Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Coen Odyssey: Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis

In his memoir, Chronicles, Bob Dylan wrote that “a folk song has over a thousand faces and you must meet them all if you want to play this stuff.” What he meant was that you had to let the songs sing you rather than the other way around. When Dylan would perform a traditional tune about the slave market, like "No More Auction Block," he wanted to sing it from inside the experience of the black man being sold into bondage. "With a certain kind of blues music, you can sit down and play it," he said in 1966. "[But] you may have to lean forward a little." Becoming a character in a song like "No More Auction Block" requires a fair bit of leaning, and maybe sometimes even donning a few nifty disguises, but that's how Bob Dylan transformed American topical music into a fervid national drama that the listener had a stake in.

In the opening scene of the latest Coen brothers' film, Inside Llewyn Davis, as the titular folk singer (Oscar Isaac) plays the traditional death ballad "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" with earnest dedication, what's clear is that Llewyn Davis has yet to meet even one of those thousand faces. He sits on a faintly lit stage in a Greenwich Village club with confident assurance and sings that he doesn't mind being hanged, but dreads the finality of the grave. Yet for all his fidelity to this dramatic dirge, Llewyn never truly gets possessed enough by its power to bring the Gaslight Cafe audience into that endless sleep with him. Over the course of the picture, however, we quickly grasp that Joel and Ethan Coen are most certainly fascinated by what's at stake in the song. With Inside Llewyn Davis, they take Llewyn on an elliptical and evocative sojourn through the American heartland of the early Sixties, in the dead of winter, and touch the despair and futility that's right at the heart of the song. In doing so, they've fashioned a funny, occasionally touching, and remarkably haunting ballad of their own. It's by far their best picture.

The film traces Llewyn's career from that opening performance through a series of episodes that ultimately send him back to where he started. At first, having recently lost his singing partner to suicide, Llewyn is emotionally at sea. His latest solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, is not selling, and he spends his days sponging off friends and colleagues when he's not doing gigs. He's even greeted in a cold alley after one of his performances by a man who beats him up for having heckled another singer the night before. But that beating is merely part of a chain of unfortunate events that keep Llewyn on the road to nowhere. After sleeping at the Upper West Side apartment of his oldest friends, the Gorfeins, he gets locked out with their orange tabby cat and the feline travels with him as if they are both fated to be stray pets. With the nimble cat in tow, he ends up in the West Village apartment of some old musical pals and colleagues, Jim (Justin Timberlake) and Jean (Carey Mulligan), where he finds out that Jean is pregnant, possibly with his baby. Llewyn desperately seeks out session and stage work to pay for her abortion, but he's thwarted at every turn either by circumstance or by his own doing. By the end of the picture, Bob Dylan has literally just arrived in the Village to change history while Llewyn's time is done.

Oscar Isaac, Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver

Although I've provided merely a sketch of the story, Inside Llewyn Davis is most importantly a character drama with a full seasoning of barbed jokes. What makes the film linger in the imagination beyond the gags is the work of Oscar Isaac, a virtual newcomer, who gives Llewyn the look of a man not used to being noticed even if he also comes across as extraordinarily handsome. Although you normally would never describe a Coen brothers film as soulful, Isaac does give this picture the emotional gravity it needs. He's not the target of their contempt that the protagonist of their last picture, A Serious Man, was. In that film, the character's nebbish personality seemed to invite the fate of Job. Working with more empathy here, the picture is inspired by the life of Dave Von Ronk, one of the seminal figures of the folk revival in the early Sixties. Like Davis, Ronk's own recordings, borrowing the cadences of Rev. Gary Davis, were faithful renditions of  traditional American folk music with strains of gospel, blues, spirituals and New Orleans jazz. His fourth album in 1964 was actually called Inside Dave Von Ronk. But Von Ronk never achieved the acclaim of the artists who admired him like Dylan, Phil Ochs, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Tom Paxton. His largest role was as a spiritual godfather to others, or serving as what author Robert Shelton called "the mayor of MacDougal Street." (Van Ronk would die in 2002, five years after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, while undergoing postoperative treatment for colon cancer.) Despite the outcry of those upset that the picture isn't more faithful to both the period and the artists, the Coen brothers, with their poker faces intact, aren't concerned with being devotees to historical fact. But even if they aren't trying to tell the story of an era, depict a bohemian enclave, or show how a great interpreter of American music came to miss the big time, the picture captures the artistic daring of the period. Inside Llewyn Davis is partly about the irony of a guy who is so righteously devoted to the integrity of his sound that he can never be in tune with his times. Using the narrative structure of a folk ballad, the Coen brothers (re-teamed with songwriter T-Bone Burnett) have returned with more imagination and assurance to the themes of Homer's Odyssey that they first mined in O, Brother Where Art Thou? (2000). But the characterizations are richer this time and the picture less driven by impersonally staged slapstick.

