Thursday, January 9, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis OR The Tragic Story of the Misunderstood Folk Musician

PLEASE NOTE: In the discussion of the content of the film Inside Llewyn Davis, this blog post contains SPOILERS.

I went to see Inside Llewyn Davis last week at the Oxford Theatre in Halifax; an old school theatre without stadium seating and with a balcony (my fellow and I sat in the balcony).

For those of you who haven't heard of this film, it is a Coen Brothers film. For those of you who haven't heard of the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, I recommend you look them up and watch a few of their finest: Miller's Crossing, Fargo, The Big LebowskiO Brother Where Art Thou.

The Coen Brothers excel at making movies about people going on quests, about people searching for something, a MacGuffin, often with unexpected results. As the blind prophet says in O Brother Where Art Thou: "The treasure you seek shall not be the treasure you find."

In Inside Llewyn Davis, I couldn't decide if Llewyn Davis was seeking success, or seeking to gain the love or admiration of another human being. I think he ultimately fails at both quests and at the end of the movie, he has given up in despair and is looking forward to a lifetime of drudgery and a lonely, miserable death.

Watching this movie was an intense experience for me.

You see, Llewyn Davis is a folksinger. As the film follows him through a week in 1961 in Greenwich Village, with a detour to Chicago, we see him fail to connect with Jean, a woman he has impregnated, with a cat, some fans, his friends, his sister, another cat and his fellow musicians.

He fails to connect with them in a variety of ways, through cynicism, neglect, rage, contempt, crudeness, selfishness, abandonment and insult.

The only thing he seems to do right is sing and play. Yet he fails to find success as a musician, too. He plays to enthusiastic applause at the Gaslight, but he gets no money or respect from his world-weary, disinterested music publisher/agent. When he auditions for a club owner in Chicago, the response is: "I don't see any money here." When he's invited to play at a session, where his contempt for the bubble-gummy song he must play and sing oozes from his every pore, he takes the quick cash as a session player rather than go through his publisher for a piece of the royalties. He needs the money right away to pay for the abortion Jean is demanding.

All of this misery and failure rests on something that happened before the movie opens: the suicide of Llewyn's former musical partner, Mike, who jumped off the George Washington bridge. Did he jump, I couldn't help but wonder, because he couldn't bear to spend another day in the company of Llewyn Davis?

And, at the same time, Llewyn is somehow a sympathetic character. I identified with him and felt for him. He sang with his whole heart and had a beautiful voice and fine skills on the guitar. But he was missing the diplomatic skills one needs to succeed in The Business. I could relate to that.

The final scene at the Gaslight shows musicians who are obviously meant to be The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem and Bob Dylan, musicians who went on to be stars of the 60s folk revival. Llewyn goes on to get punched in the face in the alley behind the Gaslight and to sit there, staring into his future of shipping out as a merchant marine.

I can't help but think that Llewyn's main problem was that he seemed to think that he was the only folksinger in the world who was sincere and singing from the heart. He didn't realize that many of the people around him were equally earnest and equally worthy as humans.

Essentially, Llewyn was embittered by the lack of recognition and love in his life.

I came away from the movie feeling that I never want that to happen to me. I offer up this plea now: "May I never be bitter and always accept with equanimity the amount of recognition I do or do not receive in this world." And "Please may I always remember that I'll take connection, love and kindness over recognition every single time".

PS: Just a word to say that while I loved this film, I was very away of how it totally failed the Bechdel Test. Perhaps that was intentional, reflectly the misogynist time and culture in which it is set. One scene that particularly stuck out to me is the scene where Llewyn is talking with the slimy owner of The Gaslight. This guy reveals that he has slept with Jean. "If you want to play at the Gaslight..." he says. Though presumably that only applies to women. No wonder Jean is so angry and hostile. She lives in a world that makes her do something disgusting to receive the same privilege that a man can get just by playing and singing half-decently.

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