Remain in Light

Man on the moon: Sean Penn in Sweet and Lowdown

I still can recall my first visit to Manhattan. It was just as I had come to expect it from Woody Allen films. Birds rhapsodically twittered Gershwin, well-read adulterers yammered through orgasms while awaiting their next therapy sessions, short men like me unexpectedly became objects of irresistible desire. Still, something wasn't quite right. "Wh-wh-wh-where," I uncomfortably stammered to my lover (half my age and twice my height) as she murmured Kierkegaard in my ear. "Where did all these black people come from?"

I know, I know--the racial blind spot that has always marked Allen's casting is just an unfortunate byproduct of the sorts of stories he tells. It's entirely conceivable, after all, that one could loiter for two hours within Allen's typical Upper West Side milieu and see all brownstones and no brown skin. But the messily miscegenated history of American popular music is another matter altogether, and so is Sweet and Lowdown.

Posing as the fictional biography of Thirties jazz footnote Emmett Ray (sketched with slapstick economy by Sean Penn), a guitarist who's all but universally acknowledged (in an interminably running gag) as the world's second greatest (after Django Reinhardt), the film is in fact an underhanded discourse on the intersection between artistry and show biz. Now, Allen could possibly have told the story of a white jazz musician who has no prominent encounters with any black characters without seeming evasive. (The nameless black musicians with whom Ray indulges in an after-hours jam are merely haphazard tokenism.) But he can't tell this story. No matter how calisthentically he stretches to avoid the unpleasantness of race, it lurks in the shadows throughout. As a good Freudian (and one who allows his guitarist hero the hardly subtle sublimated habits of shooting rats and watching trains), Allen surely knows what I mean by the return of the repressed.

Like most acts of gentrification, Sweet and Lowdown appears such a warm, benign fib that some will want to bask in the simplicity of its well-meaning dishonesty. Director of photography Zhao Fei burnishes the underside of the Thirties in all hickories and umbers--it's practically Walt Disney's Depressionland. All done up in dandyish white suit and weasely moustache, Penn waxes antic and boisterous while allowing his sexy, violent undercurrent to be charmingly domesticated. But coziest of all is Samantha Morton's Hattie. Striped knit-cap pulled to the brim of her moony eyes, her smile tentatively close-lipped, Hattie is a Hummel figurine made flesh. She's also a mute, an ideal mate for Ray, upon whom she bestows rapt, silent adoration.

But though he never shuts up, Ray ultimately proves as impassive, as unreadable, as Hattie. His dreams of stardom--to unite his artistry and charisma--lead him so far as to design a golden moon that will lower him to the stage. Jazz historians (Allen included) appear onscreen to offer conflicting interpretations of Ray's life, but achieve no closure. He prefers to be interpreted, rather than actively interpreting, and so--for reasons never fully explained--he leaves Hattie.

At which point Uma Thurman vamps pelvis-first into the room as Blanche, demonstrating yet again why she's currently Hollywood's greatest female impersonator. Fascinated by Emmett's seediness, she slums into a marriage with him while prying into his psyche. But he's not "authentic" enough, and soon she's distracted by gangster Al Torrio, who not only uses his gun to shoot men instead of rats, but is genuinely (if generically) ethnic to boot.

Ah, authenticity. Stretch as he might, Allen can't avoid bumping into this vexed concept and its racial component. Already haunted by his artistic inferiority to guitarist Django Reinhardt, Ray is now forced to acknowledge his sexual inferiority to another swarthy European. And all because he doesn't have access to his true emotions, the film insists--because he isn't "expressive" enough.

Of course, for Allen, self-expression doesn't mean humor, personality, élan--all the qualities jazz (and eventually the rock 'n' roll Allen so despises) would bestow unto American art, and also those qualities at which Allen so excels that he instinctively distrusts them in his own work. As Allen glances back over his shoulder at the Old Country, his bout with "authentic expression" becomes, in Sweet and Lowdown, yet another way of displacing his own fear of not being serious enough. Yes, Allen's chronic Bergmania is acting up again. Though he may not look like Max Von Sydow, Ray is nothing less than that stock figure of the existential Eurodrama, The Man Alienated From His Feelings, whose charming front keeps others at a distance until cathartic heartbreak finally allows him to vent his furrowed passion. Once that happens, he records his final sides--which, Allen himself insists, were Ray's great contribution to jazz history.

How Allen must have relished filming Ray's destruction of his guitar, the instrument that would depose the music he romanticizes from its pedestal in the public imagination. Already in the Thirties, the most genteel of all jazz instruments was learning to stray into the uncouth. Within two decades another white man with a distinctive fashion sense and a guitar--one who "sang like a Negro"--would muddle the dichotomy between art and commerce, between expression and entertainment. Something ineffable was lost in the transition, and there's a story to be told about that loss. But Sweet and Lowdown is not that story.


Sweet and Lowdown starts Friday at the Uptown Theatre.

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