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American Families

One hundred years ago, Kodak introduced the Brownie, selling 250,000 of the cameras in the first year at a dollar a pop and changing the way in which history was recorded and, as a result, what history was recorded. With the means of commemoration made widely available, humankind began to build an unsentimental record of ordinary, non-aristocratic life, unmediated by artists or social workers. Now the home video camera has been added to the equation -- if one picture is worth a thousand words, we are now living in truly logorrheic times -- and with the relatively low cost and simultaneously increasing sophistication and compactness of the equipment, anyone who really wants to make a movie now can make one. And while on the one hand this means there‘s a lot more crap in the river of culture, it also means that subjects that once would have been considered insufficiently serious, or insufficiently bankable, are getting their due.

La Boda, Hannah Weyer’s documentary about the days leading up to the wedding of a migrant farm girl and her beau, airing this week on the PBS series P.O.V., is the sort of film that in a pre-Handycam world could easily never have been made. It isn‘t Harvest of Shame; and, though it is inevitably “political,” given the milieu, it’s only incidentally so -- as when bride-to-be Elizabeth displays her birth certificate, ratty and soft from having been folded and unfolded a thousand times to prove her citizenship. “I wanted to portray all that this community has rather than what they lack,” Weyer has said, and she‘s painted a picture of a respectable, often misapprehended working class, a picture fairly subversive, at least as television entertainment, in the sense that the subjects’ notions of success have more to do with community and continuity than with big-score material gain. Though Weyer is an NYU film school grad with an indie feature (Arresting Gena) under her belt and the certifiably groovy production team of Michael Stipe and Jim McKay lurking there somewhere in the background, La Boda is still very much a work of shoestring economy, and looks on the whole not unlike the sort of wedding videos that are being produced by friends and relations of the bridegroom most every day most everywhere in the world; it‘s noisy, shaky, visually inelegant. But it’s been assembled with an intelligent eye: Weyer shows you things worth seeing and, just as important, knows when to move on to the next thing. And unlike (I am guessing) most official wedding documents, it isn‘t overwhelmed by the occasion: It’s unusually honest about the fear, the tension, the waiting, the not-knowing that precedes and attends the tying of a knot.

At the same time, it retains an intimate, home-movie informality. There is no attempt to make the camera an invisible observer: Weyer speaks, is spoken to. In one memorable passage, a younger sister makes faces right up against the lens as the bride is glimpsed intermittently behind her, sitting lost in thought in what the next day will no longer be her room. (Her sisters will be sleeping two to a bed instead of three. “Relief!” cries one.) And as in home movies and snapshots, the details that define a world gather around the edges, or pass swiftly through the frame: the steam coming off a cup of coffee in the dark morning as the family heads off to work, the bright colors of a Mexican street, a corps of stuffed animals overlooking a bed. There are images enough of the working life of the migrant, but these are incidental to what is essentially a love story, in which that life‘s economic limits are matched -- and this is really the point of the piece -- and overmatched, at least for a moment, by the illimitability of the heart.

It’s a lovely little movie, ambitious in a small way about big things and really very moving. By the end, you feel that you‘ve been somewhere, somewhere you could not have exactly predicted, and have been broadened in the way that travel is supposed to broaden you -- that is, your expectations will have been confounded, your prejudices undermined -- and that you have seen something of how other people live, and how like it is the way you live, and how very unlike. That it’s a big old small world after all. Television really can‘t do much more for you.

And in most cases it does so much less. Mexican-American family life is also the subject of Resurrection Boulevard, a new drama from Showtime. But nothing about the show’s two-hour pilot film feels in the least genuine -- notwithstanding that creator Dennis E. Leoni (who used to write for The Commish) says the show was “inspired by my own family experiences growing up in Tucson, Arizona,” and that the house in which the Santiago family lives is, according to press materials, “based on an actual historical 1910 SearsCraftsman structure found in East Los Angeles.” As the first dramatic TV series “to feature Latinos prominently both in front of and behind the camera,” as Showtime is proud to announce, one wishes it well. (CBS recently rejected the pilot for Gregory Nava‘s An American Family, which would have been the first Latino family drama on network TV.) I am all for affirmative action in television: It’s no secret that white people -- white men, mostly -- run the business, and the businesses that affect the business, and the complexion of what airs overwhelmingly reflects theirs. The only problem, really -- which I suppose one could still see as an advance -- is that it is just such a . . . TV show, with all the lack of vision and depth that term implies.

I expect there are people, perhaps many people and not just those whose life it pretends to reflect, who will like this series, though the audience naturally will be limited by the show‘s being on a premium cable channel. (Certainly there is an element of Showtime’s courting the Latino market in this, but that‘s not in itself a bad thing; in itself, it’s a good thing.) They will not be the same audience that live for The Sopranos, but they might well have liked The Waltons; Resurrection Boulevard (we can assume the title is not arbitrary) is made for those who like their TV comforting, or at least not overtaxing, with easy-to-grasp dilemmas, red-flagged villains, big victories and pretty people. (And a little sex.) As in network dramas, everyone here is good-looking -- a little too good-looking, I‘d say, for the family of boxers this is supposed to be: no broken noses, no cauliflower ears. Uncle Ruben (Daniel Zacapa) has a fairly rakish scar on his forehead, doesn’t talk anymore and dribbles his water a little when he drinks, but he‘s still good for saving the family honor. If the Santiago men are all fighters (literally), the women too are fighters, in their womanly way; and the whole bunch is almost obscenely self-motivated and bursting with pride, albeit it is sometimes the pride that goeth before a fall. But even then, their essential heroism is incontrovertible, and therefore unreal.

The family melodrama is not a dishonorable form; it is, after all, the backbone of Latin American television. But the stuff of which Resurrection Boulevard is composed was old cheese 60 or 70 years ago, when the setting was the Lower East Side and Cagney wore the gloves. Indeed, the teleplay -- like most Hollywood product, to be fair -- has the feel of being written from studying the movies, and not necessarily good ones, rather than life. And though the cast, which includes Elizabeth Peña (Lone Star), Tony Plana (Murder One), Michael DeLorenzo (New York Undercover) and Marisol Nichols (National Lampoon’s Vegas Vacation), works hard -- sometimes too hard -- it is an uphill battle to reality; they have no characters to play yet. They‘re only parts in a movie machine, of so obvious and familiar a design that all but the laziest viewers will get to the end far enough ahead of the players to have time for a smoke and the New York Times crossword. Will erstwhile medical student Alex (Nicholas Gonzalez) win the big fight, for which he has hardly trained, against all logical odds? I’ve got a week‘s pay says he does. Any takers?

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