Sean Penn’s High-Wire Act; Wisconsin Gothic

Woody Allen's Sweet and Lowdown looks like peaches and cream with a dime-store glass of pale gold brandy on the side. It's the prettiest movie of the year, maybe of Allen's career. Zhao Fei's cinematography and Santo Loquasto's production design evoke an early swing era that's both glowing and faded. The film also has a great jazz score (old recordings and some new arrangements), a bunch of funny lines, a fabulous running gag (not the one about Django Reinhardt, which is okay, but the completely outrageous one involving shooting rats in the dump), and a spectacular performance by Sean Penn that's like watching someone doing back flips on a high wire with only a worn-out safety net below him.

The net is the film itself, basically a series of anecdotes knotted together in the shape of a biopic about a little-known '30s jazz guitarist who is, in fact, a fiction. The there-is-no-there-there effect is quite deliberate. It's what you could call a formal tendency that runs through Allen's entire career, but which he puts aside in his best films, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Hannah and her Sisters. Related to this aesthetic is the notion of an art object whose formal perfection is recognized only by a handful of connoisseurs. The problem for Allen is that, as a form, the feature film, like the novel, is too unwieldy for perfection.

Sweet and Lowdown, therefore, is an attempt to make the film equivalent of an album of music, where the scenes are like separate tracks. You can have soaring moments and occasions of grace without worrying too much about how to hold the thing together. Allen's pretext for this narrative sleight of hand—or maybe just slighting of narrative—is the character of Emmet Ray, who was considered by critics and musicians in the know—including Ray himself—as second only to Django Reinhardt. Scenes from Ray's life are introduced by critics and musicians, each of whom have heard one or two stories about him. Allen self-consciously structures Sweet and Lowdown as an anti-Reds: Experts testify to the camera about the life and work of an imaginary person who defines the world as himself and his music. He's the apolitical artist par excellence.

Silent partner: Morton and Penn in Sweet and Lowdown.
photo: John Clifford
Silent partner: Morton and Penn in Sweet and Lowdown.

Details

Sweet and Lowdown
Written and directed by Woody Allen
A Sony Pictures Classics release
Opens December 3

Wisconsin Death Trip
Written and directed by James Marsh
A Cinemax Reel Life and BBC Arena release
At Film Forum
Through December 14

The film is also a wish-fulfillment fan-tasy about the kind of artist Allen could be if he were not a celebrity. Ray is unknown except for his records, the greatest of which were made just before he vanished from sight. In these last recordings, Ray broke through the defensive, narcissistic shell that made him a less expressive musician than Reinhardt. Ray is awed and burdened by Reinhardt, just as Allen is by certain European directors in whose shadows he labors. Ray's anxiety about Reinhardt is so great that he faints when he meets him. It's Allen's riff on the famous story about Freud fainting when he encountered Jung after their break.

This is great material, but Allen is so careless in developing it that the film is more interesting to think about after the fact than it is to watch. On the other hand, Penn's performance, which, in its grotesquerie, is a hair's breadth away from caricature, has to be seen to be believed. That it never slips over the line has to do with his meticulous linking of body and psyche in all their parallels and contradictions. Simultaneously scuttling and strutting, as if he were part crab and part cock of the walk, Penn reveals the insecurities and delusions-of-grandeur of a pathological narcissist who has no idea what figure he cuts in the world. His body seems to shrink in on itself as if he were an accordion; when he's agitated, the movement of his eyebrows turns the deep lines in his forehead to pleats. The overactive brow, the preening smile, the exaggerated moustache all suggest that, at an impressionable age, Ray watched too many Chaplin movies. And yet when he plays music, he's some sort of hopped-up, blissed-out deity. (In preparation for the part, Penn learned the fingering for some 30 pieces, and Allen lets the camera linger on his hands as if daring us to perceive the discrepancy between what we see and hear.) Penn's hostility feeds his sense of comedy. In a move so perfectly timed it would do Allen Iverson proud, he flips a fresh-killed rat behind his back and into the lap of a date he loathes.

Sweet and Lowdown combines the talking-jag rhythms of '30s comedies with the physical humor of the silent era. The Chaplinesque Ray's main squeeze is a mute laundress; the talented British actress Samantha Morton plays her like a cross between Harpo Marx and Mary Pickford. Though Morton never cloys, Allen's misogyny vis-à-vis this character is so blatant that it almost defies mention. (She's beautiful, she's adoring, she can't talk back.) Uma Thurman fares worse as a femme fatale whose vanity matches Emmet's own, and the huge supporting cast is indistinguishable from the furniture. Sweet and Lowdown is too slight to accommodate more than one ego—a larger-than-life model of the filmmaker's own.

**James Marsh's Wisconsin Death Trip is a tricky, empty film adaptation of Michael Lesy's overrated 1973 book of the same name. Lesy discovered a treasure trove of photographstaken during the 1890s in the small town of Black Falls, Wisconsin. The photos and the newspaper clippings that accompanied them suggested that the violence of rural America in the 19th century was more than a match for anything on the evening news in the year that the U.S. admitted defeat in Vietnam. Lesy was no purist and not much of a photo historian. He collaged the photos, cropping them and blowing up details, revealing as much about his own taste for freak-show gothic as he did about the madness inherent in the American psyche.

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