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Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Joel and Ethan Coen | Inside Llewyn Davis
loss and recovery
by Douglas Messerli
Joel and Ethan Coen (writers and directors) Inside Llewyn Davis / 2013
The Coen brothers’ new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, is a bleak, if beautiful and loving, study in loss and recovery, whose central figure, a down-and-out folk singer, wanders the streets of New York and travels briefly—a trip he suggests has seemed like a longer voyage—to Chicago. As in the directors’ earlier film also focused on the music industry, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the hero of this new work is a kind of Ulysses, a journeying man who, in this case, cannot seem to find his way back to his Ithaca and has no Penelope waiting for him at home.
The film itself represents a kind a trip back in time to the early 1960s, a far more innocent but also politically-committed period, particularly in the serious folk-singing gigs in the then gritty Greenwich Village of the day, where seriously-minded audiences gathered to hear everything from ballads of love, life, and death to renditions of sea-chanteys and harp-playing grannies. The film begins, in fact, with Llewyn Davis singing a sad ballad about being hung and buried, emotively performed by actor Oscar Isaac, who is nearly perfect as the darkly-obsessed Davis.
Yet, of all this film’s characters Davis is the most likeable, perhaps just because he can, at least from time to time, express his insides through singing, and he is, if nothing else, honest. And then, there is Davis’ near pathetic attachment to the cat, which he loses, rediscovers, loses again, and finally is forced to leave behind to die. The cat not only has several lives in this film, but shifts of sex (the original cat who has escaped was a male, but Davis returns to the house with, evidentially, a female cat [note: from personal experience, I can tell you that the sexuality of cats is hard for a layman to determine; see My Year 2006: Serving]). So too, it is hinted, may Davis’ own sexual shift. Although he clearly has heterosexual sex, for which he is regularly berated, his vague relationship with his former male partner may have something to do with that singer’s suicide. And one of the most explosive scenes in the film occurs when his former singing partner’s mother attempts to sing her son’s part when Davis is asked to perform in their house. As the owner, Johnny Five, of a famed local bar suggests about the singing duo of Davis’ “friends,” the Berkeys: “Half the audience comes to see them because they want to fuck her; the other half want to fuck him.” Johnny has also “fucked her,” which is why she keeps acquiring venues at his club.
In Chicago, finally, Davis makes his way to another famed singing spot, Gate of Horn, hoping to be given a contract and to find a new manager, only to be told by the renowned Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) that Davis doesn’t have the charisma to go it alone.
Completely defeated, our wandering hero attempts to sign on (like his father) as a merchant seaman, but can barely afford the union dues, and later discovers that his sister has thrown out his seaman license.
Time repeats itself, as Davis returns to the Gorfein apartment in which we first saw him. The cat, Ulysses, it is reported, has returned all by himself. At a one night-gig at the Gerde’s Folk City, Davis performs the song we heard at the beginning of the film, and follows it by another, not shown in the first scene. The next act is a young Bob Dylan (Benjamin Pike). As before, Davis is told there is a man in a suit awaiting him in back, and he returns to the alley to be brutally beaten by the man whose wife Davis had heckled the evening before. It appears that this gentle beast is doomed to slouch toward Bethlehem over and over. Yet simply because he dares to stand and begin the voyage again he must recognized as one of the most loveable beings the Coens have yet created, making this one of their most moving and astonishing films.
Los Angeles, December 23, 2013
Reprinted from Nth Position (January 2013).