Tuesday, May 13, 2014
I'm way behind #20: Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. This is a first-impression culture, and the film is hardly sunshine and lollipops, but I just can't relate to these reactions. Yes, the film is melancholy, with a mournful, autumnal quality to the cinematography, and many of the characters carry sadness, bitterness, and anger with them like a security blanket. And, yes, Llewyn Davis eats a lot of shit, which is sometimes his fault and sometimes not, and he can be selfish, self-absorbed, and cranky, but he's got plenty of good qualities, not least of which is his stoic acceptance of all that shit-eating while he carries on doing what he does. In this determination to continue, Llewyn Davis is an unconventionally optimistic figure, and the Coens are unconventionally optimistic filmmakers. They know the odds are not generally in our favor, they know the world is an uncaring place, they know that bad stuff is going to happen and happen often, and they know that even the best of us are fools, but surrounding that pessimistic landscape is an optimistic frame of great humor, determination, and a what-the-hell-else-are-we-going-to-do acceptance. Their films remind me of my grandfather's dog Jake (he should have acted in one of their movies), a grouchy, ill-tempered, heart-of-gold mutt with an overbite and fur that looked and felt exactly like steel wool. Jake refused to die on multiple occasions out of stubborn determination. Every glance at Jake was accompanied by a complicated swirl of emotions and opinions, a casserole of fear, affection, admiration, trepidation, pity, and humor. He was ridiculous and funny to look at and to think about, but he was often in on the joke. (The films are quite a bit more visually elegant than that dog, but you get the idea.)
The Coens are often accused by detractors of looking down on their characters and whipping up a smug superiority in their audiences by encouraging them to laugh at the buffoons up on the screen. In a few of their weaker films, this is uncomfortably close to being true, but I generally tend to disagree with this criticism. They've populated their films with a complex variety of characters and encouraged a diverse range of responses, reserving their largest stores of warmth and affection for the most buffoonish. When we laugh at a Coen character, we're laughing at parts of ourselves, and though there is a distance between their characters and the audience, it's not a distance that separates them from their humanness. The Coens aren't particularly emotional filmmakers, and there's a control-freak aspect to their formal style (especially in the early films), but they're not cold, either. They clearly love their actors, and there's always an element of real human emotion and experience in every character, even the most exaggerated and cartoonish. (Anton Chigurh is a big exception in No Country for Old Men, though his narrative function is to draw all-too-human reactions from everyone else). Inside Llewyn Davis feels like one of their most human, direct films, without the cartoon exaggerations or genre-exercise layers of protection they often put between themselves and their audience.
Set in the early-'60s Greenwich Village folk scene that nurtured (and sometimes hindered) Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Fred Neil, Tim Hardin, the Kingston Trio, et al., Inside Llewyn Davis takes its overcast autumn cinematography from Dylan's Freewheelin' cover and several of Llewyn's experiences from Van Ronk's autobiography, The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Music is integral to the film, but it's not an inside-baseball, record-collector's movie. I think it's a film about how to manage the day-to-day minutiae of living while dealing with grief and about how much indignity and shit-eating you have to endure if you want to pursue a career in music (or any of the arts) and you're not a huge success. This may sound like a drag to watch, but it isn't. The film is very funny, full of good music, tightly constructed, and sensitively and entertainingly performed.
In those films, Barton Fink and Larry Gopnik contend with setbacks in their careers, bad luck and misfortune thrown at them by a dark and uncaring world, and struggles and clashes with fellow members of their cultural and Jewish communities. Like Barton, Llewyn is a struggling artist trying to succeed creatively who butts heads with the commerce- and entertainment-minded people who run the business side of things, and his prickly disposition makes him few friends. Like Larry, Llewyn is a sharp guy who's in over his head when life pummels him with random acts of misfortune and indignity. There are some sharp differences, though. Barton is a bit of a fraud, a pompous, pretentious pseudo-intellectual who condescends to and barely understands the working classes he considers it his leftist duty to write about while Llewyn is a genuine talent with a deep love of the music he plays. Barton compromises his ethics by writing a wrestling movie for Wallace Beery while Llewyn suffers many indignities by choosing to go his own way. Larry Gopnik, meanwhile, is a far more frenetic and neurotic character than Llewyn, desperately wanting to know why he's being tested while Llewyn sighs, groans, and accepts it. It's also important to note that Llewyn is a solo artist because his former singing partner has recently committed suicide. Llewyn's grief is never overt, but it informs and haunts the entire film. He's carrying a burden that Barton and Larry don't have yet.
Tonally, as well, Inside Llewyn Davis is a far different film than Barton Fink and A Serious Man. While all three films play as fables, the earlier two are comedies so black they approach horror. They come across as nightmares, and they share a kinship with the early films of Roman Polanski. Inside Llewyn Davis is more naturalistic, more pragmatic, with characters that have stopped asking "why me?" and just continued on, but it's also dreamier, floatier, emotion and atmosphere turned into narrative structure. The film's cyclical narrative can be read as a pessimistic loop Llewyn is forever trapped in, as a flashback explaining what happened in the opening scene, or as a message finally making itself known to Llewyn, a message that could propel him out of the rut he's stuck in, an agent of change masquerading as avenging husband kicking Llewyn's ass for mocking his folk singer wife in a misdirected moment of drunken anger while Bob Dylan takes the stage for his debut. Your own disposition will make that choice for you.
The Coens have been on an incredible roll lately, and Inside Llewyn Davis is one of my favorites of both this phase of their careers and the whole filmography. I talked about Oscar Isaac as Llewyn, but the whole supporting cast delivers here, with special kudos to Carey Mulligan, Max Casella, F. Murray Abraham, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett as Llewyn's patrons, and the welcome return of John Goodman to a Coen Brothers film, as a sour-tempered heroin-addicted jazz musician who shares a fraught road trip to Chicago with Llewyn. As a cat lover, I also need to mention the enjoyable presence of a very expressive cat (maybe two cats). Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography captures a look, mood, and feel that nails the tricky tone of period accuracy, drama and comedy, pragmatic reality and dreamlike reverie. I love this movie. It's not depressing and Llewyn Davis is not a jerk. Well, not entirely a jerk. He has his moments.
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