With “Memory for Max, Claire, Ida and Company,” Allan King demonstrates once again why he is the most empathetic of documentarians. Intensely, rigorously respectful of the aged folk his camera follows at the Toronto-based Baycrest retirement care center, the vet Canadian cineaste hews a classic verite line, sans commentary and other distractions. Along with its Canuck tube preem in mid-February, pic is enjoying a fine fest run, and will hold an honorable place on vid shelves.
Like legendary “direct cinema” filmmaker Albert Maysles, King (who borrowed his first camera from Maysles) is a longtime master, confident in his ability to enter the lives of strangers under extremely difficult circumstances and present them with a balance of honesty and gentility.
Because “Memory” deals with older people in varying stages of Alzheimer’s, it can be just as wrenching to watch at times –and more emotional — compared with King’s previous pic on people facing death, “Dying at Grace.”
Among those King and lenser Peter Walker focus on is Claire Mandel, whose 89th birthday is cause for celebration. But the little party is over too soon, and she already wants to know when her loved ones are coming back to see her. Claire’s friend Max Trachter, meanwhile, is forever walking the Baycrest hallways with his cane, and King’s repetition of this action makes it a slightly disturbing visual metaphor for once-full lives that have become aimless.
When tragedy strikes close to Claire, her friend Ida Orliffe, a former caregiver, badly wants to comfort her. It’s grueling to watch Claire — suddenly forgetful because of the tragedy’s shock — having to be reminded again and again of the terrible news. Yet, as King observes, such emotional tremors can be overcome by Alzheimer’s patients, and by the pic’s end Claire is starting to enjoy herself and those around her.
In the background, are other residents, one who wants only to die. But most try adjust to their new circumstances, appearing to be lost or inconsolable at first, but on their good days, their personalities blossom.
A typical aspect of King’s technique is to simply show attentive Baycrest liaison Beverly Zwaigen spending time with each resident, while never formally introducing her. Yet, even with this understated approach, Zwaigen unquestionably is the film’s heroine.
With editor Nick Hector, King inserts shots of each resident’s family pictures and mementos as each person is introduced. It’s both a heartbreaking reminder of what’s been lost and a memorial of a full life.
Noteworthy is the fact that King and Walker film the residents up close — without telephoto lenses. There’s no eavesdropping here; the filmmakers are extremely present at each point in the dramas they capture.