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Say it Loud, but not so proud. HBO's Cinema Verite re-tracks "reality" TV all the way back to PBS

James Gandolfini, Diane Lane and Tim Robbins from the triangle of Cinema Verite, which revisits the Loud family phenomenon. HBO photo

Premiering: Saturday, April 23rd at 8 p.m. (central) on HBO
Starring: Diane Lane, Tim Robbins, James Gandolfini, Thomas Dekker, Patrick Fugit, Shanna Collins, Caitlin Custer, Nick Eversman, Kaitlyn Dever, Johnny Simmons
Directed by:Shari Springer Berman, Robert Pulcini

True story. The network of Masterpiece Theatre, Frontline, Great Performances and pledge drives also is responsible for planting the seeds of Jersey Shore, Jon & Kate Plus 8 and The Real Housewives of . . . wherever.

It just took a while for the genre to become The Blob of both broadcast and cable television after PBS premiered the 12-hour An American Family back in 1973. Momma Kardashian is old enough to remember, but Kim, Kourtney and Khloe would have to do a little research. Yeah, like that's gonna happen.

HBO's rather generically titled Cinema Verite, which premieres Saturday, tellingly revisits both the fractious Louds of Santa Barbara and the filmmakers who made them overnight stars. But patriarchs Bill and Patricia Loud (played by Tim Robbins and Diane Lane) had little if any idea of the price they'd pay for such unparalleled exposure. Nor did their five children, particularly openly gay oldest son Lance (Thomas Dekker). He died of AIDS at age 50 in 2001 after coming to the conclusion that "television ate my family." Then again, they were all willing participants, at least at first.

The film recreates some of what America saw on-camera, including the breakup of the Louds' 22-year marriage and Lance's unapologetic homosexuality in times when television mostly looked the other way if it looked at all. But Cinema Verite's strength is in dramatizing the off-camera seductions and betrayals that led to the Louds being vilified in many quarters before the entire family went on The Dick Cavett Show to both tell their side of the story and confront filmmaker Craig Gilbert (played by a bearded, toupeed James Gandolfini in the film).

Gilbert and his then young camera crew, Alan and Susan Raymond, remain enemies to this day. The husband and wife Raymonds have made numerous documentaries since then, but are still not on speaking terms with Gilbert. They were consultants on Cinema Verite, though, and are played by actors Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins. Gilbert on the other hand declined to cooperate with HBO in any way and hasn't made a film since American Family. The Louds also resisted offers to have any input in the making of the HBO film.

Cinema Verite begins in 1971, with Gilbert meeting Patricia Loud at a tennis court after a friend of hers (Kathleen Quinlan as "Mary") serves as a go-between.

"Why would anybody want to participate in such a thing?" Patricia asks him after Gilbert proposes an unprecedented look at the realities of a real American family as opposed to the prime-time confections personified by The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family.

Patricia is flattered, though. She's of reasonably sound mind and notably firm body. And Gilbert's admitted description of her as "sultry" -- during a pitch to WNET-TV programmers -- is not an unappealing notion to her. Her marriage to wayward, philandering Bill is falling apart, making Patricia susceptible to any flattery she can get. "I like 'sultry,' " she tells Gilbert. And if he'd streamline his "flabby body," he'd be her "perfect match."

The film implies, but never actually shows, any physical coupling between Patricia Loud and Gilbert, who's portrayed as manipulative in getting what he wants on film but not entirely duplicitous in insisting that An American Family reflect its subjects in good times and bad.

The Raymonds increasingly feel he's going too far, though. "That's it. We're done," Alan says after Gilbert insists that the cameras keep rolling while Patricia and Bill have a bitterly sarcastic confrontation. "We actually care what happens to them. We don't want to see them destroyed by your film."

Alan ends up punching Gilbert in the face before the Raymonds say they're done with him. But with no real explanation, they're eventually back for more, including the filming of Patricia's climactic kiss-off to Bill. He gathers his belongings and walks out to his convertible while the Raymonds give chase and keep their camera rolling.

Robbins is solid throughout, playing Bill Loud as a man whose wants and needs are no longer satisfied by his pampered real housewife of Santa Barbara. He worries about his children becoming aimless spendthrifts, particularly Lance. Lack of camera time also is an issue with him. "I know I'm shapin' up to be the square of your show. Maybe I've got more goin' on than you think," he tells Gilbert, who ends up being a tattletale to further his own means.

Lane in fact does get more camera time, and knows what to do with it. Her performance is spot on as a somewhat vainglorious creature determined to both uncover Bill's infidelities and cover her own tracks when meeting with Gilbert.

Lance easily is the most vivid of the five Loud children, as he was in American Family. But something is missing in this portrayal, which mostly accentuates the flash.

Gandolfini is sturdy in his pivotal role as the Louds' combination Lucifer/guardian angel. But it remains difficult, despite the ample camouflage of beard and hair, to see past Tony Soprano. Try as he might, Gandolfini can't escape the inescapable fact that his signature role is still writ large.

Cinema Verite ends with a brief clip of the real-life Gilbert and Louds assembled on the Cavett show. Now that would be something to see again. There also are updates of where the principals are now, with a surprising end game for Bill and Patricia.

The Raymonds reportedly are putting together a condensed two-hour version of An American Family that's scheduled to air this June on PBS. It remains the same old story, though, with a producer convincing a mom, dad and their five children to bare themselves on-camera before they ultimately recoiled from the horror of an unforgiving national spotlight.

Times obviously have changed. Reality series subjects still complain about how they're edited. But it takes little if any coaxing to get them before a TV camera. It's the American way, after all. Ask the Kardashians, the Gosselins, the Snookis, the Osbournes, the Dog who bounty hunts, the deadliest catchers, the denizens of Big Brother, the celebrities who rehab, the people who hoard, the hordes of MTV's Real World . . . to mention just a very few.