Sweet and Lowdown

In the last couple years—the last few months especially—I’ve been revisiting plenty of my favorite movies from years past. Indeed, half or so of the films I’ve watched during this period have been movies I had already seen at least once (and in some cases a lot more than once).

With the vast majority of these films, I’d say watching them again has only confirmed my ranking them as highly as I did among my favorites. In fact, here and there I’ve realized that there’s even more to a film than maybe I’d appreciated before and hence I’m inclined to bump it up a bit in the rankings. (As one example, I found more philosophical and moral depth even than I had before in Billy Budd.) But generally I came away from the most recent viewing of each favorite film feeling at least equally as favorably inclined toward it as I had going in.

I experienced Sweet and Lowdown as one of the few exceptions to that. Let me make clear, I’m not saying I changed my mind and decided I no longer like the film. I still think it’s good to very good. But maybe before I would have said I liked it better than 85% of movies I’ve seen in my life, and today I’d say 77%. (Or 90% down to 84%, or 78% down to 66%, whatever—the exact percentiles aren’t important, I’m just giving very, very loose estimates. It’s not like I’ve really sat down and tried to rank every movie I’ve ever seen; I’m just making the point that wherever I would have ranked Sweet and Lowdown before, I expect now I’d put it modestly below that, but still well above 50%.)

Or to put it another way, ever since I first saw Sweet and Lowdown I’ve maintained that it is my favorite Woody Allen movie made after his “glory years” (which I informally think of as the fantastic madcap humor of the films of his early career followed by his first two more seriously intended romantic comedies—Annie Hall and Manhattan—which were both home runs), though still behind many of those early films. Now I’d say it’s one of four or so post-“glory years” films of his that are approximately tied for first. None of them blow me away like the best of his earlier work, but they’re good, solid, entertaining films.

Anyway, Sweet and Lowdown, maybe 85% comedy and 15% drama, features as its lead Sean Penn, who I find to be a compelling actor in almost everything I’ve seen him in, and this is no exception—he’s quite good in a primarily comic role here. Penn plays Emmet Ray, a fictional guitarist who achieves some success as a jazz guitarist in the 1930s. (He regards himself as one of the two greatest guitarists in the world, behind only (the nonfictional) Django Reinhardt. It bothers him to be second best, but he is incapable of lying about his art, and that means acknowledging the superiority of the Belgian Gypsy superstar. He is obsessed with Reinhardt, hero worships him, is intimidated by him.

Meanwhile, Ray’s personal life is a mess, in ways both comic and sad, though played more for comedy. He is a genius with the guitar, but otherwise he is immature, eccentric, crude, irresponsible, and thoroughly self-absorbed. He’s a heavy drinker, which causes him to be unreliable as a performer. (He might show up for a gig; he might be unable to because he’s on a several-day drunk.) He is quite literally a criminal, among other things making money off and on as a pimp. (And not a very good one. He distributes business cards explicitly identifying himself as a pimp, and is alarmed when it is pointed out to him that this makes it a lot easier for cops and prosecutors to nail him.)

He’s more of a jerk than not, but there’s also something kind of appealing about how individualistic and self-directed he is. One of his favorite hobbies is to go to the dump and shoot rats for sport, and he’s completely unconcerned what anyone else might think of it, including the women he drags there who no doubt had something very different in mind for a date. But he’s the type who’s going to do whatever he wants to do whenever he wants to do it, including when it’s something uncommon, offbeat, or easily criticizable. Which, again, admittedly makes him a selfish jerk more than not.

With his partying lifestyle, Ray is not averse to including a woman in his good times, but with strict limits. Someone to have around for superficial company, to get drunk with, maybe for a little sport fucking—fine. But someone to respect as an equal, to connect with on a deeper level, to be emotionally vulnerable with—no way. As far as he’s concerned, no dame’s ever going to get him to relinquish his freedom, or to suck him down into her endless drama the way they all—especially the hottest ones—seem to consistently do to insufficiently wary guys. No dame’s ever going to entice him into sharing the love, the focus, the loyalty and commitment, that now is devoted solely to his music.

Just like old school athletes, fighters in particular, were convinced that sex would cause them to lose just enough of that focus, that edge, that meanness, that enabled them to perform at their very best, Ray believes that opening himself up emotionally to a woman will have that kind of deleterious effect on his art.

All that changes when Hattie enters his life.

