The Green Mile and more
Sweet and Lowdown
Vincent Guastaferro, Anthony LaPaglia, Brian Markinson, Gretchen Mol, Samantha Morton, Sean Penn, Uma Thurman, James Urbaniak, John Waters
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 3 Dec 1999 (Limited release); 1999)
Sweet and Lowdown’s Emmet Ray is a familiar figure—the hard-living roustabout and troubled genius—with one crucial modification: he’s been purged of any trace of charm. He’s arrogant, misogynistic, insecure, covetous, stupid and shallow. We know all of this before he even speaks.
In a masterful bit of overacting, Sean Penn contorts his face into a rat-like perma-scowl, his lips twitching, his nose sniffing, his eyes darting around as if looking for an avenue of escape or attack. Movies are filled with anti-heroes, morally questionable or repugnant characters, but a protagonist this deeply unlikeable is almost unheard of. Penn doesn’t flinch—he switches off everything ingratiating and appealing about his personality. His voice is nasal and piercing; he’s constantly defensive and angry.
Until he picks up his guitar.
It’s as though he’s saving all of his good stuff for that guitar. His tensed features relax into an expression of serene concentration, and the most heartfelt, soulful, masterful music emerges. It seems impossible that anyone capable of creating such delicate beauty could be otherwise devoid of empathy and virtue.
Ray, one of Allen’s most brilliantly loaded characters, subverts the romantic cliche of the sensitive artist turning pain into beauty—he’s a black-hearted rat bastard, small-minded and blind to the needs of the people around him. The common belief is that talent is the result of some kind of moral or spiritual strength —Sweet and Lowdown suggests that talent might be a gift bestowed randomly on the wise and the wretched alike. Maybe genius doesn’t imply anything deeper than being awfully good at playing your guitar.
The film is loosely disguised as a documentary biopic, with talking heads both real and fictional breaking into the action to frame the funny and sad vignettes that make up the plot. This gives it the feel of an oral history, and in the minds of the jazz scholars setting the scene Ray is a lovable bastard, a real character. His myth is made of tales that are told and retold, burnished and exaggerated and constantly made new – a fact that Allen makes clear by staging certain scenes several times to match conflicting accounts. History has rendered his destructive behavior eccentric and charming – it’s all just another great Emmet Ray story.
Sweet and Lowdown is a rambling shaggy-dog tale of a movie—like Penn’s jazzbo genius, it doesn’t quite know where it wants to go, so it just wanders around stubbing its toes on things, swearing a blue streak. The comedy rides on Penn’s brilliant, vicious timing and a number of great running slapstick gags involving Ray’s chronic stage-fright, obsessive fear and awe of Django Reinhardt, and his hobby of shooting rats at the dump. What little plot there is centers around Ray’s courtship and eventual abandonment of the mute laundress Hattie, played by Samantha Morton with a sweetness and warmth that look almost horrifying when placed into proximity with Ray’s selfishness and casual cruelty. (“I got a goddamned mute orphan half-wit,” Emmet whines.) When he unthinkingly, unguiltily throws her over for Uma Thurman’s sexy manipulator, any hope of redemption is destroyed.
Until the final moments of the film, when Ray’s heart is deservedly crushed, and we learn through a talking head that all of his greatest music was made in his coming years of isolation. Fools that we are, we can’t give up the thin strand of hope that his beautiful songs might be an emanation of something real and honest in his spirit. It makes little difference that we’ve spent nearly two hours watching the portrait of the asshole as a young man—we still hear his music ringing on our ears. Joshua O’Neill
The Green Mile
Tom Hanks, Michael Clarke Duncan, David Morse, Sam Rockwell, James Cromwell, Barry Pepper
(Castle Rock Entertainment; US theatrical: 10 Dec 1999 (General release); 1999)
1999’s The Green Mile opens with one of the greatest sights of mass black fear in America: The white vigilante mob. Then, the ritual pandering of class: Poor people are criminal, rich people are spoiled, and everyone else is, by virtue(s), normal. Yet, normal in The Green Mile is anything but apparent.
In the film, the black man has a mysterious power to heal, which most critiques have insufficiently contrasted against the State’s miraculous power to destroy. Life or death quandaries continually emerge to push the plot forward. Given that the miraculous black man ultimately colludes in his own death, which is therefore suicide, the critique here seems to be about the green pathway. It’s as if the filmmakers demonstrate that by choosing the normal, grassy green path, we are collectively committing ourselves to the awesome power of destruction, even when faced with evidence of our ability to heal (the world). The race/class war in the film—the institutionalized monopoly the state exercised over black and poor people’s lives—is contested on The Green Mile. As a society we would even deny ourselves the right to heal ourselves rather than stray from this path of destruction.
“Let’s look alive,” Hanks’ character says, rounding up his death troupers for the arrival of John Coffey, the Magic Negro. This dialogue betrays the superficial nature with which life is normally respected; they may only “look”, or pretend to be alive. “Big ass dead man walking,” the sissy character, Percy, repeats almost predicating his own fate; he continually chooses death and is even portrayed as having a sadistic pleasure in pain. Percy’s S&M tendency materializes as a normal consequence of being (treated like) a sissy.
Though a career arbiter of death, Hanks’ character showed that he was unable to deal with his own illness, suffering and loss, a prelude to how he would face his own death dilemmas later in the film. Hanks’ character’s only proposed resolution to Coffey’s life or death situation was to face death as a n*gger-lover by releasing Coffey to run free in the Apartheid/Jim and Jane Crow South during the Great Depression. True to form, the Magic Negro provided the necessary moral authority to move on: reviving the mouse the sissy slaughtered, and boosting Hanks’ sex life. The Magic Negro unlocks everyone’s fates.
When I get to heaven, gon’ scream-n-shout! Be nobody there to put me out
Consider Negro Spirituals as the strongest, indigenous cultural references that would have informed contemplations of life and death of a Southern black character like Coffey. Admittedly culturally intricate and nuanced, Soon ah will be done wit’ da troubles o’ dis worl’ is not a death wish. Goin’ home to live wit’ God is not some damn permission slip absconding white guilt of this torrid past. Hence, Hanks asking Coffey if he should execute or release him is the product of pure S&M fantasy and masturbation, not a power shift. This life or death dilemma also sealed Hanks’ character’s fate. Rather than see life as a gift, the characters see life as punishment, as Hanks’ character didactic, irreconcilable relationship with inevitable loss very reveals in the penultimate scene. This is not a cry to be maimed, harmed and abused—the perverse S&M assumption that this is a plea for pain. Imagine Mahalia shouting:
Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel, then why not every man. He delivered Daniel from de lion’s den / Jonah from de belly of de whale / An’ de Hebrew chillun from de fiery furnace / An’ why not every man
Negro Spirituals consistently emphasize overcoming, i.e. choosing life over death, which is established by the beat and forceful melisma. The lyrics and beat are in constant dialogue, with what might sound like counterpoints or competition. Instead of a separate but equal harmony and melody, the beat simply presses everything forward with such a force that resolves the apparent musical discord or ‘dilemma’. Indeed, the polyrhythmic beat resolves conflict through dialogue between these beats, in Mahalia’s case a stomping piano and a strong belting register. Miles did this with his quintet; James Brown did it with Maceo, Fred, Jimmy and the rest. More recently, consider LL Cool J and Cut Creator. The swing of the beat provides the earnest, incontestable resolution: Choose life. Diepiriye Kuku