Men Behaving Badly

Everything you always wanted to know about Woody but were afraid to ask?: Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn in Wild Man Blues

Wild Man Blues
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

Midwest Film and Video Showcase
Intermedia Arts, Friday at 7 p.m.

"I don't think I can ever get my reputation back," said Woody Allen five years ago on 60 Minutes--but Wild Man Blues would at least seem a step in the right direction. A documentary portrait of Allen touring Europe with his New Orleans jazz band and, between shows, hanging out with girlfriend Soon-Yi Previn (once the adopted daughter of his former girlfriend, Mia Farrow, and now his wife), the film behaves as if the man's familial scandal never happened.

So too its reviewers: The New York Times' Janet Maslin blithely praised the movie for showing Allen "in a colorful new light" (compared to what?), while even naysayers have chosen not to mention the 1992 soap opera that is its obvious raison d'etre. As for this doc's relation to Allen's own recent movies, in particular the abrasively self-reflexive Deconstructing Harry, Wild Man Blues conveys the same basic intrigue: "Is this Woody Allen or just a character he wrote?" Which makes perfect sense: If, as a celebrity, your actions automatically become acting whenever there's a camera in the room, why not allow a gentler, "real" you to suggest your darker side as mere fiction?

This isn't to say that the Woody of Wild Man Blues comes off as cuddly: At one point, he tells Soon-Yi that his film Annie Hall would be perfect for her to watch "with one of your teenaged, twitty friends"; at another, he describes her former self to a middle-aged buddy as "this kid who was eating rice out of garbage pails in Korea." Still, it helps to know that Wild Man, like Harry, was produced (and conceived) by Allen's longtime associate Jean Doumanian--who appears in the documentary but, conveniently, is never identified. The film's underlying project is clearly to make the actual, 62-year-old Allen look like the fictional one of, say, 20 years ago: The bulk of his venomous humor is directed at his own neurotic aversion to water travel, sunlight, and dogs, while playing jazz clarinet is "like taking a bath in honey" and traveling Europe a means of constant ego gratification from hordes of adoring fans. (It's safe to suppose that a tour of the U.S. would have produced a wider range of audience reaction--and a more balanced doc.)

No less than Madonna's Truth or Dare, Wild Man Blues proves the degree to which stars make a fiction of objectivity. It's certainly not the work of its director, Barbara Kopple, whose films about labor, Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream, flaunted her powers of investigation, and whose Mike Tyson bio Fallen Champ (made while its subject was safely behind bars) peeled back the showbiz curtain to reveal how misanthropy is made and marketed. If Kopple has some thoughts about the nature of Allen's own heavyweight crown, they're allowed no proximity to the screen. When it isn't stuck to the stage out of obligation to record the Woodman's dry reed work, Wild Man Blues amounts to mere stargazing: Woody and Soon-Yi riding in a Venetian gondola, taking a dip in the pool, making small talk over breakfast. (She: "The shower was great, wasn't it?" He: "Yes. Great pressure.")

Given such careful scripting, the issue of whether Kopple had the privilege of final cut becomes irrelevant. The filmmaker is said to have been given "total access" to Allen, but evidently none to anyone else, save a minute or two with his cantankerous mom--a scene so comparatively candid ("I wanted him to fall in love with a nice Jewish girl") that the director uses it for a punch line. The limitations of Wild Man Blues aren't the result of Kopple's failure to get the real story of Woody Allen but the simple fact that she consented to make the film with his participation. (One guesses that the original director, Crumb's Terry Zwigoff, departed the project because he couldn't agree to the basic terms.)

Is it any wonder that Allen likes the finished product, proclaiming in the press kit that Kopple "depicted my personal life with an accuracy and wit that even made me laugh"? Fans of the real Kopple would do well to wait for her forthcoming Lifetime doc, Defending Our Daughters: The Rights of Women in the World--the dividends, no doubt, of her transaction with the man who retains exclusive rights to the project of deconstructing Woody.

Coincidentally, another documentary look at men behaving badly can be found in Friday's installment of Walker Art Center's and Intermedia Arts' Midwest Film and Video Showcase. The 16mm "Quest" offers 24 minutes of talking head interviews with men who share their views of women primarily as objects to be ogled, fondled, and discarded (although some do have a few kind words for Mom and Grandma). Minnesotan co-directors Nicole Erdmann and Tes Schweich recruited these specimens of the male race by taking out a newspaper ad, and it's clear they found what they were looking for. If "Quest" feels more real than Wild Man Blues, it's because the filmmakers and their subjects had a lot less to lose by being honest.

 
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