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At the Movies

All that jazz


The hot jazz of Sweet and Lowdown is enough to carry this new Woody Allen pseudo-documentary. It’s built around a string of mostly comic anecdotes about Emmett Ray, a fictional ’30s guitarist who was considered second only to Django Reinhardt. Sean Penn, flamboyant and grotesque, gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Ray. Woody is only a narrative voice, along with a string of jazz experts who introduce amusing stories they want to tell about the central character.

The combination of Santo Loquasto’s production design and Fei Zhao’s cinematography puts a golden glow on Depression-era honky-tonks and gangsters. Nostalgia for the past is best expressed when Ray plays effortlessly in an after-hours session with a group of black jazz artists at one of their homes.

Most of the time, however, he is impossibly self-centered. His idea of fun is to take a woman to the dump to shoot rats, then wander over to the train tracks to hear the mournful sounds of passing freights. A pimp and a kleptomaniac, he treats women with almost total callousness. Of course, the itinerant and financially uncertain lives of jazz musicians were a poor school for husbands, and Ray was honest about his attitude: “I don’t need women. They’re not necessary if you’re a true artist.”

Allen succeeds in making this story entertaining because he knows that Ray is totally incompetent except on the guitar. His hair parted high on one side, his brow furrowed and wearing a Chaplinesque mustache, Ray seems both to strut and self-destruct; when he actually sees Django Reinhardt, he faints. His constant megalomania hides a deep insecurity, and the elaborate prop he constructs in order to make a dramatic entrance collapses ignominiously.

Despite the movie’s implicit misogyny, most of its sequences are amusing and provide pretexts for a fine score, including “All of Me,” “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” and “I’ll See You in my Dreams.” But “Sweet and Lowdown” has no dramatic development; its thematic clues are never pursued, perhaps in accordance with the director’s formalist esthetic. In the end, Allen tells us, Ray allowed his own emotions greater expression and made his best records; then, he simply disappeared.

A memory movie that jazz lovers shouldn’t miss, “Sweet and Lowdown” is both jaunty and melancholy.

The End of the Affair was never my favorite Graham Greene novel. The Catholic aspects of its plot seem more artificial than those of The Power and the Glory or The Heart of the Matter. Its power derives from the voice of the narrator (Maurice Bendrix, an adulterous novelist) who, spewing out his anger at God, is forced to recognize the paradox of becoming angry with Someone who does not exist. Neil Jordan has made a new movie version, which Columbia Pictures, presumably because Ralph Fiennes plays Bendrix, is advertising as this year’s “The English Patient.”

Since I found that earlier hit boring and pretentious, it’s small praise to say that Fiennes is far more convincing this time. Jordan’s intelligent screenplay handles the shifts in narrative time with great skill and captures the atmosphere of London during the latter days of World War II.

The film opens with Bendrix typing his “diary of hate” (directed more against God than against Sarah, the married woman who had broken off their affair); a flashback cuts to a rainy evening two years after she left him when Bendrix meets the stuffy husband Henry (Stephen Rea), who has come to suspect Sarah of deceiving him. Bendrix, jealous because she is seeing someone else, hires a cockney detective, Mr. Parkis (Ian Hart), to investigate her movements, and Jordan does well with the resulting comic possibilities of the Parkis/Bendrix relationship.

Though there is plenty of athletic lovemaking in “The End of the Affair,” much of it to the accompaniment of bombs falling on London, the movie is (correctly) more interested in exploring the consequences of Sarah’s later behavior. The novel has an advantage here, since it is presented as Bendrix’s diary, but to include more than a few extracts would make the film far too talky.

The popularity of the film will probably depend on how deeply audiences identify with its central characters. Since it is difficult to romanticize the Bendrix-Sarah affair, which is poisoned from the outset by the novelist’s jealousy, Jordan sentimentalizes the material by using occasional bits of soft music during the later scenes. Fiennes deserves praise for risking his matinée idol status by clearly bringing out the unattractive aspects of Bendrix’s character. On the other hand, although Sarah is surely right when she tells Bendrix that “love doesn’t end because we won’t see each other any more,” there is little effort to give dramatic substance to this hint.

More emotionally compelling and more positive in tone, Pedro Almodóvar’s All About My Mother is probably the best movie of the year. The Spanish director, usually identified with outrageous excess, has made what he calls a “screwball drama” to praise the resiliency of women, with a special tribute to actresses who play actresses. If the emotions are again sometimes exaggerated, there is a deep sense of human community in the way Almodóvar develops his basic metaphor of the world as a stage.

A plot summary could easily make the movie seem hysterical while failing to suggest its richness. I will need to see it again to appreciate the skill with which the director controls the lightning-fast emotional changes of the story through attention to colors, and even to the movement of inanimate objects, which act as a curtain might in the theater.

Beginning as a simple tale of a loving mother and her 17-year-old son -- Manuela (Cecilia Roth) and Esteban (Eloy Azorín) -- the plot takes a sudden, painful turn toward tragedy when the son dies. The mother, who works as a nurse in a Madrid organ donor unit and had performed in a seminar dramatization intended to persuade people to donate the organs of loved ones who are dying, is now forced to replay that scene in reality.

We hear Esteban’s voice as Manuela tearfully reads his journal. The boy had wanted to find out about the missing parts of his life; she had never told him who his father was. Now Esteban’s death makes her rush to Barcelona to fill in the past.

It is a shocking underground world that she is forced to explore there, featuring prostitutes and transvestites, but she boldly pursues her purpose. This involves Manuela playing the part of Stella one night in Tennessee Williams’ “The Streetcar Named Desire,” a significant motif throughout the movie.

Though the movie is a tearjerker, it is also sometimes hilarious, notably when one of the characters takes the stage after a performance of “Streetcar” is cancelled and explains the price of each hormone and silicone transplant: “It cost me a lot to be authentic.” The happy collaboration of director and actress allows us to see the authentic humanity of this complex character.

Amazingly, Almodóvar never permits the sensational aspects of his story to get out of control. He is well aware that he is celebrating artifice but insists that women must employ it in this world in order to survive. The movie becomes a test case in which such artifice serves the continuity of life across the generations. We must all improvise our lives, the director is suggesting, and women -- especially actresses -- can be wonderful role models. Maybe that’s why he’s gotten such moving performances from the principals of “All About My Mother.”

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular movie reviewer.

National Catholic Reporter, December 17, 1999