Last weekend, I watched Inside Llewyn Davis again (I’d seen it once before, in the theater when it came out) and it’s just kind of sat undigested in my head ever since. If you haven’t seen it: you should! Although brace yourself, it’s in contention for the title of “Bleakest Movie by the Coen Brothers,” which is a hell of a title to contend for.*
*I actually ran a poll, and the consensus choice was No Country For Old Men, and I think that’s not a bad choice, but in the end I agree with the minority opinion that it’s actually the “Meal Ticket” segment in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which might be the bleakest thing in the history of American film. And by the way, I think it’s probably significant that the Coens seem to have stopped working—at least as a unit—after Scruggs.
Yammering on about it on twitter, I quickly came to discover that the movie kind of has two lives online. Among the general paying-attention-to-the-Coens population, it’s just kind of a middle-tier movie that some people like and some people don’t. But among musicians it’s kind of an object of dread fascination, like someone took every nerve out of your body, while still attached, and strung them all up on a loom to make a picture tapestry depicting, say, an orange cat whose scrotum is missing.
If you haven’t seen it: Inside Llewyn Davis, set in 1961, is a movie about a folk singer who’s extremely talented but also kind of a shithead, and can’t get it together (he’s also haunted by the recent suicide of his friend and former duet-act partner). He bounces around Greenwich Village and Chicago trying to make his music career happen, and it never does. He sponges off of kindly folk-loving academics; he rails against some friends of his who’re more successful in music because he thinks they’ve compromised. He travels to Chicago to try out for a manager, playing a great version of an old folk song to be told “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He gets punched out in an alley behind a club, possibly twice (or possibly infinite times, if you buy into some of the more esoteric interpretations of the movie) and, in the resolution of all of this failure, walks out of a club (on his way to getting punched) as Bob Dylan (who, incidentally, would later record an altered form of the song Davis played in Chicago) is taking the stage to begin his ascent into and then through folk.
So Inside Llewyn Davis is an in-depth study of musical and artistic failure (for what it’s worth, it’s also pretty funny amidst the bleakness). I think that on its own is why I and other musicians find the movie so fascinating; the Coens have maybe the sharpest minds in American film, and having them turn those minds towards your corner of the world is fascinating and exciting on its own merits (and, again, it really is pretty funny).
I think Davis has interesting stuff to say about who makes it and who doesn’t; and I think this extends out to all forms of art, not just music. The Coens are extremely idiosyncratic filmmakers with a very distinct point of view; they’ve referred to their joint career as playing in their corner of the sandbox. They aren’t people who you’d readily accuse of compromising. But the issue of artistic compromise is a big one in Inside Llewyn Davis, and the Coens seem to be arguing for it, at least a little.
One thing that struck me on this watch of the movie is that Llewyn Davis actually has several chances for success of different levels within the confines of the movie, and he stubbornly walks away from all of them. The novelty song he records with Justin Timberlake and Adam Driver is strongly implied to be a life-changing hit in the making, but Llewyn won’t see any money from it because, to get cash quicker and avoid paperwork, he signed away royalties (as a friend pointed out, every person who knows how recording contracts work wants to scream a tortured “NOOOOOO!” when he does that). The promoter in Chicago, after grimly dropping the “I don’t see a lot of money here” boom on Davis (and by the way, that line is made extra savage by the fact that it follows the promoter looking Davis in the eye and saying “let me hear something from inside Llewyn Davis,” so it’s specifically the contents of the protagonist’s soul that he doesn’t see money in), then offers to include Davis in an ensemble group he’s putting together. That would be no guarantee of success, of course, but the movie positions this promoter as a guy who can make things happen; Davis stubbornly refuses, saying that he’s a solo act.
Even a much lower scale of success—a ready couch and stream of meals at the homes of some folk-loving benefactors—gets pushed away (temporarily) when Davis reacts badly to being asked to sing after dinner. Although they do reconcile eventually.
You can look at this and say that the movie’s arguing not to be so stubborn and uncompromising that you deny yourself any chance for success. But I think there’s even more nuance to carve out. Davis’ stubborn dickishness is part of all of those bad decisions, but there’s other circumstantial context, too: he signs away the royalties because he needs money right now to pay for an abortion; and both his spurning of the promoter’s offer to be in a group and his freakout at dinner are at least partly driven by his ongoing raw traumatic response to his partner’s suicide.
On the other hand, his ass-kicking(s?) in the alley is (are?) purely the result of him being a heckling jerk. And it’s at least somewhat implied that being a jerk to John Goodman’s junkie jazz musician, who’s also an even bigger jerk, might get a powerful curse laid on Davis.
In the end, I don’t think the movie makes a definitive statement on Why Some Artists Make It And Some Don’t. How could it? It kind of holds the issue up in front of you, swivels around so that you can look at it from a few angles, and lets you make up your own mind. I think it’s safe to say that the movie’s arguing that talent isn’t enough on its own; and that beyond that, luck and circumstances matter, along with your ability to compromise when you need to and to avoid alienating every person you encounter. None of that is any guarantee that you’ll make it—whatever making it really means—as a musician or an artist or a cartoonist or a writer or a filmmaker, but at the very least it should minimize your chances of getting your ass kicked in an alley, possibly an infinite number of times.
Right on. Stay safe.
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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