Inside Llewyn Davis
SPOILER NOTICE: I begin by giving away the ending. Just see the movie. Its terrific. Then you can possibly enjoy this comment on the film afterwards..
Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in 1961, is played brilliantly by Oscar Isaac You will never recognize Oscar Isaac as the ex-con husband, ironically named Standard, of Ryan Gosling’s love interest in the 2011 movie, Drive. Llewyn is a great singer. Before Isaac became an actor, he was the lead vocalist and guitar player in his own high school band and subsequently graduated from Julliard in 2005. The film is not a biopic but the character of Llewyn Davis was inspired by the Brooklyn folksinger and songwriter David Von Ronk whose signature melancholic song Isaac sings in the opening: Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Other than being physically shorter, Llewyn Davis resembles pictures of his inspiration, but the fictional character is actually very different than his inspiration.
At the end of the movie, after Llewyn Davis finishes his folk singing gig at the Gaslight Cafe, we are led to believe this is probably his last session before he resumes his life as a seaman. Though also an ex-seaman, Von Ronk was not a rumpled and luckless couch surfer and shlmiel going from one friend or acquaintance to another and abusing their hospitality by bad manners and rudeness. The characters and attitudes to music of the real and the fictional persona are very different. Llewyn Davis is portrayed as a very talented folk singer, but his career has been a failure piled on top of one personal mishap after another. In contrast, though Von Ronk never became a great commercial success, he lived in Greenwich Village enjoying the title, “Mayor of McDougal Street”. As a musician in the film, Llewyn Davis is a purist in his dedication to the new folk music, but only its acoustic variation. Unlike Von Ronk (and the actor, Oscar Isaac), Davis seems to be uninfluenced by jazz, rock and blues. However, like his real inspiration, Llewyn Davis is a pioneer of the folk revival, writing his own folk songs. Unlike Von Ronk, Llewyn Davis becomes stuck in that self-creation and is shunted aside by history.
That early coffee club folk scene is remembered by most of its narrators as a utopian dreamy period when music united everyone in love. That constructed nostalgic memory is how I recall the coffee club we frequented in 1961 called the Bohemian Embassy on the second floor reached from St. Nicholas Street that ran parallel to and just west of Yonge Street below Bloor in Toronto before the coffee clubs migrated to Yorkville and became the in-places for the young crowd. The Coen brothers have reconstructed this early folk music scene as a war of all against all, the oldies who sang only adapted vernacular songs versus the newbies who wrote their own “folk” music, the purists who disdained commercial success and those who compromised with commercial demands, and, most of all, as a vicious open war between the blues, jazz and folk artists. In both the darkest as well as the funniest sequence in the movie, that latter conflict is hilariously portrayed on the screen in a wonderful vignette when Llewyn Davis hitches a ride with a drugged out jazz condescending foul-mouthed musician, Roland Turner, played brilliantly by John Goodman. Turner has an especially vituperative spleen for folkies.
Von Rook may resemble Llewyn Davis in not having become a great success, but, unlike Von Rock, Llewyn Davis is a shlump, lacks charisma and a generosity of spirit. As such, he lives as an heir to the long line of brilliant portraits of fictional losers of the Coen brothers. Llewyn Davis is a miscreant – of a civil rather than criminal kind. He is a misfit, deadbeat and sad sack who carries bitterness as weapons of war to sabotage all efforts of others to befriend and help him. He also shows how even nutty self-destructive utopians can be endearing and why his most bourgeois followers let him sleep on their sofas even as he disdains them for not being sufficiently reverential about his music. In the end, it is his fellow folk artists who leave him behind in the dust. There’s no success like failure, but failure is no success at all.
The film is entitled, Inside Llewyn Davis because we watch the self-destructive behaviour of Llewyn Davis as ways to catch insights into the internal demons that haunt him as he takes one hit on the chin after another. The club owner of The Gate of Horn in Chicago, Bud Grossman (played by F. Murray Abraham and a probable allusion to Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s long time manager) tells Llewyn bluntly: I see talent in you but there is no money in it. Ironically, I believe it was also Grossman who advised him to find the self-knowledge to become the great artist he can by looking deep inside himself.
Llewyn Davis does no such thing. He plays the role like Buster Keaton in his famous comedies with impassivity at each disaster, except when he panics about the loss of a cat. When he loses that melancholic stare, he bursts into an uncontrollable rage to explode all the emotions he has been piling up inside. In the scene with an academic couple in Morningside Heights where he crashes as a last resort, he explodes into a terrible fit of anger after he is literally enticed into singing for his supper and then Lillian Gorflein sings the harmony section that belonged to his singing partner who bizarrely jumped off the Washington Bridge whereas any normal suicide jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge.
