1973 PBS series ‘An American Family’ matters to new HBO film ‘Cinema Verite’

(Peter Iovino/HBO) - James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins in “Cinema Verite.”

Forty long years ago this spring, the public television station in New York, WNET, hired a film crew to move in with the upper-middle-class William C. Loud family of Santa Barbara, Calif., to intimately record the daily routines and mini-dramas of Bill, a mining entrepreneur, his wife, Pat, and their five children. The idea was to show, in the purest documentary style possible, what a 20th-century family looked like.

The filming lasted several months — long enough for the Louds to get used to the camera’s presence and become far more honest than anyone could have predicted — and reportedly amassed more footage than was ever shot of World War II. That was then edited into the 12-episode series “An American Family,” a sensational hit for PBS stations, which aired it in early 1973. It remains one of television’s most memorable and emotionally conflicted events.

By the ninth episode, Pat had filed for divorce and asked Bill to leave, as three of the couple’s teenagers glumly looked askance. American viewers, hitherto raised on the “Ozzie and Harriet” narrative principle, were at once riveted and deeply disturbed. Rather than criticize the producers (or the editing), they directed their scorn toward the Louds themselves, the brunt of which landed on oldest son Lance, a hippie-era dandy who was seen moving to New York and flouncing all over the West Village before running off to Paris (another film crew in tow), giving viewers their first good look at an actual homosexual.

Reality TV was thus born.

Or that’s the simplest theme conveyed by HBO’s “Cinema Verite” (airing Saturday night), an intriguing but often clumsy new movie about the making of the TV show. Through the magic of dramatization, the film blows the dust off the Louds’ 15 minutes of fame for the purpose of ushering viewers through a hall of media mirrors.

Though advertised as an introduction to Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s rightful TV ancestors, “Cinema Verite” gets too busy too fast, simplifying and overlooking much of what initially made “An American Family” the sociological treasure trove it still is.

Here, actual footage from “An American Family” occasionally merges with “Cinema Verite’s” behind-the-scenes story of how the show came to be. In the lead role of Pat Loud, Diane Lane is easily the film’s strongest asset, bringing back Pat’s giant Jackie O. sunglasses and constant scotch-and-sodas — the same way Pat herself dominated the original series and gave the whole thing a hazy, Joan Didionesque, California ennui.

To watch the original series (which you definitely should if possible — more on that in a moment) is to wonder why the Louds ever agreed to do it in the first place.

“Cinema Verite” offers simple human vanity as explanation — the same reason given nowadays for all those women who proffer themselves at “The Bachelor’s” sacrificial altar — but also journalistic seduction: A New York producer, Craig Gilbert (played here by James Gandolfini), arrives in Santa Barbara in search of a “typical” yet appealingly telegenic family willing to be filmed for several months. He claims to want pure, unfiltered, documentary reality.

After Gilbert’s sweet talk, the Louds agree to it. But skeptical executives at WNET still had to be persuaded to fork over money for the project. In “Cinema Verite,” the producer pleads his case: “We’ve gone to the moon and beyond, but we have yet to get past the American front door.”

Gilbert hires newlywed filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond (played by Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) to embed with the Louds, where it is immediately apparent that their familial bliss is not as it first seemed. In “Cinema Verite’s” distilled telling, Pat sees the TV series as a way to bring philandering Bill (Tim Robbins) back into a tighter family circle, the ultimate act of putting on appearances. But as the filming progresses, she becomes more suspicious of the producer’s intent.

“I’d like to see the footage [so far] and find out what else I don’t know about my family and what you’re aiming for with any of this,” Pat angrily demands of Gilbert.

“All right,” he says. “Think of a spaceship landing on Earth a thousand years from now and finding a time capsule. Inside that time capsule is a film, and on that film everyone is smiling and safe in the certainty of each other’s love. But, as it turns out, all the aliens found was an old episode of ‘The Partridge Family.’ Now is that what we really want to leave behind as a culture? Something that is the complete antithesis of how we live, fumbling around in confusion?”

“The Louds are not confused and they are not fumbling around,” Pat stammers, and storms off, even as the camera keeps filming. (A scene that doesn’t exist in the original series, of course.)

With this sort of dialogue from David Seltzer’s awkward screenplay, “Cinema Verite” comes across as hurried pantomime taken from a chapter out of a media-studies textbook. For all Lane gives to her part, Robbins acts as if he’s only mildly interested in playing Bill, weirdly mirroring the actual Louds’ marital disconnect; it seems he doesn’t want to be there. As Lance, Thomas Dekker relies entirely on an approximate impression of the young man’s swish.

