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What’s going on inside Llewyn Davis?
2 December 2013. A World to Win News Service. By A. C. Inside Llewyn Davis is one of those films you come out of – at least some people – thinking, OK, that was funny, but there wasn’t much to it, was there? You start to talk about it with your movie-going friends afterwards and the conversation soon heads somewhere else. Then you wake up the next morning, and you’re thinking about it… It sneaks up on you.
This movie is a mystery, but not like Joel and Ethan Coen’s best-known films, The Big Lebowski (1998) and No Country for Old Men (2007), although like those two it’s about people whose morality is out of sync with their times. It’s about a few days in a life where nothing much happens except a vicious beating, and since the movie starts with that scene and then eventually loops back to it at the end, there’s no danger of giving away the plot. The mystery is not who is beating him but why – how he earned so much punishment.
Like several other Coen brothers movies, this one is about a very particular place and time, and the main character is an embodiment of that, a character through which that place and time speak to us. It’s winter 1961 in New York’s Greenwich Village, on MacDougal Street, near the corner where two years later Bob Dylan and his girlfriend Suze Rotolo will be pictured on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In that picture the couple is standing in a slushy street. Rotolo is bundled up but freezing anyway; Dylan is wearing nothing but a light suede jacket but he looks comfortable. When we see that picture now we know why: he’s basking in the warmth the future holds for him.
There’s snow in almost every exterior shot in this movie, and Llewyn Davis doesn’t own a winter coat. That’s not a fashion statement. It’s what kind of person he is. He doesn’t even have a place to leave his stuff. He carries around a carton of unsold records and a beat-up guitar. He plays in coffee houses for whatever coins a passed hat will bring, among a thin crowd of students and tourists, and sleeps on whatever couch he can, so that he can be true to his music. As he likes to explain on stage, “It’s never old and it’s never new, it’s folk music.” The Celtic ballads and songs of the rural South seem slightly incongruous in New York City, and they tend to be very sad. What can you say about “Hang Me, O Hang Me”, which ends, “I don’t mind the hanging, but the lying in the grave so long, poor boy, lying in the grave so long”? It’s more bathos than blues.
At the end of an epic hitch-hiking journey through a snowstorm to Chicago to force an audition on a famous folk music impresario, the man listens to Llewyn sing another song about someone dying and judges, “I don’t see a lot of money in that.” Dylan fans know that the Grossman this character is based on felt differently about Dylan. Dylan didn’t have to go to Chicago; Grossman moved to New York to manage him.
The place, time and people in this movie are extremely realistic. They are almost all composites of real people and places, with two major exceptions. Part of this veracity comes from the book it’s based on, The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave Van Ronk (1936-2002), who, like Davis, played at the Gaslight Café during those years, had a similar thick beard and long hair, and sang some of the same songs. But unlike Davis, who comes off like a cold and self-centred person, more talented at alienating people than singing, Van Ronk was widely loved and respected by people in the folk music scene. When Dylan blew into town, he was “just a kid with an abrasive voice… cadging meals and sleeping on couches, pretty frequently mine,” Van Ronk recalled. (Dylan was allowed to play at the Gaslight only at closing time; his first record sold so badly that the record company executive who signed him was ridiculed.) Unlike Davis, Van Ronk did not clutch tightly at the past as a kind of security blanket or straitjacket. He could close the show with an a capella version of the Kink’s She Not There when it was a forerunner of music to come, before it was an oldie but goodie, and like everything he sang, he made it his own.
Part of the layeredness of this film comes from the tension between the real Van Ronk and the figure of Llewyn Davis – somehow that’s part of how the Coen brothers make film viewers feel so ambivalently about their character. It’s true that there is much in the movie for the cognoscenti, but not in an obnoxious, exclusionary way. The Coens want to share their enthusiasm.
