Real Life (1979)
Written Albert Brooks, Monica Johnson, and Harry Shearer
Directed by Albert Brooks
Albert Brooks is making a movie! Inspired by the success of the PBS docu-series “An American Family,” Brooks wants to helm an epic documentary film that follows the most average American family possible throughout one year of their lives. After a series of convoluted tests, a family is chosen: The Yeagers of Phoenix, Arizona. Brooks constantly tells this nuclear family that he will be a fly on the wall, an invisible scribe of their lives and immediately upends that by employing some of the most intrusive cameras ever imagined. As the family doesn’t deliver the drama, Brooks has expected he begins to interfere and create conflict where there is none. All the while the psychologists assigned to monitor the production are growing upset with how Brooks is possibly harming this family as he seeks to create something that isn’t quite real life.
After working as a stand-up comedian and producing six short films for Saturday Night Live, Albert Brooks decided to try his hand at a feature film. The meta elements of Real Life are what heighten the story; making is a proto-comedy for much of what to come. The roots of Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Office, Arrested Development, and so much other “cringe” comedy begins in the work of Albert Brooks. The person Brooks is most eager to present as a “cringe-worthy” figure is Brooks himself. The movie version of the director is a narcissist, wholly disconnected from real life. He never worries about the well-being of the Yeagers instead expressing concern over if they are creating good movie content.
The phrase “ahead of its time” is used far too liberally, but in the case of Real Life, it could not be more applicable. The constant need to create hugely entertaining moments from the day to day life of the Yeagers feel resonant with shows as far back as The Osbournes and the current Kardashians. At one point, patriarch Warren Yeager, a veterinarian by trade becomes so self-aware of the cameras that during a significant surgery he bungles things. Later, there is a very muted back and forth between Warren and Brooks about the inclusion of this scene in the movie. What I love is that the exchange doesn’t grow into a shouting match, its two men completely disagreeing while trying to be as civil and calm as possible.
Brooks is also commenting on the entire nature of the cinema verite idea, that a filmmaker can be present in people’s lives with cameras and expect the result to be 100% naturalistic. In Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” he talks about how communication has moved primarily into the televisual. This means we expect that anything labeled as “educational” must also be entertaining and quick. Postman cites “Sesame Street” as a prime example of “educational” programming that conditions children in ways that are antithetical to authentic learning. So too, Brooks tells us that his documentary will give us deep insight into the human condition and the American dream. Jump to the middle of the film, and he is tearing his hair out over the family falling into a quiet depression after the passing of a grandmother. Brooks the real-life filmmaker gets that the nature of any popular media is to entertain above all else and aspirations of education are laughable.
Brooks has regular meetings with psychologists who comically watch the footage using thermal vision and conduct urinalysis tests on the family to determine their mental and emotional states. The group of four clinicians is going over their test results when Brooks interrupts, referring to a moment off camera, asking about a passing comment that he looks heavier in the current footage than when they started filming. This lack of empathy and true self-reflection is both the meat of Brooks’ comedy and central message of his movie. The media industry cannot show you yourself; they will always default into a hyper-reality where drama and conflict are the focus. Much like the film Network, which also presupposed the coming Fame industry, Real Life does not offer a hopeful message, just a dark one with lots of laughs along the way.