LOS ANGELES -- A family living the good life in Southern California lets film cameras document what mom, dad and the five kids are up to, and the nation is shocked.
The gut-punch to the collective midsection is in part because viewers witness the parents' separation and a son reveling in his cheeky, pre-gay-rights flamboyance. But it's really the sheer gall of this exhibitionist family -- the narcissism! The lack of propriety! -- that is offensive.
Welcome to the reality of America circa the early 1970s, before privacy became a quaint notion and the narrow concept of oversharing meant anything more revealing than dad's account of his day at the office.
The HBO movie Cinema Verite revisits that bygone era and the filming of An American Family, PBS' series that put the affluent Santa Barbara clan of Pat and Bill Loud on display for 12 shattering episodes in 1973.
The Loud marriage splintered under the weight of Bill's infidelity and, it seems, from the strain of facing their problems in cinematic close-up. And television caught a whiff of the heady scent of reality TV that, decades later, has become a full-fledged addiction for the medium and its audience.
Cinema Verite, starring Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as the Louds and James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert, the filmmaker who lures them into uncharted waters, effectively and artfully details the messy, painful roots of the genre that began so improbably on high-minded public television.
We see Gilbert waltz into the Louds' lives, sweeping homemaker Pat off her feet with his proposal for a Margaret Mead-style anthropological study, a slice of 20th-century U.S. family life to thwart The Brady Bunch sitcom fantasy from standing as the record.
Gilbert and his crew, including documentarians Alan and Susan Raymond (played by Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) quickly take over the family's life. As Cinema Verite has it, the move delights friends and neighbors eager for a tiny slice of the fame pie but dismays their adolescent children. The exception is drama king Lance (Thomas Dekker), who was made for this moment.
Filming was a costly and awkward process in those days before the widespread use of videotape, with bulky cameras and sound equipment shoved into and dominating the family's once-personal space. Ignoring their presence was impossible and the Louds are depicted as alternately playing to the lens or fruitlessly trying to avoid its sway.
Pat Loud emerges as the hero of the piece, a loving if indulgent mother and a vivid example of someone trying to meet long-held expectations for women and family as once-rare divorce and other social upheaval pound on complacent suburbia's front door.
For Lane, Cinema Verite offered the chance to become enmeshed in a character that, the actress said, reflected the period's "shifting status and power of women. ... That's fascinating to me and, from a gender point of view, selfishly fascinating to watch."
Gilbert verges on filling the villain's role, with his intellectual passion shown diluted by a producer's zeal for a boffo project. But Gandolfini's portrayal is sympathetic: The actor met several times with Gilbert, now in his 80s, who Gandolfini says was so stung by the brutal attacks on An American Family that he never made another film.
Those behind Cinema Verite said they were careful to research and represent each participant's viewpoint.
"We wanted to make a film that wasn't judgmental," said co-director Shari Springer Berman. "I felt all the people involved in making An American Family were naive and innocent. There was no precedent and not one of them knew what they were getting into."
Some 10 million viewers made the series a hit, if a loaded one, for PBS. The relatively modest-sized audience by broadcast network standards was magnified by media attention, including a Newsweek magazine cover story, outraged opinion pieces, and damage-control talk show visits by the embattled Louds and Gilbert.
Mead herself deemed the series as significant as "the invention of drama or the novel" and a new way to look at the world by seeing "the real life of others interpreted by the camera."
The title reference to cinema verite --the fly on-the-wall, observational school of filmmaking as exemplified by such acclaimed practitioners as Frederic Wiseman -- is just as ironic as the label "reality TV" is for The Bachelor, Big Brother, Jersey Shore, and the rest of the manipulated, manipulative pack.
An American Family included such contra-verite elements as participants addressing the camera and narration. One scene in the HBO film depicts Gilbert as inserting himself into a tense encounter between Pat and Bill Loud to fan the flames of their marital discord so it might be appropriately captured on celluloid.
Cinema Verite tucks in brief clips from An American Family, juxtaposing the real people against the actors portraying them. It was a calculated decision to do so, said husband-and-wife directors Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who are documentary filmmakers and earned an Oscar nod for the screenplay of American Splendor.
The American Family snippets were included to remind viewers "that these were real people and this really happened," Springer Berman said. "It's so easy to remove oneself from that."
It's far less easy to jettison the baggage saddling the PBS series' participants and filmmaker Gilbert. Today's Louds -- Pat and Bill reunited after divorcing; Lance died in 2001 at age 50 of an HIV and hepatitis C co-infection -- declined to consult on Cinema Verite.
Probably "rightly so. They were burned so many times before," director Pulcini said. Family members did attend a recent screening, however, and told the actors they liked the film.
An American Family and the development of cheaper, more utilitarian videotape ultimately begat The Real World, whose creators have cited the PBS series as inspiration, Pulcini said. The long-running MTV series' offspring have multiplied and morphed, expanding and solidifying the reality TV genre.
Despite the elapsed decades, those involved with Cinema Verite consider An American Family a relevant cautionary tale for people who eagerly open their lives for public scrutiny and entertainment.
"I'll tell you one thing that was very clear," Gandolfini said. "I don't think one person I sat down with said, 'Oh, what difference does it make' or, 'The past is past.' Every one of them said, 'This isn't what happened.' "
After 40 years, they're still angry, he said. "This wound is not healed, by any means."
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