Thursday, January 23, 2014

Reflecting On "Inside Llewyn Davis"

My lifelong love of folk music, now going back rather more than fifty years, impelled me this afternoon to go against all of my instincts and enter a movie theater for exactly the third time in twenty years to see a first-run movie,* the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. The first fifteen minutes at the venue reminded me emphatically of why I just won't go anymore. The $9.25 price tag for a weekday matinee - and that with a senior discount - is ridiculous: damned few films are worth that, especially figuring that they will all eventually find themselves remaindered to Netflix or Hulu or Amazon or Vudu, where for a flat rate per month I can watch a thousand movies if I want. Worse, I had to sit through seven - seven - mind-numbingly stupid previews of what passes for film entertainment in our republic today. I had to keep my forefingers planted deep within my ears for the entire fifteen minutes of this insulting nonsense - Dolby 7.0 SurroundSound and all - for fear of damage to my hearing, which was doubly ironic given the fact that I had come to see a movie about music.

This entrance proved to be a blessing of sorts, as I was half-expecting to dislike Llewellyn Davis. It has been reviewed generally positively and it is, after all, by Joel and Ethan Coen. But several of my folk music friends who were actually in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s had a number of problems with the project - the misrepresentation of real-life people on whom several of the characters seemed to have been based, the joyless gloom of much of the story, and some small but significant anachronisms. Additionally, several reviewers who seem to think the commercial fare purveyed by the record companies today as "roots music" is what folk music sounded like or is supposed to sound like complained that the score was bland and formless. Decades of experience had also predisposed me to approach Inside Llewyn Davis with my defenses up. Hollywood virtually never gets a time period right. Most every film I have ever seen depicting the 1960s (perhaps excluding Oliver Stone's The Doors) has left me howling with laughter at their raging inaccuracies, and only Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous (spot-on perfect 1973) and parts of a handful of others have ever delivered a reasonable representation of any period of my life that I remember.

The one hundred minutes or so of the feature made me happy that I had survived the price and preview gantlet. Inside Llewyn Davis is for my money (pun intended) a very good film - a very, very good film. Once I put aside both expectations and trepidations, what I saw was a moving, highly intelligent character study of a profoundly troubled but somehow ultimately decent young man trying to come to grips with his own deeply-flawed personality, his painful past, and a harsh and exploitative business that is killing the last shreds of sensitive artistic ambition that he still clings to. It is not really about folk music very much at all, nor about the Village scene, nor about the early 1960s. These are devices of setting that underscore what the directors are really interested in showing: the slow self-destruction of a character who is neither strong enough nor cynical enough to survive in the world he has made for himself.

Lest that sound too somber and unappealing - it is still a Coen Brothers film, punctuated by dark and at times savage satire and even humor. Davis's record company owner (based perhaps on Moses Asch of Folkways Records) is a grasping, manipulative and dishonest jerk - but eminently watchable. The Tom Paxton character - soldier by day and folkie on weekend nights - is mercilessly lampooned as an "aw-shucks" simpleton, good-hearted, earnest, and decently talented but clueless. Other characters - a supercilious jazz musician, a Neal-Cassady-like Beat poet, a pair of university professors, a shrill but attractive young woman folksinger - also provide moments that are funny without ever disrupting the overall tone of the movie.

The key is to understand that the point of the film is to take the viewer inside Llewyn Davis, and this happens really only twice in the story, in two scenes which give form and sense to all the rest. The movie's name seems to refer to Davis's first solo album, clearly a riff in both title and cover photo to Inside Dave Van Ronk, "the mayor of McDougal Street" on whom Davis is purportedly loosely based.

But what is inside Davis for much of the story remains a mystery. His callous and abrasive behavior, his reticence about his performing career, his estrangement from his sister and family - these seem to have no motivation or rationale. What we do know is that Davis was formerly partnered with a good friend named Mike Timlin; together they produced an album that showed great promise, and the movie opens with what is supposed to be a track from that album, "Dink's Song":

Timlin and Davis no longer perform together, and for a long time the viewer simply assumes that it must have been an Everly Brothers-style break-up, motivated perhaps by Davis's difficult personality. But the truth is much darker, and that leads to one of the movie's extraordinary epiphanies. Davis has returned from an unsuccessful trip to Chicago and has been asked to dinner by a good-hearted but fatuous university professor and his wife who have helped him before. After the meal, the couple asks Davis to perform a song for them and their guests, and Davis reluctantly complies by starting "Dink's Song" as above. However - when the professor's wife starts to sing a perfect high harmony to Davis's lead - Timlin's part - Llewyn explodes into a frothing, cursing rage at the couple, at their request, at the world. As he stomps out of the apartment, we realize for the first and most compelling time in the film how much Timlin had meant to him, how important their collaboration had been, how rudderless Davis has become without his partner. It is our first real look inside, and it gives a shape and context to much of the rest of Davis's ill behavior both before and after the scene.

Toward the end, as Davis contemplates abandoning his music career and returning to the merchant marine, he visits his stony, uncommunicative, Alzheimer's-afflicted father in a convalescent home. Davis reaches out to the older man, trying unsuccessfully to talk to him, then decides instead to "sing a song you always liked," a song that Davis had first recorded when he was eight years old. The tune is "Shoals of Herring," a marvelous song of the sea written by the great Ewan MacColl, and the elder Hugh Davis had spent his life as a sailor. As Davis renders a quiet and moving performance, a light of recognition seems to kindle in the old man's eyes, and he tears up, perhaps with a fleeting glimmer of recognition. The intensity of the moment is too much for the younger Davis, and he returns to the Village for what may be his last performance. With the dinner scene, Davis's encounter with his father lets the viewer experience the inner pain that Davis feels and that he subsequently visits on everyone and everything around him - pain not completely of his own making, pain of disappointment and abandonment, pain of a sensitive and talented artist who cannot find his place in the world and never really has.

Inside Llewyn Davis has its fair share of apparent anachronisms and inaccuracies (the IMDB list is HERE, though the list misses quite a few like the Shubb capo Davis uses at one point - it won't be produced for several decades yet - and the fact that the "Shoals" song was written only a year before the supposed date of the plot), but to dwell on those misses the whole point. The film is not a documentary, and like most of the Coens' best work, the story exists in an imaginary world of its own, one that resembles some features of the real one but should never be mistaken for it. And Lllewyn Davis is absolutely beautiful to watch - the textures of winter in New York and Chicago, the rendering of apartments from long ago, the ubiquity of LPs, the fine details of look and lighting, the carefully crafted musical score - these all create the context through which the audience slowly comes to understand just what really is inside Davis.

A final point - several of the reviews I have seen (including in Rolling Stone) misidentify the Davis character as a "singer-songwriter." He's not. Llewyn Davis is a folk singer, a performer of traditional songs, not his own compositions - and such a singer was an endangered species even in the presumed time frame of the movie, a point underscored by just who takes the stage following Davis in the Gaslight Cafe near the conclusion. As the film ends, the singer-songwriters are on the march and are about to displace the Llewyn Davis character and his folk-loving friends forever. History is about to sweep Davis away, and that is an appropriately melancholy ending to a quiet and introspective minor classic.

*In the last three years, I have taken advantage of my under-employment to enjoy some splendid matinees sponsored by Turner Classic Movies of landmarks like Casablanca (and what a joy that was to see restored and with theater sound), Jane Eyre, and for the first time since its release fifty years ago, my all-time favorite film, Lawrence of Arabia. Those were worth the effort and the cost to see on the big screen, or see again. For my money, virtually every movie worth seeing since them is as enjoyable (or more so) seen at home on a conventional screen with good sound. But that's just above.