Sunday, December 9, 2007

12/9: Alice; Mo' Better Blues

Alice was Woody Allen's first film of the 90s, and he seems to have entered the decade already floundering and stumbling a bit, after a long string of worthwhile films all through the 80s. This story of a wealthy, insulated upper-class woman who's given up her earlier dreams and is only beginning to re-examine her life, is very familiar ground for Allen. He's recycling material here from many of his earlier dramas, especially September and Another Woman, albeit doing so in a magical realist comedy rather than a drama. Even so, the film feels like a somewhat slapdash retread. Another Woman wove dreams, fantasies, and internal thought processes into the visual fabric of its protagonist's life, and this film takes on much the same structure, with the twist being that instead of dreams, the fantastical interludes are meant to be real manifestations of magic and the supernatural in this otherwise believable world.

Woody has flirted with the supernatural before, especially in the ending of the lightweight but fun Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, and much more successfully with the straight-faced fantasy of Purple Rose of Cairo. The intrusion of magic into the life of Alice (Mia Farrow) is handled in a similar deadpan manner, with a casual acceptance of even the most absurd events, but the film nevertheless feels like an awkward pastiche that never quite comes together. Alice is the stereotypical rich man's wife, married to successful businessman Doug Tate (William Hurt), with two children who she loves, but in the midst of her busy life she feels strangely unfulfilled. The accumulation of material goods, the shopping, the gossipy women around her, endlessly chattering about each other's affairs, the dull parties and society functions: it begins to strike her that this wasn't the life she wanted. Alice also yearns to express herself creatively, or at least to do something with her life more substantial than her current high-society blandness allows. It's familiar ground for Woody, to say the least, and for anyone who's followed his films as well. I'm just not sure that the film has much to add on these familiar subjects. Gena Rowland's slow awakening to the banality of her life (and her own role in causing it) in Another Woman was genuinely moving and enthralling, making for Allen's best foray into drama yet. Farrow's also a fine actress, but this film seems insubstantial by comparison, with not as much investment in the characters or attempt to differentiate them from past Allen types.

Still, it's not without some charm and appeal, especially in a few of the more magical sequences, representing Alice's escapes from her humdrum routine. The magic enters the film through somewhat questionable means: the Chinese acupuncturist Dr. Yang (Keye Luke), an Orientalist caricature with a disquieting resemblance to Yoda in his verbal rhythms (raising the question of whether or not Lucas' creation was a racial caricature in the first place, but that's another topic). Despite this distracting outburst of racism, Woody makes good use of the film's magical contrivances. When Alice, under the influence of an herb Dr. Yang gave her to boost her confidence, begins verbally seducing Joe (Joe Mantegna), a man she met at her kids' school, it's a hilarious scene, mainly because Farrow gives such a convincing performance as the stiff woman finally breaking out of her shell. Her whispery, husky mutterings about jazz and music (Joe's a saxophonist) hide thinly veiled sexual references, and the scene is both sexy and funny; in other words, Woody at his best. In another scene, the new couple takes advantage of the invisibility potion that Yang gave to her in order to walk around the city unseen, and spy on friends, and again the scene's magic completely works. Less successful is the Peter Pan parody in which one of Alice's old (and now deceased) lovers takes her on a flight across Manhattan to one of their old haunts.

Alice ultimately falls flat as a problematic and flawed revisiting of old themes and recycled characters, a serious decline from the high level that Allen maintained all through the 80s. I realize that in my chronological journey through his films, I now have the whole much-maligned stretch of his 90s films ahead of me, and I've really been hoping that I'd feel differently about these films than other critics have. Alice, as the first misstep in Allen's output in quite a long while, subdues those hopes a little, though by no means stifles them. Even despite the film's problems, there are flashes of the wit and insight and charm that have always made Allen's work so compulsively watchable.

Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues is a masterfully executed drama about the self-obsessed jazz musician Bleek Gilliam (Denzel Washington, in a great and carefully controlled performance) and his struggles with both creative expression and his relationships with lovers and friends. It's as stylistically overblown and in-your-face as most of Lee's other films, though it contrasts this boisterousness against an uncharacteristically quiet and unassuming central narrative. Visually, the film is never less than dazzling, with particularly nice use of colored lighting, especially in the jazz scenes. This conceit is introduced right in the opening credits, which feature images drenched in singular color schemes, all bright reds, deep blues, purples, and blinding yellows. Periodically throughout the film these color fields return, signaling a flight from the accurate depiction of reality into a stylized fantasy. Significantly, the device is utilized almost exclusively for the jazz performances and the brief but potent sex scenes. In this film, creative expression and romantic love are set up as essential opposite poles, or better yet, two sides of the same coin. Creativity and sex are established as the two options for escaping from drab everyday reality into a higher plane of pleasure and meaning.

