Sweet and Lowdown

Emmett Ray and Rusty Venture compare notes.  Pun intended.

If The Venture Bros were a musical biopic, it would be Woody Allen’s Sweet and Lowdown.

Emmett Ray (Sean Penn) is a brilliant guitar player, but he lives in the shadow of greatness, namely Django Reinhart.  Living in this shadow has apparently cast a pall over Emmett’s entire life.  (urbaniak fans know that Rusty Venture himself is in the movie, in a very Rusty kind of role, The Guy With Few Lines Sitting Next To The Star.  So Emmett spends the movie in the shadow of Django, and “Harry” [urbaniak‘s character] spends the movie in the shadow of Emmett.)

Emmett’s problem, it seems, is that he keeps his feelings under tight control, and that has crippled his artistic muse.

(Robert Fripp tells a story where a critic takes him aside one day to inform him that he (Fripp) and Jimi Hendrix were the two greatest guitar players of their day, the difference between them being that Fripp had all the technique in the world but nothing to say, and Hendrix had no technique and everything in the world to say.  Fripp, being who he is, and English besides, could only agree with the critic’s assessment.)

(And I own one CD by Hendrix and 85 by Fripp, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my aesthetic tastes.)

What does Emmett Ray want?  Well, like Charles Foster Kane, he wants to be loved, but only on his own terms.  A hugely talented artist with one of the most impoverished souls ever brought to the screen, he’s bought his own line; he routinely introduces himself as “Emmett Ray, the greatest guitar player in the world” (and occasionally adds, in shame, “except for this gypsy in France, Django Reinhart.”)  Women, for Emmett, are an audience, so when he starts up (“falls in love with” is too generous a phrase) with mute  Hattie (Samantha Morton) it seems like he’s found his perfect mate. 

His life with Hattie brings his soul to the brink of awakening, and brings with it a certain amount of artistic and financial success.  (Allen can’t quite bring himself to equate the two; instead, he brings success to Emmett Ray by having him, literally, fall into a pile of money.) Being the egotistical boor he is, Emmett assumes that he’s achieved the success all on his own and promptly leaves Hattie for Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is Hattie’s polar opposite.  Hattie is poor, simple and mute, Blanche is society-born, pseudo-intellectual and won’t shut up.

Blanche is attracted to Emmett because he’s a lowlife and that makes him “real.”  So it’s only a matter of time before she drops him for someone even more “real,” namely button-man Anthony LaPaglia.  (The equation/comparison of artist and killer is explored more fully in the superior [and funnier] Bullets Over Broadway.)

What makes Emmett “real,” in spite of his shortcomings?  He has three consuming passions in the movie: playing guitar, watching trains and shooting rats at the dump.  Blanche tries to plumb the depths of these bizarre pastimes on an intellectual level, but neither Allen nor Emmett seem interested in them on that level.  Emmett is simple enough to do what he does and not think about it, but he’s not simple enough (or generous enough) to entirely lose himself.  He’s always got to show off, he’s always got to announce himself.  He needs an audience or else nothing is worthwhile.  The movie never shows him merely practicing, or doing anything by himself really.  It seems he couldn’t imagine playing guitar for the sake of playing; it would have to be in front of people.  There’s a climactic scene where  a heartbroken Emmett (see below) tries to conjure up some choice licks to seduce Gretchen Mol, a dimwitted dance-hall girl, in a train yard; when he realizes she’s not listening, he disintegrates emotionally and destroys his guitar.

The tone of the movie occasionally veers from warm, detailed, straightforward behavioralism into broad silliness, which strikes me as odd and unnecessary.  It seems as though Allen doesn’t trust his material enough to write Emmett’s story entirely seriously, or doesn’t trust his audience’s willingness to consider a subject as ethereal and complex as the artistic muse.

Another way of addressing this problem is  to ask, Why is Emmett the way he is?  The script doesn’t really say — it suggests that maybe Emmett had a bad childhood, grew up poor and without proper parenting, but that’s true of hundreds of artists more generous of spirit than Emmett — why is Emmett so stunted and unavailable?  The movie leaves the question unanswered.  He is the way he is.  (Allen has never been shy of making plentiful use of the lazy screenwriter’s friend, narration, and uses it to connect the dots and fill in the blanks here as well, both in the witty “real life” narrators like Nat Hentoff and Allen himself and in Uma Thurman’s Blanche, all of whom attempt to allow the audience under Emmett’s skin, to no avail.)

The acting in general is very good, but Sean Penn is extraordinary here.  There are a number of scenes where he is called upon to be a genuine human being and we can see the war in his eyes between his desire to feel and his inability to do so.  He’s not just a jerk, he’s a jerk who has salvation easily within his reach at every turn and yet chooses to shun it.

There’s a scene toward the end where Emmett goes back home to find Hattie and ask her forgiveness.  In the movie’s best moment in both the acting and screenwriting departments, Sean Penn grudgingly asks Hattie if she wants to come back to him and she, unable to speak, hands him a note.  He reads it, and after a pause, asks “…Happily?”

Strangely, given the subject matter (an artist unwilling to engage with his feelings, and thus failing), this was Woody Allen’s last really good movie for a long, long time.
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9 Responses to “Sweet and Lowdown”
  1. urbaniak says:

    It’s remarkable that my “character” has a name since I’m basically just Guy Who Sits Next to Sean Penn.

  2. craigjclark says:

    (And I own one CD by Hendrix and 85 by Fripp, which probably tells you everything you need to know about my aesthetic tastes.)

    My collection is practically the same, which tells you everything you need to know about mine. The only difference is I own zero by Hendrix.

  3. dougo says:

    To be fair, Fripp has had 30-some more years to put out albums than Hendrix did. You’ve got 1/3rd of Jimi’s entire official ouvre. (Also, you should give the other two another listen. If what his playing had isn’t technique, it’s still pretty awesome, and I think has aged remarkably well.)

    • Todd says:

      Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m entirely familiar with and understanding of Hendrix’s contribution to world culture. But for whatever reason, I go all gaga and weak at the knees at Fripp’s ice-cold, cerebral constructions but only smile warmly at Hendrix’s red-hot, flamboyant, hugely inventive freakouts.

      And the one Hendrix album I own is a best-of. So shoot me.

  4. urbaniak says:

    Hey, who do you think I based “Harry” on?