In 1971, a documentarian named Craig Gilbert began filming the everyday home life of a middle class nuclear family from California called the Louds. The idea was to capture a slice of Nixon-era American life, an anthropological time capsule that, by focusing on the trials and tribulations of an individual, supposedly ‘‘normal’’ family, reveal something essential about the times and the American character.
After filming for seven months and spending over a million dollars (an amount that was unheard of for a documentary at the time—cinematographer Alan Raymond famously quipped that it was “the most expensive home movie ever made”), 300 hours of footage were edited down into the 12 hour-long episodes that became the miniseries An American Family.
When it was aired on PBS stations in early 1973 it was a nationwide sensation. Americans had never seen an image of themselves reflected back in such a way, and they were absolutely spellbound. What was intended to be the chronicle of a typical, ‘normal’ American family turned out to be more uncomfortably real than anyone had expected, and raised deeply controversial questions about just how normal the Louds were or weren’t, and how much they did or didn’t represent ‘typical’ modern America.
Viewers found themselves introduced to characters like Bill Loud, the family’s fatuous philanderer of a father, and Lance Loud, their telegenic and flamboyantly gay son, whose coming out in the course of the series made him the first fully ‘‘out’’ gay person ever on American television. But probably the most memorable part for the majority of viewers was seeing the Louds’ marriage disintegrate in real time, right before the cameras, in the legendary late-series episode where wife Pat asks Bill for a divorce.
It became a seminal moment in television history, shockingly intimate and personal, and impossible to watch without squirming—the queasy faces of the Loud children, Pat’s grim and businesslike delivery, Bill’s affectedly-cheerful walk outside to his car. This was a depiction of American family life that wasn’t even in the same universe as The Partridge Family or The Brady Bunch.
In the wake of An American Family, America was abuzz with discussions about the Loud family. They became national celebrities who were praised in some corners of the media and smugly, ferociously criticized in others. They were derided as exhibitionists, as decadent ‘‘zombies’’ trapped in an empty life of affluent ignorance, the very worst example of American phoniness. Special venom was reserved for Lance Loud, who was called ‘‘a pathetic court jester, a Goya-esque emotional dwarf’’ by no less than the New York Times. With An American Family, American society had gotten a good long look at itself, and what it saw made it very, very uncomfortable.
But just how real was An American Family, anyway? That’s the question asked in Cinema Verite, an HBO docudrama that purports to take a look at the behind-the-scenes machinations that went into the making of the revolutionary miniseries that many credit with spawning reality TV. Directed by husband and wife team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, Cinema Verite is their fourth film since their breakthrough hit, the Academy Award-nominated American Splendor. And on the surface, it seems to revisit one of the central themes of American Splendor: the idea of average Americans holding the raw material of their otherwise-unremarkable lives up for public scrutiny, the complicated reasons behind that impulse, and the ways in which the scrutiny and self-presentation changes them as they attempt to control the narrative that their lives have become.
But while American Splendor was able burrow deep into some heavy truths about modern life with healthy measures of wit and humanity, Cinema Verite barely scratches the surface of its subject’s potential. It’s supremely ironic that, for a film that is essentially a cautionary tale about the media’s power to distort and sensationalize the truth in the service of entertainment, Cinema Verite ‘s barely-90-minute running length presents little more than a superficial, simplified (and some say sensationalized) version of this fascinating story.
The plot of the film follows producer/director Gilbert (played by James Gandolfini) as he sweet-talks abd seduces the Louds into agreeing to let themselves be filmed for the project, and the ways in which he subtly and not-so-subtly begins pushing and manipulating them in the interest of creating drama for his film. This is mainly shown in the ways he begins to undermine their marriage, or at least hustle along its inevitable end, ways which include flirting with and possibly seducing Pat Loud, and gamely using his (mostly invented) aura of film industry cred to help Bill impress prospective mistresses.
Although the Loud family always maintained that they were manipulated and misrepresented in the series, where the truth ends and fictional melodrama begins is hard to pin down in Cinema Verite. For example, both Gilbert and the Louds strongly dispute what is hinted at as the film’s central conceit: that Gilbert had an affair with Pat Loud during filming.
In response to Cinema Verite‘s release, Gilbert contemplated suing, and the Louds reportedly took a payout from HBO in exchange for keeping mum with their objections. Although their denials don’t necessarily mean it didn’t happen, the truth is likely somewhere in between, and it’s a shame that Cinema Verite doesn’t take the time to paint a richer picture of this fascinating and multilayered story, instead opting for a trite ‘‘movie of the week’’ style treatment.
One bright spot is that, in the central role, Diane Lane manages to easily steal the show from her costars by perfectly embodying the enigmatic allure of Pat Loud, who enthralled America as a liberated, progressive, intellectual woman trapped within a loveless marriage to an oaf and a general sense of suffocating suburban ennui. Alongside her as Bill Loud, Tim Robbins manages to use his darting eyes and tight, awkward smile to give us occasional hints of the fear and sadness lurking behind Bill’s all-American façade, but for the most part he phones in a performance that relies more on loud shirts and blowdried ‘70s hair than any serious acting on his part. For his part, Gandolfini ably plays the two-faced showbiz sleaze, but at the end of the day it’s little more than a one-dimensional caricature.
As is often the case with docudramas, the real story of the Louds is so much more engrossing and interesting than the smoothed-out and simplified version presented here. Early in the film, while pitching his documentary idea to a boardroom of public television bigwigs, Gandolfini’s character declares, “We’ve gone to the moon and beyond, but we have yet to get past the American front door.” Unfortunately, Cinema Verite‘s superficial take leaves us still on the outside, looking in.
The DVD from HBO Films features a token ‘making of’ montage and a commentary from Diane Lane and directors Berman and Pulcini that seems to describe a much more interesting film than the one actually being shown.