To the Editor:
Sara Sanborn’s article on the Loud family [“An American Family,” May] is thoughtful, reasonable, and provocative. . . . Undoubtedly the documentary has been fair game for magazine writers. But even casual viewers, mostly women, since this is essentially a woman-oriented series, must have been aware of the maneuvering and manipulating of the events involved. . . . The women who watched the series know that life is unkempt, with its loose ends, ravelled edges, split seams—that every meal has its garbage tax, every soiled piece of laundry its trip to the tub. The very logistics of super-marketing for that brood and the three dogs and a cat or two are staggering. The shot of the uptight mother marching down each aisle grabbing one of everything from each shelf without any reference to a market list—who needs one?—stuffing all mechanically into the shopping cart was a scene of comic realism that no woman could forget, nor could she fail to picture in her own mind the return home with its stowing of all those goodies into their appropriate cupboards, drawers, cubby-holes, closets, freezers, refrigerators, etc. and the slashing of all those cans, cartons, bags, bottles, wax paper, cellophane, plastics, etc. etc., and then finally the disposing of all that debris. . . . Women looked beyond Pat Loud’s taut face and recognized a woman with troubles. And they empathized with her husband-troubles and her troubles with the children. . . . And while they could overlook the resemblances to TV commercials and the camera clichés which Miss Sanborn dwells on . . . what really made them “edgy” . . . was the embarrassing emphasis on Lance Loud’s homosexual lifestyle. This was milked to a degree that was disconcerting to most viewers who found it grotesque, phony, and ultimately damaging to the boy. Why didn’t they show some vignettes of the younger brother visiting the mines in Australia? Enough money was spent on the series to have arranged that. . . . Scenes of Kevin, the straight brother, would have balanced the overtly-manipulated episodes involving Lance in Paris. . . . But the wholesome has always been less interesting than the decadent. So Lance became the junior star of the show.
Which brings me to Miss Sanborn’s comments on producer Craig Gilbert’s statement that Ross Macdonald’s The Underground Man “described with absolute accuracy the kind of family I was looking for.” Although I have read almost all the articles on the series, I was unaware of this fact. Having now read the novel, I can understand the motives behind Gilbert’s treatment, and I can only say that before the first camera rolled the damage to the Louds had already begun. And a decent family was used, or rather misused, indecently. But I don’t think the fact that the divorce erupted during the course of the filming can be blamed on the producer. The filming acted as a catalytic agent which brought to the surface emotions which had been germinating for over five years. . . . The breakup seems to have been inevitable. . . .
As for the Louds: they have been presented with all the unused film, roughly twenty-four times the number of hours edited for the TV screen. . . . On many programs and in articles they have spoken of all the “happy moments” filmed, then snipped away to fall unseen on the cutting-room floor. Why not give American viewers an hour or two of this bonanza? The Loud Gospel according to the Louds. . . .
F. M. Conn
Sara Sanborn writes:
I thank F. M. Conn for her kind remarks and agree about the effects of “milking” Lance Loud’s doings. I noted in my article that the children were featured in accordance with their entertainment value, but I can’t agree that this unseemliness would have been eased by showing Kevin’s trip. A self-conscious balancing of the straight and gay brothers’ travels would only have made explicit conventionalisms that were already obtrusive. Delilah and Michele with her horse were used for the wholesome touches.
Pat Loud surely had problems, since she wound up divorced, and it would be absurd to pretend that we never see the “real” Pat. The difficulty is knowing when we are seeing her. The clichés seem to me the essential point and problem—not only the clichés of the producers, but those of the actors. To some extent—how great an extent is an abiding cultural question—we have learned from the media how to play ourselves. (A memorable treatment of this whole issue is The Image-Makers, by Daniel Boorstin.) On the Dick Cavett Show, referring to the powerful episode in which she confessed her marital problems to her brother, Pat Loud said ironically, “That was my best scene.” Her husband replied supportively, “That was a very sincere scene.”