Television review: 'Cinema Verite'

Fri Apr 15, 2011 2:56pm EDT
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By Tim Goodman

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The absolute first thing most people will think after watching HBO's film, "Cinema Verite," is that they need to put the landmark PBS documentary and godfather of the reality genre, "An American Family," at the top of their NetFlix queue.

Don't bother. You can't rent it.

And therein lies what has to be the strangest twist to the HBO film that tries to tell the story of what happened when an American family - which appears to have thought, at least in passing, that they were in some way the perfect, not just typical, American family - allows a TV crew inside their lives.

These days, that's about three quarters of the television landscape. Reality television is not just ubiquitous on American television, it has pervaded the culture in such a way and in such a prolonged form that it's now a parody of itself. People go on television not for their 15 minutes of fame, but to turn those 15 into their very own separate 30 minute reality series that may lead to additional media attention, perhaps a magazine feature - or cover! - and even some products to sell.

It's cynical, predictable and enormously successful.

But back in the early 1970s, reality television as we know it didn't exist. Then a documentary filmmaker, Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini), had a majestic idea to smash the idealized television world of "The Partridge Family," "The Brady Bunch" and others by showing a real American family living their lives in front of the camera. In Santa Barbara, he found the Loud family, who agreed to have the curtain pulled back on their ostensibly idyllic suburban life. And television would never be the same again.

In 1971, Gilbert and his principal crew of Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit, Shanna Collins) started to roll tape after Gilbert convinced a very skeptical WNET to help fund the documentary for PBS. "Cinema Verite" posits that Pat Loud (Diane Lane) believed Gilbert's hype that her family was, in theory, perfect for television. But she also suspected her husband was a philanderer and the TV project would keep him home.

On the other hand, Bill Loud (Tim Robbins), believed he was the patriarch of the West Coast Kennedys. He had absolutely no idea what kind of havoc would come down on him once the cameras started rolling.   Continued...