Monday, January 20, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

So here's a thing.  Sometimes people who are very competent in one art form are clueless about
another.  I've seen it a lot in my professional life (and in the mirror):  people who are tremendously sensitive and supple in their thinking about literature who use images, paintings or photos, without the slightest wariness, as if what you see is just what you get.  People whose understanding of the visual arts is as multifaceted and textured as you can get who treat text like fluff.  Filmmakers who treat music as nothing but plot or atmosphere; the Coen Brothers are not among their number, however.

So now we get musicians treating the latest Coen Brothers movie as if it were not art.  As if it could aspire to be nothing but a movie "about" a real person or place or time.  As if any deviations from what these musicians remember or imagine are breaches of faith, rather than artistic choices.

Which is not to say that Inside Llewyn Davis doesn't have things to say about Dave Van Ronk, or Greenwich Village in the early '60s, or the Folk Revival.  Just that these things will be said in the context of the movie's true aims, whatever those are.  And that if you expected this to be a Van Ronk biopic you were ignorant, pure and simple. 


And while I'm thinking about critics of the Coen Brothers, let me say I've had it up to fucking here with this idea that the Coens hate their characters.  I have no idea what this is supposed to even mean, even though it's been part of the critical rap on them from the very beginning.  Go back to reviews of Blood Simple and you'll see it there.  Sure they laugh at their characters, but you don't think they have a deep and abiding love, empathy, and even respect for Ulysses Everett McGill?  For Barton Fink?  For Larry Gopnik, and sure for Llewyn Davis?  The fact is that human beings are idiots, every one of them, silly and vain and flatulent and oddly shaped;  and that comes through in a Coen Brothers movie.  But saying that doesn't mean you hate them.


The Coen Brothers think more deeply about music than most filmmakers.  Their scores are employed with as much thought and care as everything else in their films (which is to say:  a hell of a lot).  And when they use pre-existing records, or new recordings of old songs, it's always with a deep knowledge of them that speaks (like all the odd details of character and setting in their films) of a delight in them for their own sake.  A humanism of music.

So it is with the music in this film.  And it helps that they know their Dylan pretty damn well - they've always been properly appreciative of their fellow Minnesotan Jewish artist.

Which is why their choice of Dylan's derivative-original "Fare Thee Well" to close the movie is so dead-on.  Like, the more you know about Dylan the more sense this makes.  If you know your early Dylan then when Davis is told that "the New York Times will be there" at the Gaslight that night, not to see you but this other new act in town, you immediately think of Robert Shelton's career-launching NYT review of Dylan.  And so it's entirely right that as Young Bob is up there on stage doing just what Llewyn Davis has been doing for the whole movie (sing personally twisted versions of old folk songs), but doing it with more charisma and more instinctive songcraft, as presumably a secret Shelton is in the audience about to make him a star, Davis himself is out in the alley getting the shit kicked out of him.  By all accounts Dylan's impact on the folk revival scene was just that violent.  Not all at once, but over a period of years.  Dylan joined the scene, then without necessarily meaning to he destroyed the scene.  Not overnight, but quickly enough, he made what Llewyn Davis was doing irrelevant.


What about the claim that Inside Llewyn Davis neglects the Civil Rights Movement?  Well, it's true.  If this were, say, Cadillac Records or Walk the Line or any other music biopic, it would have an obligation to reflect the importance of political concerns to the musicians who drove the folk revival scene.  This movie doesn't do that.  Obviously because it doesn't choose to do that, and this should surprise no one who knows the Coens' movies, since they always have only an oblique and suggestive relationship to the politics of the periods in which they're set.

My read of it is this.  The movie is called Inside Llewyn Davis, and that's what it's about.  Not the world outside Llewyn Davis - not the real Greenwich Village, the real early '60s, but the emotional and mental and artistic landscape found inside him.  Inside this fictional character.  Obvs.

But more than that.  I've always thought of O Brother as being about, not the South that produced the songs in it, but the South that the songs in it produce:  the Depression-era South as you'd imagine it based on nothing but old Carter Family and Robert Johnson records, and maybe their covers.  The South inside the music.  In just that way, Inside Llewyn Davis is about the Greenwich Village evoked by the music.  And by the cover of Inside Dave Van Ronk.  (That cat, for example.)

And the thing is, until Dylan came along and started writing the protest songs, you wouldn't know from the music what these people cared about, politically.  For these usually well-off usually-white usually-young usually-Northern usually-urban people, singing the songs of the black rural old poor Other was a gesture in support of the Civil Rights movement.  But the songs weren't about that.  Mostly.  Dylan of course wasn't the first to write protest songs, or explicitly political songs.  But look at what Van Ronk, Joan Baez, and others were recording on their pre-Dylan albums:  songs about other things:  suffering, pain, parting, hope, love, etc.  Eternal verities which demanded, ultimately, Civil Rights as a recognition of the common humanity of the people who had first spoken these eternal verities in this way - but which transcended any particular political goal.

To say this may sound like it's belittling the importance of the Movement.  And that's precisely the controversy Dylan sparked - not when he plugged in, but before that, when at the height of his fame as a prophet of protest he recorded an album of personal songs.  Love songs, hate songs, humor songs, rambling songs about himself, not the Movement.  And called it Another Side Of (although he hated the title).  To indulge in the personal is, by some lights, to resist progress.  Or at least to stop contributing to it.  A counter-revolutionary act, in some circles.

For better or worse, I think that's where this movie lives.  I think it's trying to reflect the world you get from listening to Dave Van Ronk, early pre-protest Dylan, even Tommy Clancy and the Makem Brothers - a world that's largely introspective, weighed down by its own feelings, and by the difficulty of expressing them through songs and styles borrowed from the Other.  The results are often beautiful, but strangely inarticulate, like Davis himself, for all their fluency; and this gives rise to not a little frustration.  Thus the moment when Davis heckles the Jean Ritchie analog, the one singer in the film who comes by her music authentically - and Davis can't handle it, and he calls her fake.  In many ways it's the realest moment in the film.