Monday, March 31, 2014

Inside and outside Llewyn Davis

If you want to read some interesting commentary on Inside Llewyn Davis, I suggest you check out Todd Alcott's discussion of it (starting here).

Although my mom was a folky and I grew up listening to Bob Dylan, I was never really all that knowledgeable about the folk scene or movement; as illustration of that, if I have the choice of watching This is Spinal Tap or A Mighty Wind, I'll always choose Spinal Tap. Inside Llewyn Davis seems like it's even more referential to the real folk scene than Guest's Might Wind--just Google Image search for the cover of Llewyn's album and compare it to Dave van Ronk's album Inside and you'll see how close they are. So there's lots of references that I won't get and we can argue about how close this is to the historical situation; but at the end of the day, this is also a movie. So how's it work as a movie?


I mean, take apart a Coen movie into its constituent parts and what do we find:

  • a protagonist who gets pushed around by the environment and other people; a protagonist searching for home or identity (think of the Dude launched into action because his rug was ruined--the rug that "really pulled the room together"; or think of O Brother's Ulysses trying to put his family back together; of Barton Fink in a crappy hotel room staring at a picture of a beach);
  • a group of secondary characters that verge on the cartoony and grotesque (an angry character in a Coen brother film is always ready to be angry, a dumb character is on the edge of being too dumb to live, etc.);
  • some sort of quest, often to see or placate the Big Man/father figure (the studio director-turned-general in Barton Fink, the rich-not rich Lebowski, the mob/political boss of Miller's Crossing);
  • and some dark, weird humor.
And while Llewyn Davis seems different in some ways--Llewyn is less rakish and charming than many of their damaged protagonists--it's also pretty straight-forwardly Coenly:

  • Llewyn is a folk singer without a home: he floats from couch to couch, gets various boxes that people are no longer willing to hold for him; he's so homeless that he doesn't even have a grand story arc--no single quest to drive the movie;
  • Lleweyn is surrounded by New York grotesques: the Columbia professoriate who are only interested in things academically, his goofy folk scene compatriots--Justin Timberlake's aching eagerness, the military folky Troy's aching sincerity and simpleness, the grasping or incompetent agent Mel (who likes funerals more than sending out records), etc.
  • a series of quests around family and fatherhood: getting the cat back to the childless professors; getting the money for an abortion; learning about the child he has out there since one girlfriend didn't go through with her planned abortion; getting ancient jazzman/heroin addict/voodoo practitioner across the country; performing for big macher Bud Grossman, owner of a folk theater and kingmaker ("Gross" is big and/or disgusting, but with the first name "Bud," it's also "grows"); satisfying the older men at the Merchant Marines' union; playing for his legendary seaman dad, who has become senile; and finally going out to meet a shadowy figure who beats him up for making a scene with his wife;
  • and some unexpected laughs.
What's most interesting to me in this film is how the big man role and the quests seem to fracture. Which, from a craft perspective, is an interesting choice: it keeps the story moving and changing, but it doesn't give the viewers a comfortable hook to grab on to take them through the film. And it's not like the quests lead to each other: Llewyn doesn't go meet Bud Grossman because of anything that John Goodman does. Some of the quests don't go off at all--he never goes to Akron to meet his child--and the ones he does complete go wrong as often as not--he never finds the right cat to bring back to the professors' house, he doesn't get the go ahead from the big promoter, his dad doesn't respond to his music except by shitting himself, etc.

In a way, that series of quests and failures makes this movie the most bleak of the Coen brothers films. And I think we have to ask ourselves what success would even look like for Llewyn Davis. Is folk success fame and money? Authenticity? Getting out of the business entirely? It's hard to imagine a happy ending for him--which may be why the film opens and closes with some of the same images and ends by petering out: instead of chasing after the father figure that just beat him up and left him in the alley, Llewyn merely waves him off.

(Or does he say "au revoir"--until I see you again?)

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