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|Index||12 reviews in total|
God I wish this was available on DVD or video, I remember seeing it years ago on PBS, late at night, just came upon it by accident and was completely hooked. It was truly fascinating. The 70's were so strange and interesting, and this is the real deal, real life. The quintessential portrait of an American Family at an interesting time in history. Series like this should be well preserved and available for future generations, it's a tragedy.
While channel-surfing last night I came across what appeared to be an old,
fuzzy color film of a drag queen review on Public TV last night. Intrigued,
I looked it up and discovered it was an episode of the old pioneering
reality series "An American Family," something I had completely forgotten
for the last 30 years. This was the episode where Pat Loud goes to New York
to visit with her son Lance, who was openly gay and living beyond his means
at the Chelsea Hotel amongst other arty young gay men. This must have been
pretty shocking stuff for the early 1970s. I really knew nothing about
Lance, but listening to his very young self rambling incoherently about what
he wanted out of life, I felt a bit sad for him, and on searching the
Internet the next day I found out that he had died from complications of
AIDS in 2001. He lived a colorful life that was not without success (punk
band front man, journalist), but back then in the 1970s he looked to me like
one sad, confused kid.
I still recall the media hype surrounding this series, and watching the premier back in 1973 when it first aired. What struck me most about this California family then was their considerable affluence, so foreign to my own life experience. I remember seeing a report, aired some time after the series had run, in which Corporate executive Bill Loud (the father) complained about the effect it had on the life of his family, and how his co-workers regarded him. That "Lance in New York" episode certainly must have given those old-fashioned corporate guys a good chuckle. But the report also spoke to the vehement class hatred which the series had unexpectedly stirred up. Letters sent to the Loud family contained threatening statements like "you'd better watch out for your kids," and so on. I can, in fact, vividly recall the Loud siblings being introduced one by one in that premier episode, and the shout of disdain my mother issued when the youngest son was shown noisily practicing his trombone in his bedroom. Why that disdain for such an innocent activity? Well, if you've spent your entire life living in cramped urban apartments, you know that you can't let your child learn the friggin' trombone at home (assuming you can buy the damned thing for him in the first place), unless you want to risk eviction. Envy? Yeah, sure, but sometimes it gets the better of you. Class hatred in this country seems likely be exacerbated in the next few years by both the major political parties. Some things never change.
This New York episode was certainly a fascinating time capsule of the late hippie era. I wonder if you can still climb to the top of a fountain in the park (as someone was shown doing in this episode) without getting arrested in what is still pretty much Giuliani's New York?
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
If you found An American Family dull, you weren't watching it properly.
In order to appreciate this documentary, you have to take it as a very
special, intimate look at a family with some dramatic twists and turns,
accompanied with a fascinating "slice of life" look at how things were
in 1971, the year the documentary was filmed. There are so many more
interesting elements to the program aside from the bits where Lance was
involved -- Grant and his striving for rock and roll success while
chafing under the expectations of his parents; Kevin and his struggle
to carve his own identity while being a good, honorable, decent, and
obedient son; Delilah and her struggles to grow up in a tumultuous
family environment while keeping up with her passions and
responsibilities; and Michelle and the roller-coaster of a ride she's
on as she copes with the gargantuan highs and lows of early
Then there's Pat and Bill. Their relationship and its attendant struggles forms the centerpiece of this fascinating documentary. Unbeknownst to the viewer in the first half of the program, Pat's suspicions of Bill's multiple affairs has been verified and solidified and this spurs her own to make plans of her own. But Bill is no ogreish cad -- he, like everyone else in this program, is extremely likable, so when he arrives back home at the beginning of episode 9 and Pat presents him with her attorney's information and tells him to move out, it is nearly torturous to watch. The whole of the episode is thus tinged with that element of sadness, even at the very end when Grant sits down with his family (minus Bill and Lance) and strums rock and roll songs. By that time you've gotten to know everyone -- and seen just how accurate Lance was with his overall assessment of his siblings (i.e. very accurate) -- and it feels like this is happening to friends or relatives of yours.
