In 1973 An American Family, a documentary about the darker side of the American suburban dream, first appeared on US television. It is now viewed as the first ever reality TV program. It was in effect what is know as Direct Cinema and it fortunately had an alternative but popular channel to feed it to a mass audience. An American Family introduced the Loud family to a new breed of viewers, who were more used to the Brady Bunch than a complex Californian family with Edward Albee sized problems. The family couldn’t possibly have known the impact that they were going to have on a younger generation of suburban American kids. This series, for many marked a turning point, promoting a suburban exodus to the bright lights big city. It also sowed the seeds of LGBT sexual tolerance for a newly liberated generation.
During the filming the Louds lived through several life changing milestones. Bill and Pat separated and later divorced. In the series’s second episode, their son Lance, who had moved from Santa Barbara to pursue a Warholian lifestyle in Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel, along with his partner Kristian Hoffman became arguably the first openly gay men on American television. Lance’s richly comic, tragic life spoke volumes about popular culture, sexuality, fame and family life during a transitional period in which the camera came to dominate their daily lives. Loud wasted no time forming a band influenced by the New York Dolls ( The Mumps) which predated Punk.
When they agreed to appear in the show, PBS wasn’t screened in Santa Barbara, where the family lived. PBS was a not for profit educational channel and The Louds thought no one would see the show. It peaked at 10 million viewers each week. After being edited down from about 300 hours of raw footage, the series ran for one season of 12 episodes on a Thursday night at 9:00 p.m.The programme chronicled a seven months period in the lives of the Loud family. The family were selected as an emblematic nuclear family and were soon pulled apart by the cultural shifts that marked America’s transition into the 1970s. Filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond ensuing depictions of divorce, West Coast affluence, and an open gay lifestyle, provoked a fervent public debate about the nation’s value systems. It challanged attitudes towards family and sexuality, and opened up television’s role in depicting and constructing a more inclusive society.
Four decades later, producer Craig Gilbert’s innovative series is highly respected. Along with Albert and David Maysles film, Grey Gardens, produced in the same era, it changed the way in which we perceive documentary film making. The series marked a critical moment in postwar American culture. Drawing on numerous precedents in observational filmmaking, from Frederick Wiseman, John Waters to Andy Warhol .
On 22 December 2001, aged 50, Loud died of liver failure caused by hepatitis C and HIV co-infection. Having lived his youth onscreen in living rooms across America, several months before his death Loud asked Alan and Susan Raymond to film one final episode in the Loud story. The resulting documentary, Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family, commemorates the 30th anniversary of the original broadcast and explores Loud’s legacy, revisiting the original series and examining the intervening years of Loud’s life leading up to his final months. Near the end of his life Loud wrote: ‘Make no mistake. This is not to emphasize the sadness of my demise but rather emphasise the love of my family and friends.’
The Tate Modern have now announced an evening, presented by The Hepatitis C Trust and Tate Modern, celebrates the life of television and underground icon Lance Loud to raise awareness about HIV and hepatitis C co-infection, of which Loud died. The screening of An American Family, episode 2 (1973, 60 min) and Lance Loud! A Death in An American Family (2003, 60 min) will be followed by a discussion with filmmakers Alan and Susan Raymond. An American Family was among the first television series to transform ‘ordinary people’ into media celebrities.
Lance Loud: A Death in An American Family Tate Modern, Starr Auditorium Wednesday 4 July 2012, 18.30 – 21.30 £5, concessions available