Saturday, April 16, 2011

An American Family

When the cinema verite documentary "An American Family" aired for the first time on PBS in 1973, I became one of its biggest fans. Living alone and struggling through my first year of public school teaching, I found the trials and tribulations of the real-life Loud family somehow reassuring. I watched each week with increasing interest and trepidation. I can still recall when Lance Loud revealed to his mother that he was gay, and remember with striking vividness the moment when Pat Loud told Bill Loud, her husband of at least 20 years, that she wanted a divorce. (Many years later, by the way, they reunited.) The Louds were a sensation. Plastered on the cover of news magazines and discussed voluminously in op-ed columns, they became the poster children, if you will, for the dysfunctional American family. They also became very famous, however fleetingly. As Lance Loud, a former pen pal of Andy Warhol, affirmed, the series allowed Lance and the rest of his family to live out "the middle class dream that you can become famous for being just who you are."

Now, 38 years after the documentary first hit the airwaves, the Louds are back, only this time not as themselves, but portrayed by an ensemble of accomplished actors, led by Tim Robbins and Diane Lane as Bill and Pat Loud. But the new film called "Cinema Verite" is less about the impact of the documentary and more about the conflicts behind the scenes between the producer and the filmmakers and how their disagreements regarding their treatment of the Louds influenced the end product. There was much talk then about how a reality-based series can distort people's lives through selective editing and a widespread feeling prevailed, at least among members of the family, that the series ultimately offered a very skewed view of their lives.

So many years later, it doesn't feel that all this matters very much. But they probably wouldn't be making this movie if there weren't considerable interest among the American public. So why now? Something about the power of media to influence our lives, to shape how we see the world. And since that now matters more than ever, perhaps the story of the Louds and how their lives got portrayed on television can shed some light on the role of media in distorting our experiences and convincing us of one thing when almost the exact opposite is closer to the truth. As you can tell, I am confused. But fascinated, nonetheless, that somehow the Loud Family is still news.

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