On The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

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by Jacqueline Valencia

NOTE: This is more of a rambling analysis of the film, therefore it contains some spoilers. If you require a review if whether I enjoyed it or not, I did, hence the ramble.

On my last trip to New York City, I spent a longer than usual time in Greenwich Village. It was October so it wasn’t too cold or hot. A light sweater was enough for the night. I wandered into tiny bookshops and took a peek inside old cafes. I met up with a friend and sat in Washington Square Park taking in the smells of pot and freshly mowed grass nearby. Afterwards we ate sushi at Cho Cho San and tried on (and I bought), animal masks at a novelty store. Throughout my wanderings I’d encountered spots that felt familiar or important overall, I mean, all of New York City is like that to a tourist like me. However, my love for the rest of the city is tied into punk rock and literary history. Greenwich Village is a whole other cup of tea though.

The Village is a constantly morphing bastion for movement and it is the breeding ground for the sixties folk music scene in the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis. Take out the protagonist of the film and Greenwich Village is a character all its own. The camera lingers forlornly, illuminating the eccentricities of the characters who themselves live in influx, but within them there is little substance unless there is a cause. The folk music movement was full of great talents and held great meaning to many, however, if you look back at the gems of the time, and there are many, can you hold all of them equally to the light? Perhaps. What of those that didn’t shine, but had their moments?

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Inspired and often covering songs of old, rife with experience and angst, sixties folk musicians revived the traditional minstrel. These anecdotal sorrows and strife were foreign for most of these singers, but nonetheless closely imagined considering the talk of war and protest they were surrounded with. Somewhat inspired by the real life of Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac)  is half of an up and coming folk duo. His partner Mike throws himself off the George Washington Bridge and ever since then, Davis has coasted, trying to forget and continuing on his own while his life runs haywire. He gets his best friend’s (Justin Timberlake) wife (played with foul mouthed feist by Carey Mulligan) pregnant, owes money, needs money, and continues to foul up chances to the point of self-sabotage. He is the cause of his own downturn, constantly committing a sort of career suicide. The folk scene, in turn, is expectant for a break, but is dull and stagnant in its preciousness. Davis’s art is his freedom, but ultimately his talent becomes his burden.

What I love about the Coen Brothers is that they take legends and strain them through sieves of metaphors and allegories for the present day. Millenials (I just learned about this term), live in a time where they seem to be coasting, but there are obscured expectations for change in their midst. Llewyn Davis doesn’t change, but there are plenty opportunities in the cycle of this movie for him to do so. He’s a frustrating loser that takes the world for granted while concentrating so hard on his ego making it ahead that he accomplishes nothing in turn.

You might say the millenials is the generation of those who want the world served on a silver platter due to the crown of specialness their parents have given them. I personally don’t think of the youth of today that way exactly, but its an interesting concept for a world where we see little change and little in the way of power to change it. We don’t move the world because to do would inconvenience us, leaving any effort futile and impotent. Davis doesn’t change in the film because it would mean compromising his art, but he doesn’t work that hard for his art, even though the pockets of promise are there. When he goes to Chicago to audition for Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham – OH HEY. HI, SALIERI!), he sings his beautiful heart out only to be told, “There’s no money in it.” Grossman offers him good advice and a chance to be part of a trio, like Peter Paul, and Mary. A combination of ego and self-sabotage has him turning it down. He’s not the snowflake if joins this trio. His solo work would be for nought. He was special as a duo with Mike and he will never recapture that on his own, which practically destroys a possible inner work ethic and discipline inside of him.

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Bruno Delbonnel‘s yellow tinted lens is brooding and muted, defining what is genuine and casting it against snowy star-filled landscapes. It snows for everyone somehow and vintage lamps create soft, but worn-out halos on the cast. Corridors are acutely focused from afar especially when Davis is going through them. The shots are angled in such a way that wherever Davis is headed seems like a dead end, which might very well be another friend’s claustrophobic apartment or car in the labyrinthian Village. For a modicum of colour there’s a lot of lush scenery to observe in each frame.

