HBO’s ‘Cinema Verite’ Revisits Birth of Reality TV
Blame it on the Louds. The trash culture quagmire called Reality TV traces its roots to the groundbreaking documentary series “An American Family.” When the 12 part series was broadcast on PBS in 1973 it became a national sensation, setting off a tumultuous storm of reactions among both critics and viewers. The show chronicled an affluent California family The Louds’ real life in “real time” as cameras captured everything from the mundane minutia of daily life to the emotional turmoil of their crumbling marriage. It was so captivating, so astonishing, the noted anthropologist Margaret Mead declared it “as new and significant as the invention of drama or the novel.”
I doubt Mead ever envisioned “The Real Housewives;” “Jon & Kate,” “The Jersey Shore” or any of the countless shows that feed America’s voyeuristic fetish or the obnoxious influx of faux celebrities it has spawned. And the Louds– innocents in uncharted waters–signed on for the show without any true understanding of just what sort of invasion of privacy and scrutiny they would have to endure. “Cinema Verite, currently running on HBO aspires to be a bio pic of a genre.
Not such a lofty goal given the rapid decline of Reality TV. But “Cinema Verite,” which stars Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as Pat and Bill Loud, and James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert, the smooth talking producer who persuaded both the Louds into opening their home to the cameras, and the PBS executives in New York into funding what for them was an expensive venture not to mention radical experiment for the times, is a compelling behind the scenes look at a family under the cultural microscope. It doesn’t hurt that the film is so elegantly photographed using the beautiful California coastline to underscore the inherent irony between a discordant reality and perception.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini ( “American Splendor“) tell the story behind the story and as they cleverly meld footage of the original doc with their interpretation, blur lines between reality and fabrication. The casting ( and make-up) here is uncanny, as the ensemble so resembles the real family. Tim Robbins embodies Bill Loud’s contradictory swagger of a sexual swinger and political conservative; Diane Lane almost looks exactly like Pat Loud as she evokes the middle aged mom’s growing unease, further distancing herself from her philandering husband. Thomas Dekker, too bears a remarkable likeness to Lance, the delightful eldest son who was the first openly Gay man on TV. (The final weeks of his struggle with AIDS is chronicled in a sequel “A Death in An American Family; ” Lance died in 2001.)
“Cinema Verite” attempts to make belated reparations to The Louds, who recoiled at their portrayal in the series and the public lashing they took from critics who dubbed them spoiled and decadent. They are painted with a kinder brush, depicted here as an attractive, unique, open-minded clan eager to embark on an adventure; one Gilbert (Gandolfini, bearded, brash and bold but without any hint of Tony Soprano) convinces them will “educate society” and “liberate” other restless families. We see how easy it is to tinker with vanity. Pat wants to world to see her family as she does–as that stunning Christmas card ideal. And Bill is taken with the notion that his brood could be “the West Coast Kennedys.”
The film raises ethical questions about self-exposure and manipulation and answers them with fleeting insight. Gilbert presses for the truth, regardless of the consequences, while Alan and Susan Raymond, the husband-wife team who ran the cameras and sound ( and apparently were miffed over not getting a directing credit), intervene on the family’s behalf, turning off the cameras when emotions run too raw. The Raymonds, who have become acclaimed documentary filmmakers, consulted on the HBO film and remain friendly with the Louds.
Pulcini and Springer Berman, who are husband and wife, make the Louds’ marriage the focal point. The Raymonds, themselves newlywed at the time of the original series shoot, contend Gilbert chose the Louds, whose marriage was trembling on a precarious faultline long before the cameras ever invaded their stylish Santa Barbara home, to further his own agenda about the state of the modern American marriage. Much is made of Gilbert’s own divorce. But whether he helped the Louds officially break their matrimonial bonds, is up for grabs. The long rumored affair between Craig Gilbert and Pat ( which both deny) is played mostly as a flirtation here, with ample room for the imagination to fill in blanks. What is clear: Gilbert violated the “threshold of privacy” he had promised the family before they signed on. In one of the film’s most powerful and painful scenes, he tells Pat–almost matter-of-factly–that it had to be done to elicit the real drama, the true story.
Reportedly, neither Gilbert ( who, by the way, never made a another documentary after the series aired) nor the Louds were thrilled with the original script. It’s unclear whether either approved, or even watched, the final film. And while “An American Family” and its aftermath certainly changed the Louds, it didn’t destroy them. At Lance’s deathbed coaxing, Pat and Bill reconciled, and now live together.
I was too young to appreciate “An American Family” when it first aired. So I was elated to see PBS was running a marathon of the original series last Saturday following the “Cinema Verite” premiere. I watched a smattering of the episodes, viewing them within the jaded context of our low rent Reality TV reality. And I have to admit it seems almost quaint. The series feels like a real documentary, aiming for authenticity over artifice and in so doing is at turns fascinating, moving and boring. The behavior, the attitudes that Americans found so shocking in 1973 are tame when stacked up against the debauchery that’s displayed nightly nowadays. Don’t expect drunken brawls, wild sex, bad mouthing, backstabbing or crazed table flips. Most interesting to me are the powerful silences that commercial producers would never tolerate. Pat Loud may have been television’s first Real Housewife, but compared to the stunted mean girl drama and conspicuous consumption of the latest crop, she comes off as a chain-smoking June Cleaver. If you missed it, you can watch excerpts and full episodes on the WNET website.
So what”s the takeaway? For one thing, once the genie is out of the bottle, don’t waste your time trying to wrestle it back in. As Reality TV continues sinking to lower depths, so many have morphed into overtly stagy, semi-scripted shows that have all but replaced the lamented soap opera; with the worst of them showcasing and rewarding inappropriate, outrageous, even dangerous behavior. When Snooki fetches $32,000 for a Rutgers speech ( $2K more than Nobel Laurette Toni Morrison), you know we’ve fallen into a social abyss. The question is: Can we crawl out of it?
More and more people are blurring the lines between reality and fantasy as they manage and manipulate their own lives through facebook, Twitter, You-Tube and blogs. And I’m pretty sure before long we’ll all star in our own Reality show. I’d hate to squander my precious Warholian moments trapped inside a Reality show watching other Reality shows. But should it come to that, I won’t cling to the Louds’ naivety. I know what all casual viewers have surely discovered: The camera not only adds ten pounds, it can claim reputations, marriages, even souls.
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