Docbox Books

Jeffrey Ruoff,
An American Family: A Televised Life (Visible Evidence Volume 11)

Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002. ISBN 0-8166-3560-9
Anna Grimshaw

The television series, An American Family, is often cited as a key moment in postwar American culture. Broadcast over twelve weeks, beginning in January 1973, Craig Gilbert’s experiment in social documentary made its subjects, the Loud family of Santa Barbara, the focus of the most extraordinary public attention—and hostility. Widely reviled by critics and public intellectuals, enthusiastically embraced by viewers, An American Family was among the first television series to make media celebrities out of “ordinary people.” It is Rouff’s contention that the series marked a turning point in American society, provoking debate about the status of the family and conventional notions of gender, as well as inaugurating a new phase in the development of television’s distinctive forms. His book is a fascinating exploration of An American Family as a social and aesthetic event. Ruoff charts the evolution of Gilbert’s project from inception to reception. It is this developed ethnographic perspective, the author’s commitment to approaching media as process rather than product, which reveals the full significance of the series. Not least, An American Family emerges as a highly contested terrain—socially, ethically and aesthetically. It is greatly to Ruoff’s credit that he does not collapse these dimensions into one another but, instead, uses them to open up the full complexity of what he calls “a text at war with itself.”

The book is organized into three parts. The first section deals with the making of the series. Here Ruoff explores the different relationships that were mediated through the developing project. From the outset, there were unusual features. Gilbert himself was not a documentary filmmaker—he was a producer steeped in the culture of broadcasting who seized an opportunity offered by public television to explore a new subject matter in a highly innovative way. As Ruoff’s book makes clear, Gilbert had an agenda. It was personal and political; and it concerned what he believed was the crisis of the modern American family. It is not clear how much he was influenced by his association with Margaret Mead, but Gilbert’s approach in exploring the everyday life of an American family borrowed heavily from the prevailing verite styles of independent documentary. But in adapting this style to television, Craig abandoned almost all of ethical responsibilities that are expected to underpin such practice. Ruoff notes that in his encounters with the Louds, Gilbert “talked much, but said little, of his intentions” (p.19). After the filming was over, he quickly dispensed with the services of Susan and Alan Raymond, the camera and sound partnership, who had spent seven months forging close relationships with the Loud family. For Gilbert, “technical” people were interchangeable; and he hired editors who had no tangible connection to the human subjects they were working with. Their job was “to do justice the footage on its own terms” (p.41).

Ruoff’s grasp of the intricacies of the production itself, his keen sensitivity to the social mediations inherent to the representational process, lends authority to the discussion of aesthetics that he next develops. The book’s second section is devoted to a fuller consideration of the formally innovative dimensions of An American Family. Ruoff highlights the distinctive way in which the series’ observational style (itself unique for public broadcasting of the time), was synthesized with established television conventions, particularly the soap opera. His discussion is admirably comprehensive, with attention paid to sound as much as to the visual qualities of the series. Taking the first episode as emblematic, Ruoff examines its unusual texture that derives from Gilbert’s attempt to work with an “open” form that foregrounded character over plot, episode over narrative, the experiential over the informational. Its emblematic significance, however, extends beyond the aesthetic conflict identified in the opening. From the outset, the series was fraught with a host of other conflicts that stemmed from unresolved issues about “showing and telling,” “the particular and the general,” “recording and creating” (p.65).

Finally, in the last part of the book, Ruoff turns his attention to questions of reception. He discusses at length the public response to An American Family, readily acknowledging the bias in his sources. The opinions of television viewers are no longer available in any form that is analogous to those of the critics and other public commentators. By focusing on available documents, including the original publicity materials, Ruoff points out the general disdain shown toward television by public intellectuals. It added to an overall confusion about what it was that they were watching, compounded by a lack of critical vocabulary that could properly encompass the unique features of the series.

Curiously, despite the enormous furore at the time (the Louds themselves waded into the debate), An American Family barely merits a mention in most of the critical literature relating to documentary. Ruoff’s study makes good this omission. Written in an engaging and accessible style, the book will surely appeal to readers across a range of disciplines. For people like myself who have seen so many references to An American Family but who have never read any detailed study of the series, it is an invaluable source. (It is to be hoped that future editions will include DVD material from the series.) Documentary as a social project is undergoing radical transformation, generating a myriad of new forms. Not least, the explosion in reality television calls for the development of new analytical perspectives. Ruoff argues convincingly that An American Family has to be one of the starting points for any such enterprise.


Anna Grimshaw
Teaches at the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology at the University of Manchester. Author of The Ethnographer’s Eye (2001); and co-editor, with Amanda Ravetz, of Visualizing Anthropology, a special issue of the Journal Media Practice (2002/3).

Suzuki Hitoshi,
Birth of the Screen (“Gamen no tanjo”)

Tokyo: Misuzu Shobo, 2002. (In Japanese) ISBN 4-622-07005-7
Sato Keiichi

Have we ever seen cinema described in such exhaustive detail? Birth of the Screen requires us to face the screen, to intently watch the screen. “Rather than judge or appraise the events or experiences that I have encountered, I want to illustrate their original form and record something that escapes the trite statement ‘It’s emotionally moving’... Upon encountering the work, it ceases to exist. But perhaps we can depict the points remaining as traces?” He also calls this “notation,” almost in the musical sense. Birth of the Screen has no aspirations of being a literary or academic text, and the words are humble rather than blaring.

