An American Family
(1973) bridges the stylistic conventions of independent documentary
film and broadcast television, marrying the innovations of American
cinéma-vérité to the narrative traditions
of TV. The twelve-episode series chronicles seven months in
the lives of the Loud family of Santa Barbara, California, including
the divorce proceedings of the parents. Producer Craig Gilbert
deliberately chose an upper-middle class family whose lifestyle
approximated that of families seen on situation comedies such
as Make Room For Daddy (1953-65). Under his supervision,
Susan and Alan Raymond filmed the everyday lives of Pat and
William Loud, and their children Lance, Kevin, Grant, Delilah,
and Michele. This television documentary
captured the imagination of the American public when it was
first aired by the Public Broadcasting Service in the winter
of 1973. Ten million viewers followed the Louds' unfolding marital
problems in a controversial weekly show that some TV critics
called a real-life soap opera.1
Like all cultural
artifacts, films and television programs cannot be fully understood
outside their historical contexts of production and reception.
An American Family would never have been made by the
(ABC, NBC, or CBS), which, by the early 1970s, had scaled back
documentary productions in the race for audience ratings. (Brown
1971: 198) Even for educational and public TV, the form and content
of the series were radical innovations, for Gilbert's use of dramatic
storytelling techniques in a non-fictional account of family life
blurred conventions of different media forms.
An American Family
uses the episodic multiple-focus structure familiar from soap
opera narration. As Robert Allen notes, fictional television
programs usually employ a "narrative mode" of viewer address,
adopted from classical Hollywood narration, while non-fiction
shows generally rely upon a "rhetorical mode" of viewer address
adapted from radio. (Allen 1987: 90-91) A distinctly hybrid
work, An American Family confounds this typology; it
represents, in the words of Yale drama professor Richard Gilman,
a "bastard union of several forms." (Carlin 1978: 25) Though
known widely as an example of observational cinema, the series
mixes the narrative traditions of the film and television industries.
Furthermore, it struggles against its own interpretive tendencies,
striving to show "life as it is" while simultaneously criticizing
American society in the early 1970s. As such, like the Loud
family it depicts, An American Family is a text at war
The documentary consists
of twelve hour-long episodes in the lives of the Louds. The
first show introduces the seven members of the family and the
central story line, while the next eleven programs follow their
activities in the summer and fall of 1971. Each subsequent episode
takes for granted the stories, characters, and events showcased
in earlier ones. Individual shows emphasize certain events and
characters over others as, for example, hour seven explores
Grant's attitude towards his summer job. With one crucial exception,
the series proceeds in a loose chronological order. Events flow
along a chain of cause-and-effect as well as simple chronology.
Individual scenes are constructed around beginnings, middles,
and ends, just as individual programs are, and as is, indeed,
the entire documentary. Within scenes, the
setting, the characters, the time, and the action are usually
clearly identifiable. Though it often falls short, An American
Family, like many works of observational cinema, strives
for the clarity and comprehensibility of Hollywood cinema and
American commercial television.2 Observational
documentaries typically depict actual events in dramatic form,
using continuity techniques conventionally associated with mainstream
fiction film. Whereas most non-fiction programming, particularly
TV news, speaks directly to the audience, Gilbert's series,
like other observational films, addresses the viewer only indirectly
through the telling of a story.
As a style, observational
cinema tends more towards the "open" textual pole of Jean-Luc
Godard and Roberto Rossellini than the "closed" pole of Alfred
Hitchcock and Alain Resnais. (Godard 1972: 180; Allen 1985:
81-4) Vis-à-vis traditional documentaries, observational
films are polysemic because they lack the devices of voice-over,
interviews, and non-diegetic music through which point of view
may be unequivocally expressed. A comparatively open text, An
American Family ends on a decisively ambiguous note. Discussing
her anticipated alimony arrangement, Pat Loud mentions that
she may never marry again. Her dinner guest remarks, "I find
this the most depressing conversation I've ever heard in my
bloody life." Pat replies, "But these things happen," and the
final episode freezes on her smiling face in medium close-up.
Thus, as François Truffaut did in Les Quatre Cent
Coups (The 400 Blows, 1959), producer Gilbert opts
for an open-ended conclusion for his twelve-hour documentary.
Throughout the series,
narrative omniscience remains the order of the
day. In episode three, the coverage of the annual recital of the
Rudenko School of Dance presents sequential and simultaneous actions
occurring backstage, on-stage, and in the audience, shown from
a panoply of different angles. An evening's entertainment condenses
into less than ten minutes of screen time. Numerous performances
by Delilah and Michele Loud are featured. Music bridges the movement
from the stage to the dressing room, maintaining continuous spatial
and temporal relations, just as the strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan
Lake announce the transition back to the dance floor. This
sequence, and the episode with it, ends with a freeze frame on
Bill and Pat Loud applauding from their seats in the Lobero Theater.
