Celluloid International is a series of multi-part essays on different cinematic movements across the globe, some well-known, others less so. We're kicking it off with Nick Hanover's examination of what he's termed "the Cinema of Loneliness," a theory that Canadian film, because of the geography of its home, is predominantly concerned with isolation, whether it's of the emotional or physical variety. Earlier versions of the first three essays were originally published at Spectrum Culture.
The Cinema of Loneliness: An Exploration of the Emotional Center of Canadian Film
Part Four: Allan King Turns the Camera on the Plight of A Married Couple
There's a special kind of loneliness that occurs within long-term, serious romantic relationships. A loneliness that emerges from being entirely committed to someone, yet cognizant of the fact that you can never really know them, no matter how many years go by. A loneliness that stems from devotion itself and the way our emotions can generate a feeling of claustrophobia. When legendary Canadian documentarian Allan King set out to follow-up his breakout work Warrendale, he set his sights on domesticity, an environment that at the time wasn't as prevalent a subject for the media as it is in today's "reality" soaked climate. King specifically wanted to explore the way "a couple misperceive each other," to portray romantic relationships in a manner that would stand out from the melodramas that had long been a mainstream cinematic fixation, but would nonetheless have a narrative of its own and a structure that would enable the loneliness of love to be entirely visible.
Fittingly, King is widely seen as one of the most influential and pioneering figures of the cinema verite movement, which straddled the line between fiction and reality and in its own way foreshadowed the eventual ascent of "realness" as a necessary component in many areas of pop culture. Advancements in technology allowed cinema verite filmmakers to make handheld camerawork their signature, enabling film to literally travel anywhere, at any time. For King this meant entering a normal Canadian abode, specifically the residence of the Edwards family, home to Billy, Antoinette and their son Bogart. Where Warrendale focused on the tragically disturbed, A Married Couple seemingly spotlighted the disturbingly dysfunctional reality of the Edwards' marriage.
It's important at this point to note a few important facts about King's film and its subjects. A Married Couple is infamously presented out of sequence, meaning that King altered the timeline of the footage in order to make the film more coherent and to insert a plot into the events, which is where the cinema verite aspect comes into play. Even more importantly, despite how unflattering the film may seem to viewers, the Edwards were granted the power of veto over what made it into the film and what didn't and they're said to have agreed to being filmed in the first place because they wanted to take part in a dialogue about the social structures and ramifications surrounding marriage itself. That said, the film is as uncomfortable to watch as it is fascinating, with the Edwards' relationship with one another at times outwardly hostile and borderline abusive, particularly in regards to the insults Billy hurls at Antoinette.
That aspect of the film allows it to become semi-timeless, despite the dated fashions and attitudes presented within. A Married Couple is very much an artifact of its time, with detours to examine swinger and free love culture and enough hippie couture to outfit an entire Hair production. But it's also very much ahead of its time, ridiculously entertaining in its blunt frankness and depressingly relevant in the truths it unveils about the mating rituals of North Americans. Billy and Antoinette likely saw their behavior not as unflattering and humiliating but as incisively truthful; their friends, family and neighbors may have outwardly mocked what they saw depicted on the screen, but inwardly they were quite possibly cringing at how familiar the scenes were.
King easily could have let this guilt-ridden voyeurism dominate the film and it still would have been one of the most interesting and entertaining documentaries of all-time. But instead he went down a different, more complicated route, attempting to tell a story through his very real subjects, a story about the conflicts of love and family and the harsh reality that being human means being deeply flawed. Recognizing your own flaws can enable your relationships to improve, of course, but King's message, as he communicated it to Alan Rosenthal, that "marriage didn't seem to be the kind of rewarding thing in reality that I read about in books" bears with it a necessary understanding that one can never be completely satisfied, or free from loneliness. We can choose to recognize each other's loneliness and sympathize even when we are at our ugliest. Or we can go on being alone, isolated no matter how many loved ones surround us, forever wrapped up in debilitating thoughts.
For those interested, A Married Couple can now be seen on Hulu.
When he's not writing about the cape and spandex set and functioning as the Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin, Nick Hanover is a book, film and music critic for Spectrum Culture and has contributed to No Tofu Magazine, Performer Magazine, Port City Lights and various other international publications. By which he means Canadian rags you have no reason to know anything about. He also translates for "Partytime" Lukash's Panel Panopticon and you can follow him on twitter @Nick_Hanover