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By Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
Directed by Albert Brooks
Paramount Home Video 1979 DVD/VHS Feature Film
One must be seen to exist, for now there is no other proof. There is no longer an identity in craft, only in self-promotion. There are no acts, only scenes.
"Are you ready for the Louds?" producer Craig Gilbert queried the press in January of 1973 when he unveiled his twelve-hour documentary portrait of "An American Family." The idea was to show the everyday activities of a middle-lass family of seven from Santa Barbara in order to help us all better understand the changes affecting the nuclear unit. The PBS TV series turned out to be very controversial and, in the end, even Mrs. Loud complained, "We've lost dignity and been humiliated."
Comedian Albert Brooks has appeared on the stage of "The Tonigth Show" over twenty times. His short films have been a staple on "Saturday Night Live" and his album A Star is Born received a Grammy nomination. Brooks, a media celebrity and crucial analyst of the medium, has spent the past three years working on Real Life. He calls the film "a staged documentary comedy." He and writers Harry Shearer and Monica Johnson thought it would be fun to take the situation of "An American Family" one step further and present the interplay between a Loud-like family and the filmmaker who chooses them and then works with them on the project.
Albert Brooks plays the filmmaker, an entertainer with a mile-high ego. At the outset, it is evident that he is (1) after glory, (2) trying to prove he can hold his own with intellectuals, and (3) is a cinematic genius. In the opening scene, Brooks patronizes the citizens of Phoenix by showing them how much he loves them via a musical production number. He introduces two intellectuals who are part of the project and explains how the Yeagers were chosen to be the subjects for this movie.
After a trip to Hawaii, Warren Yeager (Charles Grodin), a vegetarian, his wife Jeanette (Frances Lee McCain), and their two children return home for the first night of live action. It turns out to be an argument at the dinner table over Jeanette's menstrual cramps. She leaves for the weekend. Later her grandmother dies. Warren operates on a horse in front of cameras and the animal dies. The vet goes into a state of depression. The local paper does an article on the Yeagers and they are besieged by reporters wherever they go. Before long they are ready to junk the project. So is the studio executive in charge of the film. But Brooks has a surprise ending up his sleeve.
Real Life is an engaging film by a comedian who thinks. Brooks pokes fun at the pretensions of cinema verite and those who believe that "the greatest show of all life" can be captured on vinyl like a butterfly and pinned to a board with an appropriate label. On another level, Brooks lampoons the belief that film will be good just because it has the most up-to-date technology, certification by intellectuals, and plenty of money behind it. The entertainer learns the hard way that there is no more to life than art or artifice.
It has been said that everyone wants to be a star nowadays. Real Life shows just how far the Yeagers are willing to go before they say no. Brooks manages to get an Institute for Human Behavior and two professionals on board his bandwagon. But one leaves in protest and the Institute uses Brooks' debacle for its own purposes.
Real Life is funny in spots but is remarkable mostly for its Socratic open-endedness. There is space enough in this film for us to put ourselves into the picture and ask some value-laden questions: Would I allow cameras into my house? What kind of persona would I present? How far would I allow myself to be manipulated by the filmmaker? Real Life boldly explores the interface between everyday people and real people. The confrontation brings home some heavy truths about the scenes of our lives both on and off the screen.
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by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat
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