The soundtrack is collector worthy. Great production work by T-Bone Burnett featuring songs like the politically charged of “Please Mr Kennedy,” (sung into hilarious ditty by Timberlake, Issac, and Adam Driver), and Dave Van Ronk’s own Green, Green Rocky Road are a pleasure and sing of “revolution in the air.” It’s the kind of music we wished we had now at times, and remember fondly because we do.

The orange tabby, Ulysses (played by many cats), is the unspoken star of the film. While the characters express strife, struggles, and lost potentials, Ulysses-cat travels in and out of the narrative free of constraints and worries. It’s a quiet observer, a nomad who is probably looking for adventure, and wants a companion to show it the way. My own background with James Joyce’s Ulysses brings Leopold Bloom to mind when I think of Llewyn Davis’ character. He could be Bloom, but he could also stand in as Stephen Dedalus, the character Joyce has cast himself as in Ulysses and A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man. Perhaps the cat is Leopold Bloom: a lost soul with many lives (there are different versions of the cat, but the various cats have the same searching personality in the film). I think of the cats in the Coen Brother’s No Country For Old Men. The cats overrun a desert home in a stark landscape. They are the life repeated that lives on whether in the midst of full violence or peaceful resolution. They exist to be while we wonder about life and die.

In many ways, I see felines in film as the audience. We passively take in what’s presented to us. Omniscient viewers that interact very subtly with the subject in the film. They can break the fourth wall by nature and so can we. There’s a lot of power of the real world over the fictional especially in observing the minutiae of life. The cool thing is when the cat appears and we become distracted in turn by the little things in its appearance. The film films you in turn.

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I ❤ Ulysses.

There is great violence in this film, and I’m not talking about the gore-filled kind. It’s a meaningless spiritual cruelty within humanity and the world around it. From the rough cop that takes the beatnik actor/driver/poet into custody to the well deserved beating of Davis at the beginning and end of the film, the film unabashedly treats its main character with the relentless realness of his situation. “Wake up!” the film asks him, but Davis sleeps on oblivious to the opportunity he misses as he leaves the bar for a smoke. Bob Dylan takes the stage and a renewed electricity in the folk scene begins. Will Davis ride the wave? If we’re to take the rest of the film as an example: there’s a chance.

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In one of his greatest roles, John Goodman is the drug addicted jazzman Roland Turner and as usual he is a treat. “Folk singer with a cat. Are you queer?…. In jazz, you know, we play all the notes – 12 notes on the scale, dip shit, not three chords on a ukulele.” Roland, in all his jumbled mess sees a small truth: there are rules to this music game. It’s not just talent, there’s a road you must travel to see the magic in the music.

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I quite enjoyed this film because it’s honest and unforgiving. Oscar Issac stands out because through all of the pratfalls and missteps his character makes, he plays it all with a bewildered naiveté. He’s the asshole loser who should get his shit together. He’s the unsung small time hero (my kind of hero) who keeps going despite having no clear reason to do so. There’s nothing special about him because everyone else is special too. So what’s the point in it all then? If there is anything in my travels with Joyce’s Ulysses has taught me is that we’re all the same fish in the same sea and that just makes an infinite amount of everything possible, doesn’t it? There’s liberty in uncertainty.

(I did run home and hugged my tabby cat with all I could muster. She didn’t like it, but I FORCED HER TO DAMN IT.). Damn cats.

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* What’s Really Going On With the Cat in Inside Llewyn Davis: A Theory: http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2013/12/whats-really-going-on-with-the-cat-in-em-inside-llewyn-davis-em-a-theory/282583/

* Inside Llewyn Davis Review Roundup: The Critics Are Crazy for That Cat: http://www.vulture.com/2013/12/critics-love-the-inside-llewyn-davis-cat.html

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