The pronounced story
emphasis of the actuality material calls to mind the strong
continuity of classical Hollywood narration. For example, a
tarot-card reader in episode two accurately hints at Pat Loud's
coming separation from her husband. The scene forecasts later
plot developments, as the card reader suggests to Pat that,
"This year is a year of changes. You'll have a choice to make
which you are building up to. Something is ending now." For
some critics, use of such continuity editing techniques, suspense,
and foreshadowing partially undermines the reality effect of
the series. (Gaines 1973: 48) In other words, the narrative
drive of An American Family grates against the realism
of the handheld camera and direct sound. In The Classical
Hollywood Cinema, David Bordwell suggests that "the strongest
illusion of reality comes from tight causal motivation." (Bordwell
1985: 19) Just the opposite appears to be the case with non-fiction:
if things fit together too neatly, viewers distrust the narration
and question the realism.
An American Family,
then, blurs generic categories. The twelve-part program violates
viewer expectations about what documentaries are supposed to
do. Normally, genres restrain the range of possible interpretations.
As Jane Feuer notes, a genre "usurps the function of an interpretive
community by providing a context for interpreting the films
and by naming a specific set of intertexts according to which
a new film must be read." (Feuer 1987: 118) The innovative style
of An American Family, coupled with the absence of clearly
articulated standards for non-fiction, undermines conventional
expectations. For example, a roundtable discussion broadcast
by WNET on April 5, 1973, in the same weekly time-slot as the
series, aired the opinions of Margaret Mead and five additional
experts of literature, drama, history, psychiatry, and anthropology.
The sheer variety of disciplines represented on the panel demonstrates
the difficulty contemporary viewers had fitting the documentary
to established genres and forms.
The "neither fish
nor fowl" generic instability of this non-fiction series remains
one of its most distinctive characteristics. Some critics, such
as Todd Gitlin, see this blurring of categories as typical of
American commercial TV. (Gitlin 1983) Though shot on film, in
a style associated with observational cinema, television's characteristic
modes of address and narration profoundly influenced Gilbert's
hybrid show. Although Tamar Liebes and Elihu Katz credit Dallas
(1978-1991) as "the beginning of a new genre in American TV,
combining the afternoon soap with other prime-time forms" (Liebes
and Katz 1990: 10), this stylistic innovation clearly already
appeared in the 1973 series on the Louds. To paraphrase Robert
Allen's description of the codes of soap opera, to a greater
extent than any other documentary, Gilbert's work walks the
line between a program that "spills over into the experiential
world of the viewer" and a program that may be "read as fiction."
(Allen 1985: 91) As such, An American Family announces
the breakdown of fixed distinctions be-
tween reality and spectacle, public and private, serial narrative
and non-fiction, film and television.
An American Family
capitalizes on one of the dominant historical characteristics
of American television, namely, serial narrative. (Kozloff 1987:
68) Scene changes in the twelve-part program are facilitated
by the large cast of principal characters and the ability to
shift focus from one family member to another. Story lines will
be temporarily abandoned only to be picked up later in the documentary.
This multiple-focus narrative results in several ongoing plots.
For example, Grant and Kevin's band practices in the garage
in episode one, discusses recording contracts in episode three,
performs at a high school pep rally in episode ten, and auditions
for a club gig in episode twelve. An American Family
presents not the strict linear causal chain of classical Hollywood
cinema, with its goal-oriented protagonists and question-and-answer
story structure, but rather the slow pace of serial narrative,
confirming John Ellis' intuition that, on television, "The normal
movement between segments is one of vague simultaneity (meanwhile
. . . meanwhile . . . a bit later . . .)." (Ellis 1982: 150)
While there are multiple
stories in An American Family, the dominant plot line
involves the marital problems of Mr. and Mrs. Loud, which culminate
in their separation and preparation for divorce. Other developments
explored include the affairs of Bill's business, the relations
between the Louds and their children, Lance's activities in
New York City and his travels in Europe, Delilah's dance performance
and her budding relationship with boyfriend Brad (one of the
underdeveloped plot lines), Pat's visit to her mother in Eugene
and her vacation in Taos, Kevin's business trip to Southeast
Asia (another story more absent than present), Grant's summer
job as a construction worker, and the evolution of the garage
band. The documentary rarely veers from the characters' immediate
concerns with interpersonal relationships. Even in episode eight,
in meetings with mining supervisors, Mr. Loud talks primarily
about his wife and children. Of a filmed discussion about the
Vietnam war between Bill Loud and striking longshoremen in San
Francisco, coordinating producer Jacqueline Donnet said, "You
could have made an hour show on that discussion alone. But there
was just no way to fit it in. It didn't move forward the story
of the family." (Ruoff 1995: 85) As a result, the so-called
great events of contemporary history are wholly absent from
An American Family. As in daytime TV serials, the stories
focus on the personal problems of the characters and their relationships
with one another.
