Family Matters
This year's blockbuster documentary
by Robert Lloyd / L.A. Weekly, September 1, 1999

At 10 big hours, Jennifer Fox’s An American Love Story, an extended visit with an interracial couple and their couple of kids, rumbles in like this year‘s The Farmer’s Wife -- and as was the case with both that film and An American Family a couple of decades earlier, size matters. (It‘s getting to be a genre now: the blockbuster domestic documentary.) Lengthiness is one of the aesthetic advantages of television -- really, there are a few -- and not only as regards such special jumbo Works of Art as Dennis Potter’s eight-hour The Singing Detective (screening, you might like to know, at the Museum of Television and Radio from September 24 to November 5). Ordinary series TV also allows for an accumulation of small, telling details and a kind of development of character, or more accurately a discovery of character, possible in no other medium: Players grow into their parts, grow old with the audience. Even a milieu as unrelated to actuality as that of, say, The Nanny can get to seem pretty real if you hang out there often enough.

As with fiction, so with “reality.” Airing next week on PBS over five consecutive nights, An American Love Story tells with novelistic leisure the story of Bill Sims and Karen Wilson -- currently of Flushing, Queens, New York City, New York, and formerly of small-town Ohio -- and their daughters Cicily, 20, a college student, and Chaney, 12, a . . . 12-year-old, an eye-rolling 12-year-old. (But almost 13. And big for her age.) Cut from more than 1,000 hours of tape shot at intensely close quarters over a year and a half, it is big enough and deep enough to climb down into and get wet all over; and it‘s precisely this quality of . . . immersiveness that lets us see the family virtually from the inside, not as a case study in mixed marriage -- he’s black, she‘s white -- but as individuals whose social “situation” is not nearly so interesting or, indeed, instructive as the familiar small dramacomedy of their daily life. “I think of our family as a fortress,” says Cicily; her pop goes a little further: “Family’s the most important thing,” he says. “You can‘t trust anybody but your family.” (Fox, a little portentously, uses the statement as a periodic refrain.) And though the Sims-Wilsons do get around a little -- Bill goes back to Ohio for messy family business and goes out on tour (he’s a blues musician, and not bad at all), the couple attends Karen‘s high school reunion, Cicily goes away to school and off for a semester in Nigeria -- the two-bedroom apartment in Flushing is the main stage, the center of activity, the omphalos, the molten core, the engine room. Nothing too overtly dramatic happens there; there’s a drinking problem, and a couple of trips to the hospital, and a few heated discussions of the why-can‘t-I-because-I-said-so variety, but this isn’t An American Family, with its on-camera breaking up and coming out and air of Ice Storm anomie, or The Farmer‘s Wife, with its pressing questions of economic survival. But it’s just as watchable.

Because they‘re an ordinary family and yet they’re not ordinary at all. Now, every family is different and “special” in its own way, I know, I know, and it‘s likely that most any household filmed for 1,000 hours could be made to look interesting in a 10-hour edit and would deliver some, as it were, home truths. But some families are more different than others, and the Sims-Wilsons were not, after all, chosen for this by lottery. They are not impressed by convention; they hardly notice it. Mom is the primary breadwinner, while Dad, when he’s not out playing the blues -- debut CD coming from PBS Records, by the way -- cooks and cleans. “You don‘t have to be a homemaker to be a mother,” says Karen, who proves that point nearly every minute she’s onscreen. (She has as well a kind of natural star quality, a compact energy, an innate, irresistible brightness that lights up her portion of the world, and, yes, I guess I am in love.) And there is the, um, skin thing, but An American Love Story is no more specifically about race than it is about differences of generation and of sex, and of the city and the country; or about the passing of time, and that point in life where choice and destiny have become identical; or the mix of incomprehension and insight with which we regard our nearest and dearest. In spite of their imperfect tempers and individual bad habits (Bill drinks, though he has since quit, Karen smokes and smokes and smokes and smokes), their unrealized ambitions and normal share of bad luck, they make a fantastically effective family. They pay attention. They laugh a lot. They shoot for the moon but settle for what works. One is sorry finally to lose their company.

“The time to make up your mind about people,” says Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story, “is never.” All persons of good will resist prejudice, but we live in a world of quick decisions, which can amount almost to the same thing; we‘re accustomed to mistake the outline for the interior, the sign for the substance. By taking the time -- an eon by TV standards, the length of a sitcom’s entire season -- to fill in the colors and shade its figures into three dimensions, An American Love Story stands up for the long look, the measured but never final judgment. Television won‘t set you any better example this month. Or next.

The Fault Not Lying With the Stars Dept.:

Apart from Ann-Margret, who gives a typically fine performance, centered and natural, as a foxy grandma who contrives to put her abusive younger boyfriend behind bars for a crime he may or may not have committed, it’s all cardboard cutouts and pasted-on quirks in Happy Face Murders, a mechanical if determinedly WACKY! Showtime TV movie inspired, as is so often the case with these things, by a story strange but true. Neither babelicious detective Marg Helgenberger (China Beach) nor her unasked-for sort-of-assistant Henry Thomas (that E.T. boy) has been handed much in the way of a character, possibly because their particular parts were invented rather than ripped from the headlines; they are creatures not of the world but of other bad movies. The plot twists are at any rate agreeably twisty, although -- spoiler dead ahead -- the denouement will not much surprise anyone who notices Showtime regular Rick Peters (The Hoop Life, Elvis Meets Nixon) walking through an early scene. There is as well the gratuitous female nudity for which premium cable is so justly famous (girls, what are you thinking?), connected here quite unpleasantly with violence. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith, who also helmed Leprechauns in Space, sees his movie as “Rashomon meets Fargo by way of Twin Peaks,” and more power to him.

David Bowie is the still center of The Hunger, a brief resurrection of the Showtime omnibus series predicated upon the spooky-sexy ambiance of Tony Scott‘s instant-camp 1983 vampire movie of the same name (in which Bowie starred). It’s the sort of piece that gets called “stylish,” which is to say it uses form to excuse its lack of content: The fast and slow motion, improbable lighting, “painterly” composition, bursts of grain, jump cuts, flurries of fast edits, extensive use of the shakycam, and a thespian solemnity they wouldn‘t stand for down at the Noh theater are the real subject of this exercise in highfalutin industrial soft-gore porn. Maybe in 30 years it will look as quaintly cool as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, or as visually prescient as Citizen Kane, but for now it just feels like a really long Nike ad. Bowie acts as compere and stars, under Scott’s direction, in the first of its three episodes -- a not entirely predictable mix of Performance and A Bucket of Blood -- as a kind of washed-out combo of Damien Hirst and Chris Burden, and his I‘m-still-a-good-looking-rock-star vibe and relaxed delivery are, apart of course from the customary gratuitous nudity, the best thing about the show; he’s for sure the only one who looks to be having any fun at all. Episode two, directed by Luke Scott, Tony‘s nephew (and Ridley’s son), concerns lesbians, lap-dancing, sadomasochism and a tattoo that may have you reaching for your Ray Bradbury. Episode three, from “Scott protege” Christopher Hartwill, offers another stripper, a lovelorn ghost and a gun -- you do the math.

Copyright Robert Lloyd © 1999 and 2011