I finally watched HBO’s Cinema Verite about the making of PBS’s An American Family. Despite very strong performances especially from Diane Lane and my fellow Stuy High peg leg Tim Robbins in a thanklessly underwritten role, I was profoundly disappointed.
The debate within the film about journalism ethics and ethics felt dated, forced and remote. I was not surprised to see that the Raymonds were consultants. They are the heroically wooden voices of integrity in the project. The film would have been better and more honest if it had represented them with more complexity and nuance. At one point in a simulated television interview, the Raymonds denounce creator Craig Gilbert’s agenda. But what about their own? The Raymonds film the Loud family several more times over the course of many years before this film was made. They benefitted professionally from the series along with the Louds. Pat’s final cynical statements, “I don’t see anything wrong with being naive. I see something really wrong with being sophisticated” and “Let’s milk the final moment for all it’s worth” tell the story. If the film dealt with that hubris, willful naivete, and privilege, it could have shed some real light on why reality television has taken such hold.
In many ways, the final moments of the film – the what are they doing now section – are its truest. They clearly demonstrate how the family used the project at least in part as a springboard for their ambitions. But were they ever in any jeopardy? The family was, after all, upper middle class. They would have had to have worked hard to fall off the prosperity and achievemtn train.
The real mystery of the film is Craig Gilbert, the creator of the show. The film tersely mentions that this was his final credit. It would be very interesting to know what happened in the negotiations for his life rights.
The bigger problem is that the film’s ideas and arguments are already so well understood. Reality television distorts, ruins,and enriches. Really? In a post-Kardashian sex tape world, a five year old could articulate that concept. It’s a question of relevance. I felt the same way when I watched The Actors Gang revival of 1984. With Guantanamo, we’ve gone well beyond some of the terrors Orwell envisioned. The real story is why we enable and collaborate with this unravelling?
At what point are works of academic interest but no longer artistically vibrant?