Not immediately, though, for initially he’s convinced that he really got the short end of the stick when he and a musician buddy pick up a couple of young ladies and he discovers that the one he ended up with is mute, possibly retarded, and seemingly too meek and timid to be the sort of dynamic party girl he tends to gravitate to.

But partly because of that very novelty factor of her being nothing like the women he generally spends his recreational time with, he finds himself more and more intrigued. Soon they are an item.

He still won’t admit he’s falling for her, though, still won’t give up on his commitment to avoid any kind of deep emotional connection with a woman. He still tries to make this relationship fit the mold of his past ones, like she’s just a temporary fling, someone to have a little fun with before moving on.

Throughout, Hattie remains an enigma. As a mute, she has to rely on less efficient ways of getting her ideas and emotions across—gestures, facial expressions, scribbling on the little pad she keeps with her at all times—but really she does precious little even of these alternative methods of communication.

Is she really mentally handicapped? Or is that just what Ray assumes because he’s prejudiced enough to associate being mute with being stupid?

I don’t think the film ever makes her level of mental functioning clear. I’m inclined to say she is indeed simple-minded to at least some degree, but that’s left uncertain.

She mostly is passive and submissive in the relationship, but not necessarily for conventional reasons. Other women who allow themselves to be, in a sense, disrespected and dominated by someone like him might succumb to his bad boy persona, might want to hitch a ride along with someone talented enough to be potentially headed for fame and fortune, or just might find something irresistible about the kind of booze, loud music, fast cars, and guns sure to be a part of the package of hanging with Ray.

But it’s not clear that any of that applies to Hattie. It seems like either she’s so clueless that all that “fast lane” stuff goes over her head and she’s not even aware of his having that kind of intangible appeal, or she’s capable of seeing past all that through to something much more attractive and intriguing to her in the real Ray, maybe something he himself isn’t even aware of—almost certainly isn’t aware of, in fact, at least consciously.

Like when she watches him so intently when he speaks to her, rarely offering more than a minimal response, even when he asks her a direct question, is it because it takes that degree of concentration for someone of her low I.Q. to even figure out what he’s saying through lip reading? Is she so unconfident of whatever rudimentary grasp she manages of his words that she dares not venture a response that might reveal how far off she is? Or is it that what he’s saying on the surface doesn’t engage her because she’s so intent on closely studying the person behind all that? That is, is she immune to a lot of the superficial stuff because she’s too much of a simpleton to even get it, or because she’s going a lot deeper than that?

Ultimately he does indeed dump her, deciding that he can surely do a lot better in terms of dating market value than settling for this childlike woman. Or more likely what’s really going on is he realizes—at least at a subconscious level—that things are reaching a point where he won’t be able to any longer deny to himself that he’s falling in love with her, and so he’ll have to either jettison his philosophy and accept a deeper relationship with her of the kind of emotional highs and lows, vulnerability, and unpredictability that he’s convinced could be deadly to his art, or get out now, and he opts for the latter.

And pretty clearly immediately regrets it. Yet he can’t admit this, even to himself. So he stays away, and if anything doubles down on his excessive lifestyle, seeking to forget her by throwing himself all the more fully into a life of partying and fast women. He even goes so far as to marry one of these women, someone who ironically won’t tempt him to open himself up to dangerous emotions.

Much later, though, after that marriage has predictably blown up, when he happens to be performing back in Hattie’s town, he decides to look her up. He lurks around the boardwalk where they first met long ago, and indeed soon sees her walking, alone, to sit on a bench with a bag lunch, still looking either lost in thought or too empty-headed to be so.

Ray watches her for a bit, and then saunters over to her with an air of informality, keeping up the façade that this is really no big deal to him, that on a lark he’s decided that, maybe, if she plays her cards right, he’d be willing to resume a fling with her. She is genuinely startled to see him, and unlike him makes no effort to conceal the no doubt very powerful emotions that immediately stir within her when she finds herself face-to-face with the man she has likely loved most deeply and been hurt by the most in her life.

He continues to pretend that getting back with her is an “I can take it or leave it” thing to him, just something to maybe do to pass the time, and something that of course he isn’t willing to bother with unless she realizes it’ll be with all the usual limitations—it’s temporary, it’s just for a little fun, it won’t involve him letting her very close to him emotionally, etc. He even at one point comes as close to apologizing as he is capable, admitting that he knows he hurt her, but insisting that she has to accept a certain share of the blame for that since he was always up front with her about the kind of guy he is and the kind of relationship that is available with him.

