Judge Gordon Sullivan believe his making-of life story could fit easily into 90 minutes.
When reality because entertainment, everything changed.
For most TV viewers, the reality TV boom began with Survivor in 2000. That was when the convergence of smaller cameras, greater surveillance, and the upward demand for television content all came to a head, producing a national phenomenon that in some ways is still the dominant paradigm for network television (witness, for instance, the way in which reality TV tropes from Survivor have inserted themselves into sitcoms like The Office and Modern Family). However, "reality" TV goes back much further. Many people really date it from the PBS series An American Family, a 1971 documentary show that focused on a single suburban family (and its eventual dissolution). Though that seminal moment in TV history was largely forgotten, Cinema Verite (Blu-ray) dramatizes the events of the series, providing a dramatic portrait of an American family.
Facts of the Case
It's 1971, and Bill (Tim Robbins, The Shawshank Redemption) and Pat (Diane Lane, Jumper) Loud agree to allow PBS access to their lives. They appear to be the typical suburban family, with a traveling father and a mother of five kids, but when the cameras move in, the tensions that were apparently under the surface come to the fore.
HBO is no stranger to controversial programming, so it's no surprise that Cinema Verite emerged from its fertile soil. The team behind the film keeps up HBO's typical level of quality with a few great choices:
• The story. If you want to know more about the Louds, then An American Family is a great place to turn. There must have been a huge temptation to merely ape that excellent documentary series with a few well-placed fictional scenes (especially since An American Family was hard to find when the film was in pre-production). That would have given the actors something to do and the film a sensational structure. Luckily, Cinema Verite avoids that temptation by focusing not on the Louds, but on the making of An American Family. Obviously, there is some overlap between these two subjects, but Cinema Verite spends more time than I would have expected on the way the Louds were filmed (and this allows HBO regular James Gandolfini to play the mastermind behind the show).
• The actors. This is about as perfect a cast as one could wish for. Tim Robbins looks perfectly distinguished (and surprisingly ordinary) as Bill. He brings his usual talents to the role. Diane Lane has a bit more to do as the long-suffering Pat, and she's pitch-perfect as a housewife from 1971. James Gandolfini is equal parts charm and smarm as the show's creator. It's also nice to see Patrick Fugit as one of the cameramen installed in the Loud family home. More important than the individual performances is the way in which the characters interact, as though they have a long history together as a family. It's an impressive ensemble performance and probably could have meant a theatrical release had HBO made that decision.
• This Blu-ray. The show doesn't try to slavishly recreate a Seventies look with vintage film stock or anything like that. Instead, period details and color schemes are put out there, but not emphasized. That means this 1.78:1 AVC-encoded transfer has slightly brighter colors than the usual early Seventies production (and that's a good thing). The rest of the transfer is similarly impressive. Detail is strong, especially during intense closeups, and black levels stay solid and consistent. The DTS-HD surround track does an excellent job balancing dialogue and score. There's also a solid amount of atmospherics in the rear channels. It's an impressive mix and well-reproduced. Extras start with a commentary featuring the directors (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini) and Diane Lane. The trio discusses everything from the original documentary to how they shot contemporary California to look like 1971. The film's other extra is a 4-minute making-of teaser that HBO probably ran as a bumper between other shows on the network.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For all its strengths, Cinema Verite isn't perfect. Here are a few of its problems:
• The story. Of course the idea of focusing on the making of the show is a good one. However, the original series ran for twelve parts, and that amount of information would be difficult to process in 90 minutes. Add in all the additional information about the making of the show, and you've got an almost insurmountable amount of material to shoehorn into a film. The solution to these kinds of problems is almost always to add a few narrative crutches to speed things up. Making characters a little more stereotypical, or relying on a story shorthand we've seen before can let writers focus on presenting what they think are the most important moments of the story in a unique way. The trick with the technique is balance. The problem with Cinema Verite is that it can sometimes feel like the filmmakers are relying a bit too much on typical biopic tricks to get across character information or build tension. Those moments are less compelling and drag down the otherwise excellent scenes.
• The length. This is related to the first point, but 90 minutes isn't nearly enough time to tell this story. Though I doubt it deserves its own twelve-part series, a two-hour or three-hour movie would not have been out of the question. This would have freed up the writers to add more real scenes, which would have cut down on the by-the-numbers scenes considerably, buoying the whole film.
• The extras. The commentary is great, but I think more than a 4-minute featurette would have been nice, especially considering the caliber of the cast. Finding a way to include more from the Loud family would also have been a great addition to the disc.
Cinema Verite is a well-performed drama that focuses on a too-long neglected moment in America's televisual history. Though this Blu-ray could use some more bonus material, it's otherwise an easy-to-recommend disc for fans of television history or good acting.
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