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To 'Lowdown' musician, silence is sweetest sound

February 10, 2000

Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) shoots rats to amuse himself. The fine and jubilant pleasure he derives from this makes you think he was winning big at Monte Carlo roulette tables.

cont. from lifestyle

But Emmet limits his gambling to pool halls, where he spends much of his time when not shooting rats or playing guitar.

"I'm the best guitar player in the world," he boasts, then pauses out of reflection or vulnerable pride, and qualifies, "except for this gypsy in France."

The gypsy he refers to is Django Reinhardt, who was an actual and acclaimed jazz guitarist in the 1930s. Emmet Ray, however, is a fabrication of the mind of Woody Allen.


His latest good film is "Sweet and Lowdown," and it is something of a hybrid of two of his earlier works, "Bullets Over Broadway" and "Zelig."

Emmet resembles David Shayne, John Cusack's character in "Bullets," with his incessant proclamation: "I'm an artist!"

Like "Zelig," "Sweet and Lowdown" explores the documentary format, to which it is both homage and satire. The film's structure relies on various commentators, Allen among them, recalling fabulous and mundane stories they have heard about Ray through the years.

This effect troubled me at first. It seemed intrusive and jarring, distracting the viewer from becoming completely absorbed in Ray's life. By the end, however, it attains the kind of modern artistic self-consciousness that makes the work of everyone from Italo Calvino to Mike Myers so delightful and knowing.

But what truly distinguishes "Sweet and Lowdown" from Allen's other films is that it represents the consummation of his until now unwed fascination with the separate media of music and movies.

Allen's characters often spout off about Schubert and Mahler, and his soundtracks typically welcome meetings between Bach and Benny Goodman.

In a film like his last, "Celebrity," however, jazz tunes from the '30s and '40s, however fitting or amusing, seem antiquated and trite. As an exploration of modern popular culture, it would have been much more convincing if Allen had allowed Beck to produce the soundtrack.

Now, however, we are in the world that not only played the kinds of records Allen loves, but one that made them.

Penn plays Ray with fervor and finesse akin to that with which Reinhardt played the guitar. He has a mustache that floats over his lip like a brown reed of grass, and his eyes have the singular intensity and purpose of a hound dog.

At the beginning of the film, he tells a woman he is dating that he enjoys shooting rats with her, but does not desire any further commitment.

"An artist needs his independence," he brags.

When he meets Hattie (Samantha Morton), a girl so demure and quiet that she actually is mute, you know he's found his perfect foil. An artist loves nothing more than the sound of his own voice - or, in some cases, the sound of his own instrument - and when somebody cannot offer any rebuttals to tarnish that sound, he has found true companionship.

Many people probably will find the character of Hattie to be Allen's hilarious way to attack feminism. And it would be a hilarious attack, but Allen's deployment of the character is much too sincere and genuine.

Morton has such beaming radiance that I might compare her to a rainbow, but that would undercut the tangible and earthy presence she brings to the role. More than Holly Hunter did in "The Piano," she recalls a silent film star, with her fluttering mannerisms and pliant, suggestive face. It is one of the film's keen jokes that when Ray goes to Hollywood to make it big, it is Hattie who receives a film role.

Her role as his girlfriend does not last much longer, and he moves on to Blanche (Uma Thurman), who is Hattie's role reversed: highly articulate, assertive and interested in illuminating Ray's psychological obscurities.

They marry quickly, and Thurman drowns the screen with her obnoxious character. Again, Blanche might seem like Allen's attempt to deride female writers, but she actually serves as the antidote to Ray's poisoned arrogance.

Nobody has tried to cut beneath his macho bravado/artist facade, and when Blanche does, he realizes that the only person he's willing to reveal himself to is someone who cannot ask him any questions.

His attempt to reclaim Hattie, whom he left in the middle of the night with a short note and a stack of counterfeit bills, is so pungent you almost can smell the beach where he meets her again. It represents Allen at his most mature understanding of the heartbreaking and fallible ways in which people try to communicate, made all the more trenchant by Hattie's very real silence.

Though it ranks with the best and brightest of his "serious films," "Sweet and Lowdown" also is one of the most richly entertaining movies Allen has made. His observations of Ray making music are more funny than penetrating.

One gets to see him hustling a small-town talent fair, crashing off a balsa-wood moon which was supposed to transport him onto stage, and the best involves his escape from one evening's performance. When someone tells him that Reinhardt is in the audience, he grows so riddled with insecurity and panic that he runs up onto the roof of the club, leaps over to the opposite building, and comes tumbling down into a counterfeiting ring. The schemers of the ring are certain that he is a government agent, and flee, allowing Ray to take the money and run.

Fortunately, Allen's interests, not those of his characters, have been capitalistic. He is becoming the most consistent and able cinematic observer of the way an artist fights against society, only to learn how desperately he needs it. Hopefully, "Sweet and Lowdown" will do well enough at the box office to let Woody know how desperately we need him.

Jason Myers, a Hagerstown native, is a sophomore at Bennington College in Bennington, Vt.

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