Dir. Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman
(2011, Not Rated, 91 min)
PBS invented reality television in the 1970s when the Loud family of Santa Barbara agreed to be followed by a camera crew as a kind of anthropological experiment on the series An American Family. In their wake have come any number of families who, despite the Louds’ regrets, have agreed to expose their lives to a national audience. Of course, the difference between the Louds and, say, the Osbournes, the Kardashians, Nick and Jessica, and (shudder) the Hasselhoffs is innocence. The Louds didn’t know what it would be like to air their dirty laundry. The current reality stars not only know, they’re counting on it.
Cinema Verite, directed by Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman (American Splendor), dramatizes the events surrounding An American Family in the hopes, I think, of connecting it to the current reality phenomenon. Where did this exploitation start? What is it rooted in? What impulse does it satisfy in the viewers and in the viewed? But precisely what Cinema Verite fails to do is demonstrate any insight into the reality craze. It shows the dissolution of the Loud family, but An American Family already did that. What we look for here is something deeper.
Berman and Pulcini intersperse the dramatized footage – in which Diane Lane and Tim Robbins portray the Louds – with actual scenes of the PBS series, and in doing so they beg the question: what does this film do that the series didn’t? It brings us behind the scenes. It shows us the producer of the series, Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), and his camera crew. The crew is ambivalent about filming scenes of marital discord, while Craig insists on capturing the Louds at their worst, but this approach is too simplistic. It wags its finger at the voyeuristic impulse without examining it and settles for making Craig an easy villain who demands juicy footage above all else.
Near the end, the film introduces material that suggests a more interesting direction it might have taken: it shows the immediate aftermath of An American Family, when the public scorned the Louds and they became not an example of a family but rather a shameful aberration, as if the Louds exposed secrets about American life they weren’t supposed to tell. In an early scene a drag queen addresses a theme the film would have been wise to more greatly emphasize: never break the facade, he warns, because they’ll judge you and resent you for it.
The drag queen is a friend of Lance Loud (Thomas Dekker), who is clearly a homosexual, perhaps television’s first. What an interesting subject of a film he might have been, but I don’t think we get to know him much better than viewers of An American Family did. He came out as gay to an entire country in 1973, fronted a punk band, was a columnist for Andy Warhol, and died in 2001 at the age of 50 after suffering from HIV and hepatitis C. The end of the film, which tells us what happened to the Louds after An American Family, indicates that all of them went on to live interesting lives. Perhaps that would have been a better story to tell – not the one about making An American Family, but the one about what happens after you’ve become An American Family.