Wednesday, January 29, 2020

"Inside Llewyn Davis" - King Midas's Idiot Brother

*SPOILERS ahead.

After watching over twelves hours of Bob Dylan related movies this month (Rolling Thunder Revue, Factory Girl, I’m Not There, No Direction Home), it seemed only logical that I finally take the plastic off (more on that later) of my copy of Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie that doesn’t glorify the folk scene of 1961 but rather casts a shadow (almost literally considering the color palette of the film) over the era. This is the folk scene right before Bob Dylan showed up (as he appears in the background in the film’s final moments), and for some people, Llewyn Davis specifically, a career in folk music is an eternal struggle. That’s what drew me to this film after all the Dylan stuff. After watching so much film about or inspired by this artist, it was nice to see a story from the same era but about someone who didn’t become an icon. Plus, it’s a Coen Brothers movie, and everything they make should be watched twice, at least.

“[T]he same shit’s going to keep happening to you, because you want it to.” 

Inside Llewyn Davis is a bit of a head-scratcher after the first viewing (at least it was for me). The film seems to end where it begins, so it appears that Llewyn is in some kind of loop, especially once you find out the cat’s name is Ulysses because it makes it seem like he’s on some seemingly endless journey a la Odysseus. But that’s not exactly the case. 

First of all, it’s not a time loop as there are quite a few differences. Llewyn sings another song and is followed by Bob Dylan at the end of the film. Plus, he keeps Ulysses from leaving the apartment with him this time. A lot of similar things happen to Llewyn, but the point of it isn’t that he’s in some purgatory or mythical allegory. He’s just in a rut as a person and an artist that he may or may not want out of.

The easy version of this movie is that Llewyn wants to find success as an artist and reaches some breakthrough at the end. You could argue that he has come to terms with the loss of his bandmate Mike by the end, but he’s still not thriving at the end. What makes it interesting is that it doesn’t seem like he really wants out of the loop. Llewyn Davis is very self-sabotaging, whether he does it consciously or not. For example, he takes a quick check instead of getting royalties for the “Please Mr. Kennedy” recording. He tells his sister to just throw out all of his things without even going through them, not realizing his merchant marine union papers are among them. Why is he like this? That’s where folk music comes into play.

Music, perhaps more than any other artistic expression, glorifies struggle. Success is considered selling out. Folk music in particular embodies this as the songs are typically about struggles among common people, and what’s more common than scraping by? On some level, Llewyn never wants to stop crashing on whatever couch he can find in the Village, because if he somehow makes enough money to get his own place, then he must have sold out to get there. 

This is not necessarily who Llewyn Davis is overall, but it’s certainly who he is throughout the film. He was part of a duo, and his attempt at a solo career is failing. He is trying, but he’s unwilling to admit that he needs someone. Mike’s suicide is still affecting him, and he doesn’t want to find someone new. But trying things on his own has created an endless rut. The end of the film may find him making slight progress (because of his ability to leave the cat in the apartment), but it seems like he may have simply made peace with the rut.

This is best exemplified by his conversations with Jean (Carey Mulligan). In may ways, everything she says to him sums up his character perfectly, even down to calling him “shit.” But it’s her discussion with him about being a “careerist” that is most telling. She talks about how she and Jim want something, and Llewyn is just on the couch, and it’s spot on. But he sees her goal of success as selling out or giving up. To him the struggle is the point, but this is only because he’s miserable. 

Llewyn’s misery isn’t exclusive to music. He has possibly impregnated Jean, who he clearly has feelings for (despite her being with Jim), and he goes on to find out that he has a child living in Akron (the woman he was with decided to keep the baby without telling him). He considers having a family as giving up, as he gives Jean shit for wanting to move out of the city and raise a child, and he is condescending to his sister when discussing her life of “just existing.” Yet when he drives past Akron on his way back from Chicago he stares at it longingly and moments later he hits a cat (most likely the wrong cat he brought with him from New York but abandoned). By passing Akron he is killing his chance at such a life, and perhaps he regrets this a bit. Regardless, he passes it up and head back to his struggle as a folk singer.

Llewyn alienating people around him and showing disdain for people who succeed shows that living as an artist, or at least an artist in Llewyn’s eyes, is a selfish and lonely endeavor. He uses anyone willing to give him a couch, and he doesn’t seem very interested in family ties (family, either his child or his sister and dad, represent a life wasted). Most people seem to hate him or dismiss him (a man seems to stare at him with hate in his eyes on the subway, Roland Turner dislikes him immediately, etc.). It’s a miserable existence, but it seems to be one he wants to live. It’s also a refreshingly realistic cinematic look at a musician, since Llewyn is never going to make it in the traditional sense, just like most people who follow their dreams. Most just keep grinding it out for as long as possible. For every Bob Dylan, there are a thousand Llewyn Davis’s out in the alley, getting their asses kicked.

