Forty years ago, a crew of cameras parked itself in the living room of a California family—the Louds of Santa Barbara—to record their lives. Forty years ago, this was still considered an unusual situation in America. An American Family, which ultimately aired in 1973, may have been on PBS and had serious documentary ambitions, but it otherwise followed what we’ve come to know as the hallmarks of reality TV: the personal confrontations, the viewing public dissecting the relationships of a family of real strangers, the breakup of a marriage and even the coming out of the gay son.
Tomorrow, HBO premieres Cinema Verite, a TV movie that reconverts the fiction-style documentary into docufiction. And on Sunday, the same network returns the second season of Treme, David Simon’s drama about New Orleans, which applies the style of narrative documentary to serial fiction.
Since An American Family already presented much of the drama on-screen for all to see, Cinema Verite focuses on the question: how did Pat and Bill Loud (Diane Lane and Tim Robbins) come to agree to this and why, and how did it affect them? The film follows documentarian Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), who seduces the Louds by appealing to their vanity and sense of history: their film will do for suburban American what Margaret Mead did for island tribes. (The Louds take this as flattery, perhaps because they identify more with Mead than with the tribespeople.)
Verite means well, and it seems to have some things to say about the seductions and danger of fame, the Heisenberg effect of the cameras and the ethical distinctions between capturing life and inducing drama. They’re not necessarily particularly fresh things, though, and while the film is well-made, it feels unnecessary. Perhaps from the need to fit the story into the confines of an hour-and-a-half feature, everyone ends up falling into types: Craig the filmmaker pushing too hard for drama; Bill the vain, clueless patriarch; Pat the overintellectualizing suburban wife frustrated by her marriage. (Pat is by far the most interesting character in the film, and it’s easy to see how, at least as the film implies it, Craig becomes smitten enough by her to lose distance from the project—though, that, even if true, also plays like a predictable twist.)
Cinema Verite is not a bad movie at all but its failing is an ironic one: it smooths out the messiness and non sequiturs of real life to fit its story into a neat feature-film arc. But the attraction of An American Family—which actually was verite or close enough to it—was its sloppiness. What’s memorable about the long stretch of domestic ennui and tension it depicts is not just the famous blow-up between Bill and Pat that ends their marriage (whose behind-the-scenes Verite focuses on) but the long mundane stretches of life. Fortunately, you have a chance to watch that again (or for the first time), as public-TV stations are rerunning the landmark series beginning this weekend (check your local listings). Compared with the high-gloss, table-flipping theatrics of a Real Housewives, it’s definitely the artifact of another time, but it’s also mesmerizing in its quiet way.
And Sunday, also on HBO, we get more Treme—a show about a slew of characters in and around post-Katrina New Orleans—that appealed to me most last year because it did play like a documentary, complete with meandering stories, a lack of neatly pigeonholed characters, and grace notes that were more about mood than plot. That also meant the series caught a lot of flak from people who complained that nothing much happened in it—in the sense that “things happen” on TV dramas—and fair enough: it’s not for everyone.
The second season, beginning in 2006, about a year after the last, will probably not change minds among lovers or haters. There’s somewhat more capital-D drama to the early episodes, as residents begin returning to New Orleans and, with them, crime. But make no mistake: this is still the sort of show that expects you to invest in whether Davis (Steve Zahn) can get his manager at the public radio station to stop hassling him about his playlist. That said, there’s thematic progress here: where season one was about grief, season two is increasingly about the hard work of rebuilding and moving on, sometimes in another city. (And, like last year, it’s also about some fantastic music.)
Treme didn’t get a massive amount viewers last season, and with its slow pace and atmospheric approach to storytelling, I doubt it intends to become a mammoth hit this year either. For that matter, it would be hard to imagine An American Family, with its deliberate pace and lack of slickness, getting the kind of audience today it did in 1973. That doesn’t mean neither is worth watching, though.