TV on Disc: HBO’s ‘Cinema Verite’

Cinema Verite (HBO)

More than forty years ago, producer Craig Gilbert had a radical idea: chronicle the day-to-day life of a typical American family for a TV documentary. It was like a Fredrick Wiseman documentary for public TV, with ever-present cameras that would, ostensibly, get past the social pose and formal control and see what’s under the surface of suburban America through the lives of the Loud family. “An American Family” turned out to be more revolutionary than anyone could have imagined, and not just because it anticipated the culture of reality TV. This was not about exhibitionism, it was about being present at — and perhaps encouraging — the revelation of suppressed issues and stresses behind the idealized middle-class family that no one wanted acknowledge, let alone discuss.

Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”), working from a script by David Seltzer, work hard to address all the issues at play in this event, not always succeeding – their idea of What’s Really Going On Here is a little too insistent and prescribed at the expense of the human equation of opportunity and chance and human nature under pressure – but always reaching.

Diane Lane and Tim Robbins plays Pat and Bill Loud, a couple pitched somewhere between old-fashioned suburban cliché and affluent seventies hipsters. Producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) plays on his ego and her socially-conscious volunteerism to agree to let the cameras into their private lives. Gilbert imagines a revolutionary social experiment played out in prime time but finds that real life just isn’t that interesting without conflict, which prompts behind-the-scenes manipulations to push at the inherent tensions under the poise they maintain for the cameras.

Curiously, this production foregrounds the on-camera unraveling of a marriage at the expense of Lance Loud (here played by Thomas Dekker) coming out on national TV, which became a social touchstone of the era. Robbins is almost too blatantly smug and insincere as husband Bill but Lane is superb as a smart, engaged, seemingly-empowered wife and mother who only begins to acknowledge how unhappy she really is under the pressure of the TV surveillance crew.

“Cinema Verite” never quite communicates the revolutionary aspect of this event, or captures the controversy of the production or its reverberations through the culture. “An American Family” shattered stereotypes of middle class idealism with intimate, raw, revealing portraits of the stresses and contradictions of American life. This feature mostly confirms a different set of stereotypes.

It is, however, an engaging and accomplished production and its coda offers yet another perspective on the show, the controversy, and the complexity of the characters we might have assumed we knew from observing them on camera. Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins play the core production crew, a team of veteran documentarians who challenge Gilbert’s methods, and Kathleen Quinlan and Lolita Davidovich co-star.

Blu-ray and DVD, with commentary by directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini and actress Diane Lane, and the featurette “The Making of Cinema Verite.”

See a clip from the film at Videodrone