Born to kvetch
In Barbara Kopple's new documentary Wild Man Blues, we follow Woody Allen around Europe on a whirlwind concert tour with his New Orleans jazz band. He's kvetching from the get-go. "I would rather be bitten by a dog than fly to Paris," he announces mid-air, then mellows on the Champs-Elysees by complimenting the gray weather. "I don't like sun," he declares. Who but Woody Allen would praise Paris for its drizzliness?
Even though Wild Man Blues is framed as a "candid" view of Allen, clearly he's playing up--or is it down?--to the camera. He's so closed-off that probably there was no way Kopple could have caught him with his guard down. He's too hyperaware of his shtick. The result seems less like a revealing look at the "real" Woody Allen--whatever that is--and more like a species of movie directed by Allen himself. He's been quoted as saying the film "depicted my personal life with an accuracy and wit that even made me laugh." If Kopple had made a film that disturbed him, that would have been even better.
It's a sly notion to capture Allen off-the-cuff--talking not about art and Freud and Ingmar Bergman but, as it is here, clarinets and jazz legend Sidney Bechet and how seasick he gets in a gondola. Kopple was clearly hoping for a sideways glimpse that would add up to a full portrait. But, as it turns out, we don't feel that we've learned anything new about him--at least nothing we haven't already learned from his movies. And because the Woody Allen in this film is so of a piece with the Woody Allen in his own films, we don't really trust Wild Man Blues. It's too pat. It plays up the idea that the person and the persona are the same thing, and, psychologically, that doesn't ring true--even though Allen has made a career fostering that very notion. Even when his private life went public a few years back--with his famous troubles with Mia Farrow and his eventual marriage to Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn--there was still the perception that we were witnessing a particularly tabloid-y Woody Allen movie. People want to believe that, in his movies and his life, Woody Allen is "Woody Allen."
And that's pretty much what he--and Kopple--give us in Wild Man Blues. It caters to our childlike wish that in reality all movie personalities are indeed the way they come across onscreen. The larger-than-life aspects of the screen image turn us all into supplicants before the altar of stardom. And Woody Allen's star rose at a time--the mid-to-late '60s--when stand-up and improvisatory performers were indeed working their own lives into their acts--not in the Henny Youngman or Bill Cosby manner but on a deeper, more psychodramatic level. We were encouraged to recognize the real-life aspects to their art--the stuff that made performers such as Allen or Richard Pryor so new-style funny.
But the narcissism in back of this approach has often gotten the better of Allen the filmmaker. Even when he supposedly flays his "real" self for public consumption in his latest film Deconstructing Harry, he's still enraptured by his own turmoil. (This must be the real connection Allen feels with his beloved Bergman). Deconstructing Harry may have been warts-and-all, but its implicit message was: Love my warts.
In Wild Man Blues, we observe Allen traipsing with his band through Milan, Vienna, Rome, Bologna, London, Madrid, Paris, Turin, and Venice, and yet it's all a blur to him because he's not really taking anything in--and not just because of the tour's whirlwind pace, either. Since Kopple and her cinematographer, Tom Hurwitz, reportedly followed Allen and Soon-Yi around 18 hours a day, we wonder why we never see them really mixing it up with the locals or seeing the sights. Allen doesn't even mix it up with his own musicians--or know all their names.
For all his vaunted above-the-Hollywood-fray airs, Allen here comes across as not that much different from a typical movie or rock star who just barges through the territory in a capsule of self-containment. His connection to what he sees is surprisingly show-biz--at one point he says he can't be in Rome without thinking of La Dolce Vita. Kopple chimes in at this point by throwing some Nino Rota music on the soundtrack--to reinforce the notion that, for Allen, Italy is a Fellini-scape. But this music sets up the wrong, jaunty tone. It cutesies up Allen's creepy inwardness.
It's fascinating to watch Allen playing clarinet in the film's many concert sessions, because it's clear he's a control freak trying--ever so slightly--to limber up. Clarinetists tend to be controlling types anyway, but the New Orleans style encourages looseness and improvisation--the sort of thing Allen once brought to his comedy routines. As a player he's not bad; to the extent that he can look happy, he even seems vaguely pleased with himself as he tootles before his adoring audiences. (He's smart enough to know they're there to see him, not hear his music; he's also smart enough to remark that the same people who traipse out to his concerts don't always turn out for his films). But unlike most jazz performers--even the ones, like, say Thelonious Monk or Miles Davis who seemed transfixed by an inner beat--Allen doesn't appear to pull anything special from his audience. He's playing not to them but at them, and he doesn't really mix it up with his audience either, except at official functions where he seems--natch--uncomfortable.
Where he seems most comfortable is in hotel rooms, grousing with Soon-Yi and complaining about the paparazzi or the service. It's hilarious seeing Allen in Madrid complaining about the tastelessness of the hotel's Spanish omelet--it's like a prime joke in one of his movies. But after a while our disaffection sets in here too, because it's hard to connect with somebody who acts like Milan's regal Principe di Savoia is basically a Motel 6. Wandering the swank suites in his-and-her matching white bathrobes, Woody and Soon-Yi come across like youth hostelers who won the lottery--and don't care.
Soon-Yi has often been portrayed in the press as a bit dopey, but she's the heroine of Wild Man Blues--the control freak's controller. She chides her husband for not going out of his way to compliment his band, and she's right. She turns out not to have seen Annie Hall (!), but she has seen Interiors--and thinks it "long and tedious." (She's right about that too.) Soon-Yi doesn't seem to be in awe of Allen, or even turned on to him; she's more like one of those attentive Girl Fridays that powerful men often attract. As it's presented to us, there's an element of play-acting in their marriage; it has a rehearsed easy-goingness that doesn't seem particularly put on for the cameras. They're like a comedy act but, even though he's old enough to be her grandfather, they don't really play up the generation gap. That's probably because you get the impression Allen in his '60s isn't far removed from Allen in his teens or '20s. He was born a kvetch, but he loves being pampered for his miseries. When he catches a "classic head cold" at the end of his concert tour, he's swaddled in hotel bedding while Soon-Yi tends to him--a Jewish prince in clover.
After the tour, Kopple springs a surprise on us: Allen pays a visit to his parents in Manhattan, and suddenly the film turns into a massive Freudian jest. His father, at 96, has a full head of hair but not quite all his marbles; his mother, who looks a lot like Allen in drag, bemoans the fact that her son isn't married to a Jewish girl. Soon-Yi is present and says nothing, but Allen mutters into the camera, "this is truly the lunch from hell." It's a marvelous sequence even though it seems staged for our benefit--Allen's mother has her son's crack comic timing. When you hear her sigh about how her boy studied tap-dancing and singing but "never pursued" those interests, you feel like you're right at the root of Allen's neurosis. This family stuff is so stereotypically obvious that your first thought is: Why has Allen needed therapy all these years to figure out why he's so screwed up? Your second thought is: He'll never get out of therapy.
Wild Man Blues.
Directed by Barbara Kopple. Starring Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn. Opens Friday.
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