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In 1971 an all American family from Santa Barbara in California were
chosen, seemingly at random, to take part in a TV experiment. It was to
become the world's first reality TV show called "An American Family"
and its stars, the Loud family both by name and at times by nature,
were to become national phenomena.
But to get to legendary status the show's producer, Craig Gilbert, had a pretty hard sell to the board of TV company PBS who were reluctant, to say the least, to commit to the show and began to baulk at the cost of production as the film stock costs (in particular) began to mount.
Their concern was about the "view-ability" of the show and whether it would find an audience. They needn't have worried because what gradually emerged was a tale of a swinging misogynist father (Tim Robbins), a hopeless and helpless (but sultry in Gilbert's opinion) Mom played brilliantly by Diane Lane and a screamingly gay son, Lance, played gleefully by Thomas Dekker. Not to mention a looky-likey Rolling Stones band fronted by the other two boys.
But it's what's going on in the mind of Producer Gilbert (played masterfully by James Gandolfini with a very unlikely full beard and absolutely no gangster element whatsoever to draw on) that is the meat of the movie. Well, I say a movie but it's actually a documentary set within a drama, about a reality TV documentary that turns out larger than life than any drama.
At points we see side by side comparisons between the "real" family and the 2011 actors. It's uncanny. Gandolfini manipulates all sides as he makes the "action" more and more interesting but in doing so contributes to the family meltdown and the confidence of his crew. It's terrific.
I don't think this ever made it to cinema, it's an HBO production, but it's great and I saw it last night on Sky Atlantic so is likely to be repeated at some time. If it is tune in because it's a little gem.
Naturally, it doesn't feel real. The first show of its kind, brought America into a debacle of sorts. Was this an "art form" or a voyeuristic trip into the unknown? Now, the whole thing feels manipulated, fragmented and utterly unreal. The gay son, brought the situation into the main stream but it was misunderstood, or was it? The one thing I got out of this films was a superlative performance by Diane Lane. She is truly extraordinary. But the task of reproducing the "moment" feels a bit all over the place. Going from highlight to highlight, if you didn't know about it you still won't really understand. This is no Truman Show. The dramatic structure seems not merely uncertain but downright opportunistic. Needless to say, I was disappointed.
"Cinema Verite" may be a new art form: a drama shot in semi-documentary
style about a documentary series (shot in 1971, televised nationally in
1973) which itself hovered between the spontaneous and the rehearsed.
This 90-minute effort takes about a third of its running time time to
get off the ground, but when it does it becomes fascinating as both
sociology and drama.
At first it seems as if there is no point in re-enacting the back story to the famous series that followed the ups and downs of the upper-middle-class Loud family of Santa Barbara. Nothing particularly interesting happens as a producer (James Gandolfini) talks a married couple (Diane Lane and Tim Robbins) into allowing cameras into their lives for an unprecedentedly close look at the perfect American family. The real drama begins only when the participants are forced to grapple with the big choices (what and what not to film, what and what not to do when the camera is rolling, how to handle the fact that their lives have decisively changed once the cameras entered). The actors here give themselves totally to this multi-leveled process and come out with flying colors.
We see the actual Loud family in snippets from the original series juxtaposed with their contemporary impersonators who seamlessly fill their shoes, sometimes in mid- conversation. The casting is very good; the resemblances are striking. (But as close a match as Diane Lane is to Pat Loud, Demi Moore would have been even closer.) Some clever member of the creative team even decided to frame the whole enterprise with Mama Cass's 1969 song hit "Dream a Little Dream of Me" (originally a hit in 1931, about 40 years before "An American Family"'s time), allowing the song to surface again, 40 more years down the road, as underscoring to an examination of "the first reality show." A neat touch.
One thing they got wrong was the performance of the underground play "Vain Victory" which the mother attends in the company of her gay son, Lance. The performers and venue for such ragtag productions were a lot funkier than depicted in this otherwise spot-on production. Of course, by 2011 cultural standards such drag acts are as tame and commonplace as Twinkies, but they were enough to drive Pat Loud out of the room back in '71.
This film speaks volumes about the ethical dilemmas doc-makers (and "reality TV" producers) all-too-frequently face. Some choose to do the ethical thing and tell an unvarnished truth, most are happy to sell their soul for ratings. Strong filmmaking from the folks who brought us American Splendor and have now once again cut to the heart of the American Dream. If you watch "reality TV" and believe it, this is mandatory viewing. Diane Lane will break your heart, Tim Robbins shatters deeply held delusions about the Playboy/Esquire lifestyle and James Gandofini's strong performance is a scream in the dark urging us to dump the junk TV and watch more substantial fare. This is great American filmmaking.