This is the finest example of the "reality TV" genre out there. It's incredibly emotionally involving, the Loud family are all very likable (something no other reality TV program can claim), it's a perfect time capsule for an era and a time that hasn't gotten much actual memorialization (only kitschification), and it is a highly entertaining program to watch. And it stands the test of time.
I saw this documentary, most of it, over a decade ago, and I would like to
see it today more than ever, because with the passing of time, the past
becomes even more fascinating. In fifty years it will be even more
fascinating. It gets better and better, as this slice of life recedes into
the past. Of course, the family is also inherently interesting and likable.
Not any family would do. There could be countless such shows, yet we seem to
prefer fiction to reality. And so, this one remains all the more valuable
because of its sheer rarity. Are there boring parts? Probably, but even
boredom is interesting if one is interested. No need to be fascinated all
I videotaped most of the series when it reran on WNET some 20 years
ago, and I keep trying to like it. But even to this avid TV viewer who
lived through that era and is fascinated by cultural anthropology, the
show is largely unwatchable.
The problem is that except for a couple of episodes (episode 2 and maybe the one with Lance in Paris), it's dull and slow. What made it shocking in 1973 -- the strangeness of being able to peek into someone else's day-to-day life -- has now been eclipsed by a torrent of tell-all talk shows and contrived "reality shows." Without the show's original voyeuristic shock value, ten of the twelve hours are unadulterated tedium (though I imagine a nifty 100-minute documentary could be culled from the footage).
I saw it when it was first ran and taped it when it was repeated during
the first Gulf War.
Despite all the pontificating and finger-pointing the Louds come off as quite a nice family. Divorce didn't "tear them apart" at all. They're still connected to one another to this very day.
Lance was of course the breakout 'star" of the show, thanks to episode for. The critics claimed he "came out" in this episode. But Lance was never "in," and his whole family adored him. Bill's disapproval had less to do with Lance's sexuality than the fact that he was goofing off too much and should set some goals in life. Lance tried a number of them, with mixed success, but he remained a terrific guy. (I got to know him personally as we were both writing for "The Advocate" and had many mutual friends.) His memorial service (captured in the documentary sequel "ADeath in An American Family" ) was quite an occasion, bringing together all manner of people in the arts and all the Loud family to celebrate Lance's life.
The Loud family did not reside in Santa Monica, but Santa Barbara, California. Several mass media books incorrectly site Santa Monica as the central filming location for this ground-breaking documentary. Otherwise, Zog-3's comments are correct. "An American Family" is an exemplary American cinema verite film. For serious fans of the documentary genre, this thirteen part television series is a must see!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I've been chomping at the bit for several years to see this, and it's
thankfully been made available - albeit in a severely truncated form.
"An American Family" was a 1971 experiment in cinéma vérité that placed a camera crew in an upper-middle class Santa Barbara household - The Louds - for a period of six months. The resulting footage was edited into a 12-hour miniseries that aired on PBS in '73. That miniseries would become part of the national conversation (for months) and make television history.
And I use cinéma vérité because that's exactly what this is: cameras observing the interactions and behavior of a particular subject matter. There's no commentary, no plotted narrative to abide and no comic music strategically used to let us know when we're supposed to laugh. So to compare it to the current crop of "reality-based" TV is both unfair and disingenuous.
Within the 2-hour pared-down material, we meet the Loud family (parents Bill and Pat, kids Grant, Kevin, Lance, Delilah and Michele) during a half-year that sees foundational shifts in the family. Lance, having recently come out to his family has moved to New York City, while Bill and Pat, in a gradually deteriorating relationship, file for divorce. Son Grant gets some screen time and attention as the apathetic teenager who squares off with his self-made man father over what he'll do with his life. The other siblings go largely ignored, leaving me to wonder what material of theirs was left on the cutting room floor.
And that's really my only beef with this disc. The compression into 120 minutes leaves no breathing room, and the other members of the family get backseat treatment. Aside from that, the image and sound quality are pretty rough, but this is a 40 year-old TV series that was shot on 16mm. No complaints.
