Cinema Verite


The Birth of Reality TV…on PBS?

Main Cast: Tim Robbins, Diane Lane, James Gandolfini

Director: Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

I’ve always blamed MTV.  I figured their show The Real World is what touched off the epidemic of reality programming featuring supposedly regular people having their lives filmed 24 hours a day.  But it turns out it wasn’t MTV, which makes me sad – who doesn’t like to blame MTV for things?  The real culprit?  PBS.  That’s right, Sesame Street, it’s your stations that are to blame for Jersey Shore.  How can this be?

Well, it turns out that back in 1973, PBS broadcast a mini-series called An American Family.  It was the very first time a “regular” family agreed to have their lives filmed for a national audience.  Supposedly chosen because they were the perfect American family, it turned out that the Louds had a lot more going on behind closed doors than they let on to the outside world.  In Cinema Verite, directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini take us back to 1973 and the Loud family, going behind the scenes in a dramatization of how this program went horribly awry.  Or did it?

Diane Lane and Tim Robbins star as Pat and Bill Loud.  Yes, it sounds like an SNL skit – but this was a real, upper middle class family from Oregon.  They agreed to have their lives put on film, feeling sure that they were indeed as they saw themselves – perfect.  Producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) let them believe exactly that.  He also led his network to believe exactly that, as well as his crew.  Everyone was sold on the idea that PBS would be showing the inner workings of a regular, average American family.

But as we know in this era of jaded reality programming, it isn’t the perfect families that get chosen for this type of show – it’s the families that look perfect but have big secrets.  Cinema Verite shows us not only scenes that made it to the screen (recreations as well as scenes from the 1973 original) but also endeavors to tell the story of the making of the show – the machinations of Gilbert to increase the tension and drama within an already troubled family, the reluctance of the crew to film the effects of his meddling and the disintegration of a family under the intense scrutiny of omnipresent TV cameras.  All of that carefully constructed façade falling away, episode after episode.

Lane and Robbins are marvelous as the Loud parents.  Lane makes Pat conceited, passive aggressive and in denial about her “perfect” family.  Robbins must have had a blast as the pompous Bill – showing off for the cameras and coming across like a boor and a buffoon.  Gandolfini has the trickiest role – we need to like Gilbert at least a little bit, especially at the beginning of the film as he fights so hard to get what he sees as a groundbreaking documentary on the air.  As his ethics crumble, we see the writing on the wall – reality TV was never any different than it is today, people just felt a little bad before they exploited their “subjects”.

The production of Cinema Verite is very effective – combining archival footage with the actors (who are uncanny doppelgangers of the real family) gives the film a vintage feel and gives those of us who have never seen the original broadcast a feel for what it was like when such programs were new.  It also helps firmly establish the time period.  The actors fill in the behind the scenes blanks brilliantly and though I have no idea how much of what we see is truth and how much is supposition, the result is a very believable, very watchable and frankly fascinating look at just how we started down the sleazy path of reality television.  4 out of 5 stars.

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