In Speaking of
Soap Operas (1985), Robert Allen describes the characteristics
that distinguish daytime serials from other narrative forms:
a continuous format that indefinitely postpones closure in favor
of process; multiple characters and multiple narrative plot
lines; and a focus on the intimate daily lives of the characters.
As such, soaps rely on consistent viewer involvement over
weeks, months, and years. Similarly, An American Family
encourages viewers to think about the Louds as if they were their
next door neighbors. The open-ended episodic structure of the
program accentuates similarities with everyday life and promotes
strong identification with the Louds. The twelve-part series powerfully
combines the reality effect of soap opera narrative with documentary
conventions of authenticity. Like soaps, An American Family
emphasizes character over plot. Many scenes simply give insight
into the family members and their relationships without creating
any suspense. Pat's visit to her mother in episode four focuses
on their shared history, not on any future event. In fact, in
terms of narrative development, Mrs. Loud's trip to Eugene delays
the main plot line of her deteriorating relationship with her
The episodic story
structure employs greater redundancy than classical Hollywood
narrative. Soaps reiterate plot developments extensively to
keep irregular viewers up to date. (Allen 1985: 70) In An
American Family, although most scenes occur only once, there
are interesting exceptions. At the end of episode eight, having
returned from his cross-country trip, Bill asks Grant, "How's
everything on the home front?" After a brief, but revealing,
conversation, a freeze frame sets father and son off against
the darkness of the Santa Barbara airport parking lot. Hour
nine begins by repeating the airport exchange between Bill and
Grant in its entirety, including Mr. Loud's uncanny concluding
remark, "Walk right into the lion's den, huh?" While offering
background information, the repetition also signals the scene's
importance, further building suspense for Bill's return to 35
Wooddale Lane for the pivotal exchange in which his wife asks
him to move out of the house.
Like soap operas,
An American Family leaves room for active involvement
of spectators through multiple stories drawn out through multiple
episodes. In between shows, viewers have time to speculate with
friends about future character developments. For many, the interest
of An American Family comes from watching the intimate
life of an actual family in serial form: "You find yourself
sticking with the Louds with the same compulsion that draws
you back day after day to your favorite soap opera. The tension
is heightened by the realization that you are identifying, not
with a fictitious character, but a flesh and blood person who
is responding to personal problems of the kind you yourself
might face." (Harrington 1973: 5)
Like most multiple-focus
narrative television shows, An American Family offers
viewers choices for sympathetic identification among different
characters, their values, and behaviors. (Allen 1985: 171) Most
consistently, the series contrasts Mr. and Mrs. Loud's conflicting
attitudes towards marriage and parenting, implicitly suggesting
a "battle of the sexes" drama typical of situation comedies,
without, however, the humor and easy resolution. (Seiter 1987:
37) For example, the twelve-hour documentary ends
with a scene of Bill at lunch with a friend talking about marriage
and its discontents followed by a similar scene of Pat at dinner
with friends discussing her likely divorce settlement.
the basis of time devoted to her, Pat Loud emerges as the lead
character in the series. Mrs. Loud's attitude evolves towards
her role as wife and mother. At the beginning of episode three,
after she inspects a shipment of materials in Baltimore for
her husband's business, the company representative gives her
the backhanded compliment, "Well, I think that you did a very
good job for a housewife." Over the course of the twelve shows,
Pat gradually changes from a married homemaker to a single mother
looking for work. Episode four focuses almost exclusively on
Mrs. Loud, detailing her memories through exceptional techniques,
such as first-person voice-over narration, home movies, and
snapshots. Five subjective flashbacks introduce incidents from
her childhood and young adult years. Even so, the narration
never restricts itself to her point of view, combining omniscient
and subjective perspectives for this nostalgic journey home.
In addition to the
"battle of the sexes" dynamic, the family members represent
different normative systems: Bill's work ethic and to a lesser
extent Pat Loud's, the children's pleasure principle (especially
Grant's), and Lance's avant-garde, épater le bourgeois,
attitude. Though occasionally blatantly articulated, these contrasts
often remain implicit within the documentary. Having seen Vain
Victory, the drag queen parody of the American musical at
La Mama Theater in Greenwich Village, in hour two, audience
members cannot avoid making comparisons with Delilah and Michele
Loud's amateur dance performances in the following episode.
While the sequencing favors the transvestite variety review,
either can appear ridiculous, depending on viewers' feelings
about avant-garde theater, parody, and homosexuality. Sitting
at Ratner's Deli afterwards in episode two, Pat Loud expresses
her view that Vain Victory was "pretty gross."
Hour five explores
the main characters' attitudes towards work. An independent
businessman, Bill Loud embodies a conservative entrepreneurial
mentality that his children, and the series itself, ridicule.
