Television reviews: ‘Cinema Verite’ and ‘An American Family’
“Cinema Verite,” which premieres Saturday on HBO, is a movie about a documentary, the 1973 “An American Family,” in which a camera crew infiltrated the Santa Barbara household of Bill and Pat Loud, their five children and sundry pets for seven months, during which time their marriage broke up. That film, which aired over a dozen Thursday nights on PBS (still NET when shooting began in 1971), took 12 hours to tell its story; “Cinema Verite” attempts to incorporate the matter of that documentary, the circumstances of its production and the fallout of its broadcast in something less than two hours.
As an attempt to tell the truth about an attempt to tell the truth about the state of domestic relations in a time of changing values, “Cinema Verite” fails — it cannot help but fail — as anything but a platform for some interesting performances and a few explicitly, loudly and briefly argued ideas about where one should draw the line when you point a camera into innocent people’s lives.
To the extent that it may make you think about these things afterward, bombarded as you are, citizens of the television-watching world, by fractured representations of reality packaged not for your elucidation but merely your entertainment, the HBO film is time usefully spent. But you should not make the mistake of thinking it is “the real story,” for however mediated “An American Family” itself was, however warped its action by the presence of the cameras and the editing of the film, “Cinema Verite” is an exponentially less trustworthy document.
There are, to be sure, representations, with direct quotations, of scenes from “An American Family” — as well as snippets of the documentary original — but they are shortened and sharpened and polished and placed for effect. There are countless ways — the underscoring, the visual plan, the choices that actors make to build a character from lines in a script and, of course, scenes that are the work not of history but of screenwriter David Seltzer (“The Omen”) — in which the film represents neither life nor the object that is its inspiration. That doesn’t mean it’s intellectually without merit, or that it doesn’t built up a head of dramatic steam once in a while — it does. But it is not any sort of authentic representation of what happened among these people.
Directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”), the new film stars James Gandolfini as producer Craig Gilbert, who conceived and largely shaped the series; Diane Lane and Tim Robbins, physical good choices, as Pat and Bill Loud; Thomas Dekker as their eldest son, Lance, ultimately the best known of the Louds (he was subsequently a musician and a writer and, as has been often claimed, TV’s first obviously, if not explicitly gay character); and Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins as Alan and Susan Raymond, the husband and wife camera-and-sound team who spent their days shadowing the family. The four other Loud children — Kevin, Grant, Delilah and Michelle — are barely present.
Lane is sympathetic in the movie’s designated sympathetic role, as a woman coming to consciousness of the state of her marriage and of her power to get out of it — do I hear Emmy nodding? — but Robbins is confined for the most part to playing Bill as a philanderer getting his comeuppance, rather than, what he also was, a hard-working family man who worries about his kids.
Dekker is a little too ethereal for Lance; he gets his sound but little of his energetic substance. And though I am grateful for anything that lets Gandolfini put some distance between himself and the ghost of Tony Soprano, his part is fragmentary — he flies in from New York every once in a while to sweet-talk Pat or argue with his crew, but the film’s one-point-per-scene, greatest-hits structure never lets him get going.
Gilbert has been accused of crafting “An American Family” to reflect his own soured view of marriage — his own had ended in divorce — but, even were that so, the series he produced, which will get a rare marathon airing beginning Saturday on PBS SoCal/KOCE, argues differently. It looks very much like the story of a loving, if not, for this moment, entirely happy family.
The problems and personalities of the Louds are their own, and as a guide to the breakdown of American values, the series is useless, although it was in its time the occasion for such discussion. (Newsweek put them on its cover as a poster family for the rapidly escalating rate of divorce; critics called them “zombified” and worse, but that too seems wrong.)
What makes it valuable — and it is one of television’s great works — is its assumption that life as it is lived is inherently interesting; it does not need massaging or even explanation. (This is not what reality TV assumes.) Though “Cinema Verite” suggests that Gilbert was pushed to push his subjects to deliver what we now call “good television,” 12 hours of the original series say otherwise. The heart of the series is not the breakup — which is followed by four hours of the characters continuing to live — but the ordinary life that surrounds it, life watched closely and for a good long while.
Of course, even at this length and degree of intimacy, it is not the whole story, only fragments of a story seen through a single lens. Which is why, I think, the best way to watch “An American Family” is to enter it like a bath, to live in its time, like a neighbor, viewing it not just as a sequence of causal actions, but of raw animal life, in the understanding that you will not understand what’s happening any more clearly than the people who are living it do. We are all unreliable narrators. But we are all kin.
When to watch: ‘Cinema Verite’
When: 9 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
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