Charlie Hebdo, satire and malicious misreading

The Paris killings have been discussed so widely and relentlessly that I didn’t intend to add my voice with yet another blogpost but I’ve found myself so busy on multiple Facebook threads that I thought I should pull my thoughts together here.

I’ve been genuinely alarmed by some of the responses to the killings. Not the Islamophobic ones which demanded that ordinary muslims prove themselves by condemning the murders. As a white man who is never, ever asked to stand up and condemn crimes by white men, I think they’re insulting, intimidating and absurd, but I expected those.

My disappointment is with a number of voices on the left who, in the days after the massacre, raced to talk about everything except the fact that people had been murdered by religious fanatics because of cartoons. It’s not irrelevant that the gunmen had been radicalised by crimes such as the Iraq war and Abu Ghraib, or that Islamophobia is a growing problem, or that the world leaders who marched in Paris were all, to varying degrees, hypocrites when it comes to protecting freedom of speech. (In fact, I think that this is an important opportunity to examine and address those hypocrisies.) But I did get itchy reading articles that wanted to talk about everything except the main event, as if to condemn the gunmen without qualification was somehow to play into the hands of Islamophobes and sabre-rattlers.

I like the slogan “Je Suis Charlie” because it suggests simple solidarity with victims of an appalling crime. Friends who reject it, and the numerous columnists who have said “Je ne suis pas Charlie”, believe that it means more than that — unreserved endorsement of Charlie Hebdo’s content — although, given that the magazine has been running since 1970, with countless staff members and contributors over the years, I find this assumption bizarre. I don’t need to rubber-stamp every page before I can voice my solidarity. Every publication that I read or write for has published some material I vigorously disagree with but I would stand by every single one in a case as extreme as this. Still, each to their own interpretation. Nobody should feel bullied into supporting a slogan.

What I found really hard to swallow was the number of people who, after the obligatory “Of course this is a shocking crime but…” opener, confidently described Charlie Hebdo as racist, including Richard Seymour (“a racist institution”), Jacob Canfield (“incredibly racist”) and Gawker’s Maria Bustillos (“trafficked in hateful images and ideas that often tracked uncomfortably closely with the ultragarbage peddled by the fascistoid National Front”). I’ll take it as read that nobody thinks even the most vile drawings deserve to be punished with gunfire but branding them racists so quickly, with so little evidence, is no small matter. No wonder that the French left, to which Charlie Hebdo belonged, has been shocked by some of its anglophone comrades throwing the magazine under the bus.

These claims were backed up by examples of Charlie Hebdo’s work, presented as if they were self-explanatory. Cartoons aimed at a small audience intimate with minor episodes in French politics were being wrenched out of context and held up as racist by people outside France who had no way of understanding what the cartoons were referring to. Charlie Hebdo’s provocative, impacted, in-crowd style makes it very easy to misread if you weigh in before taking time to check the facts.

When I first saw the Boko Haram panel that cartoonist Tom Humberstone cites as a straightforward example of “punching down”, I thought it was inexplicably offensive so I wanted to find out what the hell it was trying to say. It is in fact pointing out the hypocrisy of French conservatives condemning Boko Haram’s mistreatment of kidnapped girls while trying to remove welfare benefits from refugees seeking asylum in France. The pro-welfare magazine is lampooning the myth that vulnerable migrants are “welfare queens”, not cosigning it. (Vox’s Max Fisher explains it well here, comparing it to the New Yorker’s controversial 2008 Obamas cover, which also appears racist if you don’t know the background. Worth noting that Ricochet’s Leigh Phillips has yet another reading: “a clunky ‘first-world problems’ commentary on complaints over the French government restricting child benefits for top earners, suggesting that rich French people really have nothing to complain about compared to people’s travails in northeast Nigeria.”)

Likewise, the cartoon depicting Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black, as a monkey horrified me until I learned that it was an attack on the National Front politician who made that comparison, the National Front being Charlie Hebdo’s favourite target.

Now you could argue, and I would, that using racist caricatures in the service of an anti-racist message is self-defeating and offensive, and that the magazine should have thought a lot harder about it depicted muslims and black people. (The closest comparison in music would be the Dead Kennedys’ Holiday in Cambodia. Satirising the mindset of privileged white college students, Jello Biafra included the line, “Bragging that you know how the niggers feel cold.” He soon decided that the ugliness of that word undermined the song and changed the line in all subsequent performances.) But you owe it to the dead cartoonists to understand their intent before crying racist.

