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Inside Llewyn Davis

So, you want to be an artist?  Let Inside Llewyn Davis be a lesson to you.  Are you ready to watch lesser talents succeed where you fail?  Ready to watch the money cascade on the seemingly undeserving while you can barely pay your bills (or can't at all)?  More daunting yet, you might find out that for all your commitment, your integrity, for all the deep feeling you have for that art at which you toil, you simply aren't talented enough to succeed, to produce the great work.  And if things are going particularly badly, you might be haunted by an orange tabby cat, as is the case with struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac).

This is not the first time that Joel and Ethan Coen have touched upon themes of art versus commerce, of cultural divides, as they have ranged around in location, subject and genre during their thirty years of filmmaking.  Nor is this their first period piece grounded in American roots music.  What is different at this point in two-headed career of the Brothers Coen is the focus, the depth of feeling and the respect for character as well as subject matter that distinguish Inside Llewyn Davis from the likes of Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou? 

There's a kind of a kind of hopeless circle of plot with Inside Llewyn Davis, which if nothing else reflects the going nowhere career of the folk singer.  Once part of the duo Timlin and Davis, Llewyn is a solo artist as the film begins, singing the standard, "Hang me, oh hang me" at a the Gaslight Cafe, the Greenwich Village club owned by Pappi Corsicato (Max Cassella).  After finishing the song and making his exit with the line, "If it was never new and never gets old, it's a folk song," Llewyn is told that a friend is waiting for him in the alley.  This a man who emerges out of the darkness, mutters a few words and sucker punches the stunned singer.  At film's end, essentially the same thing occurs - except that an up-and-coming folk singer by the name of Bob Dylan takes the stage after Llewyn to sing his "Farewell"  - though the angry out-of-towner's words are more clear and we know the source of his grievance.

Between the two versions of the incident in the alley, there is a week or so in the life of the folk singer, discursive and profitless in every way though it may be.

From the first scene of Inside Llewyn Davis in the hushed Gaslight Lounge, there's an indication of how different the film will be from  the Coen's other blend of Americana and roots music (not to mention Homerian epic) O Brother Where Out Thou.  This is not simply a matter of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me," being heard in its entirety, as will be the case with most all of the folk songs performed in the film.  We hear the affecting, the quite passable voice of Oscar Isaac singing the song.  All of the actors - including Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake - lend their voices to song as well as dialog.  This both roots Inside Llewyn Davis in character and gives the performances of these folk standards a level of feeling that would not otherwise be achieved.

T. Bone Burnett plays curator to "Lleywn Davis'" array of folk tunes, as he did with the roots music selected for O Brother Where Art Thou.  In both cases, Burnett and the Coens have introduced to relatively mainstream audiences a rich batch of songs, little known.  There was little quarrel to be had with the selection of voices for the "O Brother" soundtrack - either original vocals like that from Harry McClincock singing "Big Rock Candy Mountain," or contemporary artists like Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch (who wouldn't be lured to their demise by such sirens?).  But there was something decidedly cartoonish about George Clooney's lip-syncing of "I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow" in a recording studio that was consistent with a film merely passing through a culture, a music and even a set of characters to satisfying its touristic ends, vivid though the trip may have been.

 Like many a struggling musician before and after, Llewyn's time is occupied trying to find work and determining where he is going to sleep on a given night.  Try as he might the patience of friends and family, Llewyn can depend on Upper West Side friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (Ethan Phillips and Robin Bartlett) to  provide a meal and bed whenever needed.  It's in the Gorfein's apartment that we see Llewyn wake up to the sight of the couple's orange tabby cat on his chest, a Coenesque perspective shot which is repeated when the singer later returns to the Gorfein's, nearly out of options.  There's more of the cat's-eye-view when Llewyn is forced to haul the escaped pet downtown, the tabby sitting on the man's shoulder and observing those lovely ceramic Heins & LaFarge (I believe) station signs as the train proceeds toward Greenwich Village.

Much has been made of the recurrence of the orange tabby in "Llewyn Davis."  Is the cat Llewyn?  Is Llewyn the cat, goo goo goo joob?  The singer loses the feline before he can return it to the Gorfein's, thinks he finds it on a Village street, but is later told by Lillian Gorfein that he has returned the wrong cat, its lack of male...accessories being a giveaway.  Later, driving back from Chicago, he swerves on the highway to avoid yet another cat.  That last visit to the Gorfein's brings the surprise that the wandering tabby, appropriately named Odysseus, has made its way home.

