the better truth

the better truth

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2014)

Unlike A Rolling Stone

You have to respect the Coen brothers’ craftsmanship and tenacity even if you don’t like their films. These two brothers have created an extraordinary body of features spanning three decades. Each possesses different themes and styles - yet they have a sharp precise quality of artists who never leave anything to chance. There is a tremendous amount of homework which in the hands of lesser director/writers would give birth to works weighted down by a ponderous heaviness. The Coen brothers are, first and foremost, about entertainment.  They are very well educated showman who want to deliver the goods. It’s ironic as some of their subject matter has a high brow panache: “Barton Fink” chronicles writer’s block with representations of William Faulkner and Clifford Odets; and yet they also created “Raising Arizona”  - not exactly “Public Television” material.  Each outing has the Coen brother’s signature exacting craftsmanship and ironic musings. There is a link between the over-drawn sweeping camera shots in “Blood Simple” and the outrageous dirt-bag shenanigans of the Dude in “The Big Lebowski”. These filmmakers are smart, hardworking and snarky. They are not catering to a specific audience. They make what interests them; this time around it’s Greenwich Village in 1961 right before Bob Dylan’s lionization.

“Inside Llewyn Davis” is a kunstlerroman in the manner of “Barton Fink”. The artist, played by Oscar Isaac, is loosely based on Dave Van Ronk.  He is a musician’s musician, respected by a coterie of insiders but rejected by the general public. There is a scene in which he auditions for a business big wig whose reaction to his heartfelt ballad is: “I’m not seeing alot of money here”.  This club owner, played with searing show-business honesty by F. Murray Abraham, throws our anti-hero a bone. He wants to pair him with a new group he is forming as long as he understands he will not be the lead singer. At this moment Davis has zero prospects. He diligently snatches defeat from the jaws of victory by turning down the offer.   This small moment showcases a central problem with the film. There is an un-entertaining quality to Davis’ self-destruction.  Dis-likable people can possess dramatic charm. That was illustrated by John Goodman’s performance as a over-the-hill junkie jazzman in the road sequence. Goodman‘s bellicose droning raises narcissism to an artform. He is loathsome and captivating. He channels all the decedent corpulence of Orson Welles in “Touch of Evil” with the smirk of Bugs Bunny. Davis is all the drudgery and pain of an artistic life. The brief moments of comic sparkle are overshadowed by the darkness of his quest.  This grimness is rooted in a mistaken notion of authenticity. Since middle-brow entertainment is focused on easy 'feel good' tropes, many ‘serious’ mainstream artists avoid any hint of sentimentality.  Unfortunately the Coen brothers' oeuvre requires a touch of schmaltz.  Strangely the lack of sweetness gives a repellent bitterness to Davis’ story.

There are moments in this film that deliver the no-holds-barred sardonic charm that is at the heart of the Coen’s work. The first is a complicated scene in which two of Davis‘ friends, a straight couple, join another performer on stage who happens to be enlisted in the army.  All the performances are absolutely first rate throughout this film despite the lack of depth in the secondary characters. They are archetypes: the rustic, the gullible best friend, the scold older sister, the nerdy academic, the jazz junkie... Davis has a complicated love entanglement with the female folksinger while being a friend to her cuckolded partner.  The military man is combination of Gomer Pyle and Kenneth on 30 Rock.  He embodies discipline, innocence and optimism - a trifecta of qualities absent in Davis. This hayseed is being welcomed with open arms on Davis’ home turf as our anti-hero’s prospects slip away.  All the very detailed exposition is intertwined with every strum and head nod - the love, jealousy, rivalry literally ring out effortlessly in this carefully staged segment. The recording of a novelty song involving astronauts reprises this very clever and enjoyable exposition. We meet a new character while the depths of Davis’ desperation are plumbed. The introduction of the agent/manager is a wonderful choreographed dance exhibiting the Joe Franklin netherworld of show business. Ditto for the many dinner scenes showcasing ugly, un-hip academics. These set-pieces glide the audience along in a bath of giggles and heartfelt gasps. The problem is the dramatic connective tissue.

The Coen brothers are masters of short scenes. When these exquisite vignettes are arranged in a larger arc, the center fails to hold. It is said that the true test of a musical comedy is how seamlessly the musical numbers integrate with the verbal narrative. The smoother the better. “Inside Llewyn Davis” has a unnerving ‘stop and go’ rhythm. Wonderful set pieces interspersed with forced actions to pull the story along. The yellow tabby cat, a major device in weaving the narrative together, was contrived in that it failed to be cat. It behaved as an important plot device that managed to have a, literally, unbelievable affect on our anti- hero. Davis’ character would never have taken the cat after leaving the professors’ apartment in a rage. It is also inconceivable that he would bring this animal along on a lengthy car rid to Chicago. Artistic license can be granted within a precise framework. Strangely the very careful universe created in this film highlighted the cat’s incongruousness as well as the kitsch trickery involved in ‘keeping the act moving’.   There is a moment when Davis walks by a movie theater and sees a poster for the Disney classic “The Incredible Journey”.  This film stars two dogs and (you guessed it) a cat, traveling alone through the wilderness.  The feline is prominently featured and the moment is meant as a funny ironic nod to our rootless, angry, dispossessed anti-hero who is on his own “incredible journey” with his series of magical cats. This scene was meant to show the distance between Disney’s Eden and the cruelty of real life as portrayed in this serious film. It has the opposite effect. “Inside Llewyn Davis” is merely the mirror image of the Walt’s world of set-piece confrontations and happy endings.