He pushes his son Kevin toward business concerns on the occasion
of a trip to Southeast Asia, with no acknowledgment of the political
implications (in fact, the subject of Vietnam remains beneath
the text throughout). Mr. Loud also tries to find work for his
other son still living at home. Unaware of his father's plans,
Grant listens to The Who sing "We Don't Get Fooled Again" on
his record player. Suggesting utopian desires unfulfilled, Roger
Daltry exhorts his young admirer to "take a bow for the new
revolution." Grant aspires to be a performer like his pop music
idols. Mr. Loud, in contrast, hopes to get his languid third
son to work in construction, during his summer vacation, for
the "curb king of southern California." He talks to his nephew
about summer employment for Grant, even volunteering to pay
his son's wages. Offered a job pouring cement, the seventeen-year-old
shows little interest in the prospect of physical labor, referring
to his father's machinations as "the concrete caper." Subsequently,
at the airport, Mr. Loud discusses the pleasures of work with
Kevin shortly before his departure to Asia. Bill describes the
beauty of strip-mining, "When that great big Marion 5600 shovel
throws that bucket out there and sucks that dirt back up there,
and it's cold, you know, and you see more metal roll off that
thing, I mean, you're on Broadway, you know. You're really at
the top of the heap." The program then juxtaposes Bill's euphoric
remarks with a scene of Grant at work under the searing Santa
Barbara sun; he's definitely not on
Broadway. Although the sun set during their ride to the airport,
the episode cuts to a daytime sequence of Grant and then back
to Kevin again at the departure gate, a subtle manipulation of
story order for contrast.
Hour seven picks
up this ideological argument between the generations, as Grant
complains to his father about a lack of support for his career
interests in music: "I'm not even going to go into it with you,
because you'll just give me all this jazz about, well, 'You
gotta go to college and take some economics, and a banking course,
and you'll be set for the rest of your life.'" Laughing, Bill
remains true to form in his response, "Well, don't you think
you would be?" In episode eight, Mr. Loud jokingly tells some
mineworkers that his teenage son is "the forerunner of the three-day
week." Meanwhile, Lance, traveling abroad in hour six, invents
a story about having his money stolen so that his parents will
send more. In the final show, Bill refers to his eldest son
as the "greatest con artist you ever saw." Through these comparisons,
viewers of An American Family have the opportunity to
identify with characters according to their own interests. The
use of overlapping stories and numerous characters offers a
more supple range of responses than classical Hollywood films.
The multiple-focus narrative style leaves room for audiences,
as one reviewer notes, "to root for" their favorite Loud. (Rosenblatt
documentary itself often favors Lance's perspective for the
critique he extends of his family and life in southern California.
Lance is the only family member other than Pat to have an individual
program dedicated to his activities. Purchasing a ticket at
Kennedy airport for his return to the west coast in episode
eleven, Lance dryly tells the reservations clerk that Santa
Barbara is "more than just a home, it's a way of life." The
program, however, does not limit itself to his point of view.
Editorial perspective circulates freely among the different
characters. In the final hour, Mr. Loud's friend Robert sums
up the pessimistic point of view of An American Family
during a lunch date with Bill: "The family as we knew it in
our youth is a thing of the past and you see all the signs of
it coming to an end."
Structure of Episode One
The first hour of
An American Family introduces the characters, their individual
and common interests, and simultaneously instructs viewers how
to look at and understand this landmark television series. Apart
from the title sequence, there are approximately twenty-four
scenes and 169 shots. A typical scene is two and a half minutes
long, composed of seven shots of an average length of twenty-one
seconds each. However, within this general framework, there
exists room for considerable variation: a scene of the Loud
family at breakfast lasts seven and a half minutes and consists
of thirty-four shots, while Delilah's dance rehearsal lasts
several minutes but consists of just one elegantly choreographed
between the linked sequences of An American Family consists
of the "vague simultaneity" of television narration that Ellis
mentions in Visible Fictions. (Ellis 1982: 150) During
the second half of episode one, as the family finishes breakfast
and starts a new day, Lance sorts his clothes at the Chelsea
Hotel; while Lance arranges his room, Grant goes to school;
while Grant attends his class, Pat shops; as Pat buys groceries,
Bill works in the field. Bit by bit, time passes. After school,
Delilah practices her dance routine. A hard day of work done,
Bill and Pat enjoy drinks with friends; while her parents socialize,
Michele plays with her pet; as their sister rides her horse,
Kevin and Grant play music; while the band rehearses, the other
family members converse with Lance on the phone. By the evening
-- the end of a representative day -- the family has come together,
and a rowdy musical performance caps off the show. Thus, although
the underlying organization of the episode is quite sophisticated
for a documentary, the impression of the casual unfolding of
daily life prevails in the first sixty minutes of An American
At the outset of
the documentary, producer Craig Gilbert provides an on-camera
introduction that recalls the standard direct address of non-fictional
TV. (Ruoff 1992: 229-31) After this prologue, and at the beginning
of each subsequent episode, a split-screen montage sequence
and musical theme song introduce the family members one by one.
