Cinema Verite, Sky Atlantic, Tuesday
The Story of Film, More 4, Saturday
HBO's 1970s drama about the first fly-on-the-wall TV show is emotionally flat, despite its star cast
Sunday 02 October 2011
With all the recent kerfuffle about the way X Factor contestants are treated and the return to our screens of both The Only Way is Essex and Made in Chelsea, what better time to take a look at the origins of reality television?
HBO drama Cinema Verite recreates the story of the first modern reality show, 1973's An American Family. Directed by the Oscar-nominated documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, it stars the divine Diane Lane, the terrific Tim Robbins and, uh, TV's James Gandolfini, giving it all the elements for a tip-top hour-and-a-half. So it's a shame that it's a bit of a horror (though perhaps that's appropriate, given it was written by David Seltzer, of The Omen fame).
The subject matter should be fascinating: though little known here, the original show created a media storm in the States as it laid bare the life of a family gradually falling apart, with the kicker that the mother, Patty, asked her hubby, Bill, for a divorce on camera – a major rebuff to that era's typical televisual portrayal of the happy-go-lucky Brady Bunch.
That's not how the show was meant to work out: the Loud family of Santa Barbera were to be promoted as a beacon unto others, providing a family that the public could learn from. Bill (Robbins) certainly thought that would be the case, declaring that they'd be the West Coast Kennedys. Patty (Lane) had her own reasons for wanting to take part: so America could see a family "bonded by blood and time and love, with a husband and a father who was home and there for us all". There for us all because more often Bill was away "on work" (seemingly working on his affairs with wannabe local actresses ).
There's further fascination to be had in seeing the New York life of flown-the-coop son Lance, the first openly gay character on television, as he took up residence in the Chelsea Hotel – and even more potentially explosive stuff in his politically conservative father's reaction to him.
So there's plenty for this drama to get its teeth into. But it plods along, with honking dialogue, one-note characterisation and clunking exposition that's shamefully pat about the ethics of filming the whole shebang (including a suggestion that the producer, divorced himself, forced the issue by revealing Bill's indiscretions to Patty).
As one would expect of HBO, it is beautifully made – but it's emotionally underwhelming and horribly unenlightening: rather than offering anything in the way of social commentary on family values during the Vietnam years, it limits itself to being a superficial made-for-TV biog of an unhappy woman fed up with her philandering husband. Further, there is no sense of how this show affected viewers (were they shocked by Lance's outré behaviour? Did Patty's asking for a divorce have resonance for other women?) or television – did it set back the case for reality TV?
No such worries for The Story of Film, where cultural ripples oscillate. The fifth of a 16-part series on the history of cinema (all previous episodes are still on 4oD for catch-up), this episode focuses on the period 1939 to 1952 and examines how the trauma of world war affected the movies. From Italian Neorealism via the "deep staging" espoused by Orson Welles and the German Expressionism feted by Tinseltown, away we go, floating on presenter Mark Cousins's mellifluous tones.
Impressively researched, it can be a tad technical for anyone unaccustomed to talking film lens lengths. But that is to nitpick at a series which is educational (how Welles was influenced by Shakespeare, the Medicis and his own corpulence); entertaining (why people believed Gun Crazy's two leads really had robbed a bank); and gossipy (the director Stanley Donen's hatred of Busby Berkeley choreography). It is quite an achievement to stuff 13 years into an hour, and to do so with rigour and verve is all the more remarkable. If nothing else, it'll give you a long list of films you'll want to see to test their quality for yourself.
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