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Wild Man Blues and (not) Sweet And Lowdown

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

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The holiday season is over and the New Year under way. The only ones who can now come to a movie in the middle of the day are officially those firmly in my cohort: the old, the halt, the lonely. Two eighty-plus-year-old men in front of me—still in their anoraks despite the fifty degree weather—talk to one another loudly before the film begins. A propos of the Tommy Dorsey tune playing on the speakers, one says:

“I used to think Tommy Dorsey was a cat.”

“A cat?”

“Yeah. When I was seven years-old, some family I knew had a cat named Tommy. I thought that was Tommy Dorsey. I dunno. Hey, how come you didn’t become a disc jockey? You could have. You had a famous personality.”

(Not pearls, I’ll admit, but it passed the time. The best example of GVMS {Gerontological Volume Maladjustment Syndrome} occurred when my friends Joel and Kate were in grad school in Ann Arbor. They went to a midday showing of Damage. The man of the aged couple behind them couldn’t hear, asking his wife what Miranda Richardson had just said. The wife responded without preamble, yelling loudly to the entire theater, “Fuck me, Peter!”).

I didn’t see Wild Man Blues when it came out, which was around the time when my disappointment in Woody Allen was at its apogee. I have no doubt that if I had, I wouldn’t have appreciated it. I was braced for some kind of hagiography, a la Errol Morris’ somewhat problematic documentary about Robert MacNamara. What I hadn’t known is that Barbara Kopple had essentially made a small concert film about Allen on a mini-tour through Europe, playing the New Orleans jazz that consumes him almost as much as film. The Europeans adore him. “[They] like pictures that drone on. I’m good at making pictures that drone on,” he conjectures. There’s a psychological term for this kind of self-deprecation: Mom. “You did a lot of things, but you never pursued them,” his mother says to him over brunch back in New York. “It’s just very hard for people in show business to make a living….Don’t think for a moment that you are what you are by yourself. You had a lot of help.” “This has truly been the lunch from hell,” he jokes.

I read somewhere that the original working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure. I sympathize completely. Arriving in Madrid, he is told that the house where they are performing has a capacity of 1,800. He is stunned that such a crowd has shown up. “Theoretically this should be fun for us,” he half-jokes to his bandmates. There he is later, on a vaporetto, scudding across the water as the magnificence of Venice passes in the background. A faster boat passes, creating a wake and Allen grimaces involuntarily as his own craft yaws uncomfortably. A look flashes across his face and it’s a face I know intimately; I don’t even have to look in the mirror to know when I am making it. It’s the face that says I know that the entire rest of the world agrees that this is lovely but are there adequate life jackets/fire exits/oxygen in here? And can we go home yet?

But it is when he is playing that I am overwhelmed by a rush of what can accurately be described as love for Woody Allen. To see the effort and concentration of his playing, the pulsing of his jaw and temples as if there were umbrella staves pushing up from under his skin, or the attentive humility with which he sits and listens to banjo player Eddie Davis play Rock of Ages . As he himself says, there is no cerebral element to it, it’s sheer feeling and the reverence he displays is so real and so touching (not to refer back to previous blog entries too much, but it’s precisely the kind of reverence missing from the musical numbers in Everyone Says I Love and, conversely, exactly music’s alchemical capacity to change one that he so beautifully evoked in Radio Days).

His humble love for the music also seems to carry over into the way he speaks to people. He is almost unfailingly gracious and polite and deeply thankful to his audiences. A truly scary crowd of a thousand fans have assembled outside his hotel in Bologna and he steps out to say hello. Hounded by a paparazzo during the day, he mutters privately about wanting to “kick his fucking teeth in,” but when talking to the man, he is supremely reasonable. It makes me want to forgive him almost everything, well, that one thing, at least. He even cops to it when he introduces his wife as “The notorious Soon-Yi Previn,” who, it must be said, comes off as funny and frank and caring and just a pistol of a girl (“You should tell the band that they were good last night and not speak only to Eddie Davis. You tend to latch on to one person,” she gently admonishes him. When he is writing out laundry instructions to the hotel staff, she looks over his shoulder and reminds him, “Remember you’re not signing an autograph.” She’s never seen Annie Hall, “Never got around to it,” and she has never read his writing).

I decide not to stay for Sweet And Lowdown. I never really bought Samantha Morton’s ersatz Giulietta Massina wide-eyed innocent non-character. Her eyes, while blue enough, just didn’t speak the volumes to me that they were meant to. She seemed to be just another passive female putting up with shitty behavior. A woman who literally can’t say boo to a goose. And creating a silent character—or rather not creating a character—is like having a character who knows nobody, thereby removing the writer’s task of creating interactions. It seemed a cop-out of sorts, and I was feeling so in love with Woody, so grateful to him, so inspired that I didn’t want to harsh my toke, as the kids say (do the kids still say that?), preferring instead to channel Helen Sinclair, Dianne Wiest’s Bullets Over Broadway character who, in an effort to preserve the perfection of a moment, claps her gloved hand over John Cusack’s mouth and implores him repeatedly, dramatically, “Don’t speak.”

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Wild Man Blues and (not) Sweet And Lowdown

Adventures at a Woody Allen film festival

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