Monday, April 25, 2011

Dope Island: All in the Family

By Charles Cassady Jr.

The latest made-for-HBO movie, CINEMA VERITE, tells the not-ready-for-network tale of one of the pioneering experiments in "reality TV," the 1970s public-TV series An American Family. It says something, at least to me it does, about our culture that more of the idiot-box demographic (including air-traffic controllers watching the hand-helds on the job) will learn about An American Family, a groundbreaking experiment in cinematic nonfiction... from a scripted dramatization. With, you know, actors and lines. Kind of weird, you know? Harry Shearer read a news item about a Gen-Y girl who couldn't believe the 9/11 terror attacks were actually happening when she watched them live on television; the reality only hit home for her when Nicolas Cage acted it out in Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Shear's punchline: "Somebody slap her please, before she reproduces."

For those of you non-knuckle-walkers who want to know background about An American Family, a little bit, in advance of HBO's rendition, I present this article, excerpted from an unpublished, possibly unpublishable book I completed on documentary cinema, then canceled bn by the cash-stricken publisher. Special thanks to Elyria filmmaker Chip Karpus, for co-authorship. Special, special thanks Lance Loud for the best closing line I may ever have used.

Act I.

Out of the direct-cinema movement of the 1960s there arose one of the most noteworthy documentary achievements of the second half of the 20th century. Before `reality TV' granted first-name recognition to a motley parade of Snooki, Puck, Richard, Paris/Nicole, Omarosa, the Khardashians ad nauseum, there was the 1973 public-television series An American Family.

Its forerunners in the 1960s included the Maysles' classic Salesman and Canadian filmmaker Allan King's special-school chronicle Warrendale and, especially, King's up-close-and-personal A Married Couple, which scrutinized a near-divorce experience for its hero and heroine. Directors Alan and Susan Raymond's original concept for the An American Family was unpromisingly basic: a camera crew documents the day-to-day life of an ordinary family over the course of a few months. No gimmicks, no immunity challenges (although there would be a brief celebrity drop-in from Andy Warhol).

The execution, on the other hand, was a considerably more complicated proposition, especially in the days of bulky 16mm equipment. New developments in lightweight celluloid cameras, sensitive film and compact sound gear allowed practitioners more freedom than had been previously practical, but it was still tricky at close quarters. Lighting was particularly problematic. When necessary, the Raymonds adopted special Richard Leacock-modified Super 8mm rigs for state-of-the-art unobtrusive mini-cams.

The `fortunate' family chosen was the Louds of Santa Barbara, California: father Bill, a business executive, mother Patricia, and their five children, Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michelle. To their credit, the Raymonds allowed most of the series to play out with the dreary tediousness of everyday life. In fact, if seen on home video it would probably be unwatchable to today's audiences, especially with its muddy visuals. But to anyone who saw the show at the time, it had an unprecedented voyeuristic appeal. And when it was over two world-changing developments would stand out.

The first was the mass-media `coming out' of homosexual son Lance. The name Lance Loud would become for a short time a byword of gay culture and pride (this more than 20 years before President Clinton mentioned MTV's The Real World's Pedro Zamora in a speech). The second was the night Patricia announced she was leaving Bill. Lance had picked his dad up from the airport after a business trip and was supposed to break the news then but drove him home for an on-camera confrontation instead. Lance later claimed he couldn't bring himself to deliver Patricia's message, but his flare for the dramatic might have played a part.

It's hard to gauge the effects of these two scenes on the American public. If the Raymonds had set out to make a Way We Live Now for Nixon-era suburbia, they succeeded spectacularly. More than a precursor to Big Brother, The Simple Life or even The Osbournes, the series had more in common with the contemporary wave of films like JOE (1970) or TAKING OFF (1971) in which the counter-culture intrudes on the placid life of the middle-class. And PBS was the recipient of much hate mail from viewers who preferred the American self-image be served by mythical Mayberry or Bedford Falls rather than Mondo Loud.