Mitch Gorfein's secretary, mishearing Llewyn's message to her boss, does say "Llewyn is the cat," (instead of "...Llewyn has the cat," the message he was attempting to convey).   This the smoking gun, perhaps?  More likely the Coens having a bit of fun.  Joel Coen has remarked that they "threw in the cat" to give their film a semblance of plot.  What the travails of the cats do is add some charming structure, or fur, without distracting us too much from the film's focus.  The subplot, be it that of feline doppelganger or not, finds its summation when Llewyn stops to look at a movie poster for the film The Incredible Journey being screened at a theater he's passing.

Inside Llewyn Davis, as the title rather conveniently points out, isn't really a matter of plot, but character. Llewyn, for his part, would love to see some personal plot development.   Success would be his first choice. But a visit to his agent, Mel Novikoff (the late Jerry Grayson), brings the news that there are no royalties awaiting him, as his solo album (from which the film's title is derived) isn't selling.

Weary of his hand to mouth New York existence and estranged even from the Gorfein's, Llewyn accepts an offer to ride to Chicago with jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman) and beat poet Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund).  It's a chance to get out of town and also make an unsolicited visit to music impresario Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham, playing a character based on Albert Grossman) at his Chicago Gate of Plenty club (an homage to the legendary folk venue at Dearborn and Chicago Avenue).  Grossman agrees to hear one of the tunes from Llewyn's record, the traditional (lyrics at least) "Death of Queen Jane."  The singer offers a lovely reading of the song to which Grossman responds, "I don't see a lot of money here."  He recommends that Llewyn reunite with his former partner.  "That's good advice," says Llewyn, his resignation instead of anger at the slammed door of a statement a sign of growing weariness.

Back to New York the singer goes, completing another empty circle, apparently driving the entire distance himself while the car's owner sleeps through whatever occurs on the road.  These road trips west and back east, pointless as they prove to be for scuffling folk singer, are at least opportunities for the art direction and cinematography of "Llewyn Davis" to make some of their strongest impressions.

Among their stops along the road, where Roland Turner usually sees to that habit so identified with jazz musicians, is a sleek highway restaurant that looks like something Mies Van Der Rohe might have designed, with its black metal framing, white globe light fixtures and red chairs.  Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography, muted as it might be from film shooting to digital projection, has some of its finest moments in these road scenes, especially when the trio is heading toward Chicago and pulled over by the police.  We see a sinuous stretch of highway, swept by waves of fog in the chill night.  Altogether, a ghostly, forlorn air appropriate to Johhny Five's arrest and Llewyn's abandonment of the car, the jazz singer and  - most reluctantly - the cat.

There's nowhere Llewyn can go to reunite with the other half of his former duo, as Mike Timlin had long since thrown himself from the George Washington Bridge.  This unorthodox suicide launching point is but one of a few points on which Turner taunts Llewyn on the road trip to Chicago, the inferiority of folk music and Llewyn's feline traveling companion also tagged by the scattergun of Turner's deep-voiced scorn.  "George Washington Bridge.  Who does that?," he asks rhetorically, the barely enunciated words belched derisively from the depths of his vocal chords.

The jazz singer is another in John Goodman's collection of eccentric characters brought to life - chiefly by the supple instrument of that voice -  in Coen Brothers' films, the first since O Brother Where Art Thou (his Big Dan Teague essentially the cyclops in that particular Odyssey).  Roland Turner is essentially of a piece - in girth and personality always a big piece - with the other wisecracking characters that have helped color Coen films from Raising Arizona through Inside Llewyn Davis.  As ever, he's a conduit for some of the brothers' most comic dialog.  However, there is a pathos about the jazz singer that was not really present with those of Goodman characters in earlier Coen films.  After an interval of Tuner's verbal scorn - "In jazz, we play all the notes, not three chords on a ooka-lele" -  and cane poking at Llewyn from the back seat, his later abandonment might seem justified, even satisfying. But when it does finally occur on that lonely highway, there's something abject about the man passed out in the back seat.  We've seen him struggle to take a few steps across the floor of  that sleek roadside roadside restaurant and subsequently passed out on the bathroom floor of the same after shooting up.  

Like Roland Turner, Lillian Gorfein is introduced as something of a Coen stock character.  While the jazz singer comes on as a dispenser of wit and derision, the kindly Mrs. Gorfein seems destined to be the object of Llewyn's scorn and, indirectly, that of the Coens.  At their worst, the brothers through earlier films were like tourists traveling through both the history and space of our culture; boys in a souvenir shop having an easy laugh at the people who produce and sell all the kitsch, snickering at the people behind the counter and tourists alike.  They were often funny, but sometimes shallow and unkind.

