Married in America

[26 June 2002]

By Lesley Smith

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Open your own book

Michael Apted’s new series, Married in America, hit A&E’s schedule this week with the kind of fanfare usually reserved for Hollywood blockbusters. This documentary project, which plans to follow a set of nine pairs of newlyweds for the next ten years, has charmed both major newspapers and the broadcast networks. CBS profiled the veteran British documentarian and feature film director on 60 Minutes; NBC’s Today Show interviewed Apted and New Yorkers Chris and Vanessa, who feature in the documentary (along with eight other couples) on the morning of the premiere episode.

Partly the buzz comes from Apted’s current high standing in the multiplexes, with Enigma and Enough both in general release. Partly, as the reverential CBS profile made clear, it comes from the reputation of Apted’s ongoing, and increasingly poignant, televisual odyssey (almost 40 years and counting) into the lives of a group of British school children whom he first interviewed at age seven, and has interviewed every seven years since. (Thus the titles for the episodes in the series: 7 Up, 14 Up, and so on.) But it also comes from the sheer voyeuristic pleasure of prying into the most intimate details of others’ lives allied to the speculative space unveiled by the delights of deferred gratification. As Apted told Matt Lauer, “One of the entertaining things in why the long term is so interesting, is, you know, you can open your own book, as it were, on which couples are going to make it or not.”

Last Monday (17 June 2002), the book opened on a U.S.-wide snapshot of marriage in the first year of the new millennium. Wealthy Southerners Amber and Scott claim love at first sight. David and Brenda, both Mexican-American, still seemed astonished (and quietly delighted) that their initially not-so-serious relationship turned into a wedding. Californians Carol and Chuck, who have between them five failed marriages, five children, one grandchild, two prison terms, and Alcoholics Anonymous—all before they’ve turned 40—personify a touching triumph of hope over experience.

But while the parallels between the initial ambitions and parameters of Married in America and Apted’s earlier British series are promising, the unfolding two-hour film is less appealing. Although Apted himself exemplifies the almost lost art of quiet, go-for-the-jugular interviewing and the rare patience to allow his subjects more than a sound bite onscreen, this films shows signs of hasty (or under-prepared) shooting, the sacrifice of character to the schematics of geographic, racial, and emotional coverage and, at times, only a superficial interest in the individuals themselves.

The series’ similarities to the British 7 Up (and its successors) are striking. Both fix on social issues at the center of contemporary political debate: the disadvantages of class stratification in Britain in 1964 and the perceived “crisis” in the family charted by a one-in-three divorce rate and record numbers of children born to unmarried parents in 2001. Both were commissioned by companies outside the broadcasting establishment. In Britain, Apted worked for the then-youthful commercial television company Granada, whose crusading current affairs department explicitly challenged the BBC’s more politically and socially respectful journalism. In America, he’s working for A&E, more renowned for costumed co-productions and documentary series hosted by network retreads than for innovative programming.

Visually, however, Married in America pales beside its predecessor. Straight ahead news-style framing strips nuance from the faces of the interviewees, who all too often literally shine unflatteringly under harsh indoor lighting. Many of the covering shots, whether of weddings, pre-nuptial family gatherings, or the interviewees at work or play, owe their origins to news reports, not documentary filming. For example, subjects walk self-consciously past the camera while pretending to ignore it. Or the camera frames a wider scene in which very little occurs. These shots are simply visual devices that buy the film-maker time to run voice-over, but contribute nothing to the narratives.

The camera neither moves in for a kill (tipping the viewer head first into its subjects’ lives), nor pulls back enough to edge the viewer into contemplation, if not of these marriages, then his or her own. Nor is there much visual variety: Apted repeats shots, or re-runs in slo-mo a shot already used. Yet the mise en scene abounds with possibilities: Vanessa’s adoring coiffeur uncle in fashionable Manhattan, or the genuinely bizarre spectacle of a grimly desperate Catholic Philipino bride (Cheryl) and a Jewish groom (Neal), both wearing Mickey Mouse ears, hoisted in the celebratory hara.

