Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sweet and Lowdown

Woody Allen had originally wanted his second film, his follow-up to Take the Money and Run, to be a dramatic fictional biopic of a 1930s jazz musician entitled The Jazz Baby. Needless to say, the idea didn't fly with studio execs of the time, who were expecting the young comic they'd just signed to turn out another comedy; he complied, and made Bananas instead. So when Woody revived the basic idea thirty years later as Sweet and Lowdown, it had had the longest gestation period of any of his films. The film takes the form of a documentary of fictional jazz guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), with Allen and a handful of jazz experts appearing as talking heads to narrate his story and introduce selected anecdotes from his rough-and-tumble life, the accounts of which are filled with inconsistencies and pure myth. Among other things, the film comments on the impossibility of constructing a definitive biography of a figure like this — the interweaving of a slim body of known facts with a healthy dose of speculation and outright rumor is reminiscent of the real-life history of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, whose biography as it's known today was constructed from a similar hodge-podge. At one point, the fabric of the story breaks down completely, and Woody provides three different mutually contradictory versions of the same event, with the caveat that in all likelihood none of them is "true."

Within this patchwork framework, Emmet develops as a hilariously unlikable protagonist who is nevertheless somewhat poignant. He's arrogant, nasty and demeaning to the women in his life, a drunkard, and notoriously unreliable whenever he has a gig, which is why he never keeps a steady job for long. And yet his arrogance is tempered by an acute awareness of the one man in the world who is a better guitarist than him: Django Reinhardt. Emmet's egotistical instinct is to declare himself "the greatest guitarist in the world," but even his ego can't prevent him from immediately qualifying himself by invoking Reinhardt. Sometimes he corrects himself, "well, at least in America," or he counts himself "one of the top two," always referring to "this gypsy guitarist in France," as he invariably calls the rival who he has never met, and whose playing makes him cry or faint whenever he encounters it. Emmet's constant qualification of his title comes to be downright funny, but there's also something sad and pathetic about it: this egotistical man who's forced to admit that his ego is not entirely justified, that he cannot call himself the best without endless fudging and backpedaling.

Penn's performance is excellent, giving a wry, blunt charm to Emmet, a crude lout who just so happens to be a musical genius as well. He does a lot of acting with his eyebrows, raising and arching them whenever he's playing the guitar. At moments like this, Emmet goes off into another place, the crudity and temper vanishes from his face, and his eyes seem to be far-off, his face comically contorting as his brow furrows and his eyebrows dance. He looks peaceful and content when he's playing, like this is what he's meant to be doing, and all the other nonsense in his life, the drinking, pimping, gambling, sloppy relationships and money problems, that's all just extraneous to whatever's going on inside him while he's playing. Woody keeps this mystery intact, the central mystery of creativity, despite the probing attempts of Emmet's wife Blanche (Uma Thurman) to investigate his soul.

Blanche is a debutante and a would-be writer, and she tends to view everyone she meets as though they're characters ready to be adapted into her work. She's drawn to Emmet for his harsh nature and his wild life, and she continually attempts to psychoanalyze him, to draw out his thoughts and feelings. She asks what he thinks about when he's playing music, and Emmet memorably responds, "that I'm underpaid, I think about that sometimes." Her questions get only blank, uncomprehending stares from her husband, who doesn't understand what she's getting at; he doesn't think, he just plays. When she asks him why he likes to watch trains so much, he gets it even less, and her psychosexual ramblings prompt him to deadpan, "it sounds like you want to go to bed with the train." This is a blunt, no-nonsense guy, and the film's central question, danced around but never answered or even asked outright, is where art comes from: if a guy like this can make great, beautiful art with his instrument, what does that mean for the more romantic notions that art comes from the soul, from the emotions?

In some ways, the answer to that question lies in the character of Hattie (Samantha Morton), who though never married to Emmet is the closest he ever gets to love in his life. She's something of an unlikely match for the guitarist, a mute laundress who's perhaps a little slow, with a childlike innocence and a shy, awkward nature. Woody reportedly told Morton to play Hattie like Harpo Marx, and she gives a phenomenal performance without ever saying a word: it's all there in her subtle gradations of smiles, her downcast eyes, her shuffling walk and the flapper hat pulled tight over her curls, partially shading the upper half of her face. Hattie is a genuine, sweet, loving young woman whose silence is remarkably communicative because of her expressive face. She becomes an unacknowledged anchor for Emmet, who resists being tied down to one woman and inevitably leaves her, though she continues to linger in his thoughts in a way that no other woman does. He says that Reinhardt haunts him, but Hattie is in some ways a more potent force in his life. When he loses the chance to be with her again, towards the end of the film, Woody and the other commentators step in to proclaim the music he made afterward the best of his career, making him finally an equal of Reinhardt.

Morton's Hattie is thus the film's heart and its soul, as well as the unspoken inspiration for Emmet's finest music. She is the answer to the riddle of how a seemingly unemotional and brutish man could produce such lovely and enduring art. It's typical of Allen that these foundational questions concerning the origins of art and creativity are hidden within a light, airy, cleverly constructed film that's essentially comedic in form. Sweet and Lowdown is a fine effort from Allen, a nod to his earlier period mock-documentaries like Zelig as well as to his idol Fellini, whose La Strada provides the domineering man/childishly innocent woman template for the relationship between Emmet and Hattie. Woody continues to be fascinated by the intersections of love, relationships, and artistic creativity, and these perennial subjects continue to drive his best films.

1 comment:

Fox said...


Again. I love your mix of education and review here. I didn't know the scenario you mentioned in the first paragraph of this review.

It's been since the movie was in theaters since I've seen Sweet and Lowdown, and I need to revisit it. I think this was the movie I first saw Morton and I just thought she was adorable in it.