The Raymonds also directed the one-shot An American Family Revisited: The Louds 10 Years Later for HBO in 1983. Lance (the first reality-show breakout star) was then a punk-rock musician living in New York City, as lead singer of The Mumps. He also wrote for The Advocate and occasionally made guest appearances in other documentaries, commenting on the fluke of fame. In 2003 Lance Loud!: A Death In An American Family dealt with his passing due to complications from AIDS in 2001.

Chapter II.

Unlike the copycat deluge of Real-Housewives-who-want-to-marry-a-big-fat-teenage-average-joe-transgendered-millionaire-bachelorette-geek shows of the `reality' craze, the immediate effect of An American Family in the US was muted. It directly inspired Albert Brooks' 1979 movie parody REAL LIFE. In Brooks' takeoff, the technical challenges of a gear-encrusted documentary film crew, their head-mounted "digital video" cams looking like space helmets, trying to be inconspicuous in an average home, formed the basis for most of the laffs. And there was a Saturday Night Live sketch about the "Loud Family," who were simply a family who spoke very loudly. Har har. But the Raymonds deserve respect at least for being so very far ahead of the wave. Even the title was uncannily prophetic.

In the United Kingdom, a year later in 1974, there appeared a telly show called The Family. In this series filmmakers Paul Watson and Franc Roddam (the latter later to direct the feature version of The Who's Quadrophenia LP) took their cameras to the flat of bus driver Terry Wilkins and his wife Margaret, of Reading, for an examination of the quotidian lives and values of working-class Brits, a deliberate choice of the segment of the population least shown on the BBC. Again there were a few shock-horror gasps among the viewing public and opinion-leaders that the dirty dishes of English society were on display.

In contrast to that dignified PBS dramedy-of-manners Upstairs Downstairs, the Wilkinses used rude language; Margaret was no dolly-bird pushover and spoke her bloomin' mind; and none of the children belong to Terry biologically. Despite divided public opinion (at least one high-profile bluenose demanded the show be banned, lest the Wilkinses become role models), this British "docu-soap" won awards and became Paul Watson's primary inspiration for a more fateful 1992 fly-on-the-wall domestic serial half the planet away. In Australia, in fact

Chapter III.

It was called Sylvania Waters, in honor of an affluent Sidney suburb where the action took place. Paul Watson, with a BBC camera crew cooperating with Australian TV, placed his pitiless lenses for six months in the household of Noeline Baker and Laurie Donaher, a couple long cohabiting together sans benefit of formal marriage, with mostly adult offspring.

Highlights included smoking, bickering, casual racism; Laurie drinking to excess; his common-law spouse exhibiting an off-putting taste for material things and hiring male strippers. When Sylvania Waters began airing, the London tabloid The Sun greeted it with the headline "Meet Noeline. By Tonight You'll Hate Her Too." Offended Australians, lapsing into feelings of cultural inferiority going all the way back to the first boatload of convicts unloaded at Botany Bay, charged that the snooty Brits had deliberately and calculatingly selected a clan to typify vulgar Aussie stereotypes right out of MURIEL'S WEDDING. The bad PR of Sylvania Waters even came up for discussion in the Australian Parliament.

The Donaher-Bakers, for their part, complained about unfair editing by the sneaky pommie bastards and said the show had caused considerable familial discord. But they became Commonwealth media icons nonetheless, Noeline especially. She published a memoir about her experiences and put out a CD music single. Eventually Noeline and Laurie moved out of Sylvania Waters to a less-notorious neighborhood, saying that their kids had fun making the show, but she and Laurie would have to think twice about doing it again. Thanks to cable and home-video, you can still find Sylvania Waters airing for voyeurs around the globe.

During the height of l'affaire Sylvania Waters, Laurie Donaher said "We're sick of all this. I'd hate to be a movie star...People forget that we're real people with real jobs."

But if and when those reality camera crews come knocking at your door, offering exposure and instant first-name basis with millions, perhaps the best and most succinct words of wisdom to hold in your mind are these four, attributed to the late Lance Loud. It is at once a summation, a warning, an epitaph:

"TV ate my family."

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