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.
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.
An American Love Story is screening at the Film Forum in three separate programs, each comprising three 55-minute episodes. One episode is being withheld so that PBS can premiere the series in its entirety in September. Created as a television series, it is seen to best advantage on the small screen, where the intimacy of the viewing situation mirrors the intimacy of the narrative. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for experiencing the volatile reactions the show evokes in the company of a larger audience. (On June 26, after the 8:40 show, there will be a Q&A with the family and the director.)
Issues of race, racism, and integration also loom large in My Son the Fanatic, an absorbing, wonderfully acted, and subtly written film about a middle-aged Pakistani man named Parvez (Om Puri) who has lived in the north of England for 25 years, works as a cabdriver, and is trying to integrate himself and his family into English life. In a twist on generational relationships, Parvez’s teenage son joins a Muslim fundamentalist sect whose principal occupation is attacking the prostitutes who are frequent customers of his father’s taxi.
The film is a complicated study of a man brought up with traditional values who can’t help feeling guilty about his involvement in the sex industry (Parvez lines up dates for visitors he picks up at the airport), but who also wants to embrace the swinging lifestyle that he identifies with Western culture. Puri, one of India’s most skilled actors, has a big, homely face that’s made to convey mixed emotions, never more so than when this married man is forced to acknowledge that he’s in love with one of the prostitutes (Rachel Griffiths). Caught between his past and his future, Parvez takes refuge in his basement to listen to the ’40s jazz that fueled his boyhood dreams of the New World. He’s a compelling character, but director Udayan Prasad is not altogether comfortable with the point-of-view structure he’s set in motion. Sometimes it’s not just Parvez who moves in fits and starts, but the film itself as well.