In Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski (Eds.). Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1998, 286-301.

 

"A Bastard Union of Several Forms":

Style and Narrative in An American Family

 

Our story begins in the Loud home at 35 Wooddale Lane.

-Craig Gilbert, episode one.

Introduction

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 commercial networks


287

(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 with itself.

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


288

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-


289

tween reality and spectacle, public and private, serial narrative and non-fiction, film and television.

Multiple-Focus Narrative

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


290

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 husband.

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.

Multiple Characters

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


291

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.

Nevertheless, on 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


292

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 1974: 21)

Nevertheless, the 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."

The 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 long take.

The relationship 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 Family.

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


293

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.

Producer Gilbert 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. (Ruoff, forthcoming)

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


294

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.

Having effectively 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."

Delilah's segment segues into an afternoon cocktail party. The careless party chatter, the sunshine, the liquor, the leathered faces, the Hawaiian


295

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 roll.


296

Representative Scene Construction

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


297

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 son's laziness.

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.


298

Reflexivity 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-


299

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.

Conclusion: 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) --


300

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.

Notes

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)

Works Cited

Allen, Robert C. Speaking of Soap Operas. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1985.

_____ . "Reader-Oriented Criticism and Television." In Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen, 74-112. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Bordwell, David, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson. The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Brown, Les. Television: The Business Behind the Box. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1971.

Carlin, Sybil. "Bye, Patty. Bye, Bill. Bye, Margaret." Village Voice, April 12, 1973, p. 25.

Dyer, Richard. Heavenly Bodies: Film Stars and Society. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1986.

Ellis, John. Visible Fictions: Cinema, Television, Video. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Feuer, Jane. "Genre Study and Television." In Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen, 113-133. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Gaines, Jim. "TV: The Decline and Fall of an American Family." Saturday Review of the Arts, January 1973, pp. 47-8.

Gilbert, Craig. "Reflections on An American Family." Studies in Visual Communication 8, no. 1 (Winter 1982): 24-54.

Gitlin, Todd. Inside Prime Time. New York: Pantheon Books, 1983.

Godard, Jean-Luc. Godard on Godard. Translation and Commentary by Tom Milne. New York: Viking Press, 1972.

Harrington, Stephanie. "An American Family Lives Its Life on TV." New York Times, January 7, 1973, p. 5.


301

Kaplan, E. Ann. "Theories and Strategies of Feminist Documentary." In New Challenges For Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal, 78-102. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.

Kozloff, Sarah. "Narrative Theory and Television." In Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen, 42-73. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Loud, Pat. Pat Loud: A Woman's Story. New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1974.

Leyda, Jay. Films Beget Films. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

Pincus, Edward. "One Person Sync-Sound: A New Approach to Cinema Verite." Filmmaker's Newsletter, December 1972: 24-30.

Rance, Mark. "Home Movies and Cinéma-vérité." Journal of Film and Video 38, no. 3-4 (Summer-Fall 1986): 95-98.

Reich, Charles. The Greening of America. New York: Bantam Books, 1971.

Rosenblatt, Roger. "Residuals on An American Family." New Republic, November 23, 1974, pp. 20-4.

Ruoff, Jeffrey. "Conventions of Sound in Documentary." In Sound Theory/Sound Practice, ed. Rick Altman, 217-234. New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1992.

_____ . "Family Programming, Television, and American Culture: A Case Study of An American Family." Ph.D. Thesis. University of Iowa: Department of Communication Studies, 1995.

_____ . "Can a Documentary Be Made of Real Life?": The Reception of An American Family." In The Construction of the Viewer: Media Ethnography and the Anthropology of Audiences, eds. Peter Ian Crawford and Sigurjón Baldur Hafsteinsson. Aarhus: Intervention Press, in association with the Nordic Anthropological Film Association, forthcoming.

Seiter, Ellen. "Semiotics and Television." In Channels of Discourse: Television and Contemporary Criticism, ed. Robert C. Allen, 17-41. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

Skolnick, Arlene. Embattled Paradise: The American Family in an Age of Uncertainty. New York: Basic Books, 1991.

Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in Film and Literature : From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press, 1985.

Stein, Jean, with George Plimpton. Edie: An American Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1982.

 
     


Home | Biography | Publications | Videos | Links