'Cinema Verite'

Peter Lovino

HBO film revisits the Pandora's box that unleashed reality TV -- the '70s doc "An American Family."

The first thing most people will want to do after watching HBO's Cinema Verite is put 1973's An American Family -- the landmark PBS documentary and godfather of the reality genre -- at the top of their Netflix queue.

Don't bother. You can't rent it.

It's a strange twist to the story of what happened when a family -- who appear to have thought that they were in some way the perfect, not just typical, family -- allowed a TV crew inside their lives. Back in the early 1970s, reality television as we know it didn't exist. Verite shows how a documentary filmmaker, Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), had the idea to smash the idealized television world of The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch and others by showing a real family living their lives in front of the camera. In Santa Barbara, he found the Loud family, who agreed to have the curtain pulled back on their ostensibly idyllic suburban life. TV would never be the same.

Gilbert and his principal crew of Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit, Shanna Collins) started to roll tape after Gilbert persuaded a skeptical WNET to help fund the documentary for PBS. Verite posits that Pat Loud (Diane Lane) believed Gilbert's hype that her family was, in theory, perfect for television. But she also suspected that her husband was a philanderer and the TV project would keep him home.

On the other hand, Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) believed he was the patriarch of the West Coast Kennedys. He had absolutely no idea what kind of havoc would come down on him once the cameras started rolling.

Behind the scenes, American Family was the definition of turmoil. PBS execs thought it was like watching paint dry (and they had committed to 10 hours). Gilbert was burning through film at a rapid rate and was way over budget, plus his infatuation with Pat pushes him to cross ethical lines.

Yet Gilbert -- who never had another film credit to his name -- was truly onto something. He followed the Loud family for seven months. When it aired, it was a peep show for the masses; 10 million people watched. Ethicists, scholars and social critics all chimed in -- one of the few times the intrusive impact of television was discussed on television.

For the true impact of Verite to hit home, viewers have to understand how pivotal that moment in time really was. Forget Candid Camera. This was Blue Velvet 's peeling back of the picket-fence veneer long before David Lynch ever dreamed it up. Pat Loud asked for a divorce in front of the cameras, shocking the nation. And son Lance's homosexuality (not to mention Pat's loving support of him) became dinner conversation and editorial fodder nationwide. Meanwhile, Gilbert was falling for Pat while Bill was revealing his affairs to Gilbert, who in turn told Pat of those indiscretions. And the Raymonds couldn't believe just what the Loud family was willing to do in front of their cameras.

Gandolfini is convincing as Gilbert in a way that gives the filmmaker some cover for his motivations, and Lane is also wonderful as Pat.

Verite ends with a montage of photos of the real Loud family with updates on what happened to them. But what is also historically important is that this landmark series never made it to DVD. There was so much ambient sound picking up songs (the Rolling Stones, etc.) and so many clearances that were never made -- or that PBS couldn't afford later -- that the series was essentially seen live and then disappeared.

But PBS SoCal (KOCE-TV), which owns West Coast rights to the series, will air all 12 episodes of American Family in a marathon starting at 11 p.m. April 23 -- conveniently enough following the 9 p.m. HBO premiere of the movie on the same date.

Of course, if the rumors are true that American Family unfolds at what is considered a glacial pace in our modern times, you can probably find some real housewives or people from New Jersey causing a fuss somewhere else on your TV.

Airdate 9-10:30 p.m.
Saturday, April 23 (HBO)