When the film starts, after a short introduction set in Bleek's childhood, the adult Bleek has conclusively chosen music, although it doesn't stop him from carrying on ardent but ultimately casual affairs with both Indigo (Joie Lee) and Clarke (Cynda Williams). Music is the most important thing in his life, and his frequent affairs with women are at best secondary matters in his life. For him, jazz music is not just a way to make a living or a diversionary entertainment, but a deep creative form and, most importantly, an essentially black form of music that links him to his people. He only laments that nowadays, "his people" don't seem to care anymore, and his audiences are primarily white. His bandmate, Shadow (Wesley Snipes), attributes this to the type of music that Bleek chooses to play, which he says is too egocentric and not in touch with what black people want to hear. But later in the film, when Shadow finally gets his own band like he'd wanted, his own audience is primarily white as well.

This issue of music's racial identity and the possibility of music to speak to a people sits on the periphery of Mo' Better Blues, but it's one of the film's more interesting subtexts. Lee never addresses the issue directly, except in the brief conversation between Bleek and Shadow, but the somewhat surprising conclusion that one might draw from this exchange, and from the audience at Shadow's later performance, is that it's futile to believe that art is anything more than a moment's entertainment. Shadow incorporates a much more authentically "black" vibe into his music, through the vocals of Clarke, singing about life in Harlem, but these gestures towards greater relevance to "his people" don't improve the proportion of black faces in the crowd listening. In this sense, Shadow might be thought of as a Spike Lee stand-in, making socially relevant commentary aimed at blacks, but increasingly watched by whites who often ignore or misunderstand the films' messages (as in Do the Right Thing, possibly the most misunderstood film of all time). Then again, it may just be a question of finding the proper medium. Bleek, in one of his routines, viciously mocks rap music, but it's undeniable that in 1990 or today, if one wanted to craft a socially relevant song aimed at black audiences, it would have a much greater chance of reaching its target as a rap rather than a jazz number. It may be that Lee is not questioning the efficacy of art as social message in general, but simply bemoaning the loss of his beloved jazz as a way of communicating with black audiences.

Faced with this declining relevance (and his own inability to play anymore thanks to an accident), Bleek is forced to reconsider what he might best do with his life to fill the central place that music held in it. The film's denouement is a heartfelt and deeply moving tribute to the pleasures of domestic life and raising a traditional family. The final minutes of the film condense many years into a brief span in a rapidly edited montage in which Bleek is seen marrying Indigo, accompanying her to the hospital for the birth of their son, and raising the boy to be the same age that Bleek himself was in the film's opening scene. The two scenes mirror each other almost exactly: the boy is practicing the trumpet when his friends come calling, his mother demands that the boys leave them alone, and the boy begs to be allowed to go play outside. The difference is that in the final scene, Bleek allows his son to go outside instead of keeping him in for more lessons, suggesting that he's realized that there's more to life than art. This final montage is also implicitly linked with an earlier tirade by Bleek's father, who decries his son's womanizing ways, warning him not to make the problem of black unwed mothers any worse. The film's ultimate message of family values is extraordinarily positive, but it could be argued that Lee stacks the deck here — his montage pointedly omits any reference to what job Bleek might take with his musical career in tatters, focusing instead on a thoroughly idealized depiction of a happy domestic life.

More troubling problems arise from the film's occasional engagement with race, which in places lacks the sensitivity or depth of Do the Right Thing. Most notably, John Turturro and his brother Nicholas are given perfunctory roles as sleazy white club owners, caricatures of greedy white economic domination with no trace of the depth given to the film's black characters. Also problematic is the depiction of the white girlfriend of one of the black musicians, who's continually taunted and given a paper-thin mockery of a role: shrewish, demanding, and vacuous in contrast to the earthy sensuality and intelligence of the film's black women. Lee seems to be wholly on the side of the other musicians, who cruelly make fun of their bandmate by hanging photo cutouts of naked black women on his dressing room table. Lee's own negative opinion of interracial dating is well-known, and in his films he often allows himself to slip into broad caricaturing to make his points about whites' treatment of blacks. The result, in the few places in this film in which white characters figure, is simply racism.

On the whole, though, Mo' Better Blues avoids such pitfalls, and the result is a fine and emotionally powerful film, both a poetic ode to the beauty of jazz, and an examination of the alternate routes of family and creativity in black life. Not as incendiary or message-oriented as its predecessor Do the Right Thing, this film is concerned with more intimate and internal concerns, questions of the individual's path in life and the creative outlets available to him.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Haven't seen it since it came out but recall enjoying Alice more than you did. As for Mo Better Blues its best feature is Cynda Williams singing "Harlem Blues."

Ed Howard said...

"Harlem Blues" is definitely the heart of that film. It's a beautiful performance, and like all the musical performances it's luminously filmed. The film makes great use of its jazz score in general, and the decision to score the final montage to "A Love Supreme" is just one more great musical moment I somehow forgot to mention.

Allison M. said...

Yay for Alice. One of my favs.