From the Louds to the louts

Feb 25, 2002  •  Post A Comment

Where lies Lance Loud? The obits I read did not mention a final resting place for the restless young man who became one of the nation’s earliest so-called 15-minute celebrities and who died not too long ago at the age of 50. Elaine Woo in the Los Angeles Times described him as “the beguiling eldest sibling in a family whose conflicts were laid bare in a landmark 1973 public television documentary series.”
He was beguiling in his way, but there was a lot more to him, and to the Loud family, than that. Of course it’s hard to proceed without noting the irony inherent in the speed-bump phrase “a landmark 1973 public television documentary series.” My what a long time it is between landmarks on public television, much less between landmark documentaries. Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” was a landmark but Burns pretty much struck out with “Baseball” and fell flat with “Jazz.” His films seem to arrive prematurely embalmed.
Crossing the line
It would be very hard now to convince contemporary Americans what a shocker “American Family” was at the time; what a blow it delivered to long-held conceptions, preconceptions and misconceptions; how uncomfortable viewers felt peering into the kitchen, bathroom and bedroom of the family living virtually next door; and yet how irresistible was the magnetic beam sent out to lure us in and make us surrender to voyeuristic impulses at least as effectively as Alfred Hitchcock had done with killer thrillers like “Psycho” and “Vertigo” and his whole nervy oeuvre.
We realized that, yes, given the chance, we would peer into thy neighbor’s windows and, if not covet thy neighbor’s wife and thy neighbor’s manservant and anything that was thy neighbor’s, at least become addicted to the peering.
“American Family” broke down a barrier that it might be hard to convince young people ever existed. It signaled a new age as perhaps nothing else on contemporary television did, and it set in motion a process that we now see represented all over the spectrum-whether on Fox’s “Cops” (where we don’t just peer through windows but break down doors) or MTV’s “Jackass” or in all the messy and mortifying gut-spilling and unseemly soul-searching that goes on at the “Maury” show and the “Jenny” show and the “Sally Jessy” show. Television blurs every line eventually, whether between news and entertainment or between program content and commercial time or in this case between what is private and what is public.
In the old days, Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Kramden, hauled out onstage to face the moderator of “The $99,000 Answer”-a “Honeymooners” parody of the quiz shows of the day-hemmed and hawed and “hommina hommina hommina’d” out of nervousness and panic at “being on television.” Oh the terror of that. No more, of course. Now we pretty much expect to be on television. We certainly expect to be watched by cameras everywhere we go. We can’t even make much of a fuss if we see a camera in a public bathroom, or at least we wouldn’t bother protesting.
The horrific madness of Sept. 11 will in the long run make us even more tolerant of being spied upon, covertly observed and vicariously prodded by the technology of peeps and peeks. It’s for our own good after all, or at least we’ll buy that argument after what we witnessed on that cruel and dreadful day. Somehow it made moot all the old arguments about what’s proper to be shown in terms of violence and sex, too. Because here was this ultimate obscenity, airing live, available to people of all ages, captured by the neutral eye of video. It’s hard in a way to care anymore about what ghastly artificial images pour out of that one-way window into our homes and heads-but we’ve got to care, don’t we? We’ve really got to care, or we’re lost.
And-it all started with Lance Loud? No, it probably all started with the invention of photography. Or with Adam’s eyes in Eden. But Lance was carrying a torch that lit the way to a new world-not necessarily a brave one, but a less hesitant one, a less shy one, a less proper and civil and courteous and mannerly and orderly and respectful one.
Albert Brooks brilliantly satirized the PBS documentary, and the new era of eavesdropping it ushered in, with his first feature, “Real Life,” starring Charles Grodin, in 1979. Brooks had his faux family invaded by cinematographers whose cameras were housed in giant robotic-looking helmets that covered their heads; the chapeaus seemed patterned after the mean outer-space creatures who tried destroying Washington in “Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.” Special effects in that one showed saucers crashing into the pillars of the Supreme Court building, crumbling the Capitol Dome and also slicing off the Washington Monument like it was so much salami. We laughed at that movie in college but we probably wouldn’t laugh as much if watching it now. I think one of the saucers crashed into the Pentagon-or if not, could have.
Birth of sensationalism
The renowned guerrilla video group TVTV, which also used to be welcome on public television, satirized the medium’s metamorphosis into All-Seeing Eye with a brutally satirical documentary that ended, as I recall, with family members in their living room watching cops surround their own house on live TV. John Belushi was one of the stars.
It was pretty much a straight line from there to the infamous O.J. Simpson freeway chase, with millions and millions of us glued to the set and annoyed as hell if the video from one of the trailing choppers broke up for even a few seconds. We wanted to see everything. Now one suspects that some of the police chases that end up on the various police-chase “reality” shows take place because the misbehaving driver, whatever his alleged chicanery may have been, wants to be on TV the way O.J. was, but without the messy business of having to kill somebody first.
“American Family,” meanwhile, marked the proverbial sea change-see change?-or at least makes a convenient turning point in retrospect. We crossed over from one world into another and left a whole lot of old-world niceties and pleasantries and conventions behind. Brooks chose wisely when he picked “Real Life” as the title for his movie, because “real life” no longer meant what it had been meaning for the previous several thousand years. Indeed, it’s hard to even use the phrase now and not smirk-at least a little. “Real life”-yeah, right#.