Albert Brooks’ 1979 satire Real Life opens with this quote from cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead on the groundbreaking PBS non-fiction 1973 series An American Family, a forerunner to reality television, and the film’s overt inspiration: “It is, I believe, as significant as the invention of drama or the novel… A new way in which people can learn to look at life, by seeing the real life of others interpreted by the camera.” Though An American Family was a widely discussed phenomenon in 1973, Mead’s statement on the series’ importance must have seemed hyperbolic at the time, and Real Life’s citation of Mead’s quote is more than a little tongue-in-cheek. But in the ensuing decades, Mead’s statement has gone from overstated to eerily prescient.
The reality-television genre that began with An American Family has transformed America and its pop culture in ways even Mead never could have anticipated. Reality TV has become one of the dominant entertainment mediums of the day, an unstoppable juggernaut that shows no sign of slowing down. The second half of Mead’s proclamation is even more prescient. When the cameras of reality television have finished the long, intense, often invasive and exploitative process of “interpreting,” what they produce frequently bears only a vague resemblance to everyday life as lived by human beings on planet Earth. It more closely resembles the crazed melodramas of nighttime soap operas.
Reality television didn’t really exist when Real Life was made, and didn’t properly begin until the 1992 launch of the tellingly named The Real World. The film predicts how the genre’s cameras aren’t sociological lenses that convey important objective truths about society (the “real life of others” Mead discusses), so much as funhouse mirrors that twist and distort images until they become unrecognizable. Later, Brooks, in character as “Albert Brooks,” speaks even more directly to the unspoken conflict between entertainment and reality: As a documentarian looking to chronicle a year in the life of an average American family, Brooks says he’s looking for a family that simultaneously represents the typical American family and “holds a motion-picture audience completely spellbound.”
That’s a tall order for any entertainer, let alone a family specifically chosen for its ostensible ordinariness. The reality performers who have succeeded in holding audiences completely spellbound are notable not for their everyman relatability, but rather their outsized freakishness—preposterous human cartoon characters with nicknames like Snooki, The Situation, New York, and Honey Boo Boo. Brooks understood that audiences didn’t really want reality, they wanted a crazy soap opera with the sexy, voyeuristic illusion of capturing real life. Real Life loosely follows the arc of reality television’s journey from high-minded sociological experiment to culture-wide freak show.
Brooks directed and co-wrote Real Life with longtime writing partner Monica Johnson and Harry Shearer, who went on to co-write and star in an influential mockumentary of his own several years later with This Is Spinal Tap. Brooks also plays a fictionalized version of himself, a shameless shtick-slinger who decides to make a movie about the life of a typical American family in order to satisfy his abandoned dreams of being a scientist, and with the stated goal of winning the Nobel Prize. Brooks’ character makes the film equally prescient in its depiction of a documentarian who’s largely interested in spreading his own cult of personality, predicting filmmakers who filter important social issues through the distorting lens of their egos. A straight line could be drawn from the scene of Brooks sharing his antiquing activities in Real Life to Morgan Spurlock shaving off his mustache in his tedious exploration of male grooming, Mansome.
The filmmakers’ ambitious experiment begins with the commissioning of an endless series of tests to determine the perfect family to chronicle for the project, an unnecessarily complicated process whose spiraling cost Brooks references constantly, as if expense alone lends credibility to his dodgy venture. Little else Brooks does shores up that credibility. Real Life flashes back to the selection efforts after an opening in which he announces his project to the people of Phoenix in a press conference that is supposed to establish the project’s scientific and sociological bona fides, but quickly takes on the air of a 1970s variety show, complete with a dramatic reveal of bandleader Mort Lindsey—who also scored the film—and what Brooks assures the audience is as much of the Merv Griffin Show orchestra as he could afford to send to Phoenix.
From the beginning, the people in front of Brooks’ cameras are changed by being filmed. A city councilman turns into a hammy Friar’s Club MC, introducing Brooks as a beloved entertainer the audience would undoubtedly know from such beloved shows as Goodnight Saturday. By the time Brooks favors the audience with a hammy rendition of “Something’s Gotta Give,” with lyrics altered specifically for the occasion, any pretensions to serious sociological inquiry have been sacrificed to the gods of show business.
Brooks’ stunt enrages Dr. Ted Cleary (J.A. Preston), a respected scientist Brooks has roped into his shenanigans to lend it a sheen of respectability, so much that he storms out of the press conference in protest. In a slobs-vs.-snobs comedy, a figure like Cleary would be the heavy: a dour, tweedy intellectual with precious little patience for shenanigans. In a rowdy college sex comedy, he’d be the uptight dean out to expel the rowdy fraternity. Real Life smartly, counterintuitively presents Cleary as the audience surrogate and the film’s oft-ignored voice of reason, a sane, dignified man tethered to a doomed experiment devoid of sanity or dignity.
For their family, Brooks and his team settle on the Yeagers: veterinarian father Warren (Charles Grodin), stressed-out mother Jeannette (Frances Lee McCain), daughter Lisa (Lisa Urette), and son Eric (Robert Stirrat). Brooks sets out to capture real life in its fascinating rawness, but begins dramatically altering the family’s lives, habits, and even sleep patterns before the cameras even start rolling. He sends them on a two-week Hawaiian vacation as a treat before filming begins, and has them chauffeured to their home in a limousine. The net effect of this costly extravagance is to ensure that the family is tired and cranky when it comes time to film their first dinner in front of the cameras.
But these aren’t just any cameras. In one of Brooks’ most brilliant comic conceits, the Yeagers’ lives are being filmed by four “Ettinauers,” fictional digital cameras that are worn on cameramen’s heads and resemble a cross between astronaut’s helmets and robot heads. The whole idea of the Ettinauer is to be as lightweight, flexible, and unobtrusive as possible, but they look so utterly bizarre that they instantly destroy any pretense to naturalism, and pull the proceedings into the realm of science-fiction. Even if Brooks’ character didn’t do everything else wrong, trying to capture the unvarnished truth of everyday life for average Americans via crazy robot cameras operated by men who look like androids from a Kubrickian future would fatally compromise his aspirations toward chronicling objective truth.
Things go wrong from the beginning. The film’s arc sometimes resembles that of Full Metal Jacket, opening with an extended period of intense, meticulous preparation that proves borderline-useless once shit begins to go dramatically awry. Or, to use a more appropriate turn of phrase, people stop being polite and start getting real. The family’s first dinner in front of the cameras plays out like a John Cassavetes scene at a low simmer, with Walter trying and failing to play the role of the dependable family man while his children rebel and his wife complains bitterly about her IUD.
In this scene and elsewhere, Walter looks to the camera imploringly and self-consciously, as if it could somehow help him out of a bind, or at least spare him a little sympathy. Though Walter is all too aware of the camera’s invasive presence, there’s a low-key naturalism to the acting that brilliantly complements Brooks’ giddy self-parody.
Grodin and McCain deliver essentially dramatic performances in a satirical comedy. Grodin helped pioneer the comedy of awkwardness and discomfort with Elaine May in The Heartbreak Kid, but that film didn’t contain a sequence as agonizing, or as disturbingly funny, as the horrifying sequence in Real Life where Walter, possibly distracted by the presence of futuristic cameramen in his operating room, accidentally kills a horse during surgery. Walter is mortified by the horse’s death, and terrified that he will lose his livelihood if footage of the failed surgery comes to light. And when Jeanette’s grandmother dies, the family sinks into a funk that is long, intense, and, worst of all, not remotely cinematic.
Brooks’ misguided attempt to procure that elusive Nobel Prize isn’t just failing as an important sociological experiment—it’s also failing as entertainment. Late in the film, Brooks meets with both his scientific advisors (who by that point do not include Cleary, who has left the project in disgust) and Martin Brand (Jennings Lang), the head of the studio bankrolling the picture. As an old-school show-business lifer, Brand has no tolerance for artsy-fartsy notions; he just sees a picture that’s going to tank because it has no stars. The solution? Stars! Why bore audiences with real scientists when you can have Jack Nicholson play a scientist? And wouldn’t this so-called groundbreaking experiment play better in Peoria if Paul Newman or Robert Redford were involved? Brand even has ideas for adding a little sexy box-office sizzle to the meeting they’re currently having, suggesting forcefully, “Would it be so bad to have Neil Diamond sitting in on a meeting like this?” The scene gains an additional resonance from the casting of real-life producer Lang in the role of the hectoring, clueless studio head: The same year he implored the fictional Brooks to think about adding adding some star power, Lang co-wrote and produced The Concorde: Airport ’79, a film dedicated to the notion that there is no problem star-power can’t fix. (Though in that case, it didn’t work.)
Brooks however, decides he doesn’t need Robert Redford when he has an even more powerful weapon at his disposal: the montage! Brooks decides to “show the French what a montage is all about!” in a sequence that recasts its dour central family as a happy clan enjoying the sights and sounds of Phoenix and frolicking happily in dreamy slow-motion.
Beyond being a spot-on, pitch-perfect spoof of montages, the sequence highlights the manipulative nature of editing and scoring, how happy music and slow-motion can lend an idyllic, triumphant air to just about anything, including soft-serve ice-cream machines and the automatic-ball-return feature at bowling alleys. As reality television has illustrated again and again, editing and music can depict the same events as tragedies or triumphs, moments of unbearable tension or heartwarming emotional breakthroughs.
The camera doesn’t just “interpret” real life. It’s far more powerful than that. It’s also capable of creating narratives and propagating fictions, and in the montage sequence, Brooks purposefully presents the family triumphing over obstacles en route to cinematically dynamic happiness. It doesn’t ultimately seem to matter to Brooks whether the narrative is true, just as he seems less concerned with Walter’s fragile mental state than whether his leading man is coming off as likable.
As director, Brooks delights in moments of excruciating awkwardness, whether it’s Jeanette making a deeply misguided, unsuccessful pass at Brooks, who demurs that his incredible charisma is only skin-deep and he’s nowhere near as dynamic as he appears (the first-ever humblebrag?) or Grodin shooting the camera a look of existential panic once he realizes a potentially career-ruining mistake has been captured for posterity. The film anticipates the comedy of discomfort popularized by The Office as much as it does reality television. It’s a comedy from 1979 that doesn’t just feel bracingly contemporary and prescient: it feels near-futuristic. Thirty-four years later, Brooks is still ahead of the curve.
Brooks couldn’t have anticipated how much closer to reality his preposterous fiction ultimately brought pop culture. In the future, the grotesque manipulation of ostensible reality for cynical commercial gain wouldn’t be the stuff of satire, but the cornerstone of an entire industry. Brooks’ crazy satire is our reality, or perhaps more accurately, our “reality,” for Brooks understood, seemingly before anyone else did, just how slippery the concept of reality becomes when applied to the distorting, crazy-making, endlessly demanding world of entertainment.
Come back tomorrow for our Movie Of The Week Forum discussion on Real Life’s style, storytelling, view of Hollywood, and legacy.