There is nothing more threatening to ‘serious’ artists than the mainstream.  In 1976 Paul Mazurksky  made “Next Stop, Greenwich Village”, a forgettable, successful, light, romantic comedy set in the same milieu as the Coen brother’s folk music homage. The protagonist has a similar background and challenge: abandoning his salt-of-the-earth blue collar world for the zaniness of ‘the village’ in order to establish himself as an artist. Nothing would hit deeper to the cool Coens to say that, despite its flaws, Mazurksky’s  middle-brow mediocre work is more honest and enjoyable. It is NOT a better film; but it is certainly more consistent. The Coen’s speak in the language of very conventional drama but imbrue the character with a wrong-headed nastiness that is supposed to lift the work from the doldrums of standard box office fair. In reality in made Davis’ journey excruciating for the character and the audience. His loss of the cat/son/sister/friends/father combined with the constant professional setbacks, has the unmistakable feel of playing in the negative alternate universe of those house pets in “The Incredible Journey”. The problem is that movie-goers frequent that genre desiring a ‘feel good’ moment. There might be an audience for a film in which the cute furry threesome end up writhing on huge glue traps.... but the Coens have a wider reach in mind.

The brothers’ track record shows that they can produce solid box office. They have had three films gross over $60 million. In fact their previous project,  a “True Grit” remake, was their most successful work, garnering over $170 million.  Perhaps this gave the siblings the idea to follow their vision and tackle even more personal material. They were swinging for the fences trying to make a homage to early 60s Greenwich Village while also telling the story of an artist as a young man. The end result fails as a musical paean and as a fictional biography. It’s difficult to know what would make this film more palatable. Certainly more ‘corniness’ would have helped. Would it really be so awful if he 'got the girl/son/career.....'? Does he really need to end up beaten in an alley? If the Coen’s are too nervous about losing their ‘cool’ cred as artists, they might have simply adopted the approach taken by Jim Jarmusch in “Stranger than Paradise”. Forget conventional narrative and just string the fun scenes together without much regard for careful linear plot delineation. Lose the cat and give us more wonderful incongruous set pieces of academics, agents, village people, boyfriends, family members.... interacting in the hip madcap manner which is a Coen trademark.

The brothers are famous for editing, directing, writing their own material. This work could have used outside supervision.  A disinterested adviser needed to explain that there was no possibility of reprising the musical renaissance for coffee house music that “O Brother, Where Art Thou” brought to bluegrass. The Folk genre has a more subdued sombre personal nuance which gives it little chance of breaking out of the current base. Dylan had a reason for 'going electric'. Therefore there is no need to include a full rendering of each Davis ballad. Oscar Isaac is a superb musician, singer in addition to being first rate actor; but less in more in terms of aiding the film’s dramatic flow. It is fine to continue the tradition of referring to other master filmmakers... but sometimes the brothers’ cleverness works against the pace of the film. The reprise of Davis’ beating, a device borrowed from Bertolucci’s “1900”, fails to add to the audience feelings towards the anti-hero. If anything it gave credence to the notion that he deserved a greater pummeling on the second viewing.  Maybe that was the point but noone needed any more reasons to loath Davis. The closing sequence, with the folk-savior Dylan on stage, worked very well. This is a nod to the 1972 film “Cabaret” where a pan into the audience reveals the coming anti-Christ who would destroy Germany. It is unfortunate, given their prodigious knowledge of film that they  failed to take lessons from Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” on how to portray an anti-hero.  That feature also has a protagonist who is a failed musician who tries to make peace with his dying father and takes an outlandish road trip with anti-social strangers. Jack Nicholson is equally misanthropic, but he wins your heart. His ability to charm stems from an outstanding performance in a script unencumbered by the need to give nuance to an era and a genre of music. (He is a classical pianist who abandoned a promising music career) It also helps that Nicholson’s problems and dramas are less contrived. Despite bouts of doubt, he is out to have a good time and live life. His supporting cast also exists outside of the small world of his problems which gives resonance to the story. Davis is a solipsistic cartoon character in a perpetual downward spiral surrounded by one-dimensional caricatures that fail to lift his boat. His ability to carry a tune fails to hide the fact that he’s ‘a drag’ .  If the F. Murray Abraham character were to sit through a screening, he might opine: “No one likes an unromantic comedy.... whose gonna drop ten bucks to watch an asshole for two hours”. He has a point.

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