Judging from the local outrage Barbara Kopple hit a nerve!
I, however, thought her Hamptons film was eloquent, witty, and deeply felt. Considering it was made for network television, it is a remarkable tour de force: a rapid, accurate portrait of a prodigiously complex locale that focuses intently on the myth that distorts it.
Kopple did not make a film about the East End, or the South Fork, or the Fish's Tail, or the blessed land of the Dongan Patents, or Bonac, or the ancestral home of the storied Shinnecocks and Montaukets, or any of the other colorful and historic facets of this part of Long Island. Her subject was "The Hamptons." The truth does hurt.
"The Hamptons" are where you go to prove yours is bigger. "The Hamptons" are about getting your picture in the magazine before the end of the season; finding a potential husband who has "the right height, eyes, eyelashes, all his hair. And he's Jewish!"; where "people are already worried what to wear to the funeral." "The Hamptons" are where you stage white weddings in the style of the Artist Formerly Known as Puff Daddy.
In a summer of unusual drama, Kopple and her crew were ubiquitous: they were on the scene at Conscience Point for the Lizzie Grubman accident almost immediately, and covered Jeff Salaway's fatal accident before the sun rose.
The most remarkable thing about the film is that Kopple was able to sketch the reality that supports The Hamptons so effectively. Ken Brown, Marilee Foster, Tracie Hotchner, Pam Kern, Nancy Atlas and so many other real people punctuate the film constantly to remind us that "The Hamptons" have an alter ego that is human scale.
Perhaps the defining characteristic of the area is its complexity: so many levels of reality and fantasy merge there. Kopple's "4-hour miniseries" actually amounts to maybe 2:40 of elapsed film time. This is not an in-depth 13-part PBS series, it is a quick network sketch. I think she did a remarkable job delineating the numerous elements of the East End culture.
Reports are that Kopple and her crew shot over 400 hours of tape for this show. That is not an unusual shooting ratio for a documentary. But I'll bet - considering Kopple's proven talent - that you could cut a five- or ten-hour film from the footage, and it would be even more intriguing.
Does she spend too much time with the young folks? Sure. Why? First, that gives ABC the kind of show they were looking for. Second, their rapacious parents - a much more dangerous force - have learned not to shoot off their mouths in front of a camera (well, some of them have). She lets Polo represent the older generation.
Steven Gaines is the lead character in this film. Although Kopple gets in a plug for Gaines's book, 99 percent of the audience for the show doesn't know that he wrote "Philistines at the Hedgerow," the best recent book about "The Hamptons."
Perhaps that was her great mistake. Interviewing Gaines doesn't fit the cinéma vérité style. If Gaines had provided the context at the beginning perhaps the point of view would have been clearer.
But, then, who would want to watch a "reality miniseries" entitled "Philistines at the Hedgerow"?
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