The Making of the First American Reality Show
In 1971, Public Television began to film the first reality show, “An American Family” about the Louds, a “typical” American family. The Louds were an upper-middle class family living in Santa Barbara, California who were convinced by a producer (played here by James Gandolfini) to film their family during the course of their lives. Diane Ladd and Tim Robbins are the parents who agreed to allow the cameras to enter their lives for what was to be a close look at an American family. Drama began when the family members had to face real choices and how they would deal with their lives once the cameras became a part of them. The result was interesting and this documentary on the documentary is fascinating.
Interspersed with the new film are clips from the original series and it is amazing how the new characters take over from the original, sometimes in the middle of a conversation. This film says a great deal about the ethical situations that are faced in making a documentary and here the film tells the truth without selling out. The original show brought us into a new age of television but looking back at it now (I have the original which was released on DVD last year); it seems to be a bit fragmented, manipulated and not real. It was Lance Loud, the gay son who came out on national television that made the show a hit back then but I am afraid that the entire business was misunderstood by the masses.
Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini try very hard to show what the eleven hour series that chronicled lives did for the viewing public and big ratings were the result. Not a whole lot happened with the exception of Lance’s coming out and the breakup of the marriage because of the father’s cheating. I imagine it was very hard to find enough material to make this new documentary. Sure, back then it was amazing but today it is quite mild.
We had never experienced anything quite like it and it was revolutionary. Now the directors hoped that we would want to know what went on behind the cameras and we see that in comparison to what we get on the television screen these days, not much happened. “Cinema Verite” really concentrates on the technical aspects of making the film. I must, however, give Diane Ladd as Pat Loud credit for delivering a wonderful performance and she is one of the best things we have seen on TV in a long time. She even looks like Pat Loud. Tim Robbins, although he looks like Bill Loud, is weak and Thomas Dekker as the flamboyant Lance is quite good.
I have read some very unkind reviews but personally I liked the film. This is probably because, as I mentioned earlier, I had just watched the original (I missed it when it first came on as I was not living in the States at that time). The entire experience was new to me and that is just what it was—an experience that I recommend to everyone.