The film is not about the world around Llewyn Davis even as the film accurately captures the spirit and flavour of that unique moment in 1961 in which the film is set in spite of its nostalgically constructed memories of itself — the moment of gestation for the era of the folksong writer and performer when it was about to take over the music scene. Llewyn Davis missed the successful aftermath. He shipped out to sea instead. But the film, though an accurate reproduction, is not primarily a comment on the socio-political life of New York, Greenwich Village or Washington Square of the time.
In spite of the title, Inside Llewyn Davis, like Joel and Ethan Coen themselves, like virtually all their characters, Llewyn Davis is a star among those who adopt the slogan that the unexamined life is the only life worth living – or portraying. The Coen borthers are the most prominent advertisers confronting the philosophic dictum that the examined life is the only life worth living. Why are the Coens successful but the characters they create, including Llewyn Davis, is not? The Coens do not second guess and analyze their creations. They just bring them to artistic fruition. They leave the analysis to guys like me. In 1965, the rock group, The Who‘s first album, “I Can’t Explain” came out, but 1965 goes a long way to explaining the 1961 folk scene.
As Llewyn Davis leaves the coffee house at the end of the film, we see a glimpse of and hear the introductory bars of the next act. It is Bob Dylan playing his song Farewell, evidently a version of one session made for his album, The Times They Are A-Changin. Though an actor portraying Dylan appears at the end of the film and for less than a minute, Dylan provides the whole frame for the film and its foil. Like Joel and Ethan Coen, Bob Dylan was born a Minnesotan and was the successful pioneer in writing, singing and performing his own original folk music rather than restricting his repertoire simply to adaptations of vernacular American music of the working class. Bob Dylan may have been like Llewyn Davis in taking on a Welsh name to replace Robert Zimmerman, but it was a last name to send a message that he intended to last. Llewyn only had a first Welsh name; he may have come first, but Dylan was the agent of change who stayed around until the last because he could handle both folk and blues rhythms and incorporate rock into his music without imitating its straight twelve bar progression but with lyrics that even the most strident literary academic had to admit made great poetry.
I last listened to Bob Dylan singing in person in a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto on a cold not-yet wintry day at the end of 1965, much like the weather in New York at the beginning of the movie, but four years after the time in which the movie is set. I had gone to that Dylan concert with the late Sam Ajzenstat, a fellow philosopher who died in 2013 and about whom I wrote a memorial essay. In the first half of the concert, Dylan sang from his repertoire of “classic” folk songs. In the second half, he switched to electronic folk-rock and became part of the new wave of music. I was one of the few that walked out. It was not as if I had not been forewarned. Dylan had introduced his new sound at the Newport Folk Music festival months earlier – to much controversy. I was on the reactionary side – not so much because I was a purist. I was not sophisticated enough for that. I just have never been able to tolerate very loud music. Dylan had blasted me out of the hall and I paced outside in the cold waiting for Sam, the greatest lover of opera music that I ever met, but a great lover of all music. He stayed to the very end.
1965 was a horrific year in the international sphere and I was very slow to adapt. I would not take my family to Israel until 1973, even though I experienced the shock and fear of Israel’s destruction in 1967 and then thought I had better re-examine my traditionalist universalist anti-Zionism, but I took six years to begin to do so even after 1967. Otherwise I might have anticipated the changes that were coming, for in 1965 Al-Fatah was organized and the Palestinian nationalist movement developed its own voice but then with a strident determination to destroy the Zionist entity. 1965 was the year Israel and Germany finally recognized one another and exchanged ambassadors. I thought that this was a signal that the new age of reconciliation had begun, especially since that year Pope Paul VI had decreed that Jews were absolved of any blame for the crucifixion of Christ. But a number of Arab countries greeted the German-Israel exchange of diplomats as if Germany had declared war; they broke off diplomatic relations with Germany. Cassius Clay had even become Mohammed Ali and knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round. I did not attend to the portents of the future, but the closing page of a previous era. My heroes were dying all around me – Adlai Stevenson, Edward R. Murrow, Felix Frankfurter, Martin Buber.