“Calmly reeling out the experience of watching cinema” means reading, rather than watching, films. Suzuki Hitoshi reads cinema by intently facing the screen. The similarity between Godard's films and books has long been pointed out, and here Histoirs du cinéma is read as a “film without main text.” The Puppetmaster (dir. Hou Hsiao-hsien) is read as ascending smoke, Immoral / Indecent Relationship (“Inmoraru midara na kankei,” dir. Kumashiro Tatsumi) as rotation born of a loss of balance, Rainbow Colored Trotsky (“Niji-iro no Torotsuki,” manga by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu) through characters depicted using only one eye, and Saudades do Brasil (“Nostalgia for Brazil,” photo-graphy book by Claude Levi-Strauss) through the border between town and frontier. In the same way, reading cinema is the recognition of viewing and concrete awareness through images, and writing (or depicting) exists in the midst of the movement back-and-forth between viewing and reading. However, Birth of the Screen doesn’t stop there. Birth of the Screen has the unique characteristic of showing what lies beyond reading cinema. You may find similar quotes elsewhere, but I cite the following text from the in-depth theorization on Wiseman:

One’s present exists in the meshes of the net where the senses are sealed, molded, and formed... Wiseman’s films do not portray people as special human beings or characters who should be treated as extraordinary. The audience feels like they are the characters on screen, and they might be the ones being portrayed. Since those viewing and those being viewed face each other through the screen, the audience necessarily feels like they are watching themselves. I, whose senses have been sealed, witness the state of sealed senses. (p. 350)

Editing occurs among the audience. They knit together images and sound. The clash between what they saw before and what they saw just now occurs in the present tense. Past images are edited into the present. (p. 340)

I wonder if this is a reversal. Watching films is not something carefree, as if it doesn’t involve oneself. Instead, a reversal between the audience and screen emerges, and you question what you are watching as well as what your watching is. If the nature of scientific notation in research and interpretation defines cinema ultimately as an object, with the “experience of watching cinema,” notation is itself the subject. Cinema does not only one-sidedly create meaning; the “I” watching the film also creates meaning. This is how the viewer as an “individual” emerges. Borrowing Benjamin’s quote, it becomes close to realizing the “aura” of the here and now (present tense) that is limited to a singular occurrence. However, in Birth of the Screen this is not an interpretation or single answer, but rather it invites the co-existence of both your and my own “experiences of cinema.” In other words, the notation of “this experience” dreams of the transformation of the audience and the abolition of distance, moving from far to near. Aphorism-like warnings and random thoughts are sprinkled throughout Birth of the Screen, as if affirming the viewer as “individual.” So when shadows of anxiety and instability begin to fall, when there are glimmers of this “I,” it is probably because this notation is much like depicting the world.

What I watch is the sum total of facing the fact that watching is watching. (p. 38)

As a viewer I also had to initiate movement for my own self-confirmation. Friction with the world that can be felt through movement just barely makes me realize the container called “I.” Watching movement within cinema simultaneously confirms myself. (p. 172)

When discussing Suzuki Hitoshi, we cannot ignore his design of numerous books on cinema, starting with Cinema Trades (“Eiga tosei,” 1977) by Makino Masahiro or Mythology of Cinema (“Eiga no shinwagaku,” 1979) by Hasumi Shigehiko, as well as the recently published Screenwriter Kasahara Kazuo: Showa’s Drama (“Showa no geki: Eiga kyakuhonka Kasahara Kazuo”). Suzuki has long been known solely as a graphic designer, itself a critical work that occupies a precious corner of cinema through putting into specific practice a graphicism supported by reading (books and cinema) and watching. We had long forgotten that he began as a writer with “The Attack—Meaninglessness supported by pride... Preface to Criticizing Melodrama” (“Kirikomi—iji de sasaeru muimisei... merodorama hihan josetsu” Cinema 71, 1971.6).

His critique of melodramas as being based on “one-way communication that refuses to be ‘seen’ by viewers and only ‘shows’” is still valid. The essay in which he wrote that the pointlessness of the attack in yakuza cinema “possesses directionality only through my own participation” already began sowing the seeds for Birth of the Screen. To be more precise, though only a few films are discussed in Birth of the Screen, it is a summation guided by numerous films.

The experience of the page and the experience of the screen. The audience is not simply running along the rails of film. They deviate, stop, disrupt. The gaze of readers does not only move across the page following the direction of the lines. (“Page of Blood and Red: On Pierre le FouEureka, 1998.10)

Deviation, stagnation, disruption—this is the freedom and subjectivity of the audience, who is not a one-way street. Easily understandable film critiques and commentaries on the films of Godard, Wiseman, Hou Hsiao-hsien, or Kumashiro Tatsumi can be found elsewhere. Not all films require you to face the screen. After all, recent American cinema is based upon not allowing the audience even a fraction of deviation, stagnation, or disruption by thwarting the gaze that tries to face the screen.

We have been feeling the weakening of film criticism. We can somehow presume this situation through Birth of the Screen. There are reviews or critiques in which the viewer as “individual” fails to rise, meaning that they would be the same no matter who wrote them. They are fine as information, but in the end there is no give and take with living things and the world. Weren’t cinema and criticism meant to verify encounters that quiver with this kind of interaction? It would be an even more pressing problem if cinema itself was in decline. Rather, cinema is our raw, living stories.

We could be just cyborgs stuffed with memories of cinema. Through Birth of the Screen, finally we have arrived at questioning the audience as the “individual.” For the first time I am liberated from being an audience.

—Translated by Kohzu Akemi

Sato Keiichi
Involved with Jonas Mekas’s invitation to Japan in 1991. Worked as Daily Bulletin editor for YIDFF ’95. Subsequently has held film courses for citizen jury members for two years. Resides in Yamagata City.

* This article was contributed to Documentary Box by the author.