On one level, this is just bad reading. Rule one of satire is that if something looks extremely objectionable at first glance then there’s a fair chance that it’s critiquing those objectionable attitudes. Jello Biafra didn’t really want to kill the poor and Randy Newman didn’t truly despise short people. Worse than that, it betrays a willingness to assume the worst and believe that Charlie Hebdo was the kind of magazine that mocked kidnapped Nigerians or compared black people to monkeys. When we’re talking about murder victims, such bad faith is deeply insulting and is a travesty of left-wing values.

As Leigh Phillips’ writes: “These otherwise well-meaning but non-French-speaking knights-in-social-media-armour have embarrassed themselves by spouting off about things they know not quite enough about. This is not clear-headed thinking. This is not leftist or anti-racist thinking.”

You don’t have to like these cartoons. I find many of them, like 90% of political cartoons to be frank, neither funny nor revealing. And as a fairly laidback British atheist, I struggle to understand the ferocity of French anti-clericalism. But even the ones depicting Mohammed (vastly outnumbered by those attacking the National Front and the French establishment) have a range of tones and targets that make a simple “punching up versus punching down” binary impossible. If you attack muslims en masse, you are punching down. If you attack extremists, some of whom run countries, you are punching up. In a single-panel cartoon, the difference is not always clear.

What the academic Danah Boyd calls “context collapse” is the root of a thousand Twitterstorms. When comments or jokes intended for one audience are read by another the misreadings can be dramatic. Sarcasm and ambiguity don’t travel well. This is a hazard of our age but when the people whose work we’re analysing have been gunned down, surely the least we can do is to take the time to understand what they were trying to say.

Music and politics in 2014


“After a grand jury didn’t indict a Ferguson, Mo., police officer last month in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, D’Angelo called his co-manager Kevin Liles. “He said: ‘Do you believe this? Do you believe it?’ ” Mr. Liles said. “And then we just sat there in silence. That is when I knew he wanted to say something.”” – New York Times, December 17, 2014

The big story in protest music in 2014 can be summed up in one word: Ferguson. And by Ferguson I don’t just mean the death of Michael Brown, but those of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, and the gut-wrenching reminder that in America black lives are valued less than white ones. It shocked hip hop into its biggest spasm of civic responsibility since Hurricane Katrina. Rappers stopped worrying about self-identifying as political (read: preachy, boring, not commercially viable) and stepped up without hesitation.

I’ve already come across New National Anthem by TI, the Nina Simone-influenced Black Rage by Lauryn Hall, Don’t Shoot by The Game and others, War Cry by Tef Poe, Tell the Children by Tink, Be Free by J Cole, We Gotta Pray by Alicia Keys and Hands Up by Yakki Divoshi. Don’t Shoot, named after a Ferguson hashtag and placard slogan, stands out because its sheer manpower allows for a range of responses, from Diddy’s thoughtful restraint to Swizz Beatz’ bleak despair to Problem’s vengeful fury. Amid references to Martin Luther King and Jesse Jackson, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised and Fuck Tha Police, Curren$y’s “I’m a resident of a country that don’t want me” cuts deepest.



Those are just the songs intended to be about Ferguson. As D’Angelo’s quote demonstrates, the crisis transformed the meaning and purpose of existing songs. When Vince Staples tweeted “Hands Up is not about Ferguson”, I felt like replying, “Well, that’s what you think.” I was reminded of a quote from DH Lawrence in Greil Marcus’s The History of Rock’n’Roll in 10 Songs: “Never trust the teller. Trust the tale.” Hands Up wasn’t written about Ferguson the place, Ferguson the crisis, but it’s about what the name Ferguson now represents. Likewise Run the Jewels’ heart-wrenching Early: “I apologise if I got out of line sir/Cause I respect the badge and the gun/And I pray today ain’t the day that you drag me away/Right in front of my beautiful son.” For D’Angelo, Ferguson recontextualised Black Messiah, an album which sometimes attains the humid density of There’s a Riot Goin’ On, and made its rush-release a necessary response. He wanted the album to reflect “anarchy and urgency and revolution”. So when Questlove posted on Instagram, calling for songs that “speak truth”, I felt that these songs were already out there.