I thought signs of my kind of change were everywhere. LBJ gave his Great Society message to Americans and delivered in domestic policy what John F. Kennedy had been unable to do. Martin Luther King had been arrested in Selma, Alabama and, upon his release, continued his famous March to Montgomery. My totally inconsequential tiny and symbolic participation in the effort to change racial politics in the United States had not been in vain. But there many ominous signs – the Watts riots in Los Angeles, the race riots in Chicago. Malcolm X was assassinated that year. We had not started to receive draft dodgers and deserters at the end of the underground railway for the new refugees from the United States. But the portents were all there – especially in Vietnam. General Nguyen Khan overthrew the horrific Diem regime to introduce an even worse and perhaps more corrupt military dictatorship in South Vietnam. The Americans started their bombing runs on the north and introduced ground troops to fight in Vietnam while the Viet Cong launched its suicidal attack against the American airbase in Da Nang. But some were paying attention. Morley Safer’ reported that the Americans were losing. I was still practicing mindblindness.
The ominous signs of a new world had become ubiquitous. The US sent troops to the Dominican Republic. China annexed Tibet with hardly a peep of protest from anywhere. Mobutu Sese Seko staged his coup to become president for the next 32 years of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, renamed Zaire. He also became the greatest kleptocrat of the twentieth century. Though the anti-nuclear weapons movement – the Combined Universities Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament which I had led at the University of Toronto – had seemed a great success and a nuclear test ban treaty had been signed, underground testing by both sides took off and China joined the nuclear club. Had we really believed that if we only banned the bomb, then peace would have a chance, that if schools were integrated, racial hatred would end? More significantly, the most all pervading changes that would influence the prospects for peace and ethnic and racial harmony far more than any of our protests were all around as moon landings had become a regular habit distracting us from the most profound change of all, the launch of communications satellites which would make the internet possible fifteen years later.
In Canada, the Canadian pension plan, a pension I now collect, was introduced, and our country was finally flying its own real flag, the Maple Leaf, instead of the hand-me-down Red Ensign. I had not renewed my contract to teach at TrinityCollege at the University of Toronto, but I broke my vow never again to teach at a university a month later after I heard Dylan and took a job starting the next year at YorkUniversity. My fourth child, Eric, had been born. Had I become the careerist that Llewyn Davis had resisted? But I could not sincerely sing, as Llewyn Davis acted out, Dylan’s lyrics.
So it’s fare thee well my own true love,
We’ll meet another day, another time.
It ain’t the leavin’
That’s a-grievin’ me
But my true love who’s bound to stay behind.
Llewyn Davis gets girls pregnant. On his return from his failed road trip to Chicago where he believed that he might “strike it lucky on a highway goin’ west”, he did not take the exit ramp to Akron, Ohio. He probably never saw the child he conceived that he thought had been aborted but was now about 2 years old. Llewyn is perverse. He accepts responsibility for an orange cat but never faces his obligations to people who care for him. Instead, he opts to use music to: “tell you of the laughter and of troubles, Be them somebody else’s or my own, with my hands in my pockets and my coat collar high,” and travels “unnoticed and unknown.
In 1965, in case you thought the hydro outage of December 2013 was the worst, the most enormous power failure covered most of New York State and the Province of Ontario and served as a metaphor for the dark cave in which we had found ourselves. There were many deaths that year – Churchill and Nat King Cole. Malcolm X was assassinated, T.S. Eliot, the celebrated poet who had drifted into obscurantism and become a reactionary, died. When I had been an undergraduate, I had written an essay on his anti-semitism and the links between his aesthetic beliefs as expressed in his essays, and the new form of poetry he had developed. Since I wrote it to bury T.S. Eliot not to praise him, and T.S. Eliot was one of the darlings of modern English literature, I was more than surprised when I was awarded an A++ for the essay when A’s alone were very rare. But I was delighted to be alive when he was actually buried.
Dylan was himself proof that the not only were the times a changin, but that if you wanted to become a great artist, you had to change with those times, and, in fact, become a leader in those changes. But maybe you needn’t. After all, the real hit of the year was the Sound of Music with Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer. I did finally listen to the Beatles and was overwhelmed. I even listened to the Rolling Stones sing “Satisfaction,” but my favourite remained Dylan’s 1965 song “Like a Rolling Stone” now available on YouTube as a music video directed by the young Israeli, Vania Heymann.
How does it feel
How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone ?
However, Llewyn Davis was the rolling stone, not some lost love. Llewyn’s current impregnated lost love, Jean, played with verve and creativity by Mary Mulligan (who was also Ryan Gosling’s love interest in Drive) is now with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who tries to give his fellow folk-singer a helping hand and even gets him a gig as they sing a very commercial but witty and delightfully bubbly entertaining studio song, “Please Mr Kennedy”. But all Llewyn can do is contemptuously and condescendingly act out Bob Dylan’s lyrics mocking that, “You said you’d never compromise.” Llewyn can only boast that at least he has learned “to live on the street”. But even he gets tired, very tired, and cannot get used to it. He goes to sea again
If the overarching narrative is an echo of Bob Dylan’s lyrics, it is the lyrics themselves that make this movie a number one classic. I hardly ever tell the ending and rarely write about the soundtrack of a movie, but this movie is as much the sound track performed by the actors themselves as it is the acting and the very terse story-line that is little more than a short story. The movie begins with Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis singing the very mournful and melancholic , “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” that sets the tone for the whole movie. As the refrain goes, the problem is not the hangin’ “but the laying in the grave” for so long. So we are introduced to a man who is slowly digging his own grave and closing the door to career opportunities because that would mean going commercial.
