First, I want to note that there are some typos in my review that I've tried to edit but they don't seem to be updating. Hopefully, they'll be fine within a few hours. If not, apologies.
As some may know, the Loud Family was the subject of what was to become the first television reality series, back in the 1970s. I was among those who watched that original series, week by week, on PBS, and confess that I was unable to take my eyes from the television screen as the family imploded and as Lance Loud's dramatic actions made him the focus of so much of the series. Today, when homosexuality is so much a part of television, it may seem hard to believe that Loud was the clearly gay man to show up on television. Sure, some apparently gay men had appeared in films but these were characters played by actors who may or may not have been gay. For viewers, there was no question about Lance's sexual orientation.
Stick with me here because I do segue from An American Family to Cinema Verite but I think it is vital to have some background info, including a brief historical perspective about the Louds, to understand Cinema Verite more fully.
Compared to today's "reality" television, the Louds may seem quaint, perhaps even boring. After all, we've already seen other shows ad nauseum, including Jon and Kate Plus Eight, where events led to marriage breakdowns, etc. Select a cable channel and you're likely to find some version of a reality show at nearly any hour of the day. That simply wasn't the case when the Loud family was filmed. It truly was a groundbreaking series. Viewers had no idea of the family saga they'd see, more interesting than the latest soap operas (and now even soap operas seem to be a dying breed, especially with the demise of All My Children, etc).
But back to the Loud Family: just as reality shows are sometimes staged today, the producer of An American Family (and the subject of much of Cinema Verite) decided to up the dramatic tension when he revealed certain things to Pat Loud. It is hard to believe that he couldn't have known the effect this would have on Pat. So this did foreshadow some of today's reality shows, where events are manipulated to get higher ratings.
But the crucial difference - one that is shown in Cinema Verite - is that the Louds had no idea their privacy would be so invaded. Perhaps they thought they could hide some of their deepest secrets from the public and come across as a relatively normal family. They also have gone on record as noting that being filmed would transform their lives in far more negative ways than they could possibly envision. Pat didn't seem at all prepared to give Bill an ultimatum and I remember thinking that she might never have done so without having the event on film.
More about Cinema Verite:
It has its pros and cons. It can't possibly capture the essence of the original Loud family reality but it is far better than I imagined. It is a short look at what was a long series. But then it also focuses on the behind the scenes events so it would be unfair to expect it to have the power of An American Family.
Diane Lane definitely evokes Pat Loud, particularly when she is filmed in profile -and I can testify that she does a credible job when it comes to channeling Pat's brittle, no nonsense quality. Tim Robbins actually looks quite a bit like Bill Loud and his portray is compelling and convincing.
Also, Cinema Verite does go beyond the "reality" seen by television viewers who may have watched An American Family, giving a behind the scenes look at the drama as well as the moral and ethical issues faced by the documentary's producer - especially the portray of him as someone who revealed more of Bill's secrets to Pat. This could have been the tipping point that got Pat to confront her husband about long-term problems in their marriage, leading to a crisis filmed for the viewing public to see.
The awkwardness and unease felt by the Loud family teens is palpable in Cinema Verite and that was definitely a part of the original PBS show (I was actually shocked that PBS didn't back down from showing the personal lives of the Loud family in such detail). You can get a deeper look at the actual Loud family by reading American Family: A Televised Life (Visible Evidence) But Lance Loud doesn't emerge as the focus of the series, although he certainly made waves when he was noted to be the first openly gay man on television, portrayed in as close to real life as possible, although I always felt he went into over drive for the cameras.
I had mixed emotions about the focus of Cinema Verite although I did find it riveting to see the off camera drama between the film makers and the Louds. There was simply no way that being filmed could allow the family to be "natural." There were attempts to note that they "forgot" the cameras were there but that was simply not credible (at least to me as a viewer).
I'd urge viewers to compare this to the original film series. Although the original is scarce, if you search online you can sometimes find parts of it and get your own take. I felt that Cinema Verite did capture the way the Louds reacted to being on film. As noted, in spite of their best efforts, they did seem to play to the camera. By the way, troubles and all, the Loud children appeared on a television show and noted that they'd be filmed again, go through the whole experience....in a heartbeat.
But perhaps naively, they never saw the media barrage, often critical, which would come after their lives were paraded in front of the public. Ironically, Pat and Bill actually became closer to each other, forced to batten the hatches with their children. They united to fight back. All of this is revealed in the updates and I like how the actors in Cinema Verite were shown next to the actual Loud family members.
Also fascinating: at the end of Cinema Verite, the actual Loud family is shown as well as updates about their current lives, including one very tragic death. You may be startled to discover the most current update on Pat and Bill Loud. I felt sad to think that the trend started by Cinema Verite, one that still continues full speed today, didn't end up exposing so much of reality television for what it is - something that can exploit both those filmed as well as viewers who come to believe that what they're seeing is actual reality instead of a type of acting and playing to the cameras.
Ironically, Cinema Verite is likely to put the Loud family back into the spotlight again, interviews and all. But this time they're apt to be prepared for the media attention. After all, they've been through the worst of it before.