An American Family

I walked into the living room the other day and turned on the TV.  HBO was on. I normally don’t watch TV, it’s more of a background noise for me, so I didn’t bother changing the channel when the movie that was playing wasn’t something I recognized. After a few minutes of watching, however, I become a little intrigued. The movie starred Diane Lane and Tim Robbins as a married couple sometime in the 70s. It appeared that their life was being filmed for a show or documentary. Perhaps the first “reality” show?

The HBO movie I was watching was called Cinema Veritewhich is based on the original documentary TV series, An American Family.

Cinema Verite was a movie about the original filming of An American Family, which took place May-December 1971. The original TV series was supposed to follow the Loud family through its everyday business in Santa Barbara, CA. However, what really ended up happening was the filming allowed an up-close view of the breakdown of the marriage of Bill and Pat Loud.

The movie I ended up watching, though based on the real-life family, and not actually the real Loud family, really made me think about how we use the term “family” in our current society. Here they were, an upper-middle class family, pretty “normal” by most standards-mom, dad, 5 kids-lived in Santa Barbara, CA, had a nice house, etc… They were the “typical” American family in 1971.

However, as filming started, the cracks began to show. Bill was a philanderer. Lance, the eldest son, came out as gay in a time when coming out wasn’t necessarily commonplace. Pat struggled with her own demons of jealousy and discovering her husbands transgressions, and the family slowly unraveled. Pat eventually tells her kids that she is going to file for divorce, and one of her daughters says, “But we can’t get divorced, we are the American family.”

Yes, my dear, you are the American Family-evolving.

This show was controversial because it took an intimate look inside a real-life family, and the result was not pretty. But is it ever really? What family truly has it all? What family doesn’t have cracks and demons and crazy? I think that this show exposed the myth of the perfect family, and America wasn’t ready to admit that family does not equate to a white picket fence and happily ever after. Family is messy. Family can be painful.

I enjoyed the end of Cinema Verite when we were given an update on each member of the real Loud family. Just as in every family, some of the kids went on to be everyday professionals, some had more interesting jobs, others lived and died almost tragically. Lance turned into one of the first gay icons, was in a punk-rock band, and also became a journalist and advocate. He died at the age of  50 from complications of HIV.

I thought I’d share this story with you for a couple reasons. One, because I think the history of the first “reality” show is pretty interesting, especially considering how much reality television has taken over our culture. And two, because it is a good reminder that you don’t have to have a perfect family in order to be “normal” or happy or successful. No one does. The moment we stop searching for perfection and stop blaming our own imperfect families for our own short-comings is the moment we are free.

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2 thoughts on “An American Family

  1. I remember sitting on the floor of my parents bedroom, mom and dad stretched out on their bed. Mom drinking her second to last cup of coffee for the day. Dad eating a bowl of ice cream that rested on his chest – both with their cigarettes and ashtray by their side, as we watched the moment by moment unraveling, not of a typical family in 71′, but of An American Family.

    I was 13 when the doc first aired and it was the original must see t.v.

    On the one hand it was funny not because it was a joke but because it was a tragedy. It was riveting – a drama – not because it was new but because it was truthful.

    It was sad. It was horrific. It mirrored all the negative and positive political/cultural turmoil of the time, and yet – 40 years later – it’s a piece of work that’s still seared in my mind.

    Ya see … my parents were going thru their own troubles and soon after my 13th I too was part of an American Family.

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