Whenever I TA for the History of American Television course, we always screen episodes of producer Craig Gilbert’s pathfinding series “An American Family” (1973). “An American Family” is notable for a barrage of reasons. First, it essentially gave birth to reality television programming. Gilbert’s program focuses on the upper-middle class, Santa Barbara based Loud family and took a rumored 300 hours of footage that was cut down to 13 hours. The camera and sound technicians, Alan and Susan Raymond, lived with the family for months. Yet, “An American Family” is more than a beginning exercise in documentary meets reality television. The show focused on what was supposed to be a typical family and through Gilbert’s editorial hand, slowly deconstructed the myth of the nuclear family. Through the show’s 13 hours, we are witnesses to the slow and painful separation of the Loud parental unit, embodied by adulterous business man Bill and his repressed housewife Pat. The Loud family Gilbert presents does not illustrate an ideal; it illustrates a worst-case scenario, complete with what was, at the time, a shocking representation of their gay, bohemian son Lance.
After the show aired, the Loud family felt dissatisfied with Gilbert’s representation of their home. Talk show appearances were made and Pat Loud wrote a book. What works about “An American Family” is that Gilbert found a focus: the divorce of Pat and Bill provides a dramatic arc. He opens the series with the disintegration and then allows us to see how the tumor at the heart of the Loud family formed. This past weekend, HBO Pictures along with Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (the team behind one of my beloved films, the Harvey Pekar biopic American Splendor) aired Cinema Verite (2011), a fictionalized docudrama that attempts to get to the bottom of Gilbert’s multifaceted production. However, unlike the original series, Cinema Verite lacks focus.
By attempting to deal with documentary ethics behind the scenes of the production, Gilbert’s dissection of the myth of the American family, the interrelationship between the family members and their relationship with the filmmakers, and the LGBT subculture Lance became an icon of, Berman, Pulcini, and screenwriter David Seltzer simply try to pack too much into two hours, leaving all those aspects underdeveloped. Gilbert had 13 hours to deal with two of those characteristics, perhaps too much canvas, but watching Cinema Verite is akin to watching Frost/Nixon (2008). Both films deal with televisual events, re-representations of representations of actual events. They are uncanny reproductions that beg the question as to why they exist if we can just go and watch the original.
Admittedly, the entire cast does a first-rate job. Diane Lane nails the repressed but paradoxically empowered Pat Loud. Tim Robbins does his best real-life Don Draper in bringing his interpretation of Bill Loud to the television screen and James Gandolfini, as producer Craig Gilbert, a filmmaker who never worked again after “An American Family,” does a great job of presenting a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Moreover, Thomas Dekker (“Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles”) is electrifying as Lance, but ultimately underutilized. If the Emmys and press continue to reward impressionists doing impersonations, I expect this film will take home quite a few deserved statues. Unfortunately, watching the film is like watching a living wax museum: the glossy appearance functions merely to disguise philosophical hollowness.
Cinema Verite attempts to go beyond that by dramatizing the relationship between Gilbert and Pat Loud, implying that he may have been infatuated with her and used his resources to influence the crumbling of the marriage with the hopes that it would save his floundering series. Yet, I’m not sure of the validity of these interpretations (the Pat Loud book is long out of print and I have yet to read Jeffrey Ruoff’s scholarly monograph on the series). What the film needed was more of the meta-commentary that Berman and Pulcini brought to American Splendor. By filming the actual Harvey Pekar commenting on dailies of Paul Giamatti playing Harvey Pekar and editing the footage into the film, there is a truth that arises from the juxtaposition. Now, documentary can never give us an absolute, indexical account of a historical event (a filmmaker must always make decisions, including on where the camera is placed and what footage makes the cut) and it is to Cinema Verite’s credit that they deal with that conundrum. Yet, acknowledging this fallacy in the form of a formally unsophisticated docudrama is merely that: an acknowledgement, not a remedy. Finishing the film, I felt that more questions had been raised than answers. I wasn’t sure what the truth behind the production of “An American Family” was and while I know it can never be completely accounted for, I wanted the film to at least attempt to address those issues rather than to (potentially) manufacture a narrative about a documentary filmmaker infatuated with his subject.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.