I spend a lot of time doing homework to be better prepared for HBO projects.
 
Reading George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" definitely aided my enjoyment of the expansive epic fantasy series, which premiered last week.
 
Reading James M. Cain's "Mildred Pierce" definitely hindered my enjoyment of Todd Haynes' claustrophobically literal miniseries, which premiered last month.
 
With HBO's new telefilm "Cinema Verite," I was unable to watch the 12 episodes of "An American Family" and I came away feeling less enriched because of it. Or maybe I was just starved for any depth and context? With a brisk running time of 90 minutes, "Cinema Verite" is barely even an appetizer, introducing a lot of characters, a lot of history and a lot of media studies theory regarding the birth and evolution of reality TV, only to stop short of anything even vaguely illuminating or satisfying. This superficial take on the story and its cultural ripples was exactly entertaining enough to make me yearn to see the same story told properly.
 
More on "Cinema Verite" after the break...
 
The background is this: In 2011, we think it's rather quaint to watch a show with a camera crew following a plain, ordinary family around. It helps if you have 35 children, or if you're only 16 or if you were briefly a candidate for the vice presidency. But once upon a time, in a simpler yet more complex time, it was revolutionary when producer Craig Gilbert (played by James Gandolfini) approached Pat Loud (Diane Lane) and proposed filming her diverse brood for an all-access, semi-anthropological televised study of the American nuclear family. The Loud clan included philandering husband Bill (Tim Robbins), gay son Lance (Thomas Dekker) and at least three other kids who apparently weren't interesting enough for "Cinema Verite" screenwriter David Seltzer to really invest in. With husband-wife camera team Alan and Susan Raymond (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) following the action, the Louds find out what happens when people stop being polite... and start getting real.
 
Written by Seltzer and directed by the "American Splendor" (but also "Nanny Diaries") team of Sheri Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, "Cinema Verite" has too many characters and too many stories to be chronicled in the time allotted. With only 90 minutes, "Cinema Verite" chooses not to be a story about truth and ethics at all. It's eventually just a story about a woman who decides to divorce her husband because he's an ass and happens to do it  in a very public venue. 
 
Every single aspect of the film is under-written and under developed. Pat Loud is described as a feminist icon and her decision to leave her husband is seen as so important to television history that it's the centerpiece of the whole movie, but Bill Loud is so one-dimensional a character that we can barely understand why she's with him in the first place. "Cinema Verite" puts insufficient effort into displaying either why the choice would have been so difficult for her or the role that being filmed had in the choice. Rather than depicting the complicated way that being filmed brought out the reality of her family, Seltzer lets Gilbert be an all-too-literal catalyst in the dissolving of the Loud union, so much so that it negates much of the movie's theme. And if "Cinema Verite" is really just supposed to be a story about how reality producers meddle with the life of their subjects and tangibly push and pull the truth themselves, we needed to spend more time with Gilbert's character and also the Raymonds, who are practically personality-less. As it stands, the filmmakers are motivation-free within this drama. I don't know what it was that they aspired to, what it was that produced their compromises or what this project actually yielded, since the "Cinema Verite" barely delves into what the finished project looked like or felt like in comparison to the reality of the Louds and their lives. I get that reality TV inevitably is compromised by corporate interests and by the possibility that the artists might become too closely involved with the subjects, but other than stating that these compromises are made, "Cinema Verite" offers little. I got no sense of how this project was different from anything that came before on the big or small screen, I got no sense of how this project figured out the mechanics of a previously unknown genre, I got no sense of how this project was perceived in the culture at large and I got no sense of why it took another 20 years post-"An American Family" before shows like "The Real World" rejuvenated the formula (and therefore no sense of what later reality shows took from the "American Family" template and what they left behind). What was "An American Family" to TV history? Apparently it was a show featuring a gay guy and a wife who left her husband and that's the only truth the "Cinema Verite" filmmakers are able to mine.
 
Berman and Pulcini show sufficient footage from "An American Family" to let you know the occasionally uncanny success of the casting process and the lead performances. What limited understanding we get of Pat Loud comes entirely from Lane's effectively weary, lived-in performance, while Robbins bucks and struggles against the one-note character he's been given and sometimes wrangles hints at the personal neediness that made Bill Loud into such a tool. Dekker captures Lance's flamboyance and even perfectly situates that flamboyance within the out-and-proud New York art scene of the late-'60s and early '70s. In all three cases, the performances become far better when you realize how close they come to the actual people, meaning that viewers either benefit from exposure to "An American Family" or that Berman and Pulcini should have woven more real footage into their movie.
 
As an off-camera character, Gandolfini gets to be more free to interpret and his Gilbert is actually less of a caricature than the couple seconds we see of the real Gilbert in the end. It's a different side of the "Sopranos" star, so different that it could have been career re-defining if the "Cinema Verite" character had a clearer path or arc. I ended the film unclear on whether Gilbert was a genius, accidental innovator or an unscrupulous hack and not due to ambiguity in the storytelling, just due to gaps in the narrative and flatness in the writing. Seltzer, Berman and Pulcini probably cost Gandolfini a slamdunk Emmy here.
 
Nobody else in the film really makes an impact and the wasted actors include Fugit, Collins, Kathleen Quinlan, Lolita Davidovich and Kaitlyn Dever (so spectacular on "Justified" this season).
 
On a technical level, "Cinema Verite" is well shot by Affonso Beato and the costume and production design never fetishize the '70s styles, which is a tremendous relief. The pacing of the entire movie is a slave to both the score and the needle drop-driven soundtrack, rather than to the emotional ebb and flow, which was already lacking to begin with.
 
"Cinema Verite" suffers from a recent HBO telefilm trend towards telling the simplest possible version of complicated stories. As critically adored and award-lauded as "Temple Grandin" was, I thought it took a terrifically complicated story and made it ever-more-formulaic with every passing second. "Grey Gardens" and "You Don't Know Jack" also sanded off too many rough edges for my liking. It's an institutional problem and I don't know if the choices are being made in pre-production, post-production or in the editing room, but there's a flattening which has begun to plague the HBO telefilm, which is to the detriment of the entire genre, since it too often seems like HBO is the only game in town for this kind of project.
 
I assume that if I knew "An American Family" in some detail, knew which moments made it into the series and which moments didn't, "Cinema Verite" might be a pleasant complimentary diversion. I don't think that HBO can count on a very large audience to come in with formative knowledge of a 38-year-old TV series to compensate for the anemic nature of the telefilm airing on Sunday night.

"Cinema Verite" premieres at 9 p.m. on Saturday (April 23) night on HBO.