An American Family (1973) was the landmark PBS documentary series that inadvertently created reality TV, a genre that so manufactured, it’s very name is an oxymoron.
But when producer Craig Gilbert set out to capture the lives of the seemingly normal Loud family, there was no template so much as a young crew following a fracturing family with cumbersome film gear with no idea how it would turn out. Most notorious at the time was that the Louds’ eldest son, Lance, came out during the course of the series and is credited as the first openly gay character on television.
The subject of documenting the Louds is ripe for exploration from every angle: the technical process of creating art out of reality, the effects of an ever-present film crew on a family in the throes of self-discovery and decay, the larger cultural idea of perceived celebrity and how that changes an “average” person, and the idea of favoring certain footage to impose a narrative onto something “real.” But despite so many opportunities, Berman and Pulcini’s film fails because it tries to cram in all of the above and emerges little more than a greatest hits montage of ideas.
It’s too bad, because the performances are strong. From long-suffering Pat Loud (Emmy-nominated Lane) to her detached, cheating husband Bill (a wonderfully aloof Robbins), to Gandolfini’s restrained turn as producer Gilbert, the movie is beautifully cast. It’s also shot with the golden haze of a 70s Southern California home movie.
But the editing is horrendous. The visual style mashes-up the actual footage with the recreated version as a way to begin a new chapter, and that’s fine, but then the device is abused when the film completely segues to the original and back again for the finale, as if it’s lost faith in its own adaptation.
Worse, there are entire scenes boiled down to a sentence or two and a ham-fisted subplot about Lane’s flirtation with Gandolfini. By cross-cutting and zipping around, the movie is never able to grasp an idea for very long. And by completely ignoring the idea of how “real” footage can be perverted into a false narrative, the entire creative team misses an opportunity to comment on media manipulation.
That’s the strange part: Berman and Pulcini’s dazzling biopic American Splendor (2003) also featured its real life subject, Harvey Pekar, interspersed with the dramatized version of his life. Frankly, it seems as if the film was recut without their involvement. (HBO)
— DENNIS WILLIS