The varying qualities of the visual presentation seem to reflect the filmmaker’s interest in his subjects. The story of Cheryl and Neal seethes with tension. His mother can barely conceal her ongoing distress at Neal’s failure to choose a Jewish bride, while Cheryl’s matter-of-fact practicality snaps whenever her prospective mother-in-law is mentioned. The couple have plunged into pre-marital counseling to discuss “communication issues” and the prospective religion of their prospective children, where Cheryl confirms her dominance of the quieter Neal. Yet Apted doesn’t probe below the surface (and he can probe with the deadly ease of a stiletto when he tries); he also doesn’t allow any sequence to run long enough for good manners to disappear and feelings (rather than public rationalizations of feelings) to emerge. One leaves the sequence suspecting that with this couple, Apted struck inter-faith tension off his shopping list, and moved thankfully on. The same seems true of Amber and Scott, who also embody a series of categories: cosmopolitan (she), all-American (he), comfortably well off (both), Southern (both). Their anodyne segment is memorable solely for the minister who claims that weddings are “boot camps for marriage.”

On the other hand, when Apted’s interest is aroused, as it obviously is by Carol and Chuck, Brenda and David, and Vanessa and Chris, the film both charms and provokes. Chuck, who was imprisoned once for the rape of his then-girlfriend, and once again for his failure to register as a sex offender, claims that Carol literally saved his life. She, in turn, with a heartbreaking honesty, tells us that it’s hard “to feel someone feels that way about you. It’s so intense.” While he can’t see his children or be alone with minors until his parole is over, their plans include giving a home to Carol’s daughter and baby granddaughter, and a white wedding that costs almost every penny they have.

David, whose previous relationship ended when his girlfriend died in a car crash, leaving him the single father to her child from a previous marriage and their own child, talks at length about his problems with fidelity, and the way that Brenda’s professional success (she’s one of the youngest Macy’s managers in the country) has fired his ambition; at the time of the marriage, he was an inventory clerk.

Vanessa, who abandoned her job at an investment firm to teach financial skills to low-income women, notes frankly that she, and her close-knit New York-based Colombian family, first found it hard to accept Chris, a white policeman from the suburbs. Chris, on the other hand, obviously adores this warm, exuberant family who invite him to Sunday dinner, revamp his fashion style and, once they decide he will “do” for Vanessa, adopt him wholeheartedly.

It’s hard not to suspect that class has something to do with Apted’s sympathies. His portraits of the two working-class couples, and of Vanessa’s rejection of fast-lane financial success (an interesting parallel to wealthy Bruce, in the British series, who chose to teach in Bangladesh and the East End) show strong traces of the very ‘60s, very passionate championing of the dispossessed that so characterized the first Up films. Only when his earlier subjects reached their 20s, for example, did Apted begin to abandon the somewhat vindictive editing that parodied his upper-class subjects in their own words. While it’s touching that Apted, despite his success (considerable), age (61), and home-base (L.A.), has retained his radical sympathies when so many of his contemporaries junked theirs at the first whiff of a five-figure check, it does produce uneven work when his charge is a global portrait.

Even at his worst, however, he is still a far more skilled documentarian than most of his television contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic, relying on the alchemy of his subjects’ voices, not the all-too-common vapid, know-it-all voice-over (check Leslie Stahl’s voice-over on the 60 Minutes profile, which aired 24 February 2002, for a good example of the latter), to transmute individual lives into a sometimes sparkling moment of social history.

For in this film, despite its faults, the audience really does see marriage, 21st century-style. On the one hand, it’s a cynical ritual: the wedding follows cohabitation instead on initiating it, and the white dress is a chance to dazzle, not a symbol of purity. On the other, it’s a chance for redemption. Couple after couple, whatever their status, whatever their chances of achieving it, articulate the same dream: a house of their own, tranquility, growing old together, the love of children and grandchildren. The American Dream is alive and kicking, and waiting for Apted’s next film in the series.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/married-in-america/