Nothing in Gilbert's series smacks of television situation comedies,
such as The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (1952-66),
so much as this title sequence. Even more than the episodic
structure, the suburban setting, and the family focus, the series
title sequence sets up television representations of family
life as the primary intertext. For this reason, Gilbert's series
functions at least as much as a critique
of the representation of family life on fictional TV programs
as a statement about contemporary society.
After the prologue
and title sequence, the next twelve scenes take place on December
31, which the voice-over refers to as "the last day of filming."
The preparations for the 1971 New Year's Eve celebration during
the day and the party itself are condensed into the first thirty
minutes. Just a few scenes into An American Family, Gilbert
announces in voice-over, "Pat Loud and her husband, Bill, separated
four months ago after twenty years of marriage." Most of the
activities take place at "35 Wooddale Lane," although Bill Loud
appears in his new lodgings at the Park Cabrillo Apartments
in Santa Barbara. Later, the program cuts between the party
at the Louds' home and Bill's own celebration at the Somerset
night club with his friend Linda. The second half of the episode
takes place "seven months earlier," according to the voice-over.
After breakfast with the entire family at home, the documentary
constructs the separate activities of the Louds during a typical
day. These vignettes come from different moments over the seven
months covered by the series: Delilah's dance recital occurs
in June, Bill's tour of mining operations takes place in August,
and Grant's class at Santa Barbara High School meets after the
fall semester starts in September of 1971.
The series proper
begins with preparations for the New Year's party at the Louds'
home. While these events take place, Bill Loud appears in his
apartment, isolated from the family. Gilbert's voice-over announces
that Bill spent his holiday in Hawaii as the viewer sees him
for the first time. Mr. Loud mechanically sifts through a large
pile of commercial Christmas cards, chuckling laconically in
response to one of them. (Later in this episode, after the story
shifts back to the summer, Pat suggests to Lance that he send
such a card to Bill for Father's Day, even though she herself
finds them "silly.") The parallel editing structure implies
simultaneity of time and indeed, later, the program cuts back
and forth between Bill in his apartment and Pat at home, engaged
in a terse conversation on the phone. Pat sarcastically mentions
her joy that her estranged husband can afford to vacation overseas,
a veiled reference to coming alimony payments. Another phone
conversation, between the Louds' fifteen-year-old daughter and
her boyfriend, immediately follows this exchange. Delilah and
Brad's awkward tenderness towards each other contrasts vividly
with the tired cynicism of her parents' discussion.
Pat Loud is the only
adult present at the New Year's festivities at 35 Wooddale Lane.
The camera lingers on her isolation as she reads, pets the dog,
and watches her children dance to the Andrew Sisters' "Boogie
Woogie Bugle Boy." Continuing the earlier cross-cutting paradigm,
strictly parallel scenes compare her evening with her husband's.
A close-up on Pat's face slowly dissolves to a similar shot
of Bill dancing with another woman, suggesting the source of
Pat's discontent. The strains of Carole King's "You've Got a
Friend," sung by a piano man in the back of the restaurant,
fill in the details. The poignant symbolism of the new year,
with its retrospective glance towards the past and resolutions
for the future, underlines this segment.
When the story of
the Louds then jumps back to the spring of 1971, viewers scan
for the signs of the future in the status quo. Having shown
the effects -- the Louds' separation -- the documentary returns
to explore the causes. The flashback structure strongly enforces
a cause-and-effect chain of narrative associations. Pat's irritation
as she prepares breakfast reads as her dissatisfaction with
her husband. Bill appears and asks if she has seen his shoes.
"No, sir," she replies curtly; "I'll look for them." The seeds
of the coming discord ripen in these exchanges.
uses this flashback structure to reign in the inherent polysemic
quality, the openness, of the observational footage. This approach
seeks to constrain the viewer's encounter with what associate
producer Susan Lester called "the discomfort of the real." (Ruoff
1995: 83) Thanks to this teleological structure, audience members
know the trajectory and outcome of An American Family
-- the parents' marital problems and eventual separation --
from the opening episode. The narration provides information
about the future to which the characters do not have access.
When the episode moves back to the breakfast scene in May, the
Louds are not aware that in September Pat will file for divorce
and Bill will move into a singles apartment. As a result, the
flashback puts viewers in a position of superiority in relation
to the characters. This hierarchy of knowledge, and the omniscient
narration, may have contributed to the tone of moral superiority
TV critics exhibited vis-à-vis the family in 1973.
Despite the central
emphasis placed on the Louds' separation in hour one, their
marriage only indirectly surfaces as an issue in the next five
hours of An American Family. Bill does not appear at
all during episode two; in hour four, he figures in only one
scene, a telephone conversation with Lance. Indirect references
to marital problems in the early shows become comprehensible
only in light of Gilbert's announcement that the Louds have separated.
