A film review by Craig J. Koban April 28, 2011

CINEMA VERITE j
j
½ 

ORIGINAL MOVIE

2011, no MPAA rating, 90 mins.

 

Diane Lane: Pat Loud  /  Tim Robbins: Bill Loud  / James Gandolfini: Craig Gilbert  / Thomas Dekker: Lance / Patrick Fugit: Adam/ Shanna Collins: Susan

 

Directed by Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini / Written by David Seltzer

Reality TV is such a part of the lexicon of popular small screen culture – for the worse, I would argue – that it’s impossible to consider a time when TV was not dominated by programs like SURVIVOR, THE APPRENTICE, THE GREATEST RACE, and so on.  The new HBO telefilm CINEMA VERITE reminds viewers that the inception of reality TV goes back much further than many may recall.  It was a 1971 PBS documentary called AN AMERICAN FAMILY - 12 episodes in length and edited from 300 hours of raw footage focusing on the experience of a typical nuclear American family, the Louds of Santa Barbara - that can rightfully take claim to fame as being the grandfather of reality TV shows.   

The show was, if anything, a remarkable creative gamble: nothing truly was ever attempted quite like it.  There have been documentaries before that took a penetratingly introspective look at their subject matters, but AN AMERICAN FAMILY did something even more daringly personal: it followed the lives of the Loud family through their most mundane and consequential aspects of their daily lives, giving audiences an exceedingly rare you-are-there portal into an ordinary family unit.  The Louds, however, were anything but a archetypal and run-of-the-mill family: viewers were shocked to see the series chronicle the fall of the parents' marriage right before their eyes and were also privy to their flamboyantly gay son (remember, this was early 70’s TV).  The Louds, whether they aspired to it or not, become notorious celebrities, something which – in the aftermath of the program –  they came to admonish and regret. 

Written by David Seltzer and directed by Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (who made the splendid AMERICAN SPLENDOR), CINEMA VERITE focuses on the development, filming, and aftermath of AN AMERICAN FAMILY.  Early on we meet the show’s intrepid creator, Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini, very respectable in an against-type role) approaching network executives about the then unprecedented idea that would become the first reality TV show, which is difficult seeing as the terms “reality TV” would not be industry buzz words for 25 years.  After getting the green light, Gilbert finds the “perfect” family to hone his pioneering documentary on.  He approaches Pat Loud (a poised and rock solid Diane Lane) with his plans to shoot her family with an all-access, just about anything goes aesthetic.  He sells her on the prospect that his goals are to perform an anthropological study of the American family unit, and that rationale – as well, I assume, the prospect of being TV stars – led to the Loud’s jumping at the opportunity. 

The documentary film crew - comprised of the husband/wife team of Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) - has some initial learning hurdles (like, for instance, stopping the shoot just when things get compelling and personal) and have the obligatory artistic confrontations with Gilbert, who serves as the grand overseer of the project.  Slowly but surely, Gilbert begins to chisel away at the false faced of normalcy that the Louds appear to have and dives deeper into what makes them really tick.  It becomes obvious that the patriarch, Bill (Tim Robbins) is a publicity seeking hound and a shameless skirt chaser, which causes seriously ripples in his relationship with his wife, all caught on camera.  Then there is their son Lance (Thomas Dekker, in a breakout performance), whose clear cut homosexuality caused shockwaves with viewers and pundits who were not accustomed to seeing gays on TV, let alone in the reality of a family unit.  With mounting family tensions and the stress of having camera crews meticulous monitor their daily routines, the Louds slowly begin to implode. 

I think that 1970’s period films are among the toughest to creatively pull off: too much garish attention to costume and production design would prove both distracting and giggle inducing, but CINEMA VERITE finds that difficult area of giving its story a bravura sense of its time without it coming off as laughably obtrusive.  The film itself – like many recent HBO efforts – is uniformly well cast with a series of A-grade performers.  I especially liked Lane’s tricky role as a mother torn between the allure of fame and the security and privacy of her own marriage.  She amazingly manages to evoke low-key sex appeal with an exhausted vulnerability.  Gandolfini is good too as Gilbert, a man that must balance artistic imperatives with romantic ones (it’s implied that he becomes smitten and fixated with Mrs. Loud).  Thomas Dekker finds Lance’s flamboyant eccentricities and makes him a soulful youth instead of a one-note gay caricature. 

Regrettably, though, CINEMA VERITE does not engage much in the way of social commentary about the nature of Gilbert’s trendsetting project: the film just feels underwritten and under-motivated.  What are this film’s thoughts about the ordeal the family went through?  What of the daily grind of the family being filmed?  What about the notion of whether the project was just or not?  Were there primarily corporate and financial interests at play here or was the main motivation artistic and going in new avenues that have never been taken before on TV?  And what of the creator himself?  Can a creator of a program such as this truly separate his personal feelings from his subject matter that he has become so deeply personal with?   CINEMA VERITE seems to drop the ball entirely with sincerely focusing on these very questions, not to mention that with its scant 90 minutes it does not have sufficient time to explore what it would be like to be the subject of a 24/7 documentary. 

Two other aspects seem ignored or haphazardly developed: Pat Loud has been often referred to as a feminist role model for how she decided to leave her philandering hubbie, but part of the film’s problem is that Robbins' Bill is such a one note creation that the build up to her divorcing him lacks a rousing payoff.  Considering the importance of the show in the annals of TV history; CINEMA VERITE just becomes a melodrama about a nice woman stuck with a jerk that she eventually leaves.  The second problem with the film is with its presentation of Gilbert himself:  Gandolfini is fine, to be sure, but the writing betrays his strong work.  Was he a liberated and inventive artistic genius or was he a self-serving, egomaniacal, publicity-seeking scoundrel?  The teleplay here can’t decide.  We do learn that he never made another film after AN AMERICAN FAMILY…but why?  CINEMA VERITE never provides sufficient answers. 

Aside from the film running too short and having a lamentably scattershot focus on its characters and themes, CINEMA VERITE does not really enrich the legacy of the seminal PPS mini-series whose ripples can still be felt today.  There’s no sensation at all as to why this show was important, other than the fact that the film's title cards tell us that Gilbert invented reality TV.  And what of the show’s long gestating legacy?  Why did it take oh-so-long for this genre to become as ubiquitous as it is now?  CINEMA VERITE is well acted and produced, but it lacks a compelling follow-though with the underlining material.  I have covered and have been a staunch supporter of HBO films since 2008 (some of the best films of the last few years, big screen or not, have seen the light of day on this network, like RECOUNT, TEMPLE GRANDIN, YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, and THE SUNSET LIMITED), but CINEMA VERITE represents a rare missed opportunity for the them that has made a steady habit of making a series of reliably strong entertainments.

 

CrAiGeR's other

Film Reviews:

 

RECOUNT  (2008 jjjj

 

TAKING CHANCE  (2009 jj1/2

 

TEMPLE GRANDIN  (2010 jjjj

 

THE SPECIAL RELATIONSHIP  (2010 jjj1/2

 

YOU DON'T KNOW JACK  (2010 jjjj

 

THE SUNSET LIMITED  (2011 jjjj

 

TOO BIG TO FAIL  (2011jj1/2

 

GAME CHANGE  (2012) jjj

 

HEMINGWAY AND GELLHORN  (2012) jjj1/2

 

THE GIRL  (2012) jj

 

PHIL SPECTOR  (2013) jjj

 

BEHIND THE CANDELABRA  (2013) jjjj

 

CLEAR HISTORY  (2013) jjj

 

 

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