The Gate of Ivory: why Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece

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I don’t usually write about movies here but since I saw Inside Llewyn Davis for the second time, I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. I think it’s nigh-on perfect: it’s not just one of the Coens’ best movies, it’s the best I’ve seen in the past year or so. And I feel compelled to argue its case to all the music journalists I know who, dismayingly, hate it. And it’s fun to write about so bear with me. Obviously this contains spoilers up the wazoo so don’t read if you haven’t seen the movie yet.

Firstly, what’s up with the guy in the alley?

The first time I saw the movie, I thought it might be a long flashback that begins the morning after the assault and brings us back to the present. But the first time, Llewyn closes his set with Hang Me Oh Hang Me and the second time it’s Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song). They’re different shows with exactly the same violent coda.

It’s the most important scene because this almost Lynchian loop reveals at the last minute that the apparent naturalism of most of the movie (which only breaks down during the surreal and haunting road trip) is a hoax. This is a fable, a nightmare, a week in purgatory, a very dark Groundhog Day. And Llewyn realises that too in the very last scene, when he says a sardonic “au revoir” to his assailant. He knows it’s going to happen again. The details may change but he’s still going to end up in that alley with a bloody lip because that’s his fate. I’m just relieved the Coens are too subtle to stoop to showing a turntable needle stuck in a groove.

In the coffee shop, Carey Mulligan’s furious Jean scolds Llewyn for making the same mistakes over and over again. But there are hints that his stasis is not just because of his personal failings but because the universe is toying with him. During the road trip, John Goodman’s hideous, tormenting jazzman threatens to inflict a curse that will make Llewyn wonder why is life has turned into “a big bowl of shit”. Llewyn takes it in his stride because he realises that the curse has already been cast. His life is already a big bowl of shit.

So is Llewyn a loser?

Oscar Isaac’s musical performances are perfectly judged. If he were any less talented we wouldn’t want him to succeed. If he were any better we wouldn’t understand why he was failing. He’s just as good as dozens of other hopefuls on the Greenwich Village scene, which means he’s not quite good enough. He’s duo material: Art Garfunkel rather than Paul Simon and, to be honest, not even that. Brusque though he is, Bud Grossman is right when he says that Llewyn’s best hope of success is as the junior member of a Peter, Paul & Mary-style trio. (No disrespect to Noel “Paul” Stookey.) Musical abilities aside, Llewyn lacks the ruthlessness and calculated charm with which Bob Dylan smoothed his path through Greenwich Village. But he’s neither passive nor a fool.

Well is he an asshole?

I’m inclined to apply the Holden Caulfield defence: he’s bereaved and lashing out. Bereavement can feel like Groundhog Day, hence the language of “needing to move on”, and I tend to give grieving people, whether in life or in movies, a lot of slack. To make matters worse, it seems as if every time people see Llewyn they’re reminded of Mike, his beloved ex-partner who jumped off the George Washington Bridge. When Bud Grossman tells Llewyn he doesn’t “connect with people”, maybe that’s always been the case or maybe he’s formed a protective shell that prevents powerful emotions from getting out as well as in.

So he’s clearly profoundly depressed. He’s also homeless and poor during a famously cruel winter, sleeping on floors and train station benches and, as he tells Jean, “so tired”. As soon as he gets any money (sacrificing future royalties in the process, natch), it slips out of his hands for no reward, as if it were a mirage all along. Without money, a home or even a winter coat, Llewyn is far more spiritually attuned to folk music’s sorrowful tales than the cosy, sweater-wearing Jim and Jean. He’s not demanding to be a star; he just wants to eat and sleep.

On second viewing I shivered at the scene where he sits at a lunch counter for as long as possible while his socks drip melted snow onto the floor, and at the exhausted lyrics of Hang Me, Oh Hang Me: “Hang me, oh hang me/I’ll be dead and gone/I wouldn’t mind the hanging/But the layin’ in a grave so long, poor boy/I been all around this world.”

I wonder if Llewyn’s most self-destructive behaviour stems from his subconscious realisation that burning his bridges is his best way out. Towards the end of the movie he’s forgiven by the Gorfeins and the Gaslight manager, and even Jean mellows, securing him another gig, but these acts of kindness bring him back where he started. Returning to the Gaslight isn’t a redemptive second chance, it’s a trap.

The whole movie is a corrective to the ubiquitous follow-your-dream school of philosophy. It’s for all the actors who realise they’ve been waiting tables in LA long enough, all the singers who accept that they don’t quite have what it takes. If the movie strikes some viewers as cruel, well, it’s a cruel situation. Knowing when to give up on a dream and try something else isn’t a subject that our culture feels comfortable with. Why the Coens, who have had a blessed career, are so enthralled by failure is anyone’s guess.