"I can tell this is one of those things where I keep saying no and you just thinkin' I'm askin' you to beg more...Look, I'm not a trained poodle," says Llewyn, at a dinner table with the Garfeins and two of their invited guests.  This after Mitch offers to pull out his Silvertone guitar and his wife assumes for her part that their folk-singing friend wants to favor them with a song:  "I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul."  Llewyn reluctantly sets out on "Fare Thee Well," - essentially the theme song of both Timlin and Davis as well as the film - but stops angrily when when Lillian Gorfein begins to harmonize, singing the part of Llewyn's former partner.  "What are you doing?  Don't do that." "It's Mike's part," Lillian says. "I know.  Don't do that."  The gentle Lillian is hurt and leaves the room, only to return with the discovery that the cat Llewyn returned is not theirs.  

In an earlier film, that's all we might have seen of Lillian Gorfein, more or less less mocked for her Upper West Side liberalism and do-gooding tendencies.  But Llewyn's return to the house when he has almost nowhere else to go, emphasizes the kindness of the Gorfeins, particularly Lillian, who bears no grudge for all that happened at their last meeting.

Inside Llewyn Davis eschews the everything-and-the-kitchen-sink-plotting of earlier films like Barton Fink and O Brother Where Art Thou?  Instead, there is a writer's devotion to character beyond what was usually the case in their first dozen or so features.  The Coens have always been clever, energetic writers.  They have not always been particularly good ones.  But with the rendering of shades in Llewyn Davis - like the look of the film, most of these are muted, working without the benefit of much light - the brothers set forth a mediation on art and worldly success.  As the story goes for Llewyn is goes for many - a sad, but resonant story of unrequited love that stays with one like a piercing song carried by a unshakeable tune, like the best drawn from the pool common to American folk, country and blues music.    

A painterly example of the desaturated color of  Bruno Delbonnel's cinematography in "Llewyn Davis."  
This all comes off thanks to the performance - the singing as well as acting  - of Oscar Isaac.  Mr. Isaac certainly has both film and music experience, but the casting of this relative unknown attests to the strong position held by Joel and Ethan in their own battles in the war of art versus commerce.  The keenest wit, the teeth of "Llewyn Davis'" script are expressed through its main character.  As Llewyn watches what he considers to be a lesser artist of the stage of the Gaslight, he says, "Does he have a higher purpose?"  Later, as an Irish Trio perform, Papi Coriscato asks Llyewn what he thinks.  "I like their sweaters," he answers.  These barbs are as sharp as most any for which the Coens are known, but they exist not merely as an exercise of wit, but as a natural expression of a character well drawn.

Mr. Issac, amid a face and head of curly, dark hair, is a weary, often impatient presence throughout.  He illuminates those many shades that are Llewyn Davis, but with a very soft light.  One of the most touching examples of all that Isaaac brings to "Lewyn Davis" occurs when he sings for his father just before (so he thinks) he is to return to the Merchant Marine.  His father is hospitalized and non-responsive (except to foul himself toward the end of his son's visit, we later find out).  Llewyn sings him "The Storms Are on the Ocean," a seaman's song of which the elder Davis has always been fond.  There is no blatant expression of emotion between the father and son, but Isaac invests in the performance something both generous and egocentric.  It's a loving gesture that's not completely free of the performer's vanity.  All the more moving for both.  

Llewyn Davis as played by Oscar Isaac has in him the hustler that is contained in most successful artists, but seems to the lack the ability to compromise that puts so many ahead in the world.  But the depth of character written by the Coens and given expression by Isaac doesn't quite stop there.  There is always just beneath the surface of one or another expressions on the part of Llewyn a contempt for those who have indeed compromised to sell a few more (or a lot more) records.  But ultimately, both we and the folk singer are left to contemplate the possibility that some do not sell out merely because the market place wants nothing that they have to sell.    

Round and round goes the story for Llewyn Davis, an illusion of motion that leaves him right where he began. Round and round like an old thirty three and a third record, the kind he can't sell.  This latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen is like a great old piece of vinyl, an analog recording rich in its depth of field, all the better for the imperfections it captures.  Ironically, The Coens have said that "Llewyn Davis" may be the last film that they shoot on actual film stock.  Something may be lost visually if that is the case, but the Coens have proved through most of their last half dozen films - dare one say their mature period? -  that a richness of characterization, a depth of feeling is still likely to emerge and persist.  



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