HBO’s latest TV movie is Cinema Verite. It’s a look at the making of An American Family, which is widely considered to be the first reality television show. In An American Family, camera crews follow around the Louds of Santa Barbara, California in 1971, though it did not air until the beginning of 1973. The Louds went on to appear on the cover of Newsweek and on various talk shows as they combated the negative image the series showed of their family. In Cinema Verite, HBO attempts to recreate events going on behind the camera, not just those shown on PBS nearly three decades ago.
This movie, in between scenes with the new actors, shows clips from the original series. Great care has been taken to match the current stars looks with the people they are playing, and visually, it seems like the two are extremely similar. Snippets of personality and voice from the past also make it look like the actors in HBO’s film are doing a fantastic job. Without having see the old documentary though, it’s hard to tell for sure if the Louds are being done justice.
Diane Lane stars as Pat Loud, the matriarch and central character of this movie. Pat is shown to be open, and trapped in a bad marriage with Bill (Tim Robbins), who cheats on her constantly. Lane and Robbins have some very natural chemistry, so that even when they are fighting and their marriage is coming apart, they still appear to have the natural comfortableness that comes with shared history. Pat comes across as the victim in this movie, but she is also a strong woman that is willing to take charge of her life and improve things. Yet, she admits to have been aware of Bill’s infidelities for a long time, and she spends an inordinate amount of time cozying up the producer of An American Family, Craig (James Gandolfini), so how much of a victim can she really be? Is is just an act for the cameras?
The question of reality versus facade is the biggest issue raised by this fictional account of a pseudo documentary. Like much of today’s reality television, it’s difficult to say how much of the “documentary” is authentic and how much is somewhat scripted. The character of Craig stirs this pot when he purposely sets up scenes to force dramatic confrontation. Bill is seen saying a line several times to get the perfect visual. Son Lance (Thomas Dekker, brilliantly breaking any pigeonholing that may follow him from his days on Sarah Connor: The Terminator Chronicles) makes a show of not having noticed the camera, then “suddenly realizing” the crew is there. While some scenes may be completely real, others definitely are not.
The climax occurs as Pat makes Bill move out, and the uncomfortable film crew follows the husband out into the driveway. As Bill struggles to react calmly and maturely to this unexpected (for him, not viewers) turn of events, a real man is revealed. Here, Bill is shown when he’d rather be hidden. Emotion blossoms in his eyes, but he can’t react the way that he wants to without the risk of damaging his already-crippled image. So he does the best he can and gets away from the house quickly. Today, cameras would have caught his raw emotion from the backseat as he flees the confrontation. In this more primitive time, viewers must imagine how Bill will soon be emoting as his car fades from view.
The Louds, especially Lance, who is credited with being the first openly homosexual character on TV, embrace the publicity that comes with the series, at least at first. Pat later has reservations when things go south. But they want the attention they will get from the show, and after it airs, their publicity tour cements their desire for fame. This makes them typical of modern day reality stars, who delight in strutting around for everyone else to see. They are exhibitionists, even if their skin is kept covered up. As such, these types of reality shows will only ever show a certain kind of person, rather than a “typical” American.
The Loud family’s story does have its share of tragedy. Long after the cameras left, Lance contracted HIV, and died at the age of 50 in 2001. His dying wish was that his parents reunite, and sure enough, Pat and Bill are currently back together. Yet, they remain mostly under the radar, as they have been for some time. Which shows that there are real emotions within the family, and everything that has been done is not just for show.
The question remains whether Craig should be vilified for inventing the reality genre, or if its inception would have come about anyway. The real Craig seems to have been torn, and Gandolfini’s version is shown to have true affection for Pat, but goes ahead an instigates ratings-bait drama anyway. The reality of a Craig / Pat pairing has been debated, but it makes sense, considering that after this project, Craig hung up his directing hat forever. If he did not feel guilt for what he did to the family, and possibly Pat in particular, it’s hard to fathom why he would quit at the height of his success.
It is too late to stuff reality television back in the bottle, though some critics, including this one, very much wish it was so. Something in human nature makes people crave this type of false authenticity. Mankind enjoys watching others make fools of themselves, and even watches while knowing what they are seeing isn’t nearly as real as it pretends to be. For better or for worse, the Louds were the first in a long line of publicity hounds, who are famous just for the sake of fame, not because of their own accomplishments. And the practice they sparked shows no signs of abating.
The characters that best capture this conflict are Alan (Patrick Fugit) and Susan Raymond (Shanna Collins), who are tasked with filming the project. While they do feel disdain for the part of their job that is exploitation, they continue the work. Is it for the money? To protect the family from camera crews with fewer scruples? To find a sense of completion? Or are they just, despite reservations, as fascinated as everyone else with what is happening? Draw your own conclusion.
One benefit can be attributed to the reality genre: it inspired this HBO film, which is a fun, not not always light-hearted, delight. If you missed the premiere, it will be rerunning throughout this week. Be sure to catch it.