|Recently I have run into Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn near 5th Avenue and
91st street, only 4 blocks from my building on 3rd Avenue and 91st. I do
not say hello. Allen, the ultimate recluse, appears to be circulating in
public more often nowadays. This was nearly impossible during the public
relations debacle that followed word of his romance with Soon-Yi.
As a major part of his attempt to refurbish his image, Allen agreed to
participate in a documentary based on a tour of more than a dozen European
cities with his Dixieland revival band. Titled "Wild Man Blues", it either
shows him and Soon-Yi at leisure in palatial hotels, or him playing
clarinet with the band on various concert stages before adoring fans. As
everybody knows, including Allen who admits as much on camera, nobody would
pay a nickel to hear him if he hadn't become so successful as an actor,
director and screenwriter.
What the documentary also reveals, however, is his growing malaise as he
tries to come to grips with the fact that his recent films have been deemed
critical failures as well as box-office flops. It is only in Europe where
Allen--like Jerry Lewis--still has a hallowed reputation. Even Soon-Yi
seems underwhelmed by his more recent films. Over breakfast she tells him
that she found "Interiors" tedious. This is another meaning for the "blues"
in the film's title. We are witnessing the fall to earth of a major artist.
What's remarkable is that the film's director, Barbara Kopple, had been
best known for politically engaged films like the Academy Award winning
documentary "Harlan County USA" (about miners striking in Kentucky) and
"The American Dream" (meat packers striking in Minnesota). Since Woody
Allen is relentlessly anti-political, this seems like an odd choice at first.
Perhaps not so odd considering that prior to making the Allen documentary,
she made "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson" in 1992 for NBC.
Tyson was in jail, on charges of rape, when she started making the film.
Allen's reputation around that time was about as tarnished and for similar
reasons: preying on women.
Maybe plain old-fashioned pecuniary considerations influenced her decision
to make a film about Allen, since these are not plush times for leftwing
documentarians. Kopple has responded to the market by turning to other
kinds of filmmaking. She's directed two episodes of the ABC series
"Homicide," and even made some commercials, most notably the Reebok ad
featuring female basketball star Saudia Roundtree.
Turning to jazz performance, the central concern of "Wild Man Blues", we
find that Allen's attitude toward jazz is not that far from his film
esthetic. Woody Allen's films, especially in recent years, are mostly a
pastiche of styles from the European film vocabulary. He tells Kopple that
he makes movies like the kind he loved when he was growing up, which means
Fellini or Bergman. Unfortunately, what Allen does not understand is that
Fellini and Bergman made films in a completely different way. They drew
upon local reality and human drama in order to make works with a universal
appeal. It is exactly those elements that Allen has lost touch with,
cocooning himself in a socially homogenous world of highly successful media
and show business types in uptown Manhattan.
Jazz for Woody Allen is what he heard on the radio growing up. This is big
band music. He cites Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, and Glen
Miller. Since he lacks the financial and musical resources to recreate the
big band sound today, he settles on another kind of music from a more
innocent past. He performs the music of jazz's infancy: 1920s New Orleans.
Seen in performance, Allen's band has a worshipful attitude toward the
genre. Although it is technically competent, it lacks the fire and passion
of the original. Discussing the cool reception he received in Rome, Woody
tells people back in his hotel room that the audience seemed
"anesthetized." Obviously, this is the result when you are working in a
genre that lacks any kind of organic connection to a living society,
whether it is jazz from the 1920s or movies slavishly imitating Fellini or
Turning now to one of Woody Allen's most recent (and unwatchable)
films--"Sweet and Lowdown"--we are presented with not only another version
of his museum sensibility with respect to music, but an apologia for his
own amoral behavior.
Unlike other films in homage to Europeans, "Sweet and Lowdown" is basically
a knock-off of "Zelig", one of Woody's early films. "Zelig" is about a
personality in the 1920s who ingratiates himself with powerful politicians
and artists by adapting chameleon-like to his surrounding milieu. The film
includes "talking head" commentaries on Zelig from well-known writers and
media figures, as though he was a real person.
In "Sweet and Lowdown", the same kind of method is followed. The main
character Emmett Ray (played by Sean Penn) is supposedly the second
greatest guitar player in the world during the 1930s, after French Gypsy
genius Django Reinhardt. "Talking heads" giving their take on Ray include
Allen himself, DJ Ben Duncan and others.
Their consensus, reinforced by the first ten minutes of the film (I could
not watch it any longer), is that Emmett Ray was, in addition to being a
great artist, one of the most disgusting human beings of his age. To make
sure that this point is driven home, we see Emmett Ray:
** Pimping in the hotel where he is performing. When one of his whores
tells him that her client died during sex, his only concern is whether he
can be tied to his death.
** Stealing an ashtray from a hotel room. When he leaves the hotel, he
tosses the ashtray on the street.
** Inviting black musicians to come with him to the city dump where he will
shoot rats with his .45 revolver. They are understandably repulsed.
But we are led to understand that when Emmett Ray sits down to play his
guitar, all is forgiven. He is an object of adulation, just as Woody Allen
was on the European stage. This, of course, is Allen's way of saying that
one can be a creep and still be a treasured human being. So what if you are
a pimp or leave your lover for her daughter. Just as long as you make great
art, you're okay in Woody Allen's eyes.
Unfortunately, a film or any other work of art cannot be made around a
figure as repulsive as Emmett Ray unless you are Dostoyevsky. You are
always better off writing about attractive or at least compelling
characters. Emmett Ray is neither. For Woody Allen to make such a positive
esthetic choice, he would have to been much more well-versed in jazz
history. All Emmett Ray amounts to is a projection of his own warped
impulses. Since Woody Allen lives in such splendid isolation from the rest
of humanity, one can expect little else.
Now if I had the time to write a screenplay about a jazz guitarist, I'd
write one about Charlie Christian who was the real second greatest
guitarist in the world during the 1930s and not a fictional character based
on Woody Allen's need to justify himself. Christian was born in Bonham,
Texas in 1916. When he was two, the family moved to Oklahoma City.
There they became friendly with Ralph Ellison, author of "Invisible Man."
Charlie learned the trumpet first, which helped him develop the fluid
single-note guitar style he became famous for. Ellison recalls that Charlie
began making his own out of cigar boxes in manual training class. That
would be much more cinematically interesting than shooting rats, wouldn't it?
Throughout his early teens, he played in Oklahoma City clubs. It was in one
such club that Christian, as a very young man, met tenor great Lester
Young. The meeting marked the beginning of Charlie's lifelong fascination
with Lester's style, clearly a shaping force in the guitarist's own
development. As most critics recognize, if not for the innovations of
Lester Young and Charlie Christian, the modern bebop style never would have
been invented, since Charlie Parker had listened carefully to both. Charlie
Christian was one of the first guitarists to begin playing with an electric
instrument, now a standard in the jazz world.
In 1940 Christian went to work for Benny Goodman in the legendary sextet.
Not only was this group the most innovative in the United States, it was
also the first to be racially integrated. Goodman, like Sinatra, was part
of the CPUSA's cultural milieu, if not necessarily a member. The decision
to employ Christian was a political statement. Such an event would lend
itself to cinema, wouldn't it?
In 1942 Christian died of tuberculosis while on tour with the Goodman band.
At the age of 25, jazz was robbed of one of its supreme talents. It is
figures like Charlie Christian who need to be commemorated in film, not
Woody Allen's unfortunate imaginary alter egos.