Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jul 07, 2016 9:32 pm 
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Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady: Norman Lear - Just Another Version of You (2016)


Real TV

In the 1970's Norman Lear, famous American TV producer, changed the small screen world with the lovable bigot Archie Bunker (now a household word) in the show, "All in the Family." He had a father who was an Archie Bunker, a racist bigot who was once jailed for fraud. He himself was a "striver," who became the master of prime-time topical TV comedy, at a single moment producer of six of the then current top Nielson rated shows.

Guy Lodge's Variety review calls this documentary "technically imaginative" and "a lively tribute." It uses a mock-version of him as a child to punctuate sections; skips over his early days as a Hollywood writer to jump into the genesis of "All in the Family," (January 12, 1971, to April 8, 1979), a show based, as we learned at the time, on a British show, "Till Death Do Us Part," discovered by Lear's partner, Bud Yorkin, when living in England. Lear pays a tribute to Carroll O'Connor, the liberal Irish actor who bore the show on his shoulders as Archie, and died in 2001. This was Lear's triumph, and gets due attention here, though more might have been said about the others in the show, especially the adorably ditsy Edith, played by Jean Stapleton.

Spinoffs after "All in the Family" for Lear were "The Jeffersons," about a well-off black family and "Maude," about an outspoken liberal woman. Then came "Good Times," about a low-income black family.

Lear is 93 and still working, still in relationship with his feminist, activist first wife, Frances. A lot of interviews with him here (and him reading his recent autobiography, Even This I Get to Experience), also with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, good friends and key figures of American comedy. We may be surprised to learn that Lear left TV in the Eighties, when he and his wife divorced, and helped found the liberal political activist group People for the American Way. Showing various tributes from admirers in current US TV, the filmmakers (who previously made Jesus Camp) bring out the very arguable point that "All in the Family" and Lear's other popular offshoots come from a day that exists no more, when American TV shows were watched by a wide swathe of the population and were influential, controversial, and popular, and (to a lot of people) funny, all at the same time. The boldness of showing an American white bigot and the humanity of his debates with his liberal son-in-law just can't happen in the world of cell phones and cable TV. Normal Lear is a living national treasure, a pop cultural pioneer.

And he represents a time when there was a possibility of national dialogue that all the "platforms" today get in the way of.

Norman Lear-Just Another Version of You, 91 mins., debuted Jan. 2016 at Sundance; 14 other festivals, release earlier in some other countries (Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Italy). US theatrical release 8 July 2016 (IFC Center, FSLC, NYC). Bay Area release, at multiple venues, 4 Aug. 2016.


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