Why doesn’t he just quit?

Well, he tries to rejoin the merchant marine but he doesn’t have his license and can’t afford a new one. In one of the ironies studded through the film like cats’ eyes, his sister only threw out the license because he told her he didn’t want a box of old stuff lying around. The one time he symbolically rejects the past, it backfires and punishes him.

And he at least considers looking up his ex-girlfriend Diane, who has his child. First time around, I thought Llewyn was wrong not to take the turning to Akron and try and build a new life with Diane. But this is a woman who cancelled her abortion without telling him and immediately left town, so I don’t imagine she’d be up for playing happy families two years later. Akron is less a viable future than a reminder of past mistakes.

Friends who hate Inside Llewyn Davis complain about the tonal monotony, from the plot down to the colour palette, but it’s about the seeming impossibility of change. It looks how depression feels. Unlike previous entries in the Coens’ informal Failure Trilogy, Barton Fink and A Serious Man, there’s no cataclysmic, transformative event at the end: no hotel fire or tornado to change the central character’s life. There’s no catharsis. The only developments come in Llewyn’s awareness of his plight and his decision to play Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song) for the first time since Mike’s death. I understand why the sense of inertia annoys some people but it’s kind of the whole point.

Do the Coens actually like folk music?

Yes and no. If they didn’t appreciate the beauty of the music they wouldn’t devote so much screen time to the songs, but they’re keenly aware of its limitations. When Llewyn says after Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, “It was never new and it never gets old, it’s a folk song” it’s both praise of the music and indictment of the scene. (John Goodman’s “We play all the notes — twelve notes in a scale, dipshit, not three chords on a ukelele” is my favourite line but I don’t think we’re meant to take his jazz-militant criticisms seriously.)

A better question might be: does Llewyn Davis like folk music? He does when he’s singing it but he explodes at the Arkansas autoharp player in the Gaslight because she represents folk at its most reverential and hidebound. His cry of “I hate fucking folk music” is one of the funniest, harshest lines in the movie. It’s the eruption of a creeping fear that the music he’s dedicated his twenties to might be as irrelevant as the “early music” studied by the ludicrous academic he meets at the Gorfeins’. (Neatly, the autoharp player’s avenging husband is a reminder that there is nothing prissy or sanitised about the roots of American folk music. It was forged in hard times among people who would punch you in the gut if you got out of line.)

One way I see the movie is a retort to traditional rock biopics, in which performances have the power to move listeners to tears or guys at mixing desks to nods and grins. But here the music is powerless, at least as far as Llewyn is concerned. In the only scene which I think justifies criticisms of the movie as cruel, Llewyn performs the seafaring ballad Shoals of Herring, in the hope of breaking through the wall of his father’s dementia. It certainly provokes a release, but not the kind he was hoping for. If the promise of folk music is that it can reconnect you to the past, then it fails here. It can’t bring back what was lost.

It can’t take him forward, either. Please Mr Kennedy (a neurotic riff on the space race which expresses fear of the future) will be a hit but it won’t do him any good. The song he plays for Bud Grossman, a Child ballad allegedly about the death of Jane Seymour, is comically archaic even by folk scene standards. He could have searched high and low without finding a song less likely to get him a record deal in 1961. (In an insightful essay, Sam Adams explores how the lyrics might relate to Llewyn’s situation.)

The shadowy appearance of Bob Dylan in the final scenes isn’t just some cute historical joke: he’s the coming storm. Even if, somehow, we didn’t know what happened next, his voice represents the future. His material may be old but his voice is new, demanding and audaciously ugly. Of course we do know what happened next: he became the folk scene’s darling only to break its heart.

On the subject of real people, how much of the move is true?

A surprising amount. It’s testament to the Coens’ careful research and masterful screenwriting that many of the incidents in the film that seem too perfectly symbolic or ironic not to be fictional turn out to have actually happened. This excellent Slate blogpost covers most of the real-life inspirations. Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street (which I recommend to anyone who enjoys funny, opinionated memoirs) contains anecdotes which made their way straight into the movie, including his label boss’s disingenuous offer of a winter coat, and other details that appear in different forms, like his career as a seaman, his couch-hopping and a strange road trip. The cover of Inside Llewyn Davis (the album) is almost identical to that of 1964’s Inside Dave Van Ronk. But Van Ronk was a far more rambunctious personality and a more successful performer. He never made it big but he was beloved and influential in Greenwich Village in a way that Llewyn can only dream of. (UPDATE: Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife criticises the film for not accurately depicting the Greenwich Village scene. I’m sure she’s right but that’s only a problem if you’re concerned that, say, Barton Fink doesn’t accurately depict 1940s Hollywood. If the Coens wanted to be historically precise they would have used the names of real people: remember, even “Bob Dylan” in the movie is never identified as Dylan.)