This attention to detail — replicating the Louds’ clothes, furniture and mannerisms — gets the surface mostly right but wobbles as a fully realized story. Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who made the much richer “American Splendor” in 2003, about misanthropic cartoonist Harvey Pekar), it focuses mainly on the purported ways Gilbert goaded and manipulated the Louds toward a confrontation, flirting with Pat off-camera and ultimately providing her with details of Bill’s dalliances on business trips.

Though it falters as biopic, “Cinema Verite” becomes much more interesting in its last minutes, briefly exploring the psychological fallout the Louds experienced when the show aired. The best part uses real footage from the family’s appearance on “The Dick Cavett Show,” where they tried to describe the horror of seeing themselves as viewers did and the betrayal that accompanies even the purest acts of documentary journalism.

“Anybody in show business would call you naive,” Cavett told the actual Pat.

“I don’t see anything wrong with being naive,” she defensively replied. “I see something really wrong with being sophisticated.”

What the movie succeeds at is to create in some viewers a strong desire to see “An American Family” — again or for the first time — which isn’t available on DVD and probably never will be. My educated hunch is because of all the pop songs the filmmakers’ microphones picked up from the Louds’ car radios and hi-fi systems. Those moments alone would be hideously expensive to go back and license, and it’s the reason why you rarely see today’s reality show subjects listening to music or watching TV.

It pains me that “An American Family” is not widely available, but on this point I have good and bad news: WNET is rebroadcasting the whole thing, starting Saturday night, but no Washington area PBS stations are airing it. (You can, however, watch chunks of it at WNET’s Web site, Thirteen.org, including all of Episode 4.)

I’ve spent the better part of the week luxuriating in the entire series, which was sent by WNET. There is so much to marvel at, not only in the way life has changed, but in the way people have. It’s as if 1971 somehow became 1871 while we weren’t looking.

What’s most astonishing is how close to true art “An American Family” really came, how gorgeous and heartbreaking it is, and how broadly it spoke to our society. I hope the aliens do discover it in a time capsule, because, as a child of the ’70s suburbs who grew up surrounded by teenagers and who observed a fractious marriage, so much of it feels, for lack of a better description, right on.

I also admire the show’s patience and sweetness, not only demonstrated by the Raymonds (Alan shot the film, Susan recorded an impressive array of sound) but also by Gilbert and WNET: Far from sensationalizing, “An American Family” unspools for viewers yards and yards of mundane but beautiful footage — of Delilah’s dance recital; of Grant’s garage-band rehearsals; of Bill’s business trips to rural strip mines to admire shoveling equipment — especially when compared with the frantically slapdash, heavily narrated reality TV of today, which is so busy handing out roses to bachelorettes that it never stops to smell a rose.

I’m not sure I quite buy “Cinema Verite’s” central thesis anyhow — that “An American Family” begat all other attempts at reality. Its only worthy present-day descendent is ABC’s comedy “Modern Family,” in which a fictional, extended Southern California family has apparently allowed a (faux, unseen) documentary film crew to follow them around.

The real mystery is how, despite the success of “An American Family,” Hollywood held off mimicking it. A full 19 years elapsed between the broadcast of “An American Family” and the dawn of MTV’s “The Real World” in 1992. And nearly another decade passed before “Survivor” and a few other shows ushered in the cheap and contrived reality programming era we must now endure. Still, “Cinema Verite’s” point is well taken: Someone’s family had to be first to jump into the volcano. It might as well have been the Louds.

And then what? The four surviving Loud children, all in their 50s now, were once viewed as apathetically lost and dopey, yet each found his or her own way — one works in PR, one is an entrepreneur, one is a promotions manager for “Jeopardy!,” and the youngest went into fashion design. Lance extended his semi-fame as the lead singer of a punk band called the Mumps and as a writer for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine; he died in 2001 from hepatitis and HIV-related illness — an event made into a film by the Raymonds. Lance’s last wish was that his mother and father would get back together.

Guess what? They did. Bill is now 90 and Pat is 84, and they reportedly live together in Los Angeles. On learning that, my immediate impulse is, of course, the worst one: I want someone to make a show about them.

Cinema Verite

(105 minutes) premieres Saturday at 9 p.m. on HBO.

An American Family

is not scheduled to air on Washington area PBS stations, but you can watch excerpts at www.thirteen.org/american-family.

 
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