I'm also curious as to how this family was chosen, and why the producers didn't go with a less well-off household. The house at 35 Woodale Lane is no shoebox, and Patricia's close friend even tells her "You don't even know what it is to be unlucky". Bill is constantly on his kids to be enterprising and work hard for a living; Pat and the kids, on the other hand, definitely come off as those who have never known hard times. Producer Craig Gilbert, in his introduction, says, "The Louds are neither average nor typical. No family is. They are not THE American family. They are simply AN American family". The choice of such a nicely-appointed household, makes me wonder if they make better lab rats for us to peak in on. Or maybe just see how other richer people have it in life.
The bottom line is this: this is an utterly fascinating experiment. It requires you to remember that this was filmed in a time and place where Reality TV didn't rule the airwaves. Manufactured drama wasn't everywhere you looked. So to see this family go through such shifts made for a TV show that was truly ahead of its time. I'm genuinely thankful to have what's so far been released (the full affair is tied up in music licensing hell). I see "An American Family" as a footnote in television (hell, even American) history, so I'll see it any way I can get it.
Watching this is like watching Albert Brooks' "Real Life" or "Network"; both posit such an outrageous situation that it's all the more hilarious (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) when TV networks adopt that absurdity for cheap junk food TV. This is nothing like Reality TV. This is history; bold, unique, and absolutely mesmerizing.
Regardless of the ethics involved, you have to give credit to that
Gilbert guy for coming up with the concept. Also, apparently he did
explain in an introduction that this family is not representative of a
typical American family. They are simply AN American family.
Having said that, what a depressing lot. The man with the "old-school" values of work and responsibility is portrayed as the square, and the outrageously spoiled wife and kids are the "cool" ones.
What is most shocking is how the kids and the wife are totally disassociated from the source of their material comfort. They have no sense that someone is working to attain all this. Although the dad makes attempts to teach them a work ethic, he is to blame almost as much as the mom, for not instilling the right values in the kids when they were much younger.
The kids' lives revolve around pop-culture and self-gratification. There's no God, no volunteerism, no work, and ironically, no American identity.
O.K. so the dad has been having affairs. Apparently the mom had one too. But she had such little regard for his hard work or values that she became a turn-off. But of course there's more to all that. This guy was very masculine and virile, and those types of alpha-males do often get tired of eating the same meal every night, metaphorically. They have voracious sexual appetites and egos to stroke.
The other kids seemed to worship their gay older brother. Yet in reality he was nothing more than a spoiled, lazy queen. What a loser. He was so full of himself too. He thought he was so unique and that he had outgrown the provincialism of Santa Barbara. But ultimately he crashed and burned elsewhere too. Even in Paris. The problem was him, not a place.
By the way, do all young gay men embrace drag queen culture and extreme flamboyance when they come out? I doubt it.
The makers did what they could. They focused on the two most compelling or sensationalistic aspects of the family. Those were the breakup and the gay kid finding himself.
Whether they meant to or not, what they really showed was how the relative affluence of American life can alienate people from and binding core-culture traditions.
One of the key aspects that makes this series compelling is the director's insistence that it somehow adheres to strict rules (if such are even theoretically possible) of cinema Veriee. So much of the "reality" we observe in this precursor to the current deluge of reality shows is very subtly contrived. Given the fact that Pat and Bill were on the outs well before the series started, plus the fact that Lance had already come out, much the seemingly real-time tension viewers experience is really quite contrived in much the same manner as a scripted soap opera. The show--even in all of its heavy handed scandal-mongering--does illustrate the strains present in many modern nuclear families and does elicit much interest if only for the fact that it captures the strange transition between the spontaneous daily drama of life as seen from a fly on the wall and the media's shaping of such drama to suit its own thesis. By watching Lance, who even goes so far as to tip off the audience by self-consciously parodying his on-stage persona, we can readily observe the innocent wonder years of PBS well before it grew into the great dictator of perception that it is today.
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