By Robert Nishimura and Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play Contributors
EDITOR’S NOTE: This week’s Three Reasons by contributor Robert Nishimura concerns Albert Brooks’ Real Life, about a documentary filmmaker who interferes in his subjects’ lives in order to make his movie more exciting. For context, we’re publishing a slightly expanded version of Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz’s article, “The Reel World,” written for New York Press in 2005.
Three Reasons: Real Life from For Criterion Consideration on Vimeo.
“The most hilarious comedy, the most gripping drama, the most suspenseful disasters – they don’t happen on the movie screen, they happen in my backyard and yours!”
So says Albert Brooks in 1979 debut feature Real Life. The film is a comic response to Alan and Susan Raymond’s groundbreaking 1973 PBS series An American Family, now considered the forerunner to so-called reality television. The documentary observed the real-life Loud family (including then-controversial, openly gay teen Lance Loud) via hidden cameras installed in their homes; it was a huge ratings success for PBS and was as closely watched and discussed as any fictional TV soap. Real Life cops to its inspiration by quoting Margaret Mead’s praise for An American Family in its introductory crawl. “It is, I believe, as new and as significant as the invention of drama or the novel,” Mead said of the PBS series, “…a new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera.” But although Brooks engages the PBS series head-on, he soon moves past it, into outrageous, prescient comedy. The hairstyles, clothes, technology and architecture are dated, but in every other way, Real Life feels like it came out last week.
Real Life hammers on a conundrum ducked by most documentaries, An American Family included: no matter how unobtrusive a filmmaker tries to be, his subject is still likely to react to the cameras by subtly altering his behavior, thereby making existence into a kind of performance, infusing life with fiction’s DNA and creating a hybrid monster that’s at once real and unreal.
In Real Life, an ambitious young filmmaker (Brooks, playing “himself”) goes to Phoenix and dogs the middle-class Yeager family (headed by Charles Grodin and Lee McCain) with documentary crews and hidden cameras. Brooks hopes to record mundane truths that elude Hollywood, but his academic bromides were never heartfelt (an introductory press conference in Phoenix ends with Brooks crooning “Something’s Gotta Give”; while backed by Merv Griffin‘s orchestra). As the experiment unreels, delivering muted footage of middle-class domestic angst rather than conventional movie thrills, we’re appalled but not surprised when the director tries to liven things up by showing up on unannounced in a clown suit, proposing a family trip to a day spa, and plotting to seduce Mrs. Yeager.
One of the most neglected great comedies of the ’70s, Real Life is a mother lode of culturally clairvoyant bits. (Showing off his production team’s state-of-the-art camera-helmets, he brags,”All picture and sound information is recorded digitally on these integrated circuit chips, some no larger than a child’s fingernail.”) But Real Life doesn’t just anticipate so-called reality shows (first predicted by 1976’s Network) and the technology that would be used to produce them. It investigates the tangled assumptions behind documentary cinema itself.
The biting script — which was co-written by Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer — sees through the academic pretense of An American Family, which was ultimately less a record of events that might have happened anyway than a filmed experiment whose real (if unintended) subject was the psychological strain inflicted by surveillance. Teasing that theme, Brooks’ director/narrator keeps up the pretense that he’s just watching the Yeagers go about their business, yet they’re aware of being filmed every second. That awareness infects their consciousness, turning them into self-obsessed worrywarts like Brooks. “Could you please stop talking about the movie for just one minute?” Mrs. Yeager asks Mr. Yeager during her grandmother’s funeral. Brooks’ satire points the way toward the likes of MTV’s The Real World, a warped grandchild of An American Family with younger, hotter subjects and zero shame. Yet even The Real World avoided acknowledging its own central contrivance: every season, one or more participants decided they’d had enough and disappeared from the show, at which point their housemates would innocently wonder where they’d gone.
The tension between life and drama is nothing new; that in fact, it is the essential fuel of cinema. Robert Flaherty‘s influential 1922 documentary Nanook of the North was praised for recording Inuit traditions that were on the verge of vanishing even back then. Yet we now know that Flaherty wasn’t much more pure than Brooks’ character, just more serious. He wasn’t merely going on location and photographing what he saw, he was recreating situations described in books, personal testimonies and his own notebooks, then filming them. Similarly, D.A. Pennebaker’s great Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back is considered a classic of fly-on-the-wall nonfiction filmmaking, but is the sarcastic, hectoring shaman-folkie onscreen the “real” Dylan, or a performance Dylan is giving during that particular tour, or for this particular movie? Is the film’s true subject Bob Dylan, or the relationship between real people and their screen image? To some degree, don’t all documentaries end up being about that relationship, no matter how hard the filmmakers or the subjects try to keep things as spontaneous as possible?
Unanswerable questions, all. Yet Brooks prods us to ask them by refusing to take the documentarian’s vow of non-interference (the equivalent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive) at face value. He suggests instead that reportage and drama are kissing cousins, and that ultimately, even the most outwardly circumspect nonfiction reveals less about the tale than the teller: his presumptions, his preoccupations, his vanity. “It’s undeniable that you’ve strongly altered the reality you’re filming,” a researcher warns Brooks mere weeks into the experiment. “In my opinion you’re getting a false reality here, and I don’t know what you’re going to do about it.” Brooks processes this for a moment, looking deeply troubled, then turns to another researcher and says: “You said I looked heavier now than when filming started. Where would that be, in the cheeks?”
Robert Nishimura is a Japan-based filmmaker, artist, and freelance designer. His designs can be found at Primolandia Productions. His non-commercial video work is at For Criterion Consideration. You can follow him on Twitter here. To watch other videos in his “Three Reasons” series, click here.
A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for Salon.com and the founder of Press Play.