Back in April, HBO aired Cinema Verite, one of their latest movies. Based on the original hit 1973 PBS series An American Family, which followed the Santa Barbara-based Loud family over seven months in a fly-on-the wall documentary style television special. Family was the first iteration of what we now call “Reality TV” and introduced the world to a new concept of entertainment. The HBO movie supposes to be a behind-the-scenes look at what happened outside of the scope of the cameras and shows what the American public did not see. Cinema Verite interweaves original footage with images from this version gives the film a bit more authenticity. It creates a seamless relationship with the original family and this new version of them.
It’s an interesting time for a movie like Cinema Verite to be made. As a society we have enough retrospection to be able to look at it as a historical text, yet remains extremely relevant today with reality TV feeling like it’s reached a fever pitch. Watching Cinema Verite with the knowledge of where reality TV has come today is particularly interesting. It’s like witnessing the moment a car skids off the road and you know what is going to happen next. Without An American Family we might not have had The Real World, The Kardashians, or any other “reality” programming.
In Cinema Verite, it was called a brave new experiment when Mrs. Pat Loud (played by Diane Lane) asks why anyone would want to participate in this intrusive over-exposure. Producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) says he is looking for “an ideal American family” to observe. He wanted to show what the American family was really like to counteract the idealism that was being depicted on The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family and the like. This was a time where people’s public images were important and conflict and inanity was not and there was real concern over how the family would be portrayed. America had recently emerged from the tumultuous 1960s where the notion of the idyllic, nuclear, suburban family was thrown into question by rebellious youth who saw their parents’ lifestyles hypocritical and staid. According to this film, Gilbert wanted to show the new American family that has emerged, interesting and volatile. Moreover, he wanted to show the matriarch at the center is now a newly liberated female role model who shows limited similarities to the demure housewife of the 1950s. Gilbert talks about how he wanted to make this documentary series to ensure that if aliens found a time capsule of our society in a thousand years, they wouldn’t only find films of The Partridge Family, something which, as he refers to, as depicting the complete antithesis of how we really live: “fumbling around in confusion.” Pat Loud takes offense at this because she doesn’t want to give off the impression that they are struggling to make sense of their lives. This is the new American family, one which admits to its imperfections, but doesn’t consider them a flaw.
In its depiction of the origins of Family, Verite explores the Loud family’s initial hesitations of what the consequences would be should they allow cameras access to their lives. It was made clear that there would be no payment offered to the Louds so the American audience watching the show would know they were getting honesty and with money being exchanged that honestly would be lacking. That is quite a departure from the millions of dollars in payments, fees and endorsements today’s reality TV stars make.
Further, Bill Loud (played by Tim Robbins) asks about what would be private, and there is general concern about what would remain between the family and what would be accessible to the public. Right there, in that moment is the instant that the ideal of the reality Gilbert had been preaching ceases to be actual reality. It illuminates the notion fact all television is produced, edited and shaped to fit a mold that would be interesting and intriguing to viewers at home. Ultimately despite its intentions at honesty, this film goes to show just how unreal so-called reality television is.
The title of the movie, Cinema Verite comes from the style of filmmaking the documentarians sought to create. They are quoted in the film as saying they were attracted to this project because it was truthful, and the chance to do something “pure.” There was a real concern on the part of the filmmakers which dealt with their ethical responsibilities of entering people’s lives. There were a number of conflicts throughout the movie where the producer and filmmakers butted heads over where the responsibility lay – was it to the family who deserved to be shown in a respectful manner or was it to the audience who deserved to be shown the truth of what really goes on inside a family’s life. Of course, then, there is the question of “the truth.” What is the truth when the cameras are rolling? Is anyone’s behavior truly honest? And even if it is, there is an inevitable editing process that occurs which undercuts any possible honesty on the part of the subjects.
When the fighting between Bill and Pat Loud is about to reach new heights, the filmmakers, Allen and Susan Raymond, stop filming and refuse to go on despite Gilbert’s insistence that the best stuff is now happening and should be caught on camera. They refuse because, as they say, they have established a trust with the family care about them and don’t want to see them destroyed by his film. Susan threatens to expose his filmmaking technique by telling the world how he oversteps all acceptable boundaries. This highlights the almost existential conflict over what is honest and what is ethical. Because for them to honor the trust established with the family and refuse to record all intimate and private moments they are breaking the trust with the audience to be honest storytellers. This is continues to be a struggle filmmakers face today when making documentaries. It’s unlikely, however, that there this is much of an issue in the bare-all, no boundaries of reality television. Reality television today exists as an almost turf-war over who can make the most lewd show and who can embarrass the subjects the most on national television to be mocked by the entire country and the world, all for their 15 minutes of fame.
Of the family members who most easily adapted to the new intruder into his life was the flamboyant oldest son, Lance. This was the case with the original and is also made clear in Verite. One of the most charming sequences in the Family was when Lance took his mother to a drag show, and true to the original, this version also makes that the seminal moment in the film, solidifying Mrs. loud as the understanding mother and whose main goal is to support her children no matter what. Further, it was an early moment in the movie when she learns just how her life is going to be changed by this series and that her every move will be judged by society, so she makes a choice. Does she want to be considered the unsupportive mother or does she want to be the woman who encourages her son’s lewd and outlandish behavior. Early on in the movie we see what becomes an overarching theme of the movie: the importance of crafting a televisual image. When the cameras are turned on, nothing is objective and all has some meaning that can be made from it and Pat Loud learns that early on.
In a particularly interesting moment at the drag cabaret show, one of the performers, as part of her act, declares, “One must never let the public behind the scenes because then they will be disillusioned and then they will be angry with you for it is the illusion they love.” Speaking both to the audience in her theater as well as breaking the fourth wall and speaking to the audience at home, she acknowledges the lasting effect of Family and foreshadows the ire that this production with elicit from viewers.
Ultimately, the most dramatic episode of this movie is Pat’s decision to divorce her husband. In a meta-sense, this is the climactic scene of both An American Family as well as Cinema Verite. When he set out to make the film, Gilbert didn’t know how things would turn out, but HBO does have the benefit of hindsight, so they were able to shape the narrative of the film to lead up to this dramatic crescendo. From the first few minutes of the movie, there is an almost constant allusion to Pat’s unhappiness with her husband’s constant traveling. Further, Verite shows the development a close friendship between Pat and Craig Gilbert that, hints to possibly something more than a platonic relationship. The whole movie builds to the moment when this supposedly ideal family breaks apart. When the moment does come and Pat tells her children her intentions to leave their father, one of the daughters exclaims, “You can’t get divorced! We’re the American family.” In 1973 divorce was still taboo, while in 2011, divorce is unfortunately the hallmark of the All-American family. This comment pulls the viewer out of the narrative to consider what it truly means to be “The American Family.” Have our values changed, or has our over exposure to the inner-goings on of life just exposed us for what we really are?
A big question this movie brings to mind asks what role does television play in our daily lives? Is it a recording of our lives or a reflection? There’s no way to know whether they Louds would have gotten divorced had the cameras never been present in their lives. Video cameras can heighten the pressure and drama of any event, so the Louds might have been victim of that. The filmmakers spoke about achieving a truthful recording of the lives of the Loud family. Is that even possible? What is the truth then? Does it become what you put in front of the camera even if it is dramatized? Are there ethics about putting people’s lives on screen and showing their intimate moments?
Pat Loud tells Gilbert that she will tell Bill she’s leaving him on camera but she wants her kids and her brother off screen. She wants to be able to keep some moments private while also giving the audience what she has been conditioned to believe they deserve. Further, Gilbert has convinced her that she is now a role model to American women and by publicly telling her husband that she is leaving him, her role as such will be confirmed in the eyes of American women.
The movie’s last few minutes is dedicated to the aftermath of An American Family. Original news coverage tells of the 10 million viewers the show garnered every week and its immense popularity. It also shows the hate mail and negative press the family received. People say they are the death of the American family while newspaper headlines declare theirs, “The Divorce of the Year.” Referring to Lance, headlines question the acceptability of “Openly Gay on National TV” as Lance became the first open homosexual on television. TV talking heads called it “An American Tragedy” and says it calls into question “the” American family.
Why were they so despised? Was America being forced to see that the white picket fences we’ve hid behind for so long was just a façade? Furthermore, what has happened between the fury over the Louds and today when dysfunction in family life today is celebrated and networks fight to find the most outlandish groups of people to humiliate on national television?
The movie closes on a quote from Lance where he says, “Family is eternal…Divorce can't destroy it. Television didn't devour it. We're still standing. Loud and Proud.” He loved his family and knew that despite how the cameras showed them, they supported each other no matter what. Maybe that should be the legacy of when An American Family is: proving to the world that despite all else, family is of the utmost importance. The fact that they showed a united front to the media after the show aired, and that Bill and Pat ultimately reconciled because that was Lance’s dying wish, that no matter what family is paramount. Dysfunction often comes with the territory, but it is how we get through the struggles is what makes a family.
Was An American Family really “cinema verite?” Is truthful television or film ever really possible? It’s hard to make that claim, and even though it bore a generation of lewd reality television, maybe we should consider the lasting legacy of the Loud family to be their willingness to be honest and to show American audiences that the American family is one that is not perfect and has its struggles, but ultimately loves and supports one another.