"One must never let the public behind the scenes for they are easily disillusioned and then they are angry with you, for it is the illusion they love." The first successful reality show was on PBS and it was about the Loud family. The show followed around Pat (Lane) and Bill (Robbins) Loud and their family. It was the first of it's kind and this movie about how it started, what it was like while it was going on and the aftermath. I was actually pretty excited about watching this because of the cast. I have to say I was not disappointed at all. The acting was great in this and the movie itself was very entertaining. I have never been a fan of reality TV but it was very interesting to see how the genre began and the immediate impact that the show had. I do have to say though that as great as this movie is and how interesting it was to see the family problems come to the surface I still have no interest to watch the real "American Family" show. That in no way means that I did not enjoy watching the Loud family in this movie though. Overall, an excellent movie that should be watched. Very, very interesting and makes me wonder how accurate it is. I give it an A-.
Surprisingly successful HBO film, which takes on the tricky
multi-layered task of making a fictionalized docudrama about the making
of "An American Family" a 10 hour PBS documentary that was the direct
forerunner the surreal and semi-real world of 'reality television' we
James Gandolfini plays James Gilbert, who has the brilliant idea to study a 'typical' American Family on film, almost as if it were an archaeological document. But of course no family is 'typical' (particularly the upscale Loud family), and all sorts of sticky moral, ethical and cinematic walls are crashed into. How objective can a documentary really be? What is, or should be off-limits of a prying camera? How much do the personalities and needs of the film-makers effect the behavior and choices subjects, subtly or sometimes very dramatically?
It also explores questions about family, as did the original series, but with the value of the passage of years to give context and distance. What is normal? Who are the heroes and villains in the complexities of family life? Are things ever that simple? Why do so many of us want to be seen, known? Or at least think we do?
It's very impressive that an 86 minute film can address so many of these questions so intelligently, entertainingly, disturbingly and ultimately movingly. The acting is all solid, with Diane Lane giving what may be the most impressive performance of her career, disappearing into the role of Pat Loud, the confused, self-searching mother.
While one could validly argue that there was more to explore (e.g. why was this series such a phenomenon? Why are we so driven to watch the train wrecks of other's lives?) this film does a terrific job of self-awarely playing with multiple layers and meanings of 'reality'. Not least when we briefly see footage of the real family cut in. Not surprising from these filmmakers, who also played with various levels of drama vs. reality so well in "American Splendor".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The movie examines the filming of a ground-breaking PBS documentary
called, "An American Family," in 1971, which was the first time a
family allowed cameras into their home life and would become the first
"reality show." Pat and Bill Loud (Diane Lane, Tim Robbins), have a
troubled marriage but agree to be filmed because their family seems so
ideal; they're rich, the kids are lively, and they live the good life.
Little did they know that their life would unravel under the scrutiny
of the camera lens.
This movie would probably be appreciated most for fans of the original series. I was glued to the screen when "An American Family" first aired and was absolutely fascinated by it. The Louds became instant celebrities and everyone knew their names as viewers were privy to their most intimate moments. Lane and Robbins look and act a lot like the real couple and it was great to relive the train wreck that was their marriage. James Gandolfini is excellent as the producer who convinces the Louds to sign on, befriends Pat, and then reveals his true motives.
The original series was absolutely shocking in its day; the movie isn't memorable, but it is quite fun and nostalgic to revisit the Louds.
Modest, minor cable-made docudrama from directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini chronicles the would-be sturm and drang behind-the-scenes of PBS's "American Family", an eleven-hour series from 1971 which chronicled the lives of The Louds of Santa Barbara, CA. Justifiably famous as the first "reality TV" family, this bunch (mom, dad, and their amiable teenage kids) brought in big ratings for 'the education network', even though their lives were fairly typical and ordinary. Picked out of a society column by an ambitious producer, the Louds were followed around by a small camera-crew for some 78 days--to fill eleven hours of air-time--yet high drama was hard to come by (patriarch Bill Loud had the wandering eye; eldest son Lance Loud was a flamboyant singer who had already moved to New York City when production began; while spouse Pat Loud, strong and confident, was the glue who kept kids and husband together). There wasn't much happening behind--nor in front of!--the lens, except for some mild flirting between Pat and the crafty, cunning producer, and Pat's discovery that her husband had been carrying on affairs with a number of different women. The editors of the actual show had a tough time piecing together enough watchable product, while this rendering of events, penned by the estimable David Seltzer, suffers the same fate. The groovy production-design is spot-on, and Diane Lane has several strong moments portraying Pat...yet this American family simply wasn't cliffhanger material. It all seems much ado about nothing.
