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Movie debut: Cinema Verite goes back to the birth of reality TV in public TV’s 1973 An American Family

In television on 04/23/2011 at 4:26 pm

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An American Family originally aired in 1973 as a 12-part documentary TV series offering a look into the life of Santa Barbara, Calif.’s Loud family: Bill and Pat and their five children, Lance, Delilah, Grant, Kevin and Michelle. The Louds were filmed for seven months, taking in Pat’s trip to New York to visit their openly gay son, Lance, who takes his mother (and the crew) on an in-your-face outing, Bill’s open flirting and Pat’s eventual demand that Bill move out. All these turns, and the fact that it was the first attempt at reality TV, made it a controversial television event. It riveted the American public TV audience, sparked criticism and horror at the cracks exposed and honesty revealed, particularly of Lance’s unapologetic gayness.

What the April 23 HBO movie Cinema Verite adds, other than boiling the series down to two hours, is to put the producer, Craig Gilbert, and camera crew into the frame. The movie asks and answers some questions about the ethics and rules of such intimate documentary access that now, in our time of Big Brother and Survivor, seem quaint.

  • Did Gilbert breach the then strict rules of documentary filmmaking that demanded no interaction? Yes he did. As the HBO film producers acknowledge in an interesting Q&A on the HBO movie site, he agitated and used his increasingly intimate relationship with Pat to urge her to action.
  • Did the presence of the film camera cause the breakup? Probably not, but likely expedited it.
  • Did, as Gilbert says in the movie, allow Pat to know herself better? To see herself with more clarity because of being observed and being aware of being observed? That one’s up for grabs, but stands on pretty spindly legs from where I stand.

Today, we take such manipulation for granted. Did anyone ever believe the “reality” part of the phrase reality TV?

In 2011, none of this is revelatory, but is the movie good TV? Definitely worth a watch. The actors – led by James Gandolfini as producer Craig Gilbert, Diane Lane as Pat, Tim Robbins as Bill – are all solid. The look, music and fashions of the 1970s are gloriously (and horribly, in my having-grown-up-in-it opinion) evocative. Also, despite how jaded we all now are, the movie managed to shock me, to move me back in time, to make me uncomfortable and uncertain what was real and what manufactured. And that is something.

Is the movie better than the series? I haven’t seen the whole series, but this weekend, more than 20 years after it had been seen in its entirety (though still crowned one of the top 50 TV series of all time by TV Guide in 2002), New York public TV station WNET, is allowing web surfers to watch excerpts from each of the 12 episodes and the full fourth episode. I compared the TV series and movie scenes in which Pat tells Bill to leave. Verdict? The real version was much flatter. Probably Bill was shocky. The movie, in a sort of extension of its theme, urged more emotion out of Robbin’s Bill and added a couple of actions missing from the TV series creating a movie version with much more impact.

So, distorting the distortion to make better TV. That seems about right.

Cinema Verite debuts on HBO Canada Saturday, April 23 at 9 p.m. ET (and repeats a bunch of times).

Click here to watch the scene from the series in which Pat tells Bill to leave. But don’t watch it until after you’ve seen the movie.

And if you’ve a mind to, watch excerpts from the whole series on WNET’s site.

Denise Duguay

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