In a time when we willingly broadcast the most intimate details of our lives using a medium without bounds, the idea of having a film crew follow your family around may seem a little less than extraordinary. However, for the Loud family and television audiences circa 1973, the notion was revolutionary, and the results wildly controversial.
Oct. 12 through Nov. 16, UCSC’s Wednesday Night Cinema Society will be screening episodic installments of “An American Family,” a series considered by many media scholars to be the first and most controversial experiment within the genre of reality TV. This is a rare opportunity to recreate the communal viewing experience and engage in some lively discussion with students and faculty.
The series, which originally aired on PBS in 1973, chronicles the day-to-day lives of the Louds, a Santa Barbara family of seven. At first glance they seem pretty typical, each member fulfilling their role, engaging in the kinds of everyday experiences we’ve come to expect from a traditional, middle-class family in America.
But what began as an effort to document the everyday life of an average 1970s American household soon evolved into a 12-hour journey into the psyche of the nuclear family and an odyssey into the ethical issues of documentary filmmaking.
As the series unfolds, the deep-seated issues that underlie the family’s daily interactions surface.
“With ‘An American Family,’” said L.S. Kim, associate professor of film and digital media at UC Santa Cruz, “there’s definitely a sociological goal, as opposed to contemporary reality TV, where the focus is on pleasure and entertainment.”
Over the span of the series, the Louds struggle to function in spite of a strained relationship with their openly gay son and a deteriorating marriage, which actually ends when the series does.
One of the many interesting issues brought up by “An American Family” is the ethics — or lack thereof — of reality filmmaking. After the series was broadcast, the Louds spoke out against the production team, claiming the footage (of which 300 hours was recorded) had been edited to emphasize the negative, resulting in misrepresentation.
It has also been suggested that the presence of a film crew had a direct impact on the ultimate disintegration of the family, functioning as a catalyst for drama. These issues remain relevant in contemporary documentary filmmaking, and continue to shape the discussion of what constitutes reality or truth in the evolving media of film and television.
The screenings take place at 7 p.m. on Wednesday nights in Room 150 of the communications building, and are open to all UCSC students who want a disturbing slice of the Loud life.