Sunday, January 19, 2014

Young and artistic

Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis observes a young, virtually penniless singer (Oscar Isaac) as he moves around Greenwich Village in 1961, playing gigs in the same handful of locations, sleeping on couches or on floors, trying to get his record noticed and to catch some kind of break. Until recently, he was part of a duo, but his partner killed himself by jumping off a bridge; he slept with a woman (Carey Mulligan) who may be pregnant by him, although it may be by her husband (Justin Timberlake), one of his best friends – in case it’s the former, she has him organize an abortion, which is something he’s also been through in the past (in several scenes he gets berated as constituting a deadly sexual threat to women, although there’s little evidence that he’s living a life of Keith Richards-like excess). I’m not sure there’s a moment in the film where Davis is plainly happy, even when he’s performing – he can ably turn it on and off, and tells his sister that a regular job would amount only to existing rather than living, but it’s unclear whether he really feels the distinction or whether it’s a piece of received wisdom, the search to make sense of it being part of his burden.

Inside Llewyn Davis

The film has earned the Coens some of their all-time best reviews, and that’s obviously saying a lot – it’s won a number of the year-end critics’ awards (including that of the Toronto group, who also chose Isaac as the best actor). Despite all that, it’s not attracting much of an audience – those whose idea of the Coens is defined primarily by Fargo and The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men will probably find it rather muted and uneventful. The New York Times wrote a story on how the soundtrack album was failing to match the success of that for Oh Brother Where Art Thou, although it actually seems quite logical that if Llewyn isn’t setting the world on fire in the world of the film, then he’s not going to do it in our world either. Anyway, I’ve often had trouble understanding quite what’s so praiseworthy about some of their works, but I don’t have that problem here – it is indeed one of the year’s most quietly insinuating pleasures.

Of their previous work, it most made me think of their last film but one, A Serious Man, about a mid-western suburban math professor in the late 60’s suffering a multitude of misfortunes. That film seemed to mock the very notion of grand institutionalized meaning, and although it was full of incidental pleasures, the word it most brought to my mind was “cartoonish.” Writing about it here, I concluded: “I suppose the Coens have suffered (the new movie might suggest they didn’t think much of their teenage milieu anyway), but you can’t really feel it even in their tougher-minded works. But then they don’t ever communicate much joy either. Sometimes they seem to know the workings of almost everything, but not the value of it.”

Staying off the streets

Inside Llewyn Davis takes many of the same ideas and impressions, but is much gentler about it, resulting in a much more satisfying tapestry of mysteries. The film unwinds as a series of journeys, punctuated with crossroads at which the road not taken (whether by choice or because of blockages) usually turns out to be the superior one. Many of these are just the day to day hustles of trying to stay off the streets – subway rides, trudges through cold streets, scurrying to grasp at sudden money-making opportunities; others are more substantive, in particular the centerpiece of the film’s structure, an impulsive and bizarre trip to Chicago. There’s always a sense of an underlying logic beyond his or our grasp, partly embodied by the recurring motif of a ginger cat, a device which could have been dire, but isn’t at all. In the timespan of the film, Davis gains some clarity about the likely trajectory of his career, but then a miserable series of events prevents him from being able to act on it; in the end, he might almost be caught in one of those science-fiction time loops, unable to do much more than to keep going and to hope it’ll eventually turn out differently.

This all sounds like a bit of a downer, and maybe it is – it’s tempting to think a lot of critics respond so warmly to the film because it resonates against their own difficulties. But it’s also full of humour and impressive observation. The accessible highpoint, no question, is a recording of a novelty song “Please Mr. Kennedy,” performed by Isaac and Timberlake and a sublimely strange Adam Driver. Other aspects, such as the character played by John Goodman, straddle a more complex line between absurdity and tragedy. A theme of displacement and reinvention winds through the film – the use of pseudonyms, performers reconfiguring themselves (someone with sway in the business tells Llewyn he can only see him as the second guy in a trio), cats that may or may not be the same cat; and more broadly and intimately, events that demand a reassessment of oneself as father or as son.

The value of things

The very title Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit of a conundrum in that it’s not clear how far inside him we really get, or how far inside we possibly could get. And that resonates against the music that populates the film – songs that sound naked and confessional (it opens with his performance of a number called “Hang me, oh hang me..”) but which can’t really be so when they’re performed night after night. By the end of the film, it feels like we’ve moved through a remarkably complex and subtle series of existential repositionings, all the more striking because assessed more literally, we haven’t gone anywhere at all.

Going back to those lines I wrote about A Serious Man and applying them to Inside Llewyn Davis, you may not fully feel the suffering or the joy this time either, but in this case that feels satisfyingly true to the limitations of its protagonist. As throughout their career, the Coens create a world that feels real and persuasive, even if experts can poke some holes in the details. But what’s most interesting to apply here is that line about them not knowing the value of things. Being young, an artist of some kind, living in times of growth and change – many of us might rewrite our lives to incorporate more of that and less of what we actually lived through. But who knows how accurately those who lived through such times report on them afterwards, given our helpless compulsions to make accessible narratives out of what was really chaos, and the flattening of joy and pain in our memories?

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