DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Cinema Verite, Blu-ray (2011)

A fictionalized behind-the-scenes look at the making of the first Reality TV series: 1973's An American Family.

Published on April 11, 2012

Cinema Verite, Blu-ray (2011)

Cast: Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini
Studio: HBO Studios
Video: 1.78:1 for 16:9 1080p HD color
Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, French DTS Surround 5.1, Spanish DTS Surround 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: The Making of Cinema Verite: A Look Behind the Scenes (incl. interviews with the film’s cast & crew), Audio commentary track with Directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini & actress Diane Lane.
Length: 90 min.
Rating: *****

Many readers will not have been around when the first Reality TV series aired on (of all places) PBS stations nationally in January of 1973. An American Family showed the daily lives of the William Loud family in Santa Barbara, CA—Bill and Pat and their five children, all roughly teen-aged. The original 12-hour-long series (which is available on DVD) showed not at all the Brady Bunch type of overly-happy family who never had any real problems, but a family with quite a few problems, including the out gay lifestyle of one of the sons and marriage tensions which led to divorce. TV Guide named the show one of “The 50 Greatest Shows of All Time,” and it changed U.S. TV programming hugely. (Unfortunately, for the worse.)

Cinema Verite is a fictionalized behind-the-scenes look at the making of An American Family. Robbins and Lane are terrific as the Louds, and when the feature uses actual video footage from TV talk shows such as Dick Cavett, we see how closely they resemble the actual Louds. One scene points up the “nothing is sacred” philosophy of series‘ director Gilbert (played by Gandolfini), which Reality TV today has become. This is at loggerheads with the young married couple who handle the camera and sound for the series and want to protect the family. (They even continued to film the family in later years and in 1983 did their own followup documentary on the Louds.) Gilbert even passes on to Pat the photo of one of her husband’s affairs—a clear violation of documentary ethics, which then proves the final ammunition for her divorce. The role of Pat is a meaty one, and Lane turns in a superb and believable performance.

Members of the family are shown attending the premieres of the series, and later they are shocked at the wording of PBS’s publicity on the series and the public outcry against them. The family’s divorce drama was part of the public reaction, but another part was that the son Lance was the very first openly gay man shown on TV, and the public wasn’t ready for that. The feature even has scenes at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC and of Lance talking his mother to a drag show. (In real life Lance worked with Andy Warhol, but he also later died of AIDS.) The family becomes reunited to speak out about their being attacked for An American Family.

HBO did a good job getting the gist of the 12-hour series into this 90-minute feature, but a bit more time would have allowed more exploration of, say, the conflicts and connections between Gilbert and his two filmmakers, as well as his inserting himself into the family drama by befriending the wife, Pat. The film shows that he probably advanced the family conflicts by his actions. The Blu-ray transfer looks excellent, but there is little use of the 5.1 lossless surround track. The extras are definitely work watching, and the audio commentary is chock full of interesting details about the making of the film.

—John Sunier

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