The state of their relationship must be inferred by its relative
absence in the narrative; for example, Pat and Bill take
separate vacations in programs four and five. The central dilemma
of the documentary remains tantalizingly off-screen for much of
the series, indefinitely postponed through story techniques that
tease and delay the eventual split until episode nine. In this
way, Gilbert retains a remarkable degree of suspense and narrative
anticipation regarding the Louds' crumbling marriage.
raised the marital question during the "late spring morning,"
the first episode cuts three thousand five hundred miles to
New York City to introduce the one family member not present
at the breakfast meal. Lance delivers a long tirade about his
family, entirely in voice-over, as he sorts his clothes alone
in a room at the Chelsea hotel. Through this interview technique,
An American Family implicitly endorses Lance's outsider
point of view.
Although the multiple-focus
narrative allows for abrupt shifts from story line to story
line, or character to character, a degree of continuity carries
one sequence into another. For example, Lance's concluding comment
about his younger brother -- "I think that of all of us Grant
will probably succeed most, unfortunately" -- sets up the next
scene. In a social studies class at Santa Barbara High School,
Grant gives a report on the Reconstruction period in American
history. The teacher tries to get him to elaborate on his superficial
description of it as a "tragic era." Grant's lackluster performance
in class amusingly contradicts Lance's prediction. A medium
close-up of Grant at the front of the classroom holds for a
long time as he struggles to find a suitable answer. After much
clowning, Grant remarks that Reconstruction was an attempt to
give blacks "equal social status with the whites," so that they,
too, could achieve "the American dream."
The following shot
shows Mrs. Loud pushing an overflowing cart at a supermarket;
she can barely put in another bottle of salad dressing. Buying
goods for six people, Pat clearly has no time or interest in
comparison shopping. Grant's reference to the "American dream"
carries over explicitly as a commentary on the family's upper-middle
class way of life, consisting primarily of taken-for-granted
material abundance. The combination of these two shots in sequence
gives rise to a concept not inherent in the individual images.
The cut, emphasized by coming at the end of a long take, provides
the series' most blatant example of what documentary filmmaker
Esther Shub called "the power of scissors and cement in relation
to meaning." (Leyda 1964: 24) The reference to "the American
dream," a crucial one for the program, stands out thanks to
the juxtaposition of otherwise unrelated scenes. Like other
social critics of the period, Craig Gilbert wanted to say that
the American dream had become, in Charles Reich's words in The
Greening of America, "a rags-to-riches type of narrow materialism."
(Reich 1970: 22) An American Family critiques the modern
consumer society at its 1973 turning point from expansion to
contraction. (Skolnick 1991: 122) In the next sequence, viewers
learn where the money comes from that supports the family's
comfortable lifestyle. Mr. Loud stands beneath an enormous forklift
in a strip-mining field. As he discusses the sale of industrial
tools with another man in a hard-hat, they watch a hill in the
distance explode. "Beautiful," Bill notes, "geez, that's beautiful,"
an unintentionally ironic comment on commonsense notions of
natural splendor. Having provided a glimpse of Bill at work,
the episode cuts to Delilah and her class rehearsing a dance
routine to "In the Mood."
segues into an afternoon cocktail party. The careless party
chatter, the sunshine, the liquor, the leathered faces, the
t-shirts, and the suggestion of extra-marital affairs all combine
to create an atmosphere of upper-middle class suburban decadence,
California-style. (In episode five, Pat jokes with friends in
Taos about her adopted home state, "The theory is that all of
California is like Sodom and Gomorra; it's all going to drop into
the sea -- God's wrath and all.") The cocktail party ends dramatically
on Pat's riposte to Bill's question about another woman, "Well,
for the record, she's just passing through."
In the next scene,
Michele grooms her horse, a gentle moment rendered all the more
tranquil by the preceding noisy party. The peacefulness of Michele's
ride through the Santa Barbara hills is interrupted by a cut
to a raucous rehearsal of "Jumping Jack Flash" by the garage
band. The music provides a long take sequence of entertaining
spectacle as the camera sways in tandem with the players. Meanwhile,
in the living room, Pat, Bill, Delilah, and Michele take turns
talking long-distance to Lance on the telephone. Back in the
garage, the band gives a rousing performance of "Summertime
Blues." The lyrics, energetically belted out by Grant, introduce
the themes of teenage alienation and economic dependency which
will be explored in detail in hours five and seven. Episode
one ends with a freeze frame of the group over which the credits
Thirty minutes into
episode one, the Loud family prepares breakfast, as the voice-over
states, "Our story begins seven months earlier at six-thirty
on a late spring morning." This scene fulfills the stated goals
of observational cinema inasmuch as there are no interviews,
non-diegetic music, or voice-over narration. Similarly, the
family members never explicitly address the camera. The scene
consists of thirty-four shots and lasts seven and a half minutes;
the average shot runs approximately thirteen seconds. A different
shot shows each family member's "entrance" to the dining room,
allowing the viewer to identify each person clearly. In addition,
whenever possible, characters exit the frame before the program
cuts to another shot, smoothing the transitions. All the action
takes place in the kitchen and the dining room. Although some
of the images are taken from the same camera angle, the framing
varies significantly to allow the scene to flow smoothly. The
hand-held camera remains steady throughout as it re-focuses
to follow the action. Sounds flow across image cuts to maintain
continuous spatial and temporal relations.
