Alan and Susan watching filmAlan and Susan watching film

Author Andreas Killen Breaks Down Cinema Verite

Andreas Killen teaches history at City College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He's written about 'An American Family' in his book '1973 Nervous Breakdown: Watergate, Warhol and the Birth of Post-Sixties America.'

  • Set the scene for us. What is going on in 1973 America?

  • Quite a lot. The big domestic drama of the period is the beginning of the Watergate scandal, whose first hearings aired around the same time of the premiere of 'An American Family.' There's also the ending of the war in Vietnam and the OPEC oil embargo after the Yom Kippur war. It was really the beginning of the culture wars with the decision in Roe v. Wade and other battles being waged around pornography and gay rights. It was a very turbulent and, in some ways, exciting period.

  • Was the timing of 'An American Family' and Watergate coincidental or is there something about both of them that speaks to the era?

  • There was a convergence in the sense that this was an era when traditional figures of authority and conventional narratives in society were being reexamined and torn down. This was true as much in the White House as it was on the home front.

  • What do you think Craig Gilbert's aim was in making the series?

  • My understanding is that his marriage had broken up, he was depressed, and he had a sense that the institution of the family was in decline. He wanted to examine and anthropologically document its passing. He also had the idea that the documentary form could represent Americans to themselves in an entirely new fashion.

  • How did the Louds compare to previous depictions of the American family on television?

  • In reviews of the show from the era the comparison that was most frequently made was to 'Ozzie and Harriet' and similar shows from the ?50s, which had long been held up by critics as an unreal depiction of American family life. Gilbert wanted to move beyond that and open the medium to new identities that would correspond more closely to the reality of Americans' lives.

  • What factors eroded Bill Loud's parental authority?

  • There are a number of them. One of them is that his business starts to fall apart, which could be a symptom of the end of the long period of post-World War II economic expansion. He's also embraced some of the swinging sensibilities of the ?60s, wearing his hair slightly long and even suggesting to his wife that they see other partners. He tries to project the air of a conservative patriarchal figure but he's really trying to have it both ways, vicariously living the new possibilities for identity and lifestyle through his sons.

  • Let's talk about Lance. What was the depiction of gay people on television like at the time?

  • I don't think there had been any depiction of a gay person on television before. He really is one of the most interesting people of that era. He certainly embraced its new possibilities of identity, in his looks, gender and sexuality. You can see his transformation from a fairly casually gay figure to a flamboyant one throughout the series. And there was a lot of moral backlash because of it. Television audiences had never seen anything like it.

  • Pat sees herself as standing up for a lot of women. How was she regarded? What was the American attitude towards feminism at the time?

  • Pat's self-discovery as a feminist was a late development for her, and it wasn't an easy identity for her to assume. She'd been quite depressed before she finally stepped out. She's in many ways emblematic of the process of a greater emancipation for women. She enters the workforce after her divorce. The tone of her autobiography is triumphant. But getting there wasn?t easy. She could be seen as a hero claiming new rights and independence for herself, but she was also blamed as a figure that represented the collapse of the American family and marriage as an institution.

  • Margaret Mead called the show as "significant as the invention of the novel." Has that prediction borne out?

  • That was quite hyperbolic on her part. What's interesting is that even though the series attracted lots of attention in the 70s, reality television as we know it didn't really appear until the 90s. On some level, you can conclude that Americans just weren't ready for it. Though contemporary reality television doesn't have much to do with what 'An American Family' was going for.

  • How is it different?

  • I don't really watch much reality television, but it seems to me largely geared towards spectacle. It's an entirely superficial construct. You could argue that 'An American Family' was also surrounded by artifice, but I think there was something more to it than that. There was a real family there.