After waiting more than a month to finally check out the Coen Brothers' dusty, hardscrabble take on The Greenwich Village folk scene, I left a Brooklyn movie theater on Saturday evening feeling mystified...a bit let down, to be honest. "What kind of story was that?" "What did I just watch? I have no idea." Several couples walking out of the flick seemed to echo some of the questions racing through my own head. See, generally movies require feeding some kind of plot into the chamber to keep the engines charging forward. But Inside Llewyn Davis is a straight arrow shot of shit after shit happening to an aspiring musician (played by Oscar Isaac), some of which seems like bad luck, some of which is oh so deserved (Davis is a bit of a shit himself throughout the entire movie). Yet still I found myself so desperately rooting for our corduroyed hero to get some kind of break; for a promoter to take a liking to his music, for his father to be moved in any other way than the way he was (It's gross, use your imagination), for one single character that doesn't feel obliged to take an easy, cheap piss on him. I still thirst for any kind of resolution to it all, really, be it a break of any magnitude or a proud slump back into ordinary life, or as Llewyn puts it, "Just existing."
But none of this happens. Inside Llewyn Davis is more a snapshot of a sorry sack someone going through a rough patch than a whole engrossing story about how he got there and what he did to get out of it. What happens to dear Llewyn before opening the movie with a performance of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me", or after the closing credits is anyone's guess, though, for the super curious, reading up on the life of Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, is the place to start. He's the real-life inspiration for the Coen Brothers' folkie.
Yet, in the days since seeing the film, I've unexpectedly found myself taking stock of all elements worth savoring. The most obvious include the film's look, beautifully drained of color to match the wintery setting of The Greenwich Village, 1961 and John Goodman's brief but gigantic performance as a nasty, junkie jazz man who doesn't think much of his unexpected travel mate on a long haul to Chicago ("Folk songs...thought you said you were a musician?"). Of course there's the music that's feathered throughout the entire thing, divided up into songs that are worth taking seriously and those that are not. Llewyn's craft is truly a treat, finger picking his way through the movie with that rough and tumble voice of his, carving out melodies that give you a glowing feeling in the chest, delivering song-length performances in a convincing manner. These are songs that are important to the character, played and fully felt, not acted or pantomimed at any old time (as one group of dinner party guests hilariously learn the hard way). It's hard to say that about the musicians who (more successfully) whisk around him, chipper, romantic, primped in matching cable knit sweaters or in the US Army uniform of a private-turned-folkie. Their money-making songs are pleasant, zany even, but nothing evoking the kind of wounded soul or workingman's life Llewyn's music evokes. Folk music, in 1961, is apparently not a world he fits into, so candidly explained by a promoter he rides all the way to Chicago to track down. "There's no money in this".
"There's no money in this". It's something similar I admittedly think every now and then when some hard working band sends me their 6th or 7th album in as many years. Sitting on the sidelines of more modern music happenings, producing performance videos for bands here, writing words when I can there, it's easy to see this similar class of musicians trudging under the surface of all those artists you read about on both this site and others alike. Perhaps these artists gobble up a few editorial morsels here and there, but I'm often struck by what keeps them going. What makes them retain a publicist, leave their homes, gas up the van every day, and play the same cities time and time again? Surely it's the rush of it all as well as the fact that they're artists; art is important. I know this. But there's something more...more than hoping for the break Llewyn never finds in the film, even. One possible explanation lies in the lyrics of "Hang Me, Oh Hang Me", five minutes into the movie, written by none other than Mr. Von Ronk. "Went up on the mountain, there I made my stand / Rifle on my shoulder, and a dagger in my hand." That, I suppose, is what inspires these bands to keep doing what they're doing, no matter how much or how little they bring in. It's all they really know. It's all there is to fight for. Besides, what would they tell you if you asked them why they didn't quit? I bet it'd be a similar sentiment to the one Llewyn offers his sister. "And do what? Just...exist?"