Even with the movie's reshuffling of history, most of the ensemble recreate vivid archetypes of the milieu. Justin Timberlake, who has proven to be a colourfully versatile actor who can play against type and still create authentically appealing personalities, is a genius at understatement. While Llewyn is a folk music purist with a priggish inflexibility, Timberlake's Jim sees the lighter possibilities of crossing over into pop (as demonstrated in a hilarious scene at a recording session as part of the 'John Glenn Singers,' which include Adam Driver as Al Cody, a nod to Ramblin' Jack Elliott, when they do the hilarious novelty protest song, "Please Mr. Kennedy"). When Llewyn asks in profound disbelief who could have written such a piece of puffery, Jim answers him with a comic lump in the throat, one that expresses both pain and pride. Although it's obvious that the Coens see Carey Mulligan's Jean as a woman who combines an angelic sweet voice with a hard-as-nails personality, Mulligan's mannered petulance continually fights the camera. You don't believe that someone like Llewyn (or even easygoing Jim) would be attracted to her. There's no mystery in her to uncork and she becomes the weak link in the movie. John Goodman, who didn't come up with much as the cyclops in O, Brother, is a bundle of personality as jazz musician Roland Turner, a be-bop artist out of the Fifties with a contempt for folk music who moves to a different drummer (and with a heroin habit providing his rhythm section). Along with his poet driver, the moody Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, who played Jack Kerouac in On the Road), they take Llewyn to Chicago where he meets producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), who sees what we see, that Llewyn is talented but not a scene changer. (Bud Grossman is clearly named after Bob Dylan's legendary former manager, Albert Grossman.)

Oscar Isaac and Ulysses on their Odyssey

Since the Coen brothers are essentially pastiche artists, their wry and sardonic humour can sometimes be off-putting. But it certainly isn't here. The mythic style of the picture plays sumptuously off the realist settings, aided considerably by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel's spellbinding visual tapestry. Unlike many of their other films like Barton Fink (1991) and Fargo (1996), where they use an ironic hipness relentlessly to score points off of their characters, Inside Llewyn Davis is about what it costs to be hip. The directors' mocking satire has a detached cleverness that usually makes them seem morally superior to their material, but here they let the movie breathe, just as they did in their affecting remake of True GritInside Llewyn Davis finds the brothers allowing sarcasm to come from inside the characters rather than imposing it on the story.

While people continue to debate the dubious merits of the frenzied torpor that makes up The Wolf of Wall Street or American Hustlethere's a much more fascinating mystery going on Inside Llewyn Davis. "Death is not universally accepted," Dylan said back in 1966 as he continued to reinvent the music that inspired him. "[Y]ou'd think that the traditional music people could gather from their songs that mystery is a fact, a traditional fact." Critic Greil Marcus, while seizing on that quote in his liner notes to the 1975 release of Bob Dylan and The Band's The Basement Tapes (1967), built on Dylan's sly observation when he wrote that "'the acceptance of death' that Dylan found in 'traditional music' simply a singer's insistence on mystery as inseparable from any honest understanding of what life is all about; it is the quiet terror of a man seeking salvation who stares into a void that stares back." Inside Llewyn Davis is informed by that quiet terror of a void staring back, in the unanswered suicide of Llewyn's partner, in the cat who disappears like a wounded specter into the woods off a lost highway, and in death songs like "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me" (which Dave Von Ronk once recorded), and the haunting choices made in "The Death of Queen Jane" (which Llewyn sings for Bud Grossman). Death's eternal mystery leaves a residue in Inside Llewyn Davis that you carry with you afterwards. The void that stares back at Llewyn Davis, as he rambles aimlessly down the road, turns out to be the same cold fatalism that the music seeks to deliver you from.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa,Randy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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