As all the world must know by now, a production crew from WNET Television in New York spent two years and over $1,000,000, plus a prodigious amount of talent and energy, pursuing the William C. Loud family through better and worse to produce the documentary series, An American Family. No less an authority than Margaret Mead has proclaimed this series “as important for our time as the invention of drama and the novel were for earlier generations” and “a new way to help people understand themselves.” There is indeed much to be learned from An American Family, but if the morals of the story are the ones that have been generally educed, then the makers of the series got a very small store of shopworn understanding for a very high price. For the series to repay in social insight the money, effort, and emotional anguish it cost, we are going to have to dig out of it more than the few glittering generalities about non-communication with which it was apparently seeded.
The first step to mining An American Family is to put the Louds back into context. One of the more interesting phenomena surrounding the series has been the number of writers who felt called to review not the television program, but the family, in commentary that reads like a social worker’s case notes. We talked about the Louds as if the picture tube were indeed a one-way window on their lives, as if the family went serenely about their business while we peered in like children watching the activity in a glass-sided ant village. A photograph that appeared in Time gives a truer perspective. It shows Kevin Loud lying on the sofa and playing his guitar, while Grant sits at the piano: a familiar enough scene to watchers of the series, except that in a corner of the room only a few feet from the boys stands the camera crew, shooting away, the sound-woman smiling broadly at Kevin.
In the opening segment of the series, Craig Gilbert, the producer, acknowledges with disarming candor that of course the presence of the camera had some effect on the Louds. Gilbert, however, obviously believes that the camera’s effect was minor; that it was partially offset by the “closeness” that developed between the film crew and the family and by the Louds’s resolution not to try to conceal their “problems”; and that after allowing for the camera’s effect, there was a generous measure of “truth” left over. In fact, appearing on television is the organizing principle of the Louds’ family life as we see it. The publicity surrounding the show is somewhat misleading in its references to the film crew “living with” the family and filming “up to eighteen hours per day.” According to WNET staff members, the crew did not actually live in the Louds’ home, but slept and took their meals elsewhere. And there could not have been many days when filming went on for eighteen hours, for over the entire seven-month period only 300 hours of film were taken—an average of fewer than 45 hours per month. Thus, even the unedited film represents only a fraction of the Louds’ lives, and its fidelity to those lives is limited at the outset by what the camera crew thought worth recording.
It is also worth recalling what has apparently been often forgotten, that the Louds too had substantial powers of inclusion and exclusion. The family had ample opportunity when the film crew was away from the house to engage in that intimate “communication” which critics gleefully noticed was absent from the film. On the Dick Cavett Show, Lance Loud acknowledged casually that during his mother’s televised visit to New York, where he had joined the homosexual sub-culture, they did all of their serious talking “in taxicabs.”
We may have no difficulty believing that the Louds became accustomed to the presence of observers in their lives; that they used the camera to send messages to each other, as a sounding board (they occasionally deliver soliloquies), or as a confidant, that they accepted the crew as trusted friends and perhaps as counselors. But we cannot believe that they often literally forgot the camera was there, and people commonly mislead and pose before their best friends, their confessors, and their psychoanalysts. Selection and exclusion began long before the final editing, which the Louds claim falsified their family life, and in order to estimate the worth of the program as a “documentary,” we need to know what the principles of selection were.
Some of the film crew’s principles of selection are quite apparent in the final product, which is not, after all, a scholarly study, but a television show intended to keep an audience returning week after week as to an old-fashioned movie serial. (In this connection the Louds’ divorce was an extraordinary piece of luck for Gilbert. As Cleveland Amory pointed out, the divorce is the only thing that makes the series “work.”) Since most people will not sit still for long stretches of quotidian dullness or closet drama, anything with entertainment value obviously had to be worked for all it was worth. Thus the Loud children are constantly used as performers, dancing, singing, playing the guitar. The two children with the least entertainment value, Kevin and Michelle, are given least attention, while Lance, who can always be counted on for color and flamboyance, gets the most. Kevin disappears for several episodes while on a trip to Australia, but Lance is lovingly pursued through the homosexual milieux of New York and Paris in a sort of counter-culture travelogue. We know that these happy, hedonistic children of the California sun do in fact go to school, because we are shown a short clip of Grant trying to answer the clumsy questions of an obviously self-conscious teacher. However, the producer indicates where his interests lie by balancing two minutes in history class with twenty minutes at an outdoor saturnalia featuring swinging cheerleaders, students in animal costumes, a rock-and-roll band, and a long performance by Grant in red satin shorts as lead singer. No doubt this is also where Grant’s interests lie, but even allowing for the maximum amount of teen-age mindlessness, he and the other children surely lead more substantial lives than this program suggests. Adolescence is perhaps above all a private and introspective time. The film’s emphasis on showing-off and youthful hijinks—interspersed with some thoroughly routine Meaningful Moments—produces a vision of contemporary youth about as profound as an Annette Funicello movie.
