Someone once observed that the guy who wakes up to find himself famous has been sleeping with one eye open.
The wand of fame can touch any of us, any time. Talk back to an obnoxious clerk, and the next thing you know some gleeful person is telling you "You're on Candid Camera." In that instant you change, like litmus paper from spectator to celebrity.
When celebrity is thrust on an entire family, some interesting things happen. It is too soon to tell what fame will do to the Pasciak family of Chicago, brought to our attention Monday night in the PBS series of specials called "Six American Families." We have no answer yet. But sometimes questions can be more revealing than answers.
In 50 minutes we saw a classic generation gap in the Pasciaks, the parents relishing their Polishness and stoically enduring their jobs as sanitation worker and cleaning woman, the two oldest boys hoping to break into showbiz.
Host Paul Wilkes showed us the family during three days of Christmas when Gary visited from Los Angeles, where he has been trying to become an actor. At 21, Gary, the oldest boy, is attempting to cut loose from the neighborhood, the ties, the patterns of life he grew up with.
There are also glimpses of teenaged Gerard, who has organized a rock group. Which brings up the question: What happened to the old upward routes, cop-to-lawyer-to-judge? What happened to "my son the doctor?"
Fascinating, that these young men see only one way to success: by celebrity. Fascinating, because one wonders where they got this notion. From the media, of course, one replies. Yet the parents watch the media too. Was there perhaps some unconscious endorsement of celebrity between the lines of the parental lectures on security and work ethic?
In the film the father speaks to a younger son:
"Twenty-two millionaires in the House and Senate. You want to know why only millionaires get these Senate jobs? The suspicion that wealth helps candidates get elected. Well, there's no question about it . . . So, Tommy, you'll never make it. I'm sorry, pal. 'Cause I got 75 bucks that's set aside for you and that's it. So how are you gonna make it? Out of the question for us."
If that isn't a challenge to go out and make some bucks, I don't know what is.
Another question: How has the program already affected the family's perception of itself?
At the hour's end, author Wilkes talks to the Pasciaks, who have just seen themselves on the screen. They speak of dawning insights, prompted by the narration and the extensive editing, which works overtime to reduce family's lives to a "story."
Wilkes and his crew were with the Pasciaks three weeks, shot 40 feet of film for every foot used. There was so much material left over from the six family visits that Wilkes has written a book from it. He says he could easily write a book about each family.
"There are so many incidental things you can't use in 50 minutes," he said. "You see all kinds of things you can't really deal with. Loose ends. Contradictions."
In other words, real life.
Most of the six Pasciak children barely appear, notably the married daughter, Carol. There is no mention of Gary's background: Is he a good actor in fact? There is nothing about the family cabin in the woods or many details have been cleared away to better show us the conflict between Gary and his mother, which itself is given shape and urgency by the device of the Christmas visit.
Now, there's nothing wrong with this, Wilkes had a tremendous amount of information to get across. He was aiming, at a vast audience. As he put it, "Interesting vignettes don't make a film: they can't be strung together, no matter how interesting each is. Scenes in film must have a buildup and some payoff or else the viewer wouldn't understand what was happening or their significance."
In each case, Wilkes began with a concept, a set of broad American issues he hoped to illustrate, and he looked for the family that best fit the pattern. He was firm on this point: A family that was right on all but one criterion would be rejected.
He also tried to center each episode on an event: to show a Nwe York policeman's family during a "long, hot summer," to stay with an Iowa farmer's family during a drought. It didn't always work.
"Actually," he said, "it wasn't so much based on event. We'd go in with this idea in mind, but we wouldn't say that to the family. Then we let events take us where they led."
Question: Will the Pasciak family now tend to see itself in these simple, dramatic terms?
The Pasciaks were a family close to Wilke's heart, for he himself broke away from an urban ethnic milieu. He comes from a Czech family named Vilk.
"I was the last of seven kids," he said, "and the first who went away. The first one to go to college. I didn't want to be ethnic. My father was a carpenter who came home with dirty hands and all that . I wanted to wear paisley ties. I was the first to make the break. You have to slam the door, you have to say no."
His sympathy for Gary Pasciak comes over in the film. He feels Gary will come to appreciate his "very tight but very nurturing family" when he turns 30.
"I experienced a sort of success when I went away, but my family means more to me now than ever. I got an award at Marquette, where I went to college, and five of my six brothers and sisters came up there, one all the way from Florida, and they gave me a silver tray inscribed 'to our brother,' and this meant more to me than the award itself."
The bond Wilkes had with the Pasciaks shows in the film: Telling, closely observed details bring Garry closer to us than the rest, though it is the parents we see most of the time.
"We engendered great trust with them," Wilkes said. "They came to feel we weren't gonna hurt 'em, and we ate with 'em and stayed around the house underfoot all the time. They adopted us. After a day or two, you forget about the cameras, you just can't keep up a pose, you have to go on about your life.
For all the loving detail, the film still comes across as a show. It has dramatic shape, suspense, a beginning and an ending. Is this what celebrity means? Self-dramaization?
The six families of the series were chosen for their ability to weather the windstorm of publicity that will inevitably follow. They are specifically not "media freaks like the Louds," Wilkes said. "But . . . who knows what the fallout will be?"