The other factual change – there aren’t many – is that the downstairs coffee house seen in the movie isn’t the Gaslight. It’s based on Gerde’s Folk City, whose cynical proprietor was much more like the coffee house owner in the film than the owner of the Gaslight. The difference is important because Gerde’s, like the place in the film, had a bar.
Part of the reason that folk music could flourish in the old Italian coffee houses and new venues filling up with Beatniks was that licenses to serve liquor were more than just very expensive. The whole bureaucratic machinery surrounding the sale of alcohol, including the police permits needed by anyone who worked in such places, had allowed the power structure – politicians and the Democratic Party, the police and the Catholic Church and the mob, sometimes represented by brothers from the same family – to control the entertainment scene. More than a few famous jazz musicians and comedians (like Billie Holiday, Thelonius Monk and Lenny Bruce) couldn’t perform in New York nightclubs. Coffee houses were not legally considered entertainment venues. But still, keeping the Gaslight open required a constant struggle with the police and courts.
Folk music may not have been ferocious, but like the Beat poets and some things in jazz (both alluded to in this movie), it was one stream in an emerging culture of opposition. As someone once said, Greenwich Village was where people came to get away from America. This seems to explain the attraction of the MacDougal Street folk music scene to the Coen brothers, why they reproduce its details with a zeal that expresses their respect for this history, and more, that upholds it in contrast to our times.
Llewyn Davis is an asshole, his beloved tells him, and when she says it we believe her. People a few generations later would call him a loser, as many reviewers do now. But that’s not really true, as the film’s unfolding reveals to us. Although his anger at first seems just cranky, hits the wrong targets and comes tinged with self-pity, he has a lot to be angry about, and the film makers are angry, too. All around him people are selling out for big money or even just small change and a nice white life in the pre-fab suburbs.
His sister is a model of truly petty bourgeois hypocrisy – life can be sunny if you just pretend it is. She can’t understand when Llewyn tells her that he wants more out of life than just mindless existence. His father, whose reward for working as a seaman all his life is total dementia, literally shits on his music. His beloved Jean, played by the seriously talented Carey Mulligan, sings folk music for the money and has just married a man so square (Justin Beiber, who seems born for the part) that he can be relied on to take her into suburban security. And his former singing partner – well, we won’t give that away, but Davis has good reason to find the world around him intolerable, and he’s not the only one.
He’s part of a generation fighting to break out of the prison that was America in the 1950s and early 1960s, a generation that had not yet found its voice. Folk singers were still rummaging around in the past, looking for something authentic, not plastic, something to do with the poor people, white and black, who had been banished from most of the official cultural stage. “We had something to say, not something to sell,” Suze Rotolo remarked in her 2008 autobiography.
Davis and two other young men record a song mocking Kennedy and the space programme – and by implication the whole call to “ask what you can do for your country” Kennedy had addressed to them. The song sounds like another folk song a few years later, about refusing to serve in the U.S. army in Vietnam. Surely the Coen brothers and their astute music producer T Bone Burnett didn’t do this by accident. We can almost hear the civil rights movement in the background – the Freedom Riders would set out that year. And we know that Dylan will be a leader in reshaping folk music into protest music, a sharper weapon aimed at injustice and hypocrisy and a whole oppressive order, and then help blow it up completely with the emergence of a music that was fierce in its opposition to almost everything that official America considered right and holy, a music that moved a generation that would be fearsome for defenders of that order, and that, on evidence, the Coen brothers still honour.
The cat is the key to the movie. He’s Davis’ double. In an interview the Coen brothers said they were worried that the film had no plot and so inserted the cat and its story to fix that, but the truth is that the cat’s story signals what Llewyn is thinking and provides a literary framework for his pointless troubles. We really can’t see inside Davis at all for much of the movie. We can’t understand why he seems like such an asshole. Oscar Isaac plays him so bereft of feeling that he seems to have no interiority. He has inscrutable cat eyes, while the cat (played by a team of cats who deserve an Oscar) seems full of feelings. We can see them in the ginger’s gaze as he looks out a subway window with a mix of apprehension and interest. We can also see, in Llewyn’s relationship with the cat, his sometimes stumbling striving to be a morally good person and remain true to another lost soul whose absence fills the film, his partner.