In other ways, too, the pressure of form shapes content, which in turn is held to have immense sociological significance. For example, nobody in this series works. There are many scenes of Bill Loud in his office, but in nearly all of them he is talking to a member of the family either in person or on the phone, or else is talking about his family to his business associates. Is Bill always this “compulsive” about discussing his children, as one writer thought? Or did he, on the distinctive occasions when the camera was in his office, feel obliged to tie the scene back into the main narrative, the family drama? One must, after all, talk about something while a camera is running; very likely Bill’s colleagues were as self-conscious and tongue-tied as non-family members generally seem to be in the film, and besides, business talk is notoriously uninteresting to outsiders. Nor is it interesting to watch a man think, plan, dictate memos, study trade papers, or order materials, so we have little sense of what Bill does all day besides interact with his family. We know from what he says to Pat and others that he is both ambitious and passionately interested in his business, and that it takes a great deal of his time. But on the screen he generally seems to “work” like all other businessmen on television, by sitting in a handsomely decorated office and glancing at papers or talking on the phone in twenty-second stints.
Pat Loud is apparently even more idle. Although her house is beautifully kept and her family well-fed and dressed, all of this seems to come about without human agency. Twice we see her serve a meal, but otherwise she seems unoccupied with much except her own and the family’s emotional problems. Again, the medium dictates the message: nobody wants to watch a woman scrubbing floors or peeling potatoes for even as long as it takes to get the job done; there is no titillation in peeping on someone reading a book, listening to records, or writing letters. So in this truthful picture of an American family, the wife and mother looks as if she had been created by rolling together two of television’s favorite heroines, the housewife of the commercials and the housewife of the soap operas. Like the one Pat is always smartly dressed and seemingly untouched by the grit of daily housekeeping; like the other, her whole business in the world is the emotions, life as one long encounter group. Small wonder if the Louds’ lives seem hollow, since we so rarely see them do anything. The apparent lack of serious occupations, the relentless togetherness, the amount of time spent in trivial conversation may say less about the Louds than it does about the needs of the medium and the conventional vision of the film’s producers.
For this film is extremely conventional, less an examination of American myths, attitudes, and values, as it purports to be, than a rehash of some of the more fashionable ones. Both the social vision of this film and the images used to convey it are depressingly hackneyed, its range of visual language about as broad as what we could expect to see on any prime-time series, and as predictable.
A favorite means of elucidating Bill Loud’s character and personal world, for example, is to show him “in the field” in conjunction with some heavy machinery and sun-burned hard-hats. This is meant to evoke the hearty, simple, virile World of Men, and we recognize it at once from the beer and cigarette commercials. The accumulating tensions of the marriage are summed up in another visual statement of surpassing banality: during an uncomfortable dinner in a restaurant, the camera focuses for a prolonged moment on Pat’s hands stirring her fourth drink and then reaching jerkily for a cigarette, in an image that recalls every cliché of the tense, unfulfilled suburban housewife. Lack of communication is repeatedly suggested by shots that linger caressingly on Pat’s immobile face and come to rest on her blankly unrevealing dark glasses or her wide, faraway stare.
The series opens, “After the Fall,” on New Year’s Eve, with Pat alone bravely carrying on with a party for the children and their friends. The camera plays back and forth from the carefree, rowdy kids to stoic Pat, emphasizing her solitariness, her heavy burden as a single parent. When she joins the young people at midnight to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” the scene is both touching and an emotional cliché. The sympathy that we feel for Pat is as genuine and also as thoroughly conditioned as the leap of the heart to martial music. These are the kinds of scenes that movie advertisements tell us will bring tears to our eyes or a smile to our hearts, and film producers know just how to construct them. It is hardly surprising that so many of us found the series moving and authentic. Every effort was made to shape it to our well-conditioned expectations.
