Typical biopics, even good ones, end by flashing images of the real people who have been turned into fiction on screen; Cinema Verite dares to reverse that ploy. From the start and scattered throughout we glimpse Bill and Pat Loud and their five children as they appeared on An American Family, the jaw-dropping documentary that created reality TV.
In HBO’s colorful film about the making of the series, Diane Lane is Pat, Tim Robbins is Bill and James Gandolfini is producer and instigator Craig Gilbert, a man who has no idea what long-term mischief he is about to set in motion. Juxtaposing the actors with the real figures does more than let us see how well they play lookalike, though (Lane and Robbins perfectly, Gandolfini not so much). It suggests the blur of truth and fiction that reality TV has become.
Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who also directed American Splendor, have an instinct for the texture of American pop culture, and here they take us to upper-middle-class Santa Barbara in the early 70’s, a moment fraught with social change. Lane and Robbins perfectly define their characters as both 70’s types and as individuals.
Bill, with his white shoes and graying hair, is the cheating suburban husband who thinks that supporting his family should be enough to give him some respect, aware that on camera he comes off as “the square,” as he puts it.
Pat, whom Gilbert shrewdly describes as a woman a step too late for the feminist movement to have helped her, is a floundering housewife with giant sunglasses and a constant cigarette, the glamorous, dramatic centerpiece of An American Family. She is also expertly passive-aggressive. Where Bill ham-fistedly tries to play to the cameras, Pat manipulates situations, and even orchestrates with Gilbert the series’ most notorious scene, when she tells Bill on camera that the marriage is over. Now there is a reality TV pioneer.
Thomas Dekker (Kaboom) as Lance, the Louds’ happy and gay son, adds some breathing room in the middle of all this tension. Living in the Chelsea Hotel, he shows his visiting Mom a photo of the person he says wants to marry him, Candy Darling.
Gandolfini’s performance is fine, but David Seltzer’s screenplay makes Gilbert’s character too opaque; there is no need for him to be as inscrutable to us as he is to the Louds. His friendship with Pat is intense, and the film hints at an affair but is never definitive. And Alan and Susan Raymond, (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) who did the filming, become queasy at the way their cameras capture the Loud’s harshest personal moments. At a party, Bill flirts openly with other women and Pat calls him a “a goddamed asshole”; Alan stops filming and stomps out, with Gilbert behind him, furious that he’s missing the action. (Don’t miss the fascinating interview with Gilbert in the current New Yorker, , in which he denies the persistent rumors of the affair. The piece also quotes the still-queasy Raymonds, and reports that the Louds had reservations about Cinema Verite and accepted a financial settlement not to talk about it.)
The Loud marriage was already falling apart when Gilbert arrived, and we’ll never know how much the cameras simply captured the implosion and how much they prodded it along. Because the screenplay doesn’t explore those issues very deeply — the tangle of trust and exploitation, of truth and reality constructed in the editing – this film is not so much about the thorny questions surrounding non-fiction TV as it is a portrait of a particular family. Lively and engaging, Cinema Verite is a triumph of acting and directing over substance – much like reality TV itself.
WNET, the New York station that produced the original series, has an amazing selection of excerpts on line. Here’s my earlier piece on An American Family, with clips and links to that site.
And here’s the Cinema Verite trailer, which displays most of the reality-TV-ethics theme. The film premieres on Saturday.