"Unlike most documentaries of its day, An American Family had no host, no interviews, and almost no voice-over narration. Producer Craig Gilbert presented the family's daily life - as captured by filmmakers Alan Raymond behind the camera, and Susan Raymond covering sound - in the style of cinéma vérité. It was the most controversial and talked-about television program of its era.
PBS was then a fledgling 'fourth network' joining CBS, NBC and ABC, and despite its non-commercial profile was looking for blockbuster hits, according to Bill Kobin, Vice President for programming at NET at the time. In the course of its 12 week run, An American Family riveted the country and drew in a record 10 million viewers a week. In the years since it was first broadcast, the series has become the subject of lengthy articles and reviews, including panel discussions with anthropologist Margaret Mead, who speculated that An American Family could be the beginning of a new way to explore the complexities of contemporary reality, 'maybe as important for our time as were the invention of drama and the novel for earlier generations.'
Now, 40 years since filming, the original filmmakers have edited a new 2-hour feature-length special capturing the most memorable and compelling moments of the landmark series. See for yourself why An American Family is one of the 50 Greatest TV Shows of All Time (TV Guide, 2002)."
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS)
Fig.1 An American Family: Anniversary Edition was produced by Alan Raymond and Susan Raymond, edited by Alan Raymond and Charlotte Mangin served as the supervising producer. The original series was conceived and produced by Craig Gilbert. At WNET, Stephen Segaller was the executive in charge of production and Jane Buckwalter was the director of programming operations. At WLIW, John Servidio was the general manager. An American Family: Anniversary Edition premiered July 2011.
"Modelled on the 13-part observational series, An American Family (US, d. Craig Gilbert, 1972), producer Paul Watson's 12-part The Family (BBC, 1974) is credited with creating the concept of the 'fly-on-the-wall' documentary in Britain. Regardless, Watson's cinema verité-style, warts-and-all portrait of the working-class Wilkins family certainly popularised an 'observational' style still seen as the defining characteristic of British documentary some twenty-five years later.
The Family follows the daily lives of Terry and Margaret Wilkins, their children and their partners, as they all struggle to live together in a small flat in Reading. The series sets out to reveal to viewers the reality of family life in Britain as never shown before. "No TV family ever has dirty pots and pans," says Margaret in episode one, and the Wilkins demonstrate a remarkable candour in their on-camera conversations with one another.
Watson and his small crew spent two months with the Wilkins prior to filming. After this the team filmed the family eighteen hours a day for three months. The result was an extraordinary portrait of family life: honest, hilarious and painful, an instant classic the impact and influence of which (on both fiction and non-fiction television) it would be difficult to overestimate.
The Family divided critics and viewers alike, and the Wilkins were villified by the tabloid press for all manner of imagined transgressions: their 'acting' for the camera or their 'real' behaviour in front of it, their use of bad language and public airing of previously taboo subjects. Watson explained that he "wanted to make a film about the kind of people who never got on to television," and clearly the sight of a powerful and opinionated woman like Margaret Wilkins, or the challenge of daughter Heather to the casual racism of 1970s middle-England, was shocking to a certain section of the British public (Mary Whitehouse was among those who called for the series to be banned, lest this 'representative' family be seen as a model to imitate)."
(Joe Sieder, BFI Screenonline)
"In the late 1950s major breakthroughs began to occur in the technology available to filmmakers. These occasioned what can be thought of either as something totally new under the artistic sun or merely as new ways of doing old things. What they permitted was the synchronous recording of sight and sound outside the confines of soundstages and studio back lots. Virtually anything that could be seen and heard could now be captured on sound film almost anywhere. These new technical possibilities did not dictate the uses to which they would be put, however. One of those uses was that of the Americans who called what they were doing direct cinema. Another was that of Frenchman Jean Rouch, who coined the term cinema verite (film truth) to apply to his own work."
(Jack Ellis and Betsy McLane, 2005, p.208)
Jack Ellis and Betsy McLane, A New History of Documentary Film, (2005), 208-325.
Fig.1 Albert (right) with David Maysles on the set of 'Grey Gardens' (1975).
"The issue of the camera's relation to reality, which permeates the fiction film, is addressed directly by the documentary filmmaker, who has always aspired toward capturing the sight and sound of life in an unobtrusive and impartial manner. The ambivalent nature of the medium, which excludes the human element as an intermediary but nevertheless implies a subjective viewpoint, gives rise to issues concerning the camera's legitimacy to record the 'obscene' object of reality. Questions about what degrees of faithfulness to the truth establish a film as a documentary, and whether such faithfulness is even possible, have accompanied the history of documentary filmmaking since its origin.
In the meantime, partly due to the technological advancements, documentary underwent a revival, and experimentations with the new technology abounded. The answer of 'direct cinema', which included Richard Leacock, Donn A. Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers as its representatives, was a purist approach in which the impact of the observer on the observed had to be kept to a minimum. Interviews, voice-over commentary and any other forms of interaction with the subject matter were considered to contaminate the result of the observation. Others like, Pierre Perrault, used the new equipment to draw meaning from the seemingly insignificant and the quotidian, attempting to find greater meaning in and unity to the whole by observing and bringing together the small elements of everyday life."
(Barbara Bruni, Senses of Cinema)
"A landmark American documentary, Salesman captures in vivid detail the bygone era of the door-to-door salesman. While laboring to sell a gold-embossed version of the Good Book, Paul Brennan and his colleagues target the beleaguered masses-then face the demands of quotas and the frustrations of life on the road. Following Brennan on his daily rounds, the Maysles discover a real-life Willy Loman, walking the line from hype to despair."