I wasn't born when the Louds became a major deal in the American public
consciousness, as the first sort of "reality" family, but that doesn't
matter as I should still be able to take this story on its own terms
(for example, what if hypothetically it was all made up, how would it
work as a story unto itself). Of course the filmmakers are adept at
taking real life and spinning it into docudrama - their breakout
sensation was an adaptation of the real life guy who made the comic
book American Splendor, Harvey Pekar, which included interviews with
the real life subjects - so one would expect this to have some
authenticity as it's all about the realm of what is real-real and
camera-real. One wonders what the Maysles thought of this filmmaker
As it stands this man, played here by the late James Gandolfini (in the kind of performance that makes me miss him all the more, it's largely subtle work until the third act), is not exactly Maysles. I don't know how close they got to their subjects like the Beales (this made me think back to Grey Gardens quite a bit, also a "reality" movie in its way), but with the Louds it was the "All-American Family", and the ideal for Gilbert in the early 70's was to document it in an anthropological sense: what if aliens come down, after all, in a thousand years and want to see what we were like? It's easy to piece that together in drama, but then once you get the philosophies of Marshall MacLuhan into the mix, which this seems to also be alluding to throughout in a subtextual way, being 'natural' is difficult... at first.
This story of filmmakers following this family - which includes Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as the seemingly happy married couple of a bunch of interesting, happy kids (including one who is gay but quite happy to be in the scenes of Andy Warhol and the Chelsea Hotel and the like) - is certainly gripping for most of its run-time, and gains traction as the drama unfolds for the family. There's infidelity, there's marital strife, and there's Gilbert (usually in the background) with his cameraman and sound recordist in the house getting it all. Sometimes the family doesn't notice they're there. Then they do, and the looks to the camera give it away (maybe my favorite moment is when Robbins, as he's playing the patriarch in an exceedingly tragic and sad moment, gets a foolish grin on his face as he notices the camera as he's getting in his car - it's perfect, it's just how we all would be in that situation, to hide away the pain).
All of the actors can't be faulted in the slightest, and along with Gandolfini and Robbins it's hard to note point out Lane giving one of her best performances in recent memory. But there are times when things seem a little rushed... actually, a lot rushed in the final ten minutes or so, when the series finally airs on PBS and the family has to deal with the fallout. I wish we could see more of this, but the whole movie is only 90 minutes, and after giving us sort of a condensed 'greatest hits' of what this family and the filmmakers went through over several months (almost 80 days to be exact, however over much time I don't know), there seems like it's missing things. I wish there was more there there, and that may be a thing of 'no good movie is long enough' but it's more than that - by the time Cinema Verite wraps up what it has to say, and it's here that the Springer and Pulcini combine the dramatized with the actual of the family on Dick Cavette, it feels a little too little too late.
What if it had been more like 'Splendor', with combining the dramatized with the actual footage? Maybe HBO only gave them so much time, but it feels off in that way. But what is here is still mostly substantial for drama and pathos, and they even get us to feel for a character as lousy (at least from what we can see) as Mr. Loude, in part due to Robbins but also just solid writing. On the whole a little simplistically drawn, and at the same time in the small moments it carries a lot of worth. And to think how far we've come... or fallen, I should say, with what people will let themselves be seen as in "reality" television.
In 1973, PBS aired reality show 'An American Family' after filming the
Loud family for a year. It's 1971 in Santa Barbara. Filmmaker Craig
Gilbert (James Gandolfini) meets Pat Loud (Diane Lane) but she's
reluctant at first. Her confident Nixon-supporting often-absent
womanizing husband Bill (Tim Robbins) is more interested. They have
four kids. Lance (Thomas Dekker) is the gay son in NYC that Bill is
still clueless about. Kevin (Johnny Simmons) and Grant (Nick Eversman)
have their band. Delilah is the 16 year old having fun. Michelle
(Kaitlyn Dever) is the youngest. Newlyweds Susan (Shanna Collins) and
Alan Raymond (Patrick Fugit) are filming them.
I don't know how much of this has been fictionalized. It feels very over-dramatized. In many ways, this movie is misguided. A film about the Louds would be fine. This is about the show about the Louds. It's the filmmaking and the process behind the scenes that is more important. This is trying too hard to recreate the TV show. The use of the old footage side-by-side with the new footage only re-enforces that idea. It's at best a recreation of the behind-the-scene story. Gilbert's conflict with the Raymonds is probably the best moments of this film. The personal drama of the family is good but without the cameras would be just another personal movie. This should be more about the filmmakers than about the family.
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