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If anecdote is a luxury, as Sissoko says, then Woody Allen flaunts his riches in Sweet and Lowdown. Here, as in Broadway Danny Rose, Allen calls a variety of witnesses onto the screen to tell stories of a legendary showbiz figure. Most of the stories go nowhere; several are contradictory. But then, we have to expect to meander when we're dealing with a great thirties jazzman such as Emmet Ray. As Allen himself puts it, Ray was not only a beautiful musician but also remarkably funny, "or, or, pathetic." This makes him hard to pin down, as does the fact that he didn't exist.
He's also a new character, which is something Allen has been needing for a while. In place of the too-well-known nebbish artist, we now have a sharp-dressing, gun-toting sneak thief and pimp. He's the cad that Woody Allen's other alter egos have aspired to be: Sean Penn, in a crisp white suit.
Penn has let his hair grow long and wavy for the role and has given himself a twirled mustache. He's taken on the period glamour of a Ronald Colman, but he carries himself like Oliver Hardy. You see something fastidious and fragile in his swagger--which is how self-doubt might come to the surface in a man who has no inner life.
Amid the Depression-era roadhouses and dance halls (which are given a soft, pastel glow by cinematographer Zhao Fei), Emmet Ray is a self-proclaimed king, "the greatest guitar player in the world." Trailing behind this boast comes a supplemental murmur, "Except for this Gypsy in France." This is as close as Emmet Ray comes to self-knowledge, or wants to come: He recognizes in Django Reinhardt's playing a soulfulness that his own music lacks. For most of the movie, this Django-envy serves as a running gag, which Penn performs with absolute aplomb, as if trying to shake loose a piece of paper glued to his heel. Only at the end, when the anecdote meanders toward its brief purpose, does something resembling thought pass across Ray's forehead. The thought is of Hattie (Samantha Morton), the young woman who gave Ray everything he wanted, from mute adoration to ready sex and back again. Why did he dump her? He doesn't know, and I don't, either. I only know that such things do happen, and that Morton somehow stands up against Penn while giving a wholly wordless performance. She's a mimelike waif, whose resemblance to Giulietta Masina in Nights of Cabiria probably isn't a coincidence. Allen has made no secret of his admiration for Fellini. Perhaps Sweet and Lowdown might be described as his own version of Nights of Cabiria, focused not on the prostitute but on the first man who robs and abandons her.
Does that make Sweet and Lowdown a perverse project? The answer depends on what you see on the man's face. Penn, who has his own bad-boy image to maintain, is nothing less than astonishing as Emmet Ray. In an actorly tour de force, he matches the character's flamboyance to the point of actually fingering Ray's solos (played on the soundtrack by Howard Alden). But after all that ostentation, the high point of his performance is a single, quiet close-up, held while Ray plays an old tune and thinks of Hattie.
It's a privileged moment, for Allen no less than for the audience. If you permit yourself the luxury of anecdotes, then Sweet and Lowdown is a privilege to enjoy.
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Book Note: These are bad days for artists who are troublemakers--I mean troublemakers in their art, rather than in roadhouses. To cite one example: the current campaign to remake Norman Rockwell into a man of sorrows, whose work, long insulted by elitists, can now be vindicated. To cite another: a recent article in the New York Times by novelist Scott Turow, who from his perch high on the bestseller lists looks down upon James Joyce. Ulysses can't possibly be as good as Presumed Innocent, Turow thinks. Ulysses is difficult; Ulysses is not popular.
So where does that leave Jean-Luc Godard? In the hands, I'm glad to say, of David Sterritt, whose book The Films of Jean-Luc Godard: Seeing the Invisible has just been published by Cambridge University Press. A volume in the Cambridge Film Classics paperback series, Sterritt's book provides just the guidance that a curious but less-than-full-time filmgoer will need in approaching this difficult, unpopular and absolutely essential body of work. With becoming modesty, Sterritt holds back from making his writing imitate Godard's formal innovations. Nor does he follow Godard (or Joyce) in scattering unexplained allusions throughout the text. He simply applies a clearheaded prose to a subject he's thoroughly mastered. The reader, encouraged, may venture forth with confidence, to let trouble spring (as it should) from every corner of the films.