this entry is about the birth of ‘reality television’ in the form of the pbs series an american family, albert brooks’ hilarious send up of the whole idea in his film real life, and the hbo film about the making of the pbs series, cinema verite.
the whole thread starts in 1971 with the loud family, of santa barbara, california.
a pbs producer named craig gilbert approaches several families in affluent southern california, and hits upon the loud family.
it has a handsome patriarch in the form of bill loud. he makes a ton of money selling equipment to mining companies. the wife is a sweet, somewhat neurotic but very smart and pretty lady named pat.
they have five children, who run the whole gamut of personality types: lance, kevin, grant, michele, delilah.
they were a picture-perfect family, from the outside. but there were cracks in their family long before the intrusion (i use that word deliberately) of craig gilbert and the cameras.
bill traveled a lot for work. he fooled around. he was the type of womanizer who didn’t hide it well – even when cameras were rolling. his wife was tolerant of it to an extent, but growing ever tired of it.
the children were aged 14-20 during the filming, so it was an already stressful time to begin with.
what did not help matters in the family was that the show-runner craig gilbert was instantly infatuated with the wife, pat. instead of being a fly on the wall, which is really impossible when filming is involved, he became a part of the scenario and a part of the problem.
it’s been said that he counseled pat to leave her husband. that perhaps, he told her things her husband told him in confidence. and on and on.
what is evident with the loud family is that, if a camera crew is present (or even if cameras are planted and you know it), you will act differently. you will alter your behavior and you will try to edit your words to appear in the best light possible, usually.
a film whose real-life characters run contrary to this idea is the great documentary capturing the friedmans, which i will review soon, having rewatched it recently. in this film, the sons in the family run audio and sometimes video at family fights. the honesty is both apparent and bewildering.
when an american family aired, the series got a lot of attention. it had never been done before. the family broke up during the filming. pat decided to divorce while the cameras were rolling, actually rehearsing how she would confront bill. the oldest son lance would come out as gay.
lance loud would become the most interesting and artistic of the family. he heaed the band mumps and would become a gay activist and writer. he died of aids in 2001.
the thing about an american family is that it’s on the order of 12 hours long. i sat through all of it in the course of a week. i don’t imagine most people would have the time or patience for it. even edited, the shot-on-film footage is repetitive and boring. i understand there’s a two hour version of ‘best of’ type scenes that probably is much more worth a look.
an american family was shot in the latter half of 1971 and aired a few months later. seven years later, the legendary comic albert brooks was making his transition from stand-up and constant talk-show guest to film maker. he chose the idea of the loud family for his first film, a fake documentary about the making of a simliar series. he called it real life.
his film is satiric, ironic, insanely funny and amazingly prescient.
having read accounts of how the filming of an american family went, brooks went straight to the ideas that people will act differently when cameras are rolling, and that anyone filming anything wants a spectacular result – and in the absence of anything interesting or worthwhile happening, that observer will meddle, insert himself, and generally create havoc, disaster and invariably, a kind of comedy.
real life is one of the more important movies in movie history for me just for the bravery of ideas is represents.
but it’s also hilariously funny. the film opens on a town meeting. albert brooks plays… well, albert brooks. but of course it is not albert brooks. he is not playing himself. he’s playing a parody of himself.
he’s a full of himself producer with big ideas for this small town. he wraps up the town meeting by singing them a song he ‘wrote on the plane’, although he has the music department from a tv talk show to back him up and totally rehearsed. he’s dressed like a lunatic and like any lunatic, he’s in love with the truth of his mad ideas. he actually waltzes off screen.
from the opening day of filming where he introduces the crew to the family (“here’s a teamster, this is a camera guy, here’s another teamster, it’s a union thing…”), he is not just filming the family but creating an often false narrative because his studio bosses need more story.
the film is wildly entertaining. almost immediately, the presence of the camera is an issue. the father is played by charles grodin who is playing the perfect role for charles grodin. the wife makes a pass at the producer. the kids are out of control. it’s great fun and it’s good social commentary. real life deserves it’s own dissection on this blog. for a first film, it is remarkably rich with ideas. it’s tremendously funny and so perfectly satirical that it is almost a capsule of all the great ideas he would come to manifest more articulately in his later, more popular films, like modern romance, defending your life and lost in america.
i think real life is a masterpiece that hasn’t gotten it’s due.
in 2011, hbo films produced cinema verite, a narrative film about the making of an american family.
it has a great cast. james gandolfini plays craig gilbert. the loud parents are artfully portrayed by diane lane and tim robbins.
the film is pretty much by the numbers, but gives a pretty good picture of what must have been happening behind the scenes.
the entire film belongs to diane lane, who proves how great an actress she really is when she gets to leave her top on and has good material to work with. almost every scene belongs to her character and the film is based from her point of view.
this seems fitting. the point of view of pat loud was the only real anchor for the original pbs series. this has much to do with the principal concerns of craig gilbert rather than what might have actually been happening. but i guess that’s what was wrong with an american family in the first place. well, that and maybe the idea that people probably shouldn’t constantly be filmed and scrutinized….
now, if you’ve ever doubted the wit and genius of the great albert brooks, see his trailer for real life below. it’s in 3-D, even.
and below, see a teaser trailer for cinema verite.
and below – a short collection of clips from the original series an american family: