By Alyssa Rosenberg
Reality television has become such a profoundly surreal, self-conscious genre, a country populated by socialites in leopard print, with a market economy based on the exchange of humiliation for recognition, that it’s easy to forget that it began in 1973 as a semi-high-minded exercise in documentary filmmaking. The PBS show An American Family, which chronicled a year in the life of a Santa Barbara family named the Louds, drew ten million viewers per episode, produced the first openly gay character on scripted or unscripted television, and whether the producer who conceived the show, Craig Gilbert, intended it, the series spawned a new genre. Perhaps inevitably, there’s now a movie based on the making of An American Family, Cinema Verite, which premieres on HBO on April 23 at 9 PM.
The fine cast, including Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Pat and Bill Loud, James Gandolfini with an almost oddly luxuriant head of hair as Gilbert, and an excellent Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins as documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond, does its best with the occasionally preachy material. And while the Louds are the center of the film, the dissolution of their family is less interesting than the debates that Gilbert and the Raymonds have about the ethics of their project. Both the Louds and Gilbert have objected strenuously to the script of the movie, which that implies that Gilbert and Pat Loud had an affair, and HBO paid the Louds a settlement. What Cinema Verite makes clear is how profoundly political An American Family was, whether in its representations of Pat Loud as a liberated woman, of her son Lance as an unapologetically gay man, or simply in its style, which was considered profoundly intrusive (or, given the perspective of people who excoriated the Louds, grotesquely revealing) at the time.
Looking at clips of the show, it’s striking how well HBO’s managed to reproduce the Louds as a family unit, as well as the emotional itchiness of people who were aware they were putting their whole lives on-screen.
Lane is a remarkable clone of Pat Loud, and Tim Robbins turns Bill Loud into a loose, bitter older version of his star turn in Bull Durham, a grown man making a fool of himself in pursuit of fun. They’re a beautiful family, though, and when Bill declares “We’re the West Coast Kennedys” to Pat early in the movie, it’s silly, but not impossible. Lane does wonderful work with a trip to New York to visit Lance, during which she eventually realizes that he is gay. After he takes her to see Warhol star Candy Darling in a show, the truth slowly dawns on Pat. “That’s your friend Candy, who wants to marry you?” she asks Lance in the club with the cameras rolling. “She’s a man?” “Well, I haven’t accepted,” Lance vamps back at her, upsetting his mother’s fantasy of presenting a perfect family. But she’s essentially supportive, and in the movie version, Gilbert woos her by promising Pat that she will be a role model for women who were slightly too old to experience the full force of women’s liberation, but who want meaningful roles none the less.
The characters’ sense that there’s something redemptive in what they’re doing, some cultural treasure in the ordinary secrets of American life, is poignant, given all the ways the genre evolved later. “We’ve gone to the moon and beyond, but we have yet to get past the American front door,” Gilbert declares in his pitch meeting.
Later, reassuring Pat that the project is meaningful, Gilbert tells her and Bill at a party to “think of a spaceship landing on earth a thousand years from now, and finding a time capsule. And inside that time capsule is a film. And on the film, everyone is smiling and safe in the certainty of each other’s love. But as it turns out, all the aliens found was an old episode of the Partridge family. Now, is that what we really want to leave behind as a culture? Something that’s the complete antithesis of how we really live?”
But as Bill and Pat’s relationship worsens, Alan and Susan, who have already refused to film certain moments in the Louds’ lives (they, unlike Gilbert, were embedded with the family) flare into open conflict with their producer. “What happened to all that fancy talk about the threshold of privacy?” Alan confronts Gilbert, after walking out of filming a bitter fight between Pat and Bill. “It has to be breached,” Gilbert tells them, almost pleading, aware he’s at the threshold of something entirely new — but unaware of the consequences.
The irony is that after Gilbert’s efforts (he never made another movie or television show afterAn American Family) and the Louds’ suffering, reality television producers today have almost no interest in American families, unless the parents have dwarfism, or the children have sex tapes, or unless they own a particularly successful pawn business. A genre that was meant to mine the drama in ordinary American life has blown past it entirely, slamming shut the ordinary front door that Gilbert knocked on and that the Louds opened wide in response. Divorce and gayness may not be shameful failures or secrets any more, but there’s something a little sad about our collective decision that our lives, in all their profundity and mundanity, simply aren’t that interesting.