Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Simulation, Simulation, All is Simulation?: Musings on An American Family

I spent a significant part of Sunday and Monday, 24 and 25 April, watching PBS World’s fortieth anniversary rerunning of PBS’s seminal “reality show” An American Family. I found it time well spent.

An American Family was filmed throughout 1971 in the home of the Loud family, dad Bill, mom Pat, and kids Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah, and Michele, in Santa Barbara, California. The 300 plus hours of filmed material recorded, essentially on a daily basis, and directed by Alan and Susan Raymond over a seven month period was edited down to 12 and broadcast to a large audience, for PBS that is, of 10 million or so, between January and March 1973. During its run An American Family became a topic of water cooler conversation and a cause célèbre as pundits, religious leaders, politicians and others debated whether the Loud's were smug or not, whether the Loud’s child rearing practises were good or bad, whether the Loud's supposed lack of political engagement should be condemned, and whether the Raymond’s cameras truly captured reality even though producer Craig Gilbert’s said during his introduction to the documentary series said that they didn’t and that the camera’s presence in the Loud household did affect what happened when it was there. Some commentators argued that An American Family was more soap opera fiction than realistic fact. Others that it portrayed realistically the realities of the contemporary American family. Still others were disturbed by the fact that viewers were essentially peering into other peoples private lives (voyeurism on a Hitchcockian scale). Interesting takes on the show, by the way, as well as WNET, the PBS station that commissioned An American family, publicity materials can be found at http://subcin.com/americanfamily.html.

There is a lot to admire in An American Family. It was and is of great historical importance: It was one of the first reality shows ever on US television and one of the first docudramas or docusoaps though unlike its legion of contemporary clones (think The Osbournes, The Hills, and Keeping up with the Kardashians) it was unscripted and, in my opinion, all the better for it. It was and is of great sociological importance: It is a time capsule into an American past, a past that was somewhat similar to mine. Like a couple of the Loud kids I was in high school in the 1970s. Like Lance and Grant I loved and lived for music. I adored the Beatles, I loved The Who’s Who’s Next, and I was taken with Procol Harum. Like Lance and Delilah I loved movies. I watched classic Hollywood films every Saturday and Sunday with my sister from noon until night. It is of great cinematic importance: An American Family is the ultimate in direct cinema or cinema verite, film movements prominent in the 1960s and 1970s and considered by many to be revolutionary. It is of great ethnographic importance: An American Family's has that fly on the wall quality of direct cinema. Some have argued that the show was an example of filmed domesticity but it should also be remembered that An American Family followed Pat to home to Eugene, Oregon, to Taos, New Mexico, followed Kevin, Garth, and Delilah to school, Delilah and Michele to dance class, followed Pat and Bill into restaurants, and followed Bill to work and on business trips. And finally An American Family was one of the few American TV shows that spawned a British series, The Family, which, points up the differences between US and British television at the time and perhaps today. While The Family concentrated on a working class family in Reading, An American Family focused on an upper middle class from a trendy California town.

Like so many European or American independent art films or books An American Family takes a while to get going and to warm up to. Eventually, I really got into it for a variety of reasons. Here are a few: I was fascinated by Lance, the first “real” gay man ever on US TV. What a performer. I was fascinated by the interaction between the kids. They seemed to genuinely care for and love one another. I was fascinated by the slow burn that eventually led to the end of Pat and Bill's marriage. I found the vacuity of some of the conversations, particularly the one in Taos, so interesting because they did capture the banality that is characteristic so much of American bourgeois life. No wonder I hated America’s bourgeois “culture” when I was a kid (actually I still do). I was fascinated by the show’s portrayal of the American domesticity common at the time. Pat seemed to be eternally the one cooking the meals, cleaning up after the kids and her husband, and doing the shopping. I was fascinated by the performative aspect of the series. The kids said later on the Dick Cavett Show that they felt compelled to talk simply because the camera was there. So much for “reality”. On the other hand, I sometimes felt an honesty and truthfulness coming sometimes through during the show, some of it very painful. I was fascinated by the incorporation of a bit of backstory about the Loud's into the series. I was horrified by Bill’s and his work buddies total disregard for the environment. I was fascinated by the camera work of the show, particularly its concentration on the body parts of the bodies of the Loud's, feet, hands, toes. This seemed a strategy to try to get beyond the performances for the camera aspects of the family and into the Loud's “souls” (many Amish preach the gospel that human souls and hence human illnesses can be deduced by looking into the eyes of the patient). I am so glad I finally got to see all of An American Family. Thank you PBS. I wish the entire series was available on DVD.

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