Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Inside Llewyn Davis

I don't get to watch as many films as I used to, and I rarely write about them on this blog. However, I'd wanted to see the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" since it came out in 2013, because of my interest in its source material, the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, the febrile ground on which Bob Dylan's iconic career was founded. I generally think there are good Coen Brothers films and bad ones, though its been a while since I've seen one, and "Inside Llewyn Davis" actually has aspects of both their strengths and weaknesses.

Ostensibly a tale of a folk singer playing the Gas Light and other folk clubs in New York, Davis is portrayed as a hangdog loser, at first likeable, but as his bad life choices pile up, increasingly a bit of a douche bag. This complexity of character is one of the film's strengths. I'm reminded of Knut Hamsun's hero in "Hunger", albeit somewhat reversed, for Hamsun's author is an optimist whilst Davis is a pessimist. His misanthropy sees even the girl he's accidentally got pregnant berate him for being a disaster. For Davis is that worst kind of artist, one who is striving for integrity in his life as well as his music.

In some ways, folk music is the perfect idiom for such a character. On the one hand a music that began as peasant music is being listened to by a slumming intelligentsia in the New York of the early 1960s, and on the other hand, a bowlderised version of it, with sweet harmonies and All-American good looks is being played on the radio. Davis is a doyenne of this scene, yet his moment appears to have gone. He was once in a duo, but his partner in that act threw himself off a bridge. He bums money off friends, sleeps on couches, and is now trying to promote the album of the film's title, which his exploitative manager/record label owner hasn't even tried to sell. Basically Davis's integrity has got him nowhere. He does a last minute session for a novelty song about JFK and chooses a session fee rather than royalties as he needs some cash in hand - later in the film we hear that the song will be a smash hit.

Yet it is not Davis's music so much as his attitude that sees his life going down the tube. He had been in the merchant navy, like his father, and the music is an escape from that destiny - yet its true what the pregnant Jean says of him, everything he touches does turn bad. The film begins with him playing a song at the Gas Light and then beaten up outside - we only find out at the end why. This framing device - a bit groundhog day, works well to show how an artist has to plug away almost to the point of despair; for having virtually given up when a Chicago promoter says "I don't hear much money here", we hear, at the end of the film, an act playing on the stage after Davis; its Bob Dylan. The future is just there around the corner, giving the film a brilliant poignancy.

For folk music - and then folk rock - was a baby boomer music, appealing to that middle class audience that was becoming both politically and financially active during the 1960s; yet its early advocates were hardly that - esoteric professors who liked slumming it now and then in the village, or misanthropic outsiders like Davis, based, to some extent on Dave Van Ronk, the contemporary who most inspired Dylan.

Like Woody Allen, the Coens have a propensity for a certain quirky nostalgia, fashioning new stories out of old half-remembered millieu - like the silent movie pastiche of the deathly the Hudsucker Proxy. And also like Allen, they tend to originate their own source material. So as accurate in so many ways as the "feel" of "Inside Llewyn Davis" is, it both is and isn't a historical story. Davis is an invention, and in some ways, the truly interesting story of Greenwich village before Dylan, Joan Baez and others appeared, is subsumed into something smaller and less compelling. The telling of the story in Dylan's "Chronicles" is the most fascinating bit of that intrigueing memoir, and compared with that, the Coen's version seems in part just a number of gestures, despite an authentic sounding soundtrack. More puzzling is an interlude halfway through the film where, in typical Coen style, Davis goes on a road trip, with a heroin-addled John Goodman as a comic turn jazz musician. It seems a generic Coen episode rather than adding anything to the film, and when Davis finally gets to Chicago it is only to get another rejection and a bit of a wake-up call that his life isn't working.
Yet for all that, there is some method to their madness, as the comic side of Davis's predicament is shown through his accidentally losing, then finding, then dreaming about a ginger cat. For all the pleasure of a Goodman set piece, it hardly adds to the film.

Yet I think why I finally really liked the movie, and why I've been thinking about it all week, is that it does say something quite profound about the nature of the artist. For Davis is clearly a sideman to history, a John the Baptist, holding the fort till the Messiah arrives - and yet in that precursor nature, he becomes a very un-American hero; for America loves its winners, and Davis is almost collateral damage - yet there's something highly poignant about this. For we are less interested as viewers in seeing success  - the big stadium tour, the bestselling novel - rather, seeing the struggle to get to that point; yet by focusing on a Van Ronk figure rather than a Dylan, the Coens are giving us the poignancy of the creative artist who doesn't quite stack up to brilliance; the man who has a dream and follows it, however far down the river it takes him. There aren't that many films that seem to be do more than gloss over the art of creativity, but in its concentration on a particular moment, and on a particular lesser artist, the Coen's have created a lovely picture of the artistic underdog, which in some ways, is more truthful than the rags-to-riches biopic. Well worth a watch.

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