As the Coen brothers said in their CBC interview with Ian Ghimeshi about the film, they were lucky. Their taste, even if somewhat idiosyncratic, always was sufficiently commercial without the bad luck of having had to work under the studio system. They themselves never felt the need to choose between success and integrity. With their good fortune, they had it both ways. Unfortunately, Llewyn Davis can never envision a superceding synthesis but continually faces the point where two roads are perceived as diverging – at one point, literally, and Llewyn took the one least travelled by, to purity, the abandonment of human connections and obscurity. Llewyn does not have the wings to fly and always needs the one he loves. Llewyn never means to be unkind but an Other is the last thing on his mind. And he could certainly have loved his lovers and friends better, but he closes his eyes while poignantly singing to express with passion, what he is unable to do in real life, the emotional agony of loneliness. Llewyn is never ambiguous in his choice for the romance of traveling; but he is always ambivalent.
As Timberlake sings, “Five Hundred Miles,” Llewyn should have been able to hear the whistle blowing at one hundred miles. But Llewyn is too stubborn to listen to signals and is caught up in his own magical mystery tour. Instead, in song he recaps an old English ballad and mourns for Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, in “The Death of Queen Jane” who died giving birth to the future King Edward VI as the baby was removed from her womb by caesarean section: “good women as ye be, open my right side and find my baby”. Llewyn was a man who would sacrifice the woman to save the child, but it is himself as the child that he is dedicated to saving. He is a developed loser, a roving gambler who, when he meets the devil at a fork in the road, chooses to “lay his money down” and bet rather than take up his responsibilities.
Which brings me back to why I wrote about 1965 instead of 1961. For Bob Dylan and the fictional character, Llewyn Davis, were at the fork of the road that will throw up a revolutionary protest period that four years later – much earlier than usually recorded – came crashing down into conformity. Dylan sits in the background and made the transition, “made” in the sense of both created and survived. Llewyn Davis lost his stake in the shuffle at the very commencement. When he sings at the bedside of his silent catatonic father in a home for retired seamen, he not only suggests his folk singing is rooted in the communist seafarers’ union, but also tells us that he is about to return to “the shoals of herring” as a merchant seaman rather than a fisherman.
The movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, deserved to win the Grand Prix at Cannes and is now my favourite Coen brothers’ film along side, O Brother Where Ought Thou? The film is linked together by a hilarious and very effective shaggy cat rather than shaggy dog story, a fitting symbol since cats do what they want to do not what you want them to do and that is why the cat in the movie is really many different cats depending on the temperament required to shoot a particular scene. Both of my favourite Coen brother films are road movies, but whereas O Brother Where Ought Thou? is a remake of the Odyssey, in Inside Llewyn Davis, only the cat is called Ulysses.
Llewyn Davis imploded. Dylan stuck around and oversaw the implosion that built up over the next four years. This is a very perceptive as well as sometimes slyly and at other times extravagantly funny film about the very onset of that promised revolution of peace, racial and class harmony. That it happens to turn a myth on its head in the most loving and affectionate way offers an extra bonus.
That is surely the extraordinary skill of the Coen brothers as filmmakers as they tell their tall tales with the absolutely correct degree of gravitas about the minutiae of Americana and reconstruct its myths through a mock-heroic hilarious genre all their own and attain, what Woody Allen never does, a sense of philosophic import that they themselves could never take seriously. That is because their artistry as filmmakers overcomes the radical disjunction between cynicism and sincerity. The authentically real and a fictional construction are interwoven. The trick in creating illusions about disillusion is never to instil a message that either disillusion or illusion provides the answer.
And so the movie comes full circle, only this time we fully understand why Llewyn Davis is beaten up in the back alley of the coffee house, but also how one breaks through the theme of eternal recurrence. The dawn of the era to overthrow the Eisenhower fifties and the man in the gray flannel suit was over almost as soon as it began. As Llewyn Davis weeps inside for his partner who committed suicide and for himself, we weep for a lost era filled with false hope. On the individual level, the film is not a satire of the pursuit of success but a poignant comment on the pursuit of failure.