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The absolute first thing most people will think after watching HBO’s film, Cinema Verite, is that they need to put the landmark PBS documentary and godfather of the reality genre, An American Family, at the top of their NetFlix queue.
Don’t bother. You can’t rent it.
And therein lies what has to be the strangest twist to the HBO film that tries to tell the story of what happened when an American family – which appears to have thought, at least in passing, that they were in some way the perfect, not just typical, American family – allows a TV crew inside their lives.
These days, that’s about three quarters of the television landscape. Reality television is not just ubiquitous on American television, it has pervaded the culture in such a way and in such a prolonged form that it’s now a parody of itself. People go on television not for their 15 minutes of fame, but to turn those 15 into their very own separate 30 minute reality series that may lead to additional media attention, perhaps a magazine feature – or cover! – and even some products to sell.
It’s cynical, predictable and enormously successful.
But back in the early 1970s, reality television as we know it didn’t exist. Then a documentary filmmaker, Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), had a majestic idea to smash the idealized television world of The Partridge Family, The Brady Bunch and others by showing a real American 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. And television would never be the same again.
In 1971, Gilbert and his principal crew of Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit, Shanna Collins) started to roll tape after Gilbert convinced a very skeptical WNET to help fund the documentary for PBS. Cinema Verite posits that Pat Loud (Diane Lane) believed Gilbert’s hype that her family was, in theory, perfect for television. But she also suspected 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, An American Family was the definition of turmoil. PBS executives 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 Loud – as Cinema Verite depicts – pushes him to cross ethical and privacy lines that go against what Alan and Susan Raymond, his main crew members, were comfortable with.
And yet, Gilbert – who we learn at the end never had another film credit to his name – is truly on to something. He followed the Loud family for seven months and then set about editing the documentary, which aired in 1973. Gilbert was, in those months of filming and editing, creating reality television. Drama without actors or scripts. Real people having their lives exposed. Intrusion in private moments. It was a peep show for the masses – 10 million people watched. Ethicists and scholars and social critics all chimed in – one of the few times the intrusive impact of television was discussed critically on television.
For the true impact of Cinema Verite to hit home, viewers have to understand how pivotal that moment in time really was. Forget Candid Camera. This was Blue Velvet 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 Loud’s homosexuality (not to mention Pat’s loving support of him) became dinner conversation and editorial fodder across the nation. 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 (and sometimes keep filming as they witnessed) just what the Loud family was willing to do in front of their cameras.
In Cinema Verite, 90 minutes might not do justice to the historical impact of An American Family. But it makes you wish there were 90 more minutes to the story, which is saying something. Gandolfini is convincing as Gilbert in a way that gives the filmmaker some cover for his motivations. To invade a family for the sake of realism is a con that has both artistic merit (in its truthfulness) and the hidden agenda of the storyteller who understands exactly what kind of emotional bomb is about to go off.
Lane is also wonderful as Pat, because even though she was being both wooed and manipulated by Gilbert, she had the audacity to tell the truth on camera (although the entire Loud family would, once the series aired, go on a public relations offensive meant to restore their dignity after the public, the press and numerous pundits tore it down).
Cinema 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 (Rolling Stones, etc.), and so many clearances that were never made – or PBS could afford later — that the series was essentially seen live and then disappeared.
But PBS SoCal (KOCE-TV), which owns the West Coast rights to the series, will air all 12 episodes of An American Family in a marathon starting at 11 p.m. on April 23, which, conveniently enough, follows the 9 p.m. HBO airing of the movie on the same date.
Of course, if the rumors are true that An 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 television.
Email Tim Goodman at Tim.Goodman@THR.com.
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