation were at the forefront of her mind, while Billy was settling into middle age, married life and wanted to slow down. Add to this mix the time in which the film was shot. The 60s and 70s were times of great social and political change, much of it directly affecting the family. While Billy was determined to be the “master” of his house, Antoinette was determined to be an equal member of the household, even if Billy was the one who was fiscally responsible for the family. Most interestingly, the film is shot and edited to be sympathetic to both mindsets; even better highlighting how ill equipped both partners are to deal with these major life-changing issues.
The film has aged quite well. It made a significant impact at the time of its release, but its message of “documentary melodrama” to peek behind the curtain to see the normally unseen is just as relevant today, if not more so. Adding significantly to the film’s relevance is Druick’s monograph. At a mere 89 pages, this unassuming soft cover book delivers an injection of context and motivation that are essential to truly understanding the film, its meaning today, and ultimately, its power to make viewers review and reflect their own lives.
Most notably, the monograph highlights that King was always well aware that the crafting and editing of his film was essentially creating a form of fiction. Shot over 10 weeks, with 72 hours of footage, the resulting edit was a mere 96 minutes, leaving much on the cutting room floor. King is quoted in the text as saying, “One has to be very, very clear. Billy and Antoinette in the film are not Billy and Antoinette Edwards, the couple who exist and live at 323 Rushton Road. They are characters, images on celluloid in a film drama. To say that they are in any other sense true, other than being true to our experience of the world and people we have known and ourselves, is philosophical nonsense. There is no way ninety minutes in a film of Billy and Antoinette can be the same as the actual real life of Billy and Antoinette.” (Page 23, “Allan King’s A Married Couple “)
It is important to note, however, that while the film and the monograph could be looked upon as too academic for regular folk, this is certainly not the case. Frequently there is a perceived divide between those who “enjoy” film and those who “study” it, as though knowledge of film and its relevance to culture cannot be synonymous with enjoyment. Be assured that Druick’s monograph is not only completely accessible to any reader, it is also essential to true enjoyment and understanding of A Married Couple. With each turn of the page, the reader’s fondness for both the film, and the Edwards family grows.
A Married Couple is screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, April 15, Saturday, April 16 and Sunday, April 17 at 7:00 pm. ZoÃ« Druick will be in attendance on Friday night to introduce the film. Copies of “Allan King’s A Married Couple “ are available right now in the TIFF Bell Lightbox gift shop. Check TIFF’s website for more details and to purchase tickets.