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The Woman Who Reeled in Elusive Woodman

Barbara Kopple calls 'Wild Man Blues' a 'fish-out-of-water film'--except this fish comes with a controversial fiancee, myriad quirks and a beloved clarinet.

April 19, 1998|John Clark | John Clark is a regular contributor to Calendar

PARK CITY, Utah — Barbara Kopple sits down in a cafe after three hours of sleep, which is the Sundance Film Festival standard, and orders a bagel with a tomato. When it arrives, she's annoyed to discover that the bagel has cream cheese. Her fussiness, which in fact is not fussiness at all, is teasingly compared to that of Soon-Yi Previn, Woody Allen's wife and one of the people she follows in her just-opened film "Wild Man Blues."

"Thanks a lot," Kopple says, and then points out, "I didn't take your omelet."

Kopple is referring to one of the film's many astonishingly intimate moments, in which Previn, seated in an absurdly palatial hotel room, browbeats Allen into swapping omelets with her because she doesn't like hers. Audiences also get to see her coax Allen into an indoor swimming pool and onto a treadmill, escort him to parties attended by English-impaired admirers, comfort him when he gets seasick on a Venetian gondola, and criticize him for not communicating with the members of his New Orleans-style jazz band. It's all part of Kopple's soup-to-nuts documentary of Allen's 23-day tour of Europe with the band in the spring of 1996.

"Wild Man Blues" was enthusiastically received at Sundance, winning a cinematography award. But audiences continued to ask Kopple for her take on the subject, as if the film didn't answer that question: What is Woody Allen really like? Who is the person behind the comic neuroses, the scandalous affair with and subsequent marriage to his lover's adopted daughter, the relentless yearly output of film, the almost religious devotion to his clarinet?

"I think that he's one of the strongest, most controlling human beings imaginable," Kopple says. "On the things he knows, he's seven feet tall inside. He's totally in control in his writing, in his thinking, I'm sure in his directing and acting. He's a creature of habit. He had stewed prunes every morning. But when you pull him out of his habits or where he's comfortable and you take him to the country or other cities, they're alien to him. He can't control what happens in them. He's like a fish out of water. It's a fish-out-of-water film."

Kopple, 51, might seem like an unlikely candidate to make this particular fish-out-of-water film. After all, she won best documentary Academy Awards for "Harlan County, USA" (1977), about striking Kentucky coal miners, and "American Dream" (1991), about striking Hormel meat plant workers. She's made documentaries about peace concerts, the civil rights movement and American labor. She made a celebrated film about former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson ("Fallen Champ") and was recognized by the Directors Guild for an episode she directed of TV's "Homicide."

This spring, she will be finishing yet another documentary, called "Generations," about the two Woodstock festivals (1969 and 1994) and their respective audiences, musicians, promoters and irate locals. And this summer she will begin her first feature-length fiction film, "Joe Glory," about racism and anti-Semitism in the aftermath of World War II.

In short, much of Kopple's work has been characterized by a highly evolved social conscience, which might seem hard to square with Allen's private jet, colossal accommodations and ever-present European paparazzi. Perhaps she explains this seeming paradox best when she discusses why she did the Tyson documentary despite opposition from critics who dismissed him as a thug and convicted rapist. Though she does not put it this way, she may have made the film precisely because of this reputation--there's got to be more to him than that.

"I just love being able to allow people to speak and to really explore who they are because there are so many rumors," she says. "With Mike Tyson, it was great to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. It's sort of like going on the trip to see where it takes you."

So, too, with Allen, who may not be the world's most sympathetic figure either. In fact, according to documentarian Terry Zwigoff, who directed "Crumb," a mordant account of cartoonist Robert Crumb, Allen's people came to him for technical advice, because Allen was going to direct the film himself. Zwigoff got the impression that they didn't know what they were doing and kiddingly offered his services. Apparently he was right, because they took him up on the offer and flew him to New York. After a week of discussions, however, Zwigoff dropped out, prompting reports that their parting of ways was less than amicable.

"I've already read that me and Woody Allen had a big fight," Zwigoff says. "It's completely ridiculous. From my point of view as a filmmaker, it was a bit of a problem finding out what the film was actually going to be about. What's the point? Am I supposed to do this in-depth portrait so that the cultured barbarians in the U.S. can sit there and ridicule him and misinterpret him like they did with Crumb?

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