Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

I'm SO Not There
Negatively Fourth Street

Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is the remaining 1/2 of the singing duo Timlin and Davis, a not-successful folk act—although they have one pressed album floating around. Timlin committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, leaving Davis, the talented but not as charismatic part of the group, to fend for himself.  

"Well, shit," says an unsympathetic car companion on a trip to Chicago (played by John Goodman) "I don't blame him. I couldn't take it if I had to sing 'Jimmy Crack Corn' every night."

It's the era when Bob Dylan burst forth in the consciousness during the folk renaissance in New York's Greenwich Village, but this movie isn't about Bob Dylan (although he's alluded to at the end). It's not even based on the life of Dave van Ronk, whose reminiscence, "The Mayor of McDougal Street," inspired Inside Llewyn Davis.  

Don't look for history here, though. This is a Coen Brothers movie; we're in the land of Myth.
It's another in a long line of their "tough luck" films where they play God and some poor schlimazel* plays Job (or maybe Sisyphus—or his Looney Tunes equivalent, Wile E. Coyote—if they've got a screw loose or have stopped caring) like H.I. McDonnough (Nicolas Cage) in Raising Arizona, Barton Fink (John Turturro) in that film, "The Dude" (Jeff Bridges) in The Big Lebowski, or Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) in A Serious Man. All those movies tread the razor's edge of comedy and tragedy, every step a little painful to watch, no matter which tradition the film ultimately lands in. Inside Llewyn Davis falls in the ice-encrusted mud puddle of tragedy, but the protagonist survives. And as we all know, anything that doesn't kill you...

Well, that doesn't really apply here.
The film begins with Davis performing at the Gaslight Cafe. He ends his set with his standard line "If it's never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song." Interesting line. He's then told by the cafe's owner, Papi, that someone's outside waiting for him.
When Llewyn goes outside, a man in the shadows begins to pick a fight, then beats him up, leaving him in the alleyway, bewildered as to what that was all about.
He wakes up the next morning, having crashed at the pad of fans of Timlin and Davis, the Gorfeins, their cat staring him in the face. He pads around the house, finds a Timlin and David album, plays it, and it's the same song he sang at the beginning of the movie, but with Timlin, it's sweeter, more hopeful, more of a crowd-pleaser and less of a lament. It's the same tune, but it's the singer, not the song.
We don't see Timlin much, just his image on that record cover. But folks remember him, talk about him fondly, leaving Davis feeling like a widow and a bit like chopped liver. He's trying to make it on his own and not doing a good job of it, sleeping on a series of couches where he hasn't overstayed his welcome yet and depending on other people's kindnesses, while his mounting frustration with every slight makes him more petulant and ornery.
And there are disappointments around every corner and city-block, unforeseen details and happenstances that frustrate, confound, cost money he doesn't have, or provide a revelation for that thing that happened last week that might have been something if...
Well, if he hadn't been such an asshole. Or was a little more forgiving, or not so reliant on living in the moment, and for the next crisis. But, he's not. He's Sisyphus, the Greek king, who, for his deceit, was punished by the gods to roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down on him to the valley, to begin the long process again and again. Wince and repeat. For all eternity.
Davis has that quality; he has a tendency to make the same mistake more than once and then fall back to the familiar—it's never new and it seems to never get old. That's folk music. And when we reach the end of the movie and he's again beaten up in an alleyway by a "friend," we have to ask ourselves: is this a reality—does he actually get beaten up in the same way by the same guy? Or was that first sequence a dream (we never really see him pick himself up and go to the Gorfeins to crash) and he's just fulfilling the only kind of dream he can? The only one he has? Or is he really doomed to repeat the same sequence over and over. 
There's always that sense of Sisyphusian repetition in the performing arts—a guitarist once told me "As many grains of sand on the beach, that's how many times Carlos Santana has played "Black Magic Woman"—but the Coens turn it into a cruel fate, a myth that reflects life (as it's supposed to), that cautions us and makes us say "...glad I'm not him" no matter how many endless failures we might have looking for a job, or the monotonous grind of the 9-to-5 that has us praying for the weekend (if we get a weekend), the rejections, the humiliations, "the thousand natural shocks."  
"Glad I'm not him." It's tough to recommend Inside Llewyn Davis for the casual movie-goer who "wants to have a good time" (imagine the same argument for 12 Years a Slave!). Its humor is dark, subtle, and he's a creep, and there's no real vicarious satisfaction to be taken in his struggles. It is, however, a great film, one to be appreciated after so many cookie-cutter CGI-fests this past year that are so much pixilated cotton-candy that are out of theater/out of mind. Inside Llewyn Davis stayed with me for weeks, which was a rare treat.
A Columbia recording gig in Inside Llewyn Davis for a novelty song, 
written by Timberlake's "Jim," "Please, Mr. Kennedy.' 
This is Llewyn's bad attitude on "light" and his reactions to the third singer (Adam Driver) are hilarious.
Even this has a downside. 
"Dink's song" (aka "Fare Thee Well") as sung by inspiration Dave van Ronk

* At this point, we need to remind you that a schlemiel is the person who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who has the soup spilled on them. The distinction is important.

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