Woody Allen and jazz
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Wed Aug 2 22:45:23 MDT 2000
Lou, thanks for this very detailed commentary on woody and jazz! I was informed a
Louis Proyect wrote:
> 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. For a while 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 of 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. Needless to say, he lacks the financial and musical resources to
> recreate the big band sound today. So 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 and DJ Ben Duncan.
> 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 have made 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.
> Louis Proyect
> The Marxism mailing-list: http://www.marxmail.org
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Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222
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