Sand in the Lens

Photo: K.C. Bailey/ABC

One afternoon in May, Barbara Kopple, the famous documentarian, set out a fruit plate in the viewing room of her Soho production company, Cabin Creek Films. Quinn Taylor of ABC had stopped by to see how things were going on her new project, The Hamptons, which the network had bought as a mini-series to air on June 2 and 3. Taylor had close-cropped hair and an aura of confidence, and wore a good suit. Kopple, as usual, was in all black – pants, top, boots, long jet-black hair.

Over strawberries, they talked about switching some credits around and inserting such details as the cost of a slot in a summer-share. Taylor used the phrase “I still worry” a couple of times to preface suggestions he seemed to have made previously, and Kopple said at one point, “As editors say, if you didn’t know it was there before, you wouldn’t miss it.”

As New Yorkers, of course, we know what was there. By now, the Hamptons are less a geographical location than a cliché, not a beach resort but a catchphrase, a symbol of the excesses of the boom years. We’re all familiar with the rap: The big new houses are eating up the potato fields along Route 27, the quaint old clam shacks have been reborn as yuppie bars, and Hummers are far more likely to be seen barreling down country roads than tractors. The Hamptons feel like less an escape than a distilled version of aspirational Manhattan – more networking, more social striving, more places to go where you might meet Puffy.

And for many of us, last summer represented the end of the Hamptons (though even that is a familiar trope: The Hamptons have been declared “over” in this magazine and elsewhere since the early eighties). Lizzie Grubman’s car crash at Conscience Point provided a certain Sodom-and-Gomorrah sense of closure. Then real tragedy arrived: first on a small scale with the sudden death of Nick and Toni’s restaurateur Jeffrey Salaway, who met his end in a Volvo in East Hampton, and then the unimaginable pain of 9/11.

Barbara Kopple herself, with her troupe of producers and camera crews, seemed to be an avatar of the Hamptons apocalypse. (In fact, being trailed by a TV crew became something of a status symbol: “It was the best fashion accessory to have last summer,” says writer Steven Gaines, author of Philistines at the Hedgerow and a prominent character in the documentary. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without my camera crew.”) Kopple and Company added to the Hamptons’ increasing sense of unreality, the staged quality of fun that permeated social occasions. A British TV crew making another documentary (to air on the WE network June 2) was always lurking around, too, at places like the Synergy House, a publicist’s wet dream – celebrities were invited to spend the weekend at the highly decorated manse, deep in the Bridgehampton forest, where every object was “sponsored” by a designer or company (e.g., drink the Evian water). The whole place was becoming a reality show.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the TV screen. The Hamptons that was so ready for its close-up, ready to become world-famous for wealth and glitz, is not necessarily the one that Kopple has chosen to present to the nation. Despite a take-no-prisoners twenty minutes at the beginning of the film – Taylor needs that first twenty minutes – and some delicious moments, like Nicky Hilton flipping through a book backward with a very serious expression on her face, the portrait Kopple paints is of a diverse Hamptons ecosystem, but not necessarily a carnivorous one. Equal time is afforded rich and poor, fishers and farmers, East Quogue share-house holders, Robert Wilson, horsey folk, Irish girls, town mascot Billy Joel. In between the fields of wildflowers and shots of the stormy seas, it seems like all of Suffolk County gets its fifteen minutes – even Lizzie Grubman is just another piece of the pie.

“It’s about life,” Kopple says of the film in her almost Californian way of speaking, all languid vowels, very sincere. She nibbles on a strawberry. “I always go into projects like this with no agenda, because if you go in with an agenda, you’re going to get something that’s not real. You might think of me one way, and I might think of you another, but if we really got to know each other and spent time together, we’d see another world opening.”

A documentarian for over 25 years, with two Oscars and such commercial successes as the Woody Allen profile Wild Man Blues, Kopple made her name with a 1976 documentary on striking coal miners, Harlan County U.S.A. Still, the film is curiously apolitical. If there is a message, it’s that the Hamptons hierarchy of rich and poor doesn’t matter: We’re all people, and we should all get along.

It’s an interesting message for right now, a summer when rentals are down 30 percent and no one seems particularly excited about hitting the Hamptons again, even if it might save us from a bomb on the Brooklyn Bridge. Still, it’s hard to imagine the Hamptons without all that ambition and striving and an Edith Wharton–esque social structure. No glitz, just sun and surf, a string of beach towns. How much fun would that be?

Sand in the Lens