The breakfast provides
a host of information about the Louds. Pat and
her daughters are the only family members working in the kitchen,
suggesting a traditional division of labor in the home. The tone
of Mrs. Loud's voice suggests thinly repressed discontent. Over
the course of the twelve episodes, her anger grows and bursts
into view, culminating in her demands for a divorce. Mr. Loud,
however, avoids direct conflict and chooses instead to joke with
his kids about their neglect of the backyard. Bill's jocular attitude,
even in the face of adversity, remains his most notable personality
trait in the documentary. When Kevin asks for lunch money, Mr.
Loud complains -- as he does on several occasions -- about his
When Bill addresses
his youngest child -- "Do you hear those birds singing out there
these days, Michele?" -- he looks screen right in the direction
of the kitchen. In the following shot Michele, in the kitchen,
looks screen left, acknowledging his words. The sounds and images
reinforce one another; after hearing Bill and Pat refer to Michele's
health, a shot shows their daughter gently touching her throat.
The editing maintains continuity through eye-line matches, overlapping
sound cuts, point of view shots, and cutting-on-action, all
techniques common to fiction film. (Bordwell 1985: 194-213)
There are some jump cuts, however, such as consecutive shots
of Grant and the transitions are not as smooth as those of classical
Hollywood movies. Furthermore, the production values, especially
the lighting, remain those of vérité documentary
rather than the polished look of conventional fiction. This
panoply of continuity techniques condenses time and space without
calling attention to the ellipses. An event that lasts up to
an hour in real time takes only seven and a half minutes of
screen time, yet nothing significant has been left out. The
family sets the table, cooks breakfast, eats, cleans up, and
leaves. As Pat casually glances out the kitchen window, a point
of view shot from her perspective shows the children leaving
for school. Their departure in a pickup truck ends the sequence
and the episode cuts to an establishing shot of the Chelsea
Hotel in New York, and a new scene begins.
While An American
Family may be the most famous example of observational cinema,
it deviates from the prescriptive rules of that style, in, for
example, the use of first-person and third-person voice-over
narration. (Ruoff 1992: 229-234) Nevertheless, with the exception
of occasional stylistic detours, Gilbert's series constructs
stories, episodes, and individual scenes by employing techniques
from fictional film and television. The multiple-focus narrative
intersperses story developments among many different characters.
The teleological structure sets up the longest flashback --
eleven and a half hours -- in the history of moving images,
while it simultaneously forges a stronger narrative chain of
causes and effects than simple chronology. Within this structure,
transitions between otherwise unrelated scenes remain key moments
for expressing editorial point of view. Although the observational
sequences seemingly represent life as it occurs, the documentary
exhibits a fascinating and subtle narrative sophistication.
and Observational Cinema
Like fiction films,
observational documentaries generally employ an impersonal narration
that does not explicitly address the viewer. Nevertheless, anyone
who actually watches An American Family, even just a
single episode, witnesses numerous references to the audience.
Although these may seem more incidental than deliberate, the
narration does not systematically mask or disguise its tracks.
Too many to catalogue, these are not the first elements viewers
notice, nor the last. Thus, Gilbert's style falls in between
the pronounced reflexivity of ethnographic filmmaker Jean Rouch
and the mostly transparent approach of Frederick Wiseman.
In episode four,
an amusing discussion takes place about the proper way to display
mayonnaise on the table at 35 Wooddale Lane, calling attention
to differences between public and private behavior. Pat invokes
standards proper for entertaining guests: "You're supposed to
put it in a dish and not put the jar on the table." Her good-humored
children refuse to participate in this charade and ignore her
remonstrations, implicitly welcoming the filmmakers as members
of the household. Alone in Bill's office in hour eleven, Lance
finds a letter he wrote to his father and reads it aloud to
the camera: "There are two things you can count on in life as
the world turns. They are that at the end of the summer Lance
always returns from an unsuccessful take-off on life's big runway,
limping home on a path of wired money. And Ma and Pa Loud plummet
head first from their Olympian heights of love and matrimony."
Lance acknowledges the melodramatic associations of the documentary
through his comparison of his family's experiences to As
the World Turns (1956-present). Only Bill's sudden return
to his workplace interrupts this remarkable frame-breaking soliloquy.
