Cinema Veritie *** ½
Directed by: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini.
Written by: David Seltzer.
Starring: Diane Lane (Pat Loud), Tim Robbins (Bill Loud), Thomas Dekker (Lance Loud), Patrick Fugit (Alan Raymond), James Gandolfini (Craig Gilbert), Kaitlyn Dever (Michelle Loud), Johnny Simmons (Kevin Loud), Kathleen Quinlan (Mary), Matt O'Leary (Cameron), Lolita Davidovich (Val), Emilio Rivera (Watchman), Dendrie Taylor (Sally), Molly Hagan (Kaye), Sean O'Bryan (Johnny Hall).
The Loud family had no idea what they were getting themselves into when they agreed to let PBS filmmaker Craig Gilbert to have a camera crew follow them around for months, documenting their day to day lives. This was the 1970s after all, and no one had heard of reality TV before. Gilbert, who had made a documentary about Margaret Mead, wanted to conduct the same kind of social experiment that she did with monkeys – observing an American Family in their natural habitat. The result changed the television landscape, and the Loud family – neither for the better.
Pat (Diane Lane) and Bill Loud (Tim Robbins) are a seemingly normal, married California couple, raising their multiple kids in the 1970s. Their oldest son has just moved out to go to New York and follow his artistic dreams, but the rest of the Loud family is staying put. Pat runs the household on a day to day basis – especially since Bill takes many business trips. But Bill operates under the delusion that he is the real head of the household, although how well he knows his own family is questionable. Infidelity on his part has cast a pale over their marriage, but they seem to still get along. To Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), they seem like the perfect family. Why they do doesn’t become apparent until later in the movie.
As any scientist will tell you, simply by observing an experiment, you change its outcome. And that’s what happens with the Loud family. Bill in particular wants to ensure he gets good screen time and that he comes across well on camera – returning from a business trip, he even does a “second” tape of him arriving home when he realizes the camera didn’t quite capture it the first time around. He tries hard to play the role of the diligent father – which angers Pat, because she knows what he’s really like. This marriage under stress, starts to crack.
Watching Cinema Veritie, Shari Spring Berman and Robert Pulcini’s excellent made for HBO movie, you cannot help but feel for the Loud family. They have the same problems as many families do, but it becomes much worse because of the cameras following them around – and because of Gilbert’s manipulation. He knows the marriage is under stress, and he manoeuvres himself to become closer to Pat, in order to manipulate her into doing what he wants her to do – which is to make fascinating television. Despite all of his talk, he doesn’t give a shit about them – just what will make good TV.
Almost 40 years after the Gilbert’s show “An American Family” broke new TV ground, and caused an uproar, because of his manipulation, the exploitation of the Loud family, and the Loud family’s behaviour on the show, reality TV has become a staple. Every B-list celebrity seems to have their own reality show, and if you’re willing to degrade yourself on camera, you could probably have one as well. But An American Family got there first, and it’s shocking to see how seemingly innocent this show would seem if it was put on the air today, considering just what a harsh treatment it received when it was originally aired. No one would call the Loud’s a freak show today, like they did then. Instead they would call them a typical family – which they were even then.
This is difficult terrain to cover, but Berman and Springer handle it well, juggling showing the family in freefall, and the effect the TV crew on them. The cast is excellent as well – especially Diane Lane and Tim Robbins, who make a believable married couple. Too old for the sexual liberation of the 1960s, and yet too young not to feel the sting of missing it, they play off each well, as long married couple do, even as they are falling apart.
Overall, Cinema Veritie if a fascinating look at a TV show that changed the course of its medium. Reality TV is not going anywhere, and even though it started with lofty ambitions, it quickly degenerated into the dreck we see on TV now.