Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 28, 2015

This one comes right out of that mid-to-late-60’s observational cinema ferment, and it’s a pretty powerful example of the observational documentary’s various strengths and shortcomings. One thing you have to say for it—Warrendale certainly avoids one of the most egregious of observational’s sometimes pitfalls (as outlined, for instance, by the derisive Ricky Leacock in Lewis Jacobs, ed., 1969). This account of a Toronto facility for disturbed adolescents is not at all boring, and something definitely happens. Its highly dramatic content, though, also suggests and even embodies some of observational documentary’s other frequent shortcomings, its potential dangers. In this case that shortcoming might extend all the way to moral lapse.

To put it bluntly, sometimes you should turn the camera off! And sometimes, even though it’s not intended, the camera creates an imbalance of power, or even becomes a weapon. Less portentously, the camera’s presence can lead to all sorts of performative stuff. Cinéma Vérité (Chronicle of a Summer, etc.) had a solution to the problem, which was to acknowledge the camera’s presence and influence, or at least to try to do so. Here director Allan King gets mentioned a couple of times, and one of the adults does actually talk about the pros and cons of filming an upcoming event. But in the end all sorts of egregious, possibly camera-caused exhibitionism, by inmates and adults alike, is simply left unchallenged and uninterrogated.

Warrendale does have plenty going for it. Most strikingly, this is some portrait of trouble and trauma! King’s film catches the terrible beauty, the hooliganish vulnerability of youth in a really indelible, sort of eternal way. And for all its problems, the observer mode most emphatically captures it all. As mentioned, it captures it in a cringe-inducing, did-they-just-do-that? way. But that’s productive in its own fashion. If you want, Warrendale is a useful cautionary tale for documentarians and film scholars. It gives meta-critical insight into the ethical viability of an important documentary mode. But as I write that I wonder if it’s not a bloodless, even slightly inhuman perspective to take. There are lives here!

With regard to film craft, King’s method—cf. the fact that we’re seeing it as part of this Criterion Eclipse collection—his actuality dramas, as he says, do have plenty going for them. Ethical cringes might diminish, or at least come to co-exist with the fact that he’s telling stories that are very much taken from real life, all the while inviting social actors to participate in the shaping and presentation thereof. If that’s true then this isn’t so much observational or Direct cinema (cf. Robert Drew) as a really powerful example of Jean Rouch’s post-verité notion of Cinéma Direct. Like Flaherty’s Nanook, or Fires Were Started, or Shadows (sort of) or The Voyageurs, Warrendale returns film drama to its authentic and democratic roots. Maybe we should stop alternating between gullibility and outrage—of course it’s contrived. So?

It’s contrived, but Nanook really did build that igloo. Or, in this case, Dorothy really did die. Which leads us to Warrendale‘s most awful bit of grandstandingly indulgent hysteria. This episode makes explicit what is still quite evident and powerful throughout the entire film. In addition to being a timeless record of adult/kid complications, Warrendale is also pretty timely, for then and for now. The most striking, most amazing thing here is this jaw-dropping record of a set of psychoanalytic strategies, and the workings of this particular institution. Did they really do this, and believe in it? If King or the observer mode that he favours manipulates then they have nothing on the institutional and methodological manipulations that go on as a matter of course and conscience.

The holding method that runs rampant in this facility will give contemporary viewers the willies because of our greater sensitivity to issues of abuse. What are these adults, these adult males doing, wrestling with and manhandling these kids? These young women? You might be sympathetic when you discover that they’re trying to find alternatives to medication. Plus, what hellions. But still! Just as much as the possibility of sexual abuse you’re struck by how alternatively abusive the staff’s embracing and smothering are. Abusive, or plain bootless—at some point Walter and Terry won’t stop repeating themselves as they try to tell Carol that it’s not her fault, or something. Drone, drone, drone, like C.S. Lewis’s devil in Perelandra, or Father Maren/Wm. Peter Blatty/William Friedkin with their endless, grating “the spirit of Christ compels you!” I’m reminded of those Church-repudiating flaccid candles in Sergei Eisenstein’s Old and New (1929). Everyone knows about the disavowal of Pavlovian conditioning, or Skinnerian behaviourism. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it? There have been a lot of dumb psychological theories, a lot of damage done in the world!

(It’s partly poignant, partly nauseating to see one of the kids lying with her head on a counsellor’s bosom, listening to an infantile story with a rapt look on her face. Elsewhere in the shot, another big kid is actually drinking from a bottle!)

The stupendous thing is that you have no sense that the any of these workers feel ashamed or embarrassed, that there’s anything forced or furtive about the technique, or the way that they utilize it. In this way Warrendale ends up, unbelievably, resembling Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Of course you bleed people. That’s what doctors thought, and that’s what doctors did, with all sincerity and integrity. And furthermore, beyond the medical and though moderns miss it, Joan’s erstwhile persecutors may well be seeking her soul’s salvation. Similarly, here, Walter and Terry are proud to be doing good in the world. And maybe, in addition to enabling and infantilizing and brutalizing, they are.

(It should be noted that Warrendale does indeed have a scene in which some administrator grills the workers on the ways and whys of their holding. There are rules and restraints to which we’re not privy. That’s observational documentary for you, once again and all over.)

That Carl Dreyer connection is eccentric, but there’s another, way more natural or obvious echo here. As an institutional or Cultural analysis Warrendale is really formidable stuff. It’s strikingly sort-of-similar to Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies (q.v.). Things are not quite as out-and-out horrific, but in it’s own gladhanding way, this is a Snake Pit. But unlike the ultimately atypical Titicut Follies, and very much like the whole rest of Wiseman’s oeuvre, we’re not necessarily sure about the filmmaker’s take on all of this. That’s to King’s credit, and to the film’s, and to Observational as well. The artist should sometimes take a stance, but when a chronicler finds something that is broadly representative it may be sufficient, even expedient for him to simply record, assemble and present. In the end that’s how documentary, or actuality dramas, contribute to the discussion, or to discourse, or debate, or the setting of policy or the enactment of legislation.