In hour eight, Bill
confesses his worries about Lance traveling in Europe to his
colleagues in strip-mining, but his fears are dispelled by the
fact that, as he remarks, "They have the camera crew with them
over there, following them around." In episode ten, when Pat
criticizes Grant's lack of interest in his classes, he turns
to the camera to appeal to the audience for support, saying,
"Nothing like a sympathetic mother!" These ubiquitous references
to the filmmaking process go beyond those of other observational
works from the same period, predating similar instances in,
for example, Albert and David Maysles' Grey Gardens (1975).
Critics who denounce observational documentaries as transparent
forms that disguise the work of mediation, such as E. Ann Kaplan,
would do well to look closely at An American Family.
(Kaplan 1988: 80) If a fiction film from 1973 used such devices,
critics such as Robert Stam would have hailed it as a major
breakthrough in Brechtian cinematic narration. (Stam 1985)
The single most reflexive
element of An American Family is Lance Loud, who relentlessly
breaks frame, acknowledging the presence of the camera throughout
the twelve-hour series. Unlike the more naturalistic performances
of his siblings and parents, Lance acts like a character from
an Andy Warhol movie let loose in a film by Frederick Wiseman.
A fan of War-
hol's work (Stein 1982: 410-12), Lance gives one of the great
camp performances in the history of the medium. Indeed, American
television came out of the closet through An American Family.
In Heavenly Bodies, Richard Dyer defines camp as a "characteristically
gay way of handling the values, images and products of the dominant
culture through irony, exaggeration, trivialization, theatricalisation,
and an ambivalent making fun of and out of the serious and respectable."
(Dyer 1986: 178) Shooting footage in Super-8 on a Santa Barbara
beach in episode twelve, Lance tells his cast of friends, "Realism
is our aim for this film; it's going to be like a documentary,"
but his directions verge on camp horror: "Okay, now a close-up
of you looking like a hungry sex-devil." Probably the first openly
gay character ever seen on American TV, Lance consistently makes
fun of the serious pretensions of the documentary, undermining
the codes of observational cinema.
The Children of An American Family
While some may read
Gilbert's program superficially as the harbinger of the "society
of the spectacle," its greater merit lies in opening up the
institution of the family, and issues of gender, sexuality,
and interpersonal relations, to non-fiction film and video.
Though experimental filmmakers, such as Stan Brakhage and Jonas
Mekas, had explored autobiographical themes in the previous
decades, by the mid-1970s these topics were moving to the center
of independent documentary through the efforts of such filmmakers
as Joyce Chopra, Amalie Rothschild, Miriam Weinstein, Alfred
Guzzetti, and Ed Pincus. (Katz 1978: 5) Pincus, for example,
commenced work on his autobiographical epic Diaries, 1971-76
(1981) at the same time that Gilbert proposed his non-fiction
television series. (Pincus 1972: 25) Arguing that the personal
is political, these filmmakers chose to make movies about themselves,
their families, and their friends. An American Family
accelerated and validated this tendency.
For the coming generation
of documentary filmmakers, Gilbert's twelve-hour program was
a revelation. Mark Rance -- whose own works Mom (1978)
and Death and the Singing Telegram (1981) were clearly
influenced by An American Family -- recalled watching
the broadcast as a high school student, discovering in the process
that "family life is the great subject of drama and the movies."
(Rance 1986: 96) Other filmmakers -- like Rance, students of
Pincus and Richard Leacock at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology in the 1970s -- continued to push non-fiction into
increasingly private subject matter: Joel DeMott (Demon Lover
Diary, 1979), Ann Schaetzel (Breaking and Entering,
1980), David Parry (Premature, 1981), Ross McElwee (Backyard,
1981 and Sherman's March, 1985). Similarly, first-person
video diaries -- such as those by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman
(Silverlake Life: The View From Here, 1992) and Marlon
Riggs (Tongues Untied, 1990) --
descend directly from the new terrain opened by Craig Gilbert's
documentary in 1973. As more intimate life comes under the gaze
of independent producers, the once scandalous revelations about
the Louds may pale by comparison. But as its influence implies,
An American Family marks a new stage in the filming of
the everyday lives of ordinary individuals, a landmark in the
history of non-fiction film. In its aftermath, the American documentary
would never be the same.
1. Readers interested
in the making of An American Family, and the responses
it engendered, should see Pat Loud: A Woman's Story (Loud
1974), "Reflections on An American Family" (Gilbert 1982),
and "'Can a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?': The Reception
of An American Family" (Ruoff, forthcoming). For comments
on this essay and my work on this documentary in general, I
am grateful to Jeannette Sloniowski, Barry Keith Grant, and
Lauren Rabinovitz. (back)
2. For a more
extensive discussion of the narrative intelligibility of Hollywood
cinema in comparison to observational cinema, see "Conventions
of Sound in Documentary" (Ruoff 1992: 221-226). (back)
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