Cinema Verite debuts tonight on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.
In 1973, PBS actually had a big, magazine-cover, water cooler hit, with a documentary series that bore no resemblance to a Ken Burns production. An American Family was produced by Craig Gilbert and starred Pat and Bill Loud, a middle-aged couple living in upper-middle-class splendor in Santa Barbara, with their four teenage children. (Their oldest son, the twentyish Lance, was off "finding himself" in Manhattan and Paris.) Originally pitched as a single hour-long special, it grew to twelve episodes, which Gilbert carved out of three hundred hours of footage shot by a small crew that, using cheap, light cameras and recording equipment, had basically moved in with the Louds and attached themselves, to Pat, in particular, for seven months.
By the end of the shoot, Pat had informed Bill, on-camera, that she wanted a divorce and would appreciate it if he'd remove his square-headed, adulterous ass from the premises. Cunningly, Gilbert assembled the material so that the first episode introduced the family post-breakup, so that viewers were invited to examine every word and gesture that followed for evidence of What Went Wrong, while feeling superior to the people on screen for not being able to clearly see that they were living a lie. (The second episode was built around Pat's trip to New York to visit Lance at his home base at the Chelsea Hotel, and instantly turned Lance into, depending on who was watching, either a thrilling icon of gay liberation or the Mark of Cain that God had inflicted on his parents to punish them for their tacky sham marriage.)
In the book 1973 Nervous Breakdown, which pinpoints 1973 as the beginning of the culture wars, Andreas Killen described An American Family as one of "the two landmark media events of the year", the other being the televised Watergate hearings. Both events were endless, droning affairs that held people transfixed because American institutions that had traditionally been treated with bland reverence on TV were being shown to be in an advanced state of rot, wormy with corruption, ugly feelings, and bad faith. Part of the mythology about the show was the idea that all of this was unplanned but was, sadly, just what the cameras revealed when they were allowed to get close enough; presumably, Craig Gilbert would have been happy to have been the Norman Rockwell of public broadcasting if the subjects he'd just happened to choose hadn't turned out to live closer to Edward Albee's side of the street. As Nora Ephron wrote at the time, it seems more likely that Gilbert, who conceived the series after his own marriage disintegrated, "knew exactly what he was doing when he picked the Louds, knew after ten minutes with them and the clinking ice in their drinks that he had found the perfect family to show what he must have intended to show all along— the emptiness of American family life."
The title of Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini's HBO movie about the making of An American Family, and its subsequent fallout, is a sardonic joke. In the '60s, the phrase "cinema vérité" came to define a certain kind of seemingly impersonal, up-close style of film documentary that was naively seen as having a special claim to super-honesty, even when directors like D. A. Pennebaker and the Maysles rented it out to rock stars like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones as a readymade style that would complement their own images, which were supposedly more devastatingly "honest" than, say, that of Eddie Cantor and George M. Cohan. (Anyone who's seen Mick Jagger in Gimme Shelter watching the footage of a murder at Altamont and claiming to be shocked, shocked, that the combination of stoned freaks, Hell's Angels, and "Sympathy for the Devil" could produce anything but mellow vibes knows that cinema vérité could be used to produce its own distinctive flavor of bullshit.) In 1973, Gilbert was quick to cite the inherent greater truthfulness of this kind of filmmaking in defense of his work, but today, An American Family looks like primitive reality TV, a form that no one credits with having any special claim to honesty and truth.
Gilbert himself is played by James Gandolfini, and he's the biggest thing the film has going for it. Gandolfini portrays Gilbert as a master manipulator with the veneer of a sensitive, cultured man. Sizing up Pat Loud (played by Diane Lane) at their first meeting, he sees someone who's emotionally hungry and intellectually vulnerable to his line of patter about applying the anthropological techniques of Margaret Mead to a contemporary American household. Constantly assuring Pat that he'll cut out any material that makes her queasy and never meaning it, he treats the family as his personal ant farm, though he enjoys making the occasional show of his fine ethical standards; sensing that she's upset about the prospect of Lance's lifestyle pouring into millions of American homes, he tells her, "I'd give you a hug, but I don't want to seem inappropriate." Gandolfini and Lane's scenes together have such a flirtatious undercurrent that Bill seems to assume they're having an affair, which he views as a chance to show the big-time TV producer what a sport he is by treating it lightly. This is a prime example of Bill's cluelessness: even if Gilbert weren't only hot for ratings and critical acclaim, he knows he can do a better job of getting what he wants from Pat by keeping his distance. (The Tony Soprano in Gilbert only surfaces when his film crew rebels. He's not about to waste time trying to sweet-talk people who are paid to do what he tells them.)
As Pat Loud, Diane Lane seems miscast at first, before you realize that she's not playing Pat Loud but the woman that Berman and Pulcini want for their heroine: the original sacrificial victim of reality TV. Lane effortlessly captures a classy-dame vibe that the real Pat sometimes seemed to be reaching for, on the show and in her talk show appearances, but that she had too much likable, vulgar energy to pull off. And she's too innocent by half—not just about Gilbert and what he's roped her into, but the man she's been married to for more than twenty years. She may have her suspicions about what he gets up to on those business trips, but it's only during the shoot that she seems to be confronted, on camera, with direct evidence of her husband's slutting around. In the memoir she published a year after the show aired, Pat Loud wrote that she'd known full well about Bill's extracurricular activities for at least five years before Craig Gilbert and his band of elves started lighting her home for twenty-four-hour camera access, that they'd been through therapy and experimented with open marriage, and that one of her reasons for wanting to do the show was her fantasy of all Bill's other women sitting at home alone, watching as an image of her marital perfection was broadcast nationwide, after which they'd presumably all do the right thing and hang themselves from the shower rod.
Some of this makes it into the film, in garbled form, but Berman and Springer don't seem to want to get too far into the likelihood that Pat was Craig Gilbert's collaborator as much as his victim, or to allow for the distinct possibility that she had some really mean feelings about her husband. She'd be the only person who saw An American Family who didn't. In the photo of the family that appeared on the cover of Newsweek, and that is reproduced in the movie with the actors in place of the family, Bill's facial expression—a murderous-eyed grimace that he seems to think is a smile—recalls Robert Crumb's story about seeing the same expression on his father's face every day as a child, and then later seeing that expression in a psychology textbook. It's pure nightmare fuel. Tim Robbins's performance as Bill seems to take its cues from the picture; he's an orange-faced goon whose only topic of conversation is the importance of teaching you kids the value of a dollar.
The weirdest scene in Cinema Verite comes when Pat, having informed Gilbert that she's going to tell Bill to get out, and having been persuaded by him that she has a responsibility, both to the project and to other unhappy women who might take courage from her example, to do it in front of the cameras, she suddenly tries to back out. The thought of humiliating Bill is suddenly abhorrent to her, and she tries to get first his secretary and then her son Grant to keep him from coming home that night. Somehow, they fail, and instead of telling Bill that she has something very important to tell him in the broom closet, Pat sucks it up, sits him down, and makes TV history. But with Bill's character amounting to nothing more than the latest in Tim Robbins's ever-expanding gallery of conservative assholes that Tim Robbins wants you know he's too good a guy to portray convincingly, it's impossible to know why anyone would care about his tender feelings, least of all a woman he's been humiliating for years. The most likely explanation is simply that the filmmakers were terrified that someone watching might think that Pat was a bitch if she wasn't worried about Bill's saving face. Which in itself tells you something about how much things have changed since 1973: in all the think pieces published about the show back then, many of which seem to have been written by Ward and June Cleaver when they were in an especially pissy mood, I don't think anyone expressed concern that Bill the human hard-on hadn't been awarded a soft enough place to fall. They were too busy expressing concern that God and the Soviet Union might drive us all into the sea if the divorce rate didn't go down.
Cinema Verite isn't painful to watch, but it softens and simplifies its subject enough to be really disappointing, settling for one more fashion show from the '70s. (The best movie about An American Family is likely to remain Albert Brooks's 1979 comedy, Real Life, which is based on the premise that trying to capture shaggy, unscripted, pure reality on film is maybe not the best pursuit for a control freak.) Gilbert's approach had condescension built into it, but Berman and Pulcini's view of the Louds as the defenseless people that TV ate is condescending in its own right. (This story could have definitely benefited from some of the meta playfulness that Berman and Pulcini brought to their best-known, and best, film, American Splendor, where the real Harvey Pekar and his family and friends, their comic book images, and the actors playing them kept elbowing each other off the screen. Maybe they were afraid of using too much footage of the real Louds because they knew it would make their versions of those people seem even lamer.)
And I was unable to detect any irony in the final twist, when the Louds, tired of hearing themselves condemned from every pulpit after the show hits the airwaves, fight back by going on every talk show that will have them so that America will get sick of the sight of them that much quicker. If, as Cinema Verite claims in the inevitable "where are they now" wrap-up at the end, Craig Gilbert "invented reality TV", the Louds apparently invented the media blitz devoted to whining about the unfairness of your over-saturated media image, and that's even worse. In 1973, a lot of alleged adults were really seemed to think that divorce and gay kids were going to be the ruination of America, if not western culture itself, and today, just as many people seem ready to pin that charge on reality TV. At the very least, this attitude strikes me as rank ingratitude for such fine wastes of time as The Osbournes and Breaking Bonaduce.