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An American Family (Again): Cinema Verite, the Louds, and the Invention of ‘Reality’ TV

posted by Nell Minow

In 1971, a documentary film-maker named Craig Gilbert approached Pat Loud, a California mother of five, to ask her to allow him to observe her family the way anthropologist Margaret Mead observed the Samoans — and to do it on film, to be broadcast on public television.  300 hours of footage were edited down into twelve episodes, shown in 1973, and it became a sensation.  Part of it was the fascination of the unprecedented format.  This was the show that invented reality television, the idea of taking cameras (and camera operators) into the most personal moments of family life.  And part of it was what was on the screen.  The oldest son, Lance, came out publicly on camera, considered shocking in that era.  The Louds thought that they would be presenting the American dream, but it turned into the American nightmare when after months of filming, Pat told her husband, on camera, that she wanted a divorce.  They ended up on the cover of Newsweek as examples of the family break-ups of the era of self-actualization, open marriages, and what would later be called “The Me Decade.”  Nora Ephron wrote about Pat Loud’s post-series book, “It is impossible to read this book and not suspect that Craig Gilbert knew exactly what he was doing when he picked the Louds, knew after ten minutes with them and the clinking ice in their drinks that he had found the perfect family to show exactly what he must have intended to show all along — the emptiness of American family life.”

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Nearly three decades later, the series is notable for its influence on shows from “The Real World” to “The Hills,” “Jersey Shore,” and all the Kardashians and Housewives  — and YouTube — and for the bigger and still-unresolved issues about how “real” reality television can be, especially when filmed over such a long period of time that not just the cameras but the crew become a part of the story.  Now the Loud experience has come full circle and been turned back into an excellent feature film on HBO with Diane Lane as Pat Loud and James Gandolfini as Craig Gilbert.  Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, who sensitively portrayed another real-life character with a sometimes-distorted media biography in “American Splendor,” have produced a thoughtful story about the Louds and what they represented.

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