There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Invite Barbara Kopple to your next partyshe’s that gem of a guest who instantly turns into your co-host. She’ll offer food and drink (“ice, no ice?”)as she does when I visit her Henley Park Hotel suiteand engage your friends in soothing conversation laden with bright laughter and heavy doses of eye contact. And don’t blink: You’re witnessing the skills of an accomplished documentarian who understands that providing comfort is the key to gaining trust, which is the crux of her work. Kopple, 51, has directed two Academy Award-winning documentaries, Harlan County, USA (1976) and American Dream (1990). She recently released Wild Man Blues, which premiered here at Filmfest DC before opening commercially. Kopple perches cross-legged on a green velour sofa to discuss the ABCs of intimacy. To make a good movie, she says, “I have to be able to integrate myself into the community or into the life of the person.”
And how do she and her crew create intimacy in a vacuum? “We’re very kind,” she assures. But Kopple’s effortless maternalism shouldn’t obscure the deliberate off-camera machinations that yield revealing footage: For Wild Man Blues, a jaunty, 23-day travelogue of Woody Allen and his jazz band on a tour of Europe in 1996, Kopple equipped Allen and entourage with wireless microphones and shot some footage from afar so that, Kopple claims, Allen often wasn’t aware the film was rolling.
All this effort produced a final cut that feels like fast-paced, sharp-eyed reality: “I like the audience to feel that you’re watching who this character is and what he’s about…from his point of view,” explains Kopple, “so that you’ve totally forgotten that there’s a camera.”
Rather than call her products “documentaries,” Kopple calls them “nonfiction films”confirming fiction’s inescapable presence in her work. In fact, many Woody-watchers may split hairs wondering if Wild Man Blues is truth or fiction, but Kopple remains unconcerned: “What I go after in all my films…is a sense of truthfulness [and]…storytelling.” In symbolic language that would make a psychoanalyst swoon, she describes her work as “peeking under a blanket where you’re not supposed to look and…grab[bing] things out.”
The media have sneered that Kopple was duped by the Woody Allen publicity machine into producing a gilded version of the egotistical, self-absorbed actor and his former-girlfriend’s-daughter-cum-wife, Soon-Yi Previn, who also stars in the film. But Kopple doesn’t purport to offer the actor’s life story. Her film, she contends, is pure travelogue. She says that she dismissed her preconceived notions of Allen to create an agenda-free record of his tour.
Wild Man Blues, so named after a song co-written by Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton that Allen particularly enjoys, does not bear Kopple’s choice for a title. “I would have simply called it The Gig because that’s what is. The gigwhere it leads you and where it takes you.”
One suspects that Allen, himself an actor, may have put on an affably-neurotic-Jew show for the duration of the filming. When asked about Allen’s powers of manipulation, Kopple insists on the authenticity of her work: “I feel that in [Wild Man Blues] he didn’t [put on a show]. And if he did, it was to our advantage as an audience,” says Kopple. “You were not seeing an actor. You were seeing the real Woody over the course of these 23 days. No more, no less.” She is quick to play down her presence to prove she captured the “real” Allen, not a made-for-TV version: “I was with him 16 to 18 hours a day, [but] he was more involved in living his life. We [in the film crew] were nothing. We weren’t even in the equation of what he was going through.”
In the telling final frames of Wild Man Blues, Kopple asks Nettie Konigsberg, Allen’s mother, if she sees much of the “real” Allen in his films. Konigsberg replies that she doesn’t, that her son “adds or subtracts to his life in his films. Sometimes he’ll tell a far-fetched story, but it’s always a story.” Mom’s words call the veracity of Kopple’s version into questionat least, they acknowledge that the Allen persona has elements of fiction. To which Kopple replies that her film is not Allen’s life story. “My film [is] about exploring him in foreign areas: when he’d eat his dinner, where he’d get his laundry done,” she says. “All those mundane things in life that freak him out so much.”
If Wild Man Blues is about where Woody Allen eats dinner, it’s a far cry from the sobering portrayals of striking workers in Kopple’s earliest Oscar winners. As an undergraduate studying clinical psychology and political science at Northeastern University in the late ’60s, Kopple made Winter Soldiers, a documentary about Vietnam veterans, with a collective of college buddies. After graduation, she found work in New York City with sibling documentarians Albert and David Maysles, known for their 1970 film Gimme Shelter, about the Rolling Stones’ tragic Altamont concert. With the Maysleses, Kopple honed her sound and editing skills, and she also heard about the Miners for Democracy movement, which would be the subject of her first film, Harlan County, USA. At that time, she was attracted to “people who display incredible courage,” she says. “They’re more than ordinary people because they’re willing to give up everything, and even sometimes their life, for the things that they believe in. They’re heroes.”
The heroes of Harlan County, USA and American Dream were male coal miners and meat packers from remote regions of the Midwest, who didn’t consider Kopple much of a threat. Kopple acknowledges that men’s preconceptions of the fairer sex offer the female documentarian advantages: “As a woman, you’re not very intimidating. That pressure [to succeed] isn’t put upon you…[and you] can ask things of people that men can’t. If a man had done the Mike Tyson film [Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson, Kopple’s 1993 Tyson documentary for NBC-TV], he would have had to really show his macho stuff about the fight game. As a woman, I could ask anything, and they would take pity on me and explain [boxing] to me. There’s where you get really good material.”
For a documentarian with such clearly leftish trends in her subject matterminers, meat packers, a black man, a Jewish liberalKopple refuses to declare a political posture, insisting, “I’m just a humanitarian. I care about seeing who people are and what makes them tick.” She specializes in evenhanded portraits: “In American Dream, the company thought the film was fair. The parent union thought the film was fair. And the local union thought the film was fair. And I thought, ‘Where have I failed?’ Of course I have sympathies, but I try to make films that allow everyone’s…voice to be heard. It’ll make a far richer film than to go into a film with an agenda.”
Kopple is currently finishing another nonfiction film, Generations, about the 1994 Woodstock festival, which promises to show a gritty melee between rabid Gen-Xers, corporate smoothies from festival sponsor Polygram records, and the frightened folk of cash-strapped Saugerties, N.Y., who feared chaos during the festival but desperately needed Gen-X dollars.
She also has two fiction films under way. One, Joe Glory, is a historical romance set in 1949 centering around the residents of Peekskill, N.Y., who attempt to forcibly block the annual performance of black entertainer Paul Robeson, alleging that the concert would attract unseemly types: blacks, Jews, and communists.
Kopple’s other new film, which is currently in casting, proves that even documentarians can ride the ’70s revival wave: In the Boom-Boom Room, an adaptation of a play by veteran screenwriter David Rabe (whose credits include co-writing Brian De Palma’s 1989 Casualties of War), visits the underbelly of ’70s go-go dancers in Philadelphia. Patricia Arquette and Holly Hunter have been cast in leading roles.
Kopple intends to seek the same truth in her fiction films as she does in documentaries, which she considers lasting slices of American life. “When [we] look at them 15 or 20 years from now, we’re going to know who we are as a people by seeing these different, small moments,” she predicts. “They’re shot on film; there’s no script; they’re real characters. But they take you on a narrative journey.”
Jessica Barrow Dawson