The Louds, of course, have also been educated by the media. The effect of the television camera—the bright light of self-consciousness—on the family seems to have been to start each of them acting in his own way like—a character on TV. On the Dick Cavett Show, Bill Loud explained that he had agreed to the filming because he was “proud” of his family and thought the whole experience would be a great “adventure.” He thought the show should have been done more “like Laugh-In.” Bill’s idea of a family on television seems to have been drawn from Father Knows Best or Ozzie and Harriet—a fast-moving comedy hour with the witty and talented Louds, maybe a chance to launch Grant as a rock star (remember Ricky Nelson?), and himself as the wise and genial paterfamilias, joking brightly at the breakfast table at 6:30 in the morning.
Pat Loud said she had agreed to the project because she thought a study of the Louds’ “family dynamics” would be “helpful to other people.” This sounds like a distinctly ex-post-facto rationalization—does anyone, no matter how altruistic, really want to be a Horrible Example? However, the statement is typical of the with-it, socially-enlightened commentary that constantly proceeded from Pat Loud in all her public appearances. When one of the children remarked that the family members had been unable to help each other solve problems, Pat quickly interrupted, “We can be supportive—we can be supportive, but you must solve your own problems.” She is the complete Modern Mother, dealing out everyone’s share of understanding and acceptance, but never intruding or “imposing” her values on the children. In seven months, we never see either Pat or Bill get angry with their offspring, no matter how trying they are. Instead there are heart-to-heart talks and constant reassurances for each child of his near-perfection in his parents’ eyes. It is family life as dictated, on the one hand, by the cozy domestic comedies and, on the other, by the experts on interpersonal relations who populate the talk shows.
Lance, of course, nearly steals the show from his complaisant parents. He is a “natural” (which means unnatural) for television, constantly posing and mugging, delivering a series of one-liners that make him sound like an adolescent Oscar Wilde, and running through every theatrical gesture in the stereotyped homosexual repertoire. Lance seems to have been literally brought to life by television; it is hard to believe he exists when no one is watching. Here, most clearly, the medium has created the phenomenon it now purports to study, thereby giving another turn to the wheel.
And beyond the family, finally, just a bit more up-to-date and sophisticated in its clichés than any of these amateurs, was the film crew, relentlessly recording the family’s more obvious role-playing in order to make a statement about non-communication and inauthenticity. After watching the Louds for twelve weeks we can still only conjecture about their “real” lives, about the extent to which they had been and are still being shaped by cultural stereotypes. But we can be sure that the decision to use the Louds for a study of American family life was so shaped. Although Craig Gilbert could announce with sublime condescension, on the Cavett show, that he was sure the American public would view the family with “understanding” and “compassion,” it seems clear that the Louds were set up to be put down.
Gilbert anticipated in the opening segment one obvious objection to the film as social anthropology by assuring us that the affluent, good-looking Louds “are neither typical nor average. No family is.” However, he surely considered them representative, or he would hardly have bothered to study them. WNET press releases and Gilbert’s various interviews confirm that he “attempted to answer some of the larger questions about American society,” and that he hoped, by filming a “normal” family over a long period, to illuminate much that is happening in America. What kind of family did he consider “normal”?
An interview published in the Los Angeles Times is revealing. Having decided that California was the likely place to seek the “now” family—a significant decision in itself—Gilbert began his search by consulting—family therapists. He was, he says, “worried about what this might do to a family, and I wanted one already in therapy.” But it is obvious that he was also seeking specifically a troubled family, and furthermore, one with the affluence and sophistication to seek a therapist, the habit of self-exposure, and the already-learned ability to define itself in contemporary psychiatric terms.
After failing to locate the kind of family he wanted, Gilbert chanced to read Ross Macdonald’s detective story, The Underground Man, which “described with absolute accuracy the kind of family I was looking for.” For those who haven’t read Macdonald’s mysteries, the author specializes in affluent California families whose glossy exteriors cover hidden taint, moral degeneration, selfishness, and mutual exploitation of epic proportions. Macdonald’s characteristic themes are money, generational decay, and deception, usually eventuating in murder. Gilbert flew at once to Macdonald’s home town of Santa Barbara, and there he stumbled across the Louds, exactly the “right” family at last. Did commentators on the series know that Gilbert’s idea of a representative family was perfectly realized in the literary vision of a best-selling author? And did the Louds know what parts they had been cast for?
Hence, An American Family, a drama in conflicting stereotypes. Future social historians may indeed find the film illuminating, but less for what it shows of the family—we can scarcely make any firm statement about them, since we know only their public images—than as an illustrated guide to the variously fashionable wisdom of our times. Naturally the Louds felt resentful and betrayed at the film that resulted from their great “adventure.” No doubt they thought they had played themselves most winningly, according to the best popular models. Unfortunately for them, the styles had changed, and the more knowing film-makers had the last word.