Thursday, December 26, 2013

Should You See "Inside Llewyn Davis?"

You know the Coen Brothers movies. Sometimes, they're despondent. Sometimes, they're screamingly funny. With "Inside Llewyn Davis," they're both at the same time, and feeling either is really kind of unsettling.

BTW, spoiler alert: I'm going to mention a few events and scenes from the film. Normally, such mentions spoil the plot. In this film, though, it's safe to say there is no plot, at least
in the usual sense.

Plot is character in action, but usually, there are a beginning, middle, and an end. The four days or so in Llewyn Davis' life that make up the film are pretty much of a continuum with no significant change in him.

In fact, the beginning and end are eerily the same. And you have the sense that the way it is now for him is the way it will be forever.

When the folk music era dawned in America, it was pretty much of a coordinating conjunction for the Beatnik Era and The Sixties, a brief moment between Kerouac jazz and Guevara rock, when counterculture people adopted folk music as their societal lens. The few days of this film might even be a metaphor of the few years that serious people were serious about folk music.

The term "serious folk music" almost sounds oxymoronic. The grittiness of the Woody Guthrie/Pete Seeger protest song era before and after the Great Depression gave way to the saccharine white middle-class protest songs of Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. While most folk music fans were earnest and sincere, that's about all they were. Tom Lehrer used to perform a satirical song, "Folk Song Army," in which "Every one of us *cares*/We don't like poverty, war, or injustice/Unlike the rest of you squares." Folk music now seems pretty much relegated to PBS fundraisers with old Boomers waxing nostalgic. In fact, the film "A Mighty Wind" parodied this notion.

But there was a time when folk music was really good, and really serious. The Coen Brothers recognize this time existed, but absolutely do not kowtow to it or treat it with gushing sentiment. It happened, along with everything else that happened (or didn't) in 1959-1962 or so.

And Llewyn Davis is good at it. In fact, he's very, very good, so good that even modernistas who roll their eyes at the notion of folk music will sit forward in their chairs and listen to him, both for his songs and for his angst-ridden talent. No protesting injustice, this; it's about love and loss among ordinary folk.

Llewyn is a total fuckup in his personal life. He spends his time mooching couches to sleep on for the whole film, and at every stop, he manages to insult his host, and not in small ways. When moments confront him that offer a chance to make the difficult, but heroic, choice, he inevitably does...nothing.

Thus, being really, really good and sincere with his craft does little for him one way or the other. His career is going nowhere, just as is his life. At moments, you overcome your antipathy for this inveterate loser and actually root for him to succeed in some small way. You wish he'd make the obvious choice at hand to move himself forward. After all, a few of his colleagues make choices to advance their musical careers, and he's as good, or better, than they are.

I have to note two remarkable scenes. So broke he can't buy coffee, Llewyn's friend, John, whose girlfriend Llewyn may have impregnated, invites Llewyn to provide backup for a recording gig. Llewyn does so, expressing his displeasure with the song, which contains the gimmicks and goofy lilts necessary for commercial success. He accepts a one-time fee for service, needing the money, and forgoes possible royalties.

In another, he meets with an important folk music impresario and gives another of his stunning and earthy performances. The recording maven doesn't say Llewyn is bad, only that "there's no money in you."

What clings to Llewyn Davis is his realness, his authenticity, to use an overused term. He isn't bad, he's not marketable. Tellingly, the impresario asks Llewyn if he might trim his beard into a goatee and be the third member of a trio being formed of two guys and a woman (gee--guess who that is).

Not that Llewyn thinks a whole lot about an art-versus-commercialism dilemma. To him, he's just himself moving along from point A to point B and hoping something will work out. He does not see himself as any kind of hero, Quixotic or not, nor as an avatar of the true folk musicician standing against a commercial tide.

And so the Coen Brothers treat both Llewyn and his times. There's nothing heroic or brave going on. Everything just is. And there will never be money in the uncompromised quality Llewyn offers. Commercdial accommodation isn't an option, because it never really occurs to him. What makes "Inside Llewyn Davis" difficult for us is that Llewyn makes this choice not as Huck Finn standing against civilization, but as a guy who just does what he does without giving it much thought.

I could say so much more about this film, but I won't. I won't reveal the beginning and final scenes, nor the telling second-to-last scene. Nor will I say anything about a cat and what his name is, nor will I reveal what happened during an interior sequence with John Goodman playing an over-the-hill drug-smacked jazz musician.

This movie is absolutely not for everyone. Coen Brothers films have always straddled the barrier between art and popular films, and this one leans 'way more towards the arty. It's bleak. The central character finds no redemption and has no epiphanies, and if he did, wouldn't change himself. As a viewer, you have to work at finding meaning.

Which is to say I loved it, and need to see it ten or twelve more times before I get it all. You find yourself ready to burst out with a guffaw, but your pulse is restrained by the pathos of it all.

You can't laugh and cry at the same time.


  1. I can't let this movie go. I'm kind of obsessing on it. Also, this post is getting a higher number of hits than most. Hence: If you saw this movie, please share your thoughts. Also, I heard a review on Colorado Public Radio, and the reviewer totally didn't get it. Either that, or I didn't.

  2. I finally watched it. And I also thought of Mighty Wind because I was just recommending to a friend the other day who hasn't even seen Spinal Tap.

    Also I want the soundtrack. That guy gets forgiven for being folk. In light of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? this film and the cat are especially interesting.

    I was reminded of 2 things: First, was this guy Sheldon I met in Italy who was the guitarist for a really good zydeco band that was in town for a music festival. Sheldon was talented beyond what he was doing. He didn't much like the frontman, who was all about show, not especially talented himself, but was able to round up a group of extraordinary musicians (Jim Morrison, anyone?). Sheldon was really a blues player. He'd tried to do that for a long time. He told me that every label he'd ever tried had turned him down because he wasn't black enough. Or maybe if he'd been blind or something. Blues marketing is also pretty specific.

    The other thing was this guy I heard playing once in a hole-in-the-wall storefront in Baltimore. It wasn't really a hole-in-the-wall. More like a recess in the wall big enough to put a door on and sling a music store sign out front. He was playing a fretless 6-string, an unending stream of classical, jazz and blues all mixed together. It was like nothing I ever heard, and it made me wonder about all the other talent in other holes we never have the privilege of hearing. His friend out front had a non-specific tale of why this guy had never been picked up by a label.