The appearance of Bob Dylan at the end while Llewyn goes to the alley to take his beating sums up what his professional life will most likely be. One step away from stardom and success (which he doesn’t actually want, because hey, Dylan ended up betraying his folk beginning anyway when he went electric, right?). One step away from a beating each night. But this is what he wanted, so it’s not really a sad or depressing ending. Llewyn is going to continue to be the artist he wants to be, and the events of the film have helped him come to terms with that. 

King Midas’s idiot brother

The first time I watched Inside Llewyn Davis, I wasn’t blown away by it. But it’s not the type of movie to blow you away. It’s a movie to be absorbed after multiple viewings. I didn’t hate the film, and I knew I needed to give it time. The Coens have earned my patience over the years, so any time I watch a film of theirs and don’t seem to get it at first, I’ll give it a few months and watch it again. 

I have come to love it, but I feel the need to address why I didn’t like it at first. To begin with, Llewyn is a dick. I know the movie points this out plenty of times, but that doesn’t make him likable. I’ve come to enjoy him as a character, but he does a few things I consider unforgivable. The main issue I have with him is having sex with Jean while she’s with Jim, and then, the kicker, trying to get money from Jim for Jean’s abortion while knowing that the baby could also be Jim’s. I get the dark humor in such a request, but when you think about Jim, who seems to be the nicest character in the film, unwittingly paying for the abortion of his own child, it becomes fucking evil. But I’ve made my peace with it because it finally occurred to me that I don’t need to like him. 

Having an unlikable protagonist isn’t a new concept to me, but I wanted to like Llewyn, probably because I think Oscar Isaac is a great actor, and he’s especially good in this film. The fact that I have come to kind of like him despite his despicable behavior is a testament to his performance.

I also wasn’t crazy about the possible time look aspect of the film the first time. It made me wonder what I missed, realizing that the fucking cat was very important, especially with a name like Ulysses. The name thing really annoyed me because I thought this was meant to be about The Odyssey again, which I thought was a bit lazy. But looking back, this has very little to do with The Odyssey and is more of a reference to the Joyce novel, mainly because it’s a slightly plotless look at life in a specific world over the course of a short period of time. (I’ve never read Ulysses, though, so perhaps there’s more than that to it.)

I just didn’t feel like trying to figure this movie out the first time I saw it. But I chalk that up to awards season fatigue (I have to watch 60+ movies in the final month of the year for the year-end awards from the critics group I belong to and sometimes a movie gets less attention than it deserves). After giving it a few years (I opened my blu ray copy a few days ago even though I bought it years ago), I was able to give the film another chance. 

This time around, I found myself enjoying the world of the film. Even though I like digging deeper into the film and thinking about theories about the cat and whatnot, I also just enjoy the movie on the surface. It’s sneakily one of the Coen Brothers’ funniest films, and it features a great cast of characters. And I’ve embraced folk music recently, so that aspect, which was a bit lost on me the first go around, is now part that I enjoy very much.

Inside Llewyn Davis is not only a film I have come to love; it’s also an example of my favorite type of movie. It’s a film that can be as deep or shallow as you want it to be. That shouldn’t have surprised me because the Coens excel at that. I’m just glad I gave this movie the time it deserved, because now I consider it top-tier Coen Brothers.

Why Do I Own This?

I’m a Coen Brothers completionist (or I was since I have yet to buy Hail, Caesar! and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), so I buy this out of instinct. But this one truly needs to be owned because it gets better with each viewing.

Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren as college students before their relationship soured.

Random Thoughts 

I bet Llewyn apologizes about last night every day. 

"Llewyn is the cat."

Troy Nelson announcing, "Well, that was very good," after eating cereal annoys me for some reason. 

"Everything you touch turns to shit! Like King Midas's idiot brother."

"I'm not a fucking cat!"

There's something odd about seeing Adam Driver sing about "!" now that he's Kylo Ren. Not to mention he's singing with Poe Dameron. 

I actually really like "Please Mr. Kennedy."

What happened to Garrett Hedlund? I mean, I know he still works with regularity, but I always thought he would be a bigger star.

John Goodman definitely has some of the best lines, or maybe I just enjoy watching him roast Llewyn. 

"Grown man with a cat. Is that part of your ACT?"

"I just didn't know what to do with it."
"Really? So, did you bring your dick along, too?"

Llewyn is such a fuck-up that he can't even give up and become a careerist properly.