All well and good but what about the Gorfeins’ cat?

With the Coens, it’s always a fool’s errand trying to demonstrate that x symbolizes y but the revelation of the cat’s name, Ulysses, is offered to us like a ball of string to chase and unravel. It’s ironic that Llewyn worries so much about the cat’s welfare because the cat, unlike him, is fine. It runs off, has some adventures, and returns home to the warm bosom of the Gorfeins’ apartment. If the cat were as unlucky as Llewyn it would be called Sisyphus. (UPDATE: Commenter ruralmurder argues that the cat supports the more optimistic reading that, like Groundhog Day, Llewyn’s week is a loop but not an identical one and his decisions have the power to create small but significant improvements, raising the hope that at some point he might break the cycle of misfortune: “When the cat gets out of the apartment, Llewyn’s life goes to shit. The second time around, when the cat stays in the apartment, we see subtle, perhaps more optimistic results in Llewyn’s life.” I like this theory.)

The theme of contrasting odysseys might have been inspired by the name of real-life club The Gate of Horn. According to Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, “For two are the gates of shadowy dreams, and one is fashioned of horn and one of ivory. Those dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment. But those that come forth through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass, when any mortal sees them.” Llewyn is turned back from the Gate of Horn and stuck with the fruitless illusions of the Gate of Ivory.

Another line from that passage in Homer makes for a nice comment on this fabulous, complex, divisive movie: “Stranger, dreams verily are baffling and unclear of meaning, and in no wise do they find fulfilment in all things for men.”

So should I go and see it again?

Yes.

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7 Comments

  1. Fantastic piece. The best film of the year. I still think there’s a bit more to the cat. In A Simple Man, Larry Gopnik, a physics professor, lectures about Schrodinger’s cat and the movie reflects that idea by showing that Larry’s final choice, changing the grade, has drastic consequences. The cat in the box is dead. In Llewyn Davis, there is no box, but there is the apartment door. When the cat gets out of the apartment, Llewyn’s life goes to shit. The second time around, when the cat stays in the apartment, we see subtle, perhaps more optimistic results in Llewyn’s life. He may continue the cycle, but some things have changed. Will he ever break the cycle entirely? Who knows? But I left feeling somewhat optimistic that the next time around might be a little better than the first (if it even was the first). I could be way off base with this, but that’s why I love Coen brothers’ films. There’s always something cool to find in them, especially in repeated viewings.

    • I love this theory! I was thinking more about the movie being a loop with small but steady improvements, a la Groundhog Day, and this fits perfectly.

      • Ulysses/Joycean References Inside Llewyn Davis
        1.The entire film is presented as a ‘stream of consciousness’ form inside the head of the main character similar to Bloom in Ulysses.
        2.The city is a principal character in the film, NY in Inside Llewyn Davis, Dublin in Ulysses.
        3.The referencing of city names and addresses is similar to Ulysses
        4.It covers a week in the life as distinct from a day in Ulysses
        5.It starts where it finishes
        6.It is a routine week, nothing dramatic happens throughout the film, as in Ulysses/
        7.The singing at the stodgy dinner party in the upper west side is reminiscent of the party in Dead.
        8.The cat is called Ulysses

  2. […] post first appeared on Dorian Lynskey’s blog, 33revolutionsperminute.wordpress.com, and is crossposted here with his […]

  3. Brilliant Dorian. But one question you ask and don’t answer, and it’s key to the film: ‘ Why the (fabulously successful) Coens would be interested in failure is anyone’s guess.’ Because it’s a depressingly thin fine line. There are dozens of Coens out there who’ll never make a movie, just as there were dozens of Dylans (the soldier?) who perhaps should have. Surely failure is, dramatically, more interesting and just as inexplicable, as success. But a great piece.
    G

  4. Where were the politics, though? Why bother making the film without reference to them. PS I suspect you got the wrong winter – it was 1962-3 that was the bad one

    • As Van Ronk’s memoir illustrates, politics were only part of the mix and weren’t important to everybody. The film doesn’t require that aspect. There’s no reason another film about the same scene couldn’t explore it though.

      The winter of 60/61 was famously cold – that’s part of the Bob Dylan arriving in New York legend.


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