Saturday, February 8, 2014

Review: INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS: When Coens Attack

Things like responsibility can be packed up into all sorts of McGuffins in the flickers. In this film it's a ginger cat. We see him trotting along the hallway with skyward tail to wake in a screen annihilating close up our hero who, on getting up and leaving the apartment and his borrowed couch space, fails to prevent the puss from escaping through the front door which then locks behind him. The lift operator won't mind the animal so Llewyn has to lug him across town to deal with a roll of unpromising chores involving people he's offended, impregnated, and annoyed with outstayed welcomes.

It's Greenwich Village winter 1961 and Llewyn like so many other bearded young men around him has been zapped into life by a few listens to Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, taken up his acoustic guitar and invaded the Manhattan outpost's smoky folk clubs. He needs to break through if his wandering is ever going to turn from couch bumming to touring and career but to get gigs he needs to either be nicer to people or some indefinable essential particle better than he is at what he does. Yes, it's ironic that he is in charge of the welfare of a cat, an animal that basically does whatever the hell it feels like whenever the mood takes as it frequently infuriates its human carers. It is the sole indication Llewyn gives us that he might have a priority beyond self fulfillment. So, is he worth it? That's the question of the entire film.

It's important that the Coens have elected to place entire performances in the film rather than snippets. The setting is crucial to this story's ponderance upon career choices and their effect on the lives of the careerist and those around him. Llewyn doesn't think of himself as a careerist (he uses the term as a sneer at one point). Like a lot of the Euomericans to answered the Harry Smith/Pete Seeger call to alms he thought he would Woody Guthrie his way to stardom without the sellout that grey old grownups go on about. If that were put into a rock and roll context his success or failure would be too loaded by a history far more visible and audible than the tale requires. If it were the jazz scene of the time you've got the problem of performance.

What I mean by that is that young hopefuls were sorted out by a jazz scene grown academic and virtuous. If you weren't a Miles or a 'Trane you were out or working on radio jingles. The early folkies were all hampered by a kind of Folk for Dummies idea of delivering songs utterly alien to their own experience and hitting the right notes, maybe with a trill here or embellishment there but always as tidily as their turtlenecks fit them. Well, that's Llewyn, and everyone else we see and hear on stage (bar one) perfecting an increasingly limited range of skills. Very hard to shine, given all that, and Llewyn doesn't. He's good but so is everyone else.

Frustrated with his uninterested agent, he hitches a ride to Chicago to impose an audition on a folk impressario (the always impressive F. Murray Abraham). This makes up a much larger passage of the film than we might expect, turning into a temporary road movie with a goateed beat poet at the wheel and a highly incapacitated but acerbic jazz man in the back (the always impressive Coens alumnus John Goodman). We get a lot of the road here, almost as much as we get of the future freeway traffic in Solaris that suggested the tedium of space travel. We get the feeling of pilgrimage and then the pilgrim's humiliation at learning that he's not the one but just another. Then we hitch back the other way, thinking about that along with Llewyn who decides against one chanced life-resolution and then another. Where a heroic protagonist might learn from this that he can't solve all problems, Llewyn is struck by the notion that he can't solve any and returns to New York determined to throw in the towel.

One last performance brings us back full circle except that on this iteration of his purgatory of self delusion there's a circuit breaker. After he delivers his strongest performance yet, even taking the sensitive high part in the chorus that his deceased former partner used to, he leaves the mic to the next performer who uses the last song's same phrase "fare thee well" to much more poignant effect and lays the groundwork for erasing all the polite fine wine folk and replacing it with personality, politics and pure art. Llewyn doesn't notice. He's too busy reliving what he went through at the beginning.

By then end of this film I started realising why, despite the impossibility of sympathising with the central character, I liked this film so much and, by extension, I liked it more than almost all the Coen films I've seen since O Brother Where Art Thou. And I liked it for the opposite reason that I liked that one: this doesn't feel like a Coens movie. It's as good as they are at their best but there is a complete absence of self-celebration of the authorship that they have made such a trademark in the cinema of the last thirty years. The colour suggests the cover of Bob Dylan's early record covers but this just feels like winter rather than gimmick (nice if you know it, though).

I know people (overwhelmingly males) in their late forties who are still living the life on the open couch, still bumming around, worming around outsize debt and trading on their charm, having never made the decision to wise up and take the shilling. It is the charm, though, that separates those who win at this and those who knuckle under and settle and that is the performance that they must perfect (be they ever exhaustingly mediocre at their arts or crafts). Llewyn doesn't get this. Much as we hate to admit it most of us are just like him.

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