Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Cinema Verite (Sky Atlantic): the birth of reality TV

Here's another quick review for Orange.

Way back in 1971, before "fascinating social experiments" like Big Brother were even a glint in a producer's eye, American film-maker Craig Gilbert put us on the road to TOWIE with An American Family – the fly-on-the-wall documentary that largely invented "reality TV". 

Cinema Verite, produced by HBO Films, dramatised the filming and aftermath of the series, starring James Gandolfini (Jim Royle on steroids) as Gilbert, and Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud, the heads of the wealthy Californian family that went under the microscope.

As the family struggled to get used to the constant surveillance, the caustic script by veteran screenwriter David Seltzer made it clear that the relationship between the philandering Bill and the flinty, abrasive Pat was already close to breaking point.

And it didn't take long for the boundaries of the project to become blurred. As Gilbert's relationship with Pat veered towards inappropriate territory, he began to use his all-seeing knowledge of the family's affairs to manipulate the Louds into providing the scenes he wanted.

Meanwhile, Pat also sensed how she could use the project to turn up the heat on her husband, while husband-and-wife film crew (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) struggled to reconcile their position of trust with the family with Gilbert's demands for them to get "the best stuff".

The climax of the film came as Bill returned from a business trip to be told by Pat that she wanted him to move out immediately. As the two played out the scene, they were followed, almost surreally, by the ghost-like camera crew, who finally seemed to have achieved the "invisibility" they'd been seeking throughout.

The film was dominated by the iron-willed Pat; Diane Lane gave a performance would strip paint. However, despite some interesting mingling of the original and dramatised footage, the film felt a little unbalanced in favour of the domestic situation.

It would have been interesting to have seen more of the impact that the series clearly had in the media and American society at large. Instead, that was all crammed into a hasty 15-minute coda at the end. 

Cinema Verite was a top-quality bit of work – as reflected by the sackful of Emmy nominations it received earlier in the year. However, it was ultimately more interesting as a portrait of a disintegrating marriage than an insight into a monumental moment in TV history.

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