American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
“Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You” is a biography of one of TV’s most influential producers, and an influential American, period: the creator of “All in the Family,” “Maude,” “Good Times” and “The Jeffersons,” and the founder of the liberal activist group People for the American Way, which was founded as a response against evangelical activists to reclaim patriotism for the left. But while the film works as a primer for viewers who are curious about Lear but don’t know the details of his life and work, it’s more interesting as a movie about age and memory. Lear was 92 when the film was shot during a book tour last year, and while he’s as mentally and physically active as a person could hope to be at his age, the movie is suffused with melancholy, much of it stemming from Lear’s realization that most of his life is behind him.
Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s a film about faces. Most of Lear’s triumphs were in the 1970s: “All in the Family,” a politically-charged sitcom based on the English series “Till Death Us Do Part,” debuted in CBS in 1971, when the Vietnam War, the antiwar movement, and the feminist, gay rights and Civil Rights movements were still powerfully active. The movie is filled with shots of Lear on the sets of these shows, leading script readings and consulting with actors, looking fit and alert and slim, and always clad in his trademark fedora.
The documentary’s co-directors, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, shoot Lear in the present day with the sort of tender regard you might lavish on a grandparent if you had feature film-quality cameras and lighting and your grandparent didn’t mind being followed around by a movie crew. Their camera moves in close on Lear as he talks about his successes and controversies in American television, his collaborations with writers and actors, and his battles with network executives and censors over the political content of his shows, which resembled political debates as often as they did farcical family spats.
The moviemakers shoot some of Lear’s friends and collaborators, including “All in the Family” co-star and future feature director Rob Reiner and “Good Times” star John Amos, with just as much affection. All the images of deeply lined faces would be powerful on their own, but when they’re juxtaposed with shots of their younger selves—often being projected on a large screen while the older versions watch—the effect is magical: cinema as time machine. At various points they are all watching what amounts to the movie of their lives. The longest one is about Lear, who trips back through his own past with the filmmakers’ guidance, riffing on memories, telling stories, and tearing up at the sight of old friends who died a long time ago. The most touching sequences feature “All in the Family” star Carroll O’Connor, who played the bigoted working-class Irish-American Archie Bunker. Lear acknowledges that Archie is a version of his own father, and weeps while viewing the memorable episode where Archie describes his dad, a bigot who beat his values into his son, as a great man and a loving parent.