And through it all she just stares at him intensely and quizzically, either because she’s struggling to make out what it is he’s getting at with this torrent of words, or more likely because the words he’s uttering are the least interesting and important thing about him to her as she looks right through him to his heart.

But once she gets the gist of what he’s proposing, she realizes that she must respond before he goes any further with it, and so she urgently writes out a message to him on her pad. He takes it, tries to make out her scribbles, and then gets it. In that instant, we see his heart break. It’s the most powerful moment in the film.

You can see it’s taking even more of a conscious effort now to maintain this façade of casualness, indeed just to avoid letting her see him cry. He allows himself a few seconds to collect himself, and then he looks up at her and asks, “Happily?”

I love that line. It’s funny, the person I watched it with this most recent time interpreted that as confirmation of what a cad he is. She read it as showing that upon learning Hattie was married, his instinctive reaction was the selfish one of feeling her out to see if he might be able to induce her to violate her marital vows and run off with him.

It never occurred to me to interpret the line that way. To me it was a very clever use of scriptwriting to allow the audience to know what she had written to him without anyone referencing it explicitly. I don’t think he’s looking for an opening to get her to run off with him in spite of being married; I think he’s reacting to the enormity of the realization that his dream is over, and continuing to insist on playing this like it’s no big deal to him, by basically engaging in small talk. “Happily?” is a bland question based on that being such a common, perfunctory way of describing a marriage. Like, “Oh, did you have a big wedding? A lot of people?” Or, “Have you known him long?” Or, “Got any kids yet?” which in fact he does ask her next, to keep the conversation going long enough to show he’s taking this all in stride rather than because he’s all that interested in the substance of these specifics.

Not long after that, when he is safely away from her, he does indeed break down and finally let his emotions show: “I made a mistake! OK? I made a mistake!” It’s not a bad scene, but honestly I was more moved by the prior scene where he kept all that inside, precisely by the inherent sadness of his feeling he needed to keep it all inside in her presence.

We’re told that losing Hattie for good, Ray entered into a period where he recorded the best music of his life. Previously he had been a very good guitarist, with at least a somewhat plausible claim to being the second greatest guitarist in the world. Now, finally, he was no worse than equal to his hero/nemesis Reinhardt.

But very briefly. For then he disappeared entirely. There are various stories, various rumors, as to what happened to him, but no one knows for sure.

We are to infer that he flew too close to the sun, that the unlocking of his emotions enabled him to fully experience love, heartbreak, and regret, and gave him an emotional depth that caused his music to soar to new highs, but that that was too much for him to sustain and soon destroyed him.

And we’re left with the question of whether he was better off pre-Hattie, when he was second best but more or less happy with his eccentric partying lifestyle of shooting rats at the dump and the like, because he didn’t know what he was missing, or better off flaring up spectacularly but tragically briefly. (Not that it’s a choice anymore once your heart is opened.)

Allen uses the framing device of a mockumentary to tell the story, with he and others commenting along the way in interviews about Ray’s life story. Mostly, though, it plays out as a conventional movie. There’s not the kind of commitment to the pseudo-documentary form that you see in Spinal Tap or for that matter his own Zelig. It’s about 85% regular movie narrative and 15% mockumentary.

The form does provide an opportunity, though, to preserve some mystery, some ambiguity. This and that about Ray’s story, we’re told, is only speculative, because so little can really be known of him with confidence, especially his fate after his artistry briefly became so much more soulful and impressive.

Indeed, Allen even includes a Rashomon-like sequence where a scene is played out multiple times based on subjective, contrary versions of what really happened. (Allen has identified Rashomon as one of his picks for the greatest movies of all time, and he has adopted this device in other of his films and short stories.)

Sweet and Lowdown has a few decent laughs, though certainly way below the early Allen films. But it also has a thoughtful message and moments where it hits hard emotionally. As to why it didn’t impress me quite as much this time, aside from the possibility that it’s some purely subjective factor of what mood I happened to be in when I watched it, I had the sense that while it had the positive elements that I remembered and looked forward to seeing again—it wasn’t a disappointment in that sense—maybe I had been expecting that a chance to explore it again would reveal additional depth, additional elements to appreciate, whereas it really was just the good stuff I was already aware of.

But, again, that doesn’t mean that I’ve changed my mind about liking the film. It’s still an engagingly bittersweet, mildly amusing, tale that I recommend. It’s still no worse than roughly tied—in my opinion—for the best post-Manhattan Woody Allen movie.

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