The best of them feel fresh and alive in a way that Band Aid 30’s Do They Know It’s Christmas? did not. This lumbering anachronism reminded me of attending 2007’s Live Earth, the massive benefit concert that was forgotten even as it was happening: the last gasp of an outmoded form.

Under fire from the likes of Damon Albarn, Fuse ODG and even Emeli Sande, who sang on the record, Bob Geldof proved unable to accept that pop music, the media and the world have changed, and immune to humility or self-awareness. His belligerent defence of the redemptive power of good intentions was forgivable in 1984 because the concept was new and its strengths outweighed its flaws. Thirty years later, nobody needs a pop song to tell them about ebola. I’m prepared to believe that it raised awareness of the epidemic among the very young but mostly it just raised awareness of the redundancy of the all-star benefit single. (I had high hopes for another multi-vocal effort, Rookie Magazine’s Go Forth, Feminist Warriors, because it featured people like Carrie Brownstein, Aimee Mann and Tegan & Sara but unfortunately this “feminist We Are the World” is terrible. At least Do They Know It’s Christmas? is catchy.)

Some of the year’s most outspoken rock musicians were from the original Band Aid/We Are the World generation. On High Hopes, Bruce Springsteen enlisted Tom Morello to beef up two of his finest protest songs, 1995’s The Ghost of Tom Joad and 2000’s American Skin (41 Shots), the latter about – plus ca change – the police murder of an unarmed black man. On U2’s Songs of Innocence, Bono stopped trying to throw his arms around the world and drew a tight bead on the Ireland of his youth: the violence of political fanatics (Raised By Wolves) and the complacent cruelty of abusive priests (Sleep Like a Baby Tonight). It’s a shame that the album’s controversially vast iTunes data dump distracted from the powerful intimacy of the words.

Morrissey’s World Peace Is None of Your Business showed that a strong melody can redeem a ham-fisted lyric. Even as I couldn’t get it out of my head, I wondered how he could bundle together protest movements in countries as different as Egypt, Brazil, Ukraine and Bahrain and empathise with the victims of autocrats while rubbishing the right to vote. Small wonder that he is good friends with Russell Brand. Elbow’s The Blanket of Night took the opposite tack, tenderly sketching a scene of two asylum-seekers on a stormy sea. Compassion for ordinary lives can be more effective than raging vaguely against the powerful. The year’s biggest surprise came from Paolo Nutini, an MOR soulboy reconfigured, on Iron Sky, as an urgent revolutionary idealist, making excellent use of Charlie Chaplin’s famous “machine minds” speech from The Great Dictator.

Iron Sky’s dystopian video is just one example of how visuals can emphasise and expand lyrics. The clip for John Grant’s Glacier used the singer’s deeply personal account of the impact of homophobia as an opportunity to chart the history of the gay rights movement, to emotionally overwhelming effect. The pansexual love-in depicted in Annie’s Russian Kiss video made it an even more joyous riposte to Putin’s anti-gay laws during the Sochi Olympics. Holly Herndon’s Home, a break-up song addressed to her computer, was a witty sideways take on the mass surveillance program revealed by Edward Snowden.



Canadian country singer Kira Isabella’s Quarterback doesn’t necessarily read as a protest song but it should. I’ve said before that the only thing I’d change about 33 Revolutions Per Minute is to redraw the parameters of what constitutes a feminist protest song. I underserved personal songs with broad resonance that didn’t present themselves as movement anthems. Quarterback is such a song.

Isabella describes a nightmarish inversion of an early Taylor Swift scenario, in which a timid geek hooks up with a football hero in the most horrific way. As the title and chorus indicate, the real target isn’t the rapist but the high-school caste system that allows him to get away with it by disbelieving his victim. As Katherine St Asaph wrote in a brilliant review, “it’s also a song about popularity, and who we deem to matter”.

Originally written in the first person, Quarterback is far more disturbing in the third. Isabella’s neutral delivery, cracking only on the line “when she saw the pictures on the internet,” suggests that she could be one of the complicit bystanders. A stronger singer might have overplayed the indignation, tipped the song out of the everyday