Before Survivor, Big Brother, and The Bachelor, there was The American Family. Cinema Verite tells how PBS allowed Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) to pursue a documentary where a “typical American family” was filmed over a few months to provide a reasonable look at at what it was like to be “normal.” But, of course, putting people on camera all the time means that nothing will be normal or reasonable about what the camera sees.
Gilbert seems fascinated by Pat Loud (Diane Lane), a woman who has a mind left to its own devices by the frequent travels of her businessman husband Bill (Tim Robbins). Pat, an avid reader, understands Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa and wants to be able to exhibit the life of a mother and wife who is confined to the home while her husband lives a more glamorous life outside of the home. Bill initially opposes the opportunity, asking how the family will benefit but really focusing on whether or not they’ll profit financially. But Bill first uses the opportunity to stick it to Pat, and Pat becomes the one more concerned about what will actually be onscreen.
The filming is further complicated by the eldest Loud son, Lance (Thomas Dekker), who shows a more flamboyant desire for his life than his parents are really comfortable with, but which allows the Gilbert film crew to catch some steamier stuff on film than what he could’ve expected. Gilbert finds himself grasping for more dynamic material, as the producers behind the filming push him to create more drama in a world that pushes beyond the last frontier or, as he calls it, “the threshold of the American home.”
In our world now, nothing that happens here is all that surprising. The dysfunction, the arguments, and the confrontations are all par for the course in the shows we watch now, but the initial shock of the taping must’ve been something. The HBO film (to distinguish from the actual documentary) allows us to see some footage from the original show and the fictionalized version with actors, and the dynamic between Lane-Robbins-Gandolfini makes for some fascinating television even if the whole thing seems doomed from the start, like watching Titanic.
What’s abundantly evident to me in watching the film is that people behave differently with the camera on. That includes every member of the Loud family, like the brothers intent on being the next rock stars, and the people in the community around them (like the woman who inserts herself into the narrative by offering up free product from her dress store). In the end, fiction and reality are completely confused, and the family spirals out of control. Notes at the end allow us a bit of resolution toward where the family is now, but the overall vibe is that one can’t end up onscreen without becoming tainted by the process itself: there can be no Cinema Verite.
This 2011 movie is rather fascinating, and it holds with it a morality message about privacy and family. In a technological age, we can all be swept up in an expectation where we have no privacy, but what we lack in privacy is what we’ve given away. As a family, the Louds finally recognize what they do have together and band together, and close the door on their wide-open lives. It’s a shame that everyone who has been offered moments in reality television hasn’t sat down and seen this before (Kardashians, anyone?) because someday, whether it’s during filming or years later, I’m betting they’ll wake up like the Louds and realize that they’ve lost something they can never get back.