By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Melissa Anderson
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Charles Taylor
By Melissa Anderson
An American Love Story is a 10-hour television series directed by Jennifer Fox, who, in the early '90s, spent more than a year videotaping the daily life of the Sims-Wilson family: Bill Sims, Karen Wilson, and their daughters,Cicily and Chaney. For much of this time, Fox (who shot the series herself) and Jennifer Fleming, her sound recordist, lived with the Sims-Wilsons in their far-from-spacious Queens apartment. I'm not sure why the family members allowed these two women such extraordinary access, but they seem motivated by an honest desire to share their beliefs, doubts, and ambivalences, rather than by gross exhibitionism. The result is unlike anything else in movies or television An American Family, the groundbreaking 1972 series about the Loud family, seems trivial by comparison and is surely among the most serious studies of American culture produced in a visual medium.
At the time the series begins, Bill, a blues and jazz musician who loves to cook, and Karen, who works in the human resources department of a large corporation, are in their late forties; Cicily, 20, is a student at Colgate; and Chaney, 12, is in junior high. Karen and Bill are both from Ohio, where they met in 1967. They were friends for quite a while before they became lovers, and lovers for years before they married, in 1979. ("I married Bill," says Karen, "thinking I could divorce him anytime.")
To say their relationship was difficult from the start is to laughably understate the case. Bill is black and Karen is white. When they met, he was already married with a child, and he also drank and drugged with abandon. Karen, one of the most popular girls in her high school class, was ostracized once she got involved with Bill. A male friend from that time says, with discernible relish, that she became "the scum of the town." Bill was hounded by the cops and thrown in jail more than once. The situation only became worse when Cicily was born and Karen refused to give her up for adoption.
My Son the Fanatic
Directed by Udayan Prasad
Written by Hanif Kureishi
A Miramax release
Opens June 25
The year the Supreme Court finally overturned state laws prohibiting interracial marriage, 1967 was also the year Bonnie and Clyde painted movie screens red and became emblematic outlaws and fashion statements. Pretty, fair-haired Karen, who says her rebel streak was encouraged by her father, seems to have incorporated Bonnie into her fantasy life. Getting involved with Bill was her way of becoming an outlaw. He also, she says, was simply the most interesting person to talk to that she'd ever met. Bill seems to have found a much-needed stability in the relationship, which worked, moreover, because Karen allowed him mostly to come and go as he pleased. All four family members agree that there are two Bills the real Bill and the other Bill, who puts his music first and gets mean when he's drunk.
Karen and Bill moved to multiculti Flushing so that their daughters would not be subject to the same hostility as they'd been. And Bill realized that, as a black man, there was no future for him in Marion, Ohio, which his grown-up daughter from his first marriage describes as "the twilight zone." One of the underpinnings of the series is the contrast between big-city and small-town life. In a particularly painful episode, Bill goes back to Marion to see his son, who's about to go to jail for dealing coke. And the series concludes with Karen and Bill traveling together to Ohio for her 25th high school reunion.
There are also glimpses of Bill on the road with his band, and episode three is shot almost entirely by Cicily and her classmates in Nigeria during their semester abroad. But for the most part, the series takes place in the family's apartment, where, despite the presence of the camera, which they often acknowledge, occupants and visitors alike behave with a notable lack of self-consciousness. I could only pity, however, the 13-year-old boy who comes to take Chaney on her first date and finds himself being videotaped. At such moments, one wonders about the behind-the-scenes negotiations that made possible the seemingly free flow of daily life we see onscreen.
Although a number of extremely dramatic events occur during the course of the series (surgery, malaria, alcoholic bingeing, and full-scale depression), An American Love Story never seems like a soap opera. In part that's because Karen and Bill are both quite reserved, albeit in very different ways. And in part it's because Fox has organized the material to show how tensions gradually build and dissipate over the course of a long, largely successful relationship. It slowly becomes clear why Karen and Bill are well matched and how much more interesting their lives are because they've troubled to stay together. They are also extremely thoughtful, loving parents, and their daughters, as a result, are terrific young women.
Although the series will probably be described as cinema verité, it's hardly that. Fox uses a ton of voice-overs that function partly to fill in the back story and partly as interior monologues do in novels. Thus we interpret what we see on the screen in terms of what the family members say about their feelings, beliefs, and desires in audio interviews conducted at a different time during production. In other words, this documentary "reality" is more complicated in its construction than it might appear at first glance. And indeed, An American Love Story has a novelistic shape that becomes more engrossing the more we come to know the characters. Fox takes a big risk in the first two episodes by making race not only the major issue but the exclusive issue that seems to shape the Sims-Wilson family. And it is the delineation of race as a factor conditioning every moment of quotidian existence that makes the series so unique. But as our understanding of the characters deepens, race becomes only part of the picture for a couple of stretches, we may lose track of it entirely.
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