The cat is called Ulysses (also known as Odysseus), a reference to a Greek heroic figure the Coen brothers have used before in O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). In Homer’s poem, Ulysses wants nothing more than to sail home after the Trojan war, but fate makes him a plaything in the hands of rival, heartless gods. He wanders through trials and tribulation for ten years before a ship finally brings him back to Penelope, his faithful wife, who is fending off a hoard of suitors trying to take his place and property.
The cat – locked out of his home early in the film – undergoes an odyssey himself, but the real Ulysses is Llewyn. He is a sailor who loses his seaman’s papers, whose Penelope marries another suitor and is faithful only to herself. Unlike Ulysses the cat and the Greek Ulysses, Llewyn’s not just “Five hundred miles away from home,” as the song says. He has no home to return to and no place in this world, poor boy, because he will not accept the world as it is.
What will happen to him? We’re not optimistic, because he’s not just unlucky – he’s betting his life on his art and he’s no Bob Dylan. This film is noir in more than the sombre interiors and grey skies. Maybe, like the music he sings, he will never change. In that case, he is doomed.
But maybe Davis’ immature personality is transitional. Maybe his problem is not just that he’s a good singer but not good enough. Maybe he hasn’t yet sorted out what he’s trying to do as an artist, what he wants to say. And maybe the Coen brothers have.
The funny thing about the movie is that the more disagreeable Llewyn becomes, the more you sympathize with him. That’s a big part of the complexity and subtlety that makes it such an achievement, in a minor mode. He’s a nonconformist, not a loser. He rejects the fate that has been handed to him, to do whatever is socially accepted, seek a safe life and worship money. That today so many youth feel under pressure not to be “losers” in this sense tells us quite a bit about the world that the Coen brothers – and not just them – are criticizing.
It’s not advertised as such, but to some extent this film is a musical. The sound track is mostly made up of well-known – and well-worn – folk favourites sung in MacDougal Street fashion, but the actors themselves do most of the singing. The dialogue doesn’t seem to break artificially for the songs, like in most musicals, but it’s full of musical set pieces, solos, duets and trios recorded live during the filming. The directors have compared it (tongue in cheek?) to one of the very few contemporary movie musicals, Les Misérables. The result is pleasantly old and new, both fresh and faithful to the folk music spirit.
What should we think about the Coens themselves, who have made some relatively successful movies but still had to find funding for three of their last four films in Europe and might not have gotten an American distributor for this one if it had not won the jury prize and ecstatic reviews at the Cannes film festival? Certainly this movie is more acoustic than electrifying. Are they like what was said about Van Ronk, legendary but not famous? Maybe they, too, have been confined – or like Llewyn Davis have chosen to remain – in the film world equivalent of folk music.
We know that no matter what happens to Llewyn, the 1960s will be a time when many people like him will be transformed, at least temporarily. They will become legion, fighting for a different kind of society, world and moral order, just as artists like Dylan brought down the reigning aesthetic order. For some people who find themselves moving outside the mainstream, a new time was about to come to their rescue. Inside Llewyn Davis is not a fierce film, but what is it about – just nostalgia or a reminder of an unfinished task? Maybe the answer is blowing in the wind.
(In the wake of the film, Dave Van Ronk’s 2005 autobiography, as told to Elijah Wald, was republished this year by Da Capo Press. Also see Wald’s Web page at elijahwald.com, with comments on the film by Van Ronk’s widow, Andrea Vuocolo, and his text on the official film Web site, insidellewyndavis.com. Similarly, Smithsonian Folkways has just released a three-disc compilation of his work, Down in Washington Square.)
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