Wild Man Blues

(1997) *** Pg
105 min. Fine Line. Director: Barbara Kopple. Cast: Woody Allen, Soon Yi Previn, Letty Aronson, Jean Doumanian, John Doumanian.

Despite protestations to the contrary, Woody Allen has always betrayed autobiography in his films. Of course, Allen isn't telling his own life story in any literal sense, but his movies are a psychological map of his obsessions, like the films of any great auteur. More than Hitchcock or Bergman or even Scorsese, though, Allen flirts with personal detail, exemplified by the funhouse mirror feel of a picture like Husbands and Wives, which presaged the failure of his marriage to Mia Farrow even as it provided a showcase for her. So what is one to make of documentarian Barbara Koppel's Wild Man Blues, which chronicles Allen's European tour with his New Orleans style jazz band? Can it even be accepted as a documentary, or will it always be a de facto Allen film, representing Allen at arm's length?

Allen's life on the road, as seen by Kopple, seems at first like a kind of private hell, depicting the Woodman trapped on airplanes and in hotel rooms with his sister (and producer) Letty Aronson and wife Soon-Yi Previn, who hector him about his choices. He gives as good as he gets, of course, but in concert with Allen's own unending navel-gazing, the conversations begin to seem like the bizarre comfort zone of a man whose comfort is a sustainable maintenance of discomfort, like the hypochondriacal worryworts he plays on film. At one point, he explains, for the umpteenth time, his constant failure to be satisfied, his anhedonia.

Clearly, though, Allen also relishes the idea of pleasing audiences with New Orleans jazz, though he fears he may have to feed it to them like medicine. For the cameras, as always, the intimacy of the practiced Allen character must be arduously strained through humbuggery and wisecracks and the quality of his endurance. He's too savvy to "forget" the cameras are there (the unshakeable paparazzi enhance the theme) and go about his life. But he finds relaxed moments of salvation in his onstage jazz reveries, eyes closed to the blinding light of center stage. Here, we also see his brain really working, unlike in the rote interviews and effortlessly tossed-off (and delicious) one-liners. Watching Allen watch banjoist and music director Eddy Davis with respect and a certain awe in his gaze resonates with Allen's portrait of jazz virtuosity in Sweet and Lowdown (the crush of fans and press, meanwhile, cannot help but recall Stardust Memories and Celebrity).

But this is supposed to be Kopple's show, and though she can't help but be upstaged by her subject, she has devised a wicked, ticking, time-bomb view of Allen's psyche, which goes off promptly after his return to his New York home at the end of the picture, with a presumably engineered visit to Allen's elderly parents. It's a disturbing view of the Allen paradox: passionate, funny, and lively but distant, self-absorbed, and cruel. As Allen has observed in his films time and time again, the artist should bear no criticism as a man. Remaining reasonably opaque to Kopple perhaps furthers Allen's vision more than hers.

Purportedly, when Kopple screened the film for them, Woody and Soon-Yi laughed cheerily all the way through it. It's easy to wonder, in a time of dwindling Allen budgets, if Wild Man Blues is a cinematic prank Allen played on Kopple, a Woody Allen film where he had little responsibility and no bills, but an Allen film in the end, nevertheless.

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