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Cinema Verite (Blu-ray Review)

23 Apr, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Street 4/24/12
$19.97 DVD, $24.99 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini.

Though it went far beyond your everyday landmark, filmmaker Craig Gilbert’s mammoth documentary An American Family has never gotten an official home release. But last August, PBS’s home entertainment arm did, at least, issue a two-hour DVD commemorating and excerpting the 1973 nonfiction miniseries, which in full form ran six times longer over a three-month air span while pretty well originating what is now familiar as “reality TV.” Even in morsel form, it was something of a jolt to re-see Santa Barbara’s once instantly famous Loud family, who, in 1971, agreed to allow a crew to film their every move (within merciful biological limitations). At any running time, the showstopper scene/documentarian’s dream was an ambushing divorce proceeding launched by mother Pat against philandering father Bill after filming had gotten underway.

As one who had managed to miss the original presentation almost 40 years ago (it premiered just as I was making the most important city-to-city move of my life), the boiled-down DVD got me revved up to see the epic in full. And so does this typically polished HBO dramatic treatment about the family’s experience, which deals in part with what the camera didn’t capture (one senses some creative license here). The Emmy/Golden Globe-nominated result is both compelling and arguably a little gratuitous — yet in one gotta-see regard, absolutely amazing. Somehow, with no obvious applications of putty or latex, the subtle makeup manages to make leads Diane Lane and Tim Robbins look like both their regular selves and, to a chilling degree, like the real-life subjects they’re playing. Simultaneously. Both actors have the Loud speech patterns and body language down dead-on as well, so this is a movie that can make you blink a lot if you’ve seen any portion of the original.

Thanks in part to the large clan’s eldest son Lance, a flamboyant show-biz wannabe and first openly gay person ever so explicitly characterized on TV, the Louds got drubbed by almost everyone in the press (and, actually, society as a whole) for its perceived dysfunction. Of course, all this followed a dozen years of network family sitcoms whose twin beds and apolitical content didn’t have much relevance to life as lived outside of a certain sub-stratum of white middle-class families whose sons weren’t likely to be drafted for Vietnam. (Tellingly, “All in the Family” premiered on CBS the same year that this family was being recorded for future broadcast; talk about major cracks in the pop-culture dam.) 

Though the culture shock ended up being seismic, the day-to-day life the series portrays comes off now as 2012 business-as-usual — minus, perhaps, the desperation or compromised living the current economic downturn has wrought.  With his successful strip-mining business, dad is spending too much time away from the others (and how many times have we heard this legitimate grouse before in real life?). On the other hand, and with equal familiarity, there are an awful lot of family members indulging themselves at a trough made possible by the dad they marginalize — one who seems even more alien to them because he spends his days with steam shovels (and, yes, too many of his nights with some chippie-of-the-month). Look down your middle-class street, and somewhere you will recognize these people, though perhaps the Louds have a nicer backyard pool.

James Gandolfini plays Gilbert, who never made another movie, and whose mild flirtation with Pat here comes off as something of a convenient scriptwriter’s fantasy, whether it was or not. Also part of this take and equally beyond the parameters of the original documentary is Gilbert’s increasingly testy relationship with married crew members Alan and Susan Raymond (played by Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins), who later became Oscar-winning documentarians. In their view, boss Gilbert is on the verge of a crackup over ethical slip-ups over what to show and what to leave on the cutting-room floor. Of course, Gilbert’s pressures weren’t minor in that he merely had to cajole cash-limited PBS into allotting a tremendous amount of money and airtime into a project that could have blown up in their faces (instead, it blew up in the faces of the Louds).

The Raymonds come off the film’s moral compass, and perhaps Verite’s own makers (the unmarried but longtime team Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) identified with them. The storytelling approach here has a little in common with that of Berman-Pulcini’s American Splendor, a biopic of comic book royalty Harvey Pekar that placed in (and even topped) some 10-best lists in 2003. At least some of that film’s focus was on the kind of couple you don’t see all the time, which is certainly what the filmmakers have at their disposal here. You have to think that it was probably less volatile dealing with food-and-spirits concerns in the team’s Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s, one of my favorite documentaries of all time.

And yet. Through divorce and who-knows-what (though Lance’s eventual AIDS-related death got a lot of coverage), the two Louds are back living together. Maybe this was inevitable when you’re near-exclusive members in one of the most exclusive clubs to have come out of the Nixon years.

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