What a smart idea, to look back at the making of what was in essence the first reality TV series, to untangle and study the more innocent roots of a jaded genre. HBO’s “Cinema Verite’’ is a tightly scripted new movie about the 1971 shoot of PBS’s “An American Family,’’ which aired in 1973 to huge audiences and a lot of harsh public judgment of the show’s Loud family.
A finely constructed docu-dramatic piece, “Cinema Verite’’ folds together the stories of the Louds of Santa Barbara and the PBS filmmakers who took over their home, and it adds in both real and expertly re-created footage from the 12 episodes of “An American Family.’’ Premiering tomorrow at 9, it is a period portrait of both media professionals and ordinary people grappling with radically changing definitions of private and public, fact and fictionalization.
Today on TV, we barely blink when addicts black out before commercials, rich people bicker between pedicures, plasticized singles hook up in hot tubs, and toddlers stress over tiaras. Forty years on, we’re inured to invasions and self-invasions of privacy, and there are entire channels such as Bravo, E!, and MTV that are devoted to the popular art of exhibitionism. And we hardly care that, although these shows are presented as real life, they are real life rejiggered and redirected into entertainment. “Real’’ is now a term of stylization.
But “An American Family’’ was made in the decade after Andy Warhol films such as “Sleep,’’ in which a man was filmed sleeping for over 5 hours. News cameramen were capturing war for the public with more intimacy than ever, in Vietnam. Initially, “American Family’’ producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) felt he was putting together a cutting-edge TV series, a new kind of extended documentary that would anatomize the family unit at a time of dramatic social change in the wake of the 1960s. He wanted to create an artifact for a time capsule, footage that would inform the future about the mid-to-late-20th century suburban American family more accurately than, say, “The Brady Bunch.’’ He hoped to stand back, film, and represent.
But early in the process, as “Cinema Verite’’ shows, PBS executives worried about the entertainment value of “An American Family’’ — one of them fears that Gilbert’s finished product will be “five hours of pass the salt.’’ And Gilbert, too, starts hankering for drama. He can see that Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill (Tim Robbins) Loud are holding together a flimsy marriage, and he wants to quicken its deterioration for his show. So he does what today’s reality producers do openly — he tries to set up dramatic scenes and stir up the action. He and Pat have a flirtation, but Gilbert nonetheless cajoles her into uncomfortable situations on screen. His early promises about “the threshold of privacy’’ become meaningless, much to the chagrin of his crew, Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins).
Gilbert starts the cynical, manipulative process that ultimately results in, alas, the Gosselins.
The “Cinema Verite’’ screenplay, by David Seltzer, zeroes in on Pat and her growing unhappiness with Bill, building up to her onscreen request for him to leave. Seltzer is able to dig into just how naive Pat, Bill, and even Gilbert were about the project at the start. At the same time, Seltzer has had to ignore other important aspects of “An American Family’’ and its impact on the Louds, which is the film’s major weakness. The only Loud child of the five who gets any prominence is Lance (Thomas Dekker), whose gayness was scandalous to early 1970s TV audiences. We see him taking his mother to a drag show in New York and doing his nails in Paris, delighted at having his 15 minutes. “Cinema Verite’’ probably should have been a miniseries.
Lane and Robbins are remarkable as Pat and Bill. They create a palpable tension, as the already inexpressive couple struggle not to say what they are feeling in front of the cameras. They are actors playing real people who are trying to act, and the layers are marvelous. They show how having a camera in the room changes human behavior. Lane, in particular, reveals so much of Pat, despite the fact that Pat is forever wearing her sunglasses and keeping her facial expressions stiff. The script has Pat veering from rage to a heroic moment when she tries to save Bill from being humiliated on camera, and Lane makes it all work quietly.
Gandolfini is less successful blending into the 1970s world of “Cinema Verite,’’ and his conspicuously fake beard doesn’t help. But I made peace with his performance when I realized that Gandolfini being out of place in the movie matches the fact that his character has been artificially placed into the natural world of the Loud family.
Throughout “Cinema Verite,’’ directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini juxtapose actual and re-created clips from “An American Family.’’ Since the original series hasn’t been released on DVD, due to rights complications, the real footage gives viewers who never saw “An American Family’’ an opportunity to know exactly what it looked like. Let’s just say the show was a little less fake than “The Real Housewives of Orange County.’’
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.