The Museum of the Moving Image’s current “Candid Cameras: Real Life on Film” (April 16 through May 8) offers a provocatively programmed crash course on documentary and “documentary,” from Nanook of the North (1922) through several varieties of cinema vérité to last year’s Tarnation. The series’ title is taken from television and so is the perspective. The first weekend features excerpts from Allen Funt’s pioneering gotcha show as well as the epochal 1973 PBS “reality TV” series An American Family. The latter is crucial for the appreciation of the comedy that follows, Albert Brooks’s first and funniest feature, Real Life (1979).
Brooks plays “Albert Brooks,” a supremely self-absorbed filmmaker who, assisted by a crew with helmet-cams, sets out to immortalize the “ordinary life” of a Phoenix veterinarian (Charles Grodin) and his family. Obnoxiously abrasive and manipulative, he’s comparable to Rupert Pupkin. After trashing the hall of mirrors in which he finds himself, Brooks whines that “the audience craves fake—reality sucks.” Nevertheless, according to the actual Brooks, “85 percent of the reviews for Real Life thought it was literal. Someone wrote, ‘Why did Paramount Pictures let this man do an experiment like that?’ ” They must have heard Brooks’s killer rendition of “Something’s Gotta Give,” performed for the citizens of the suburb where his film is set: “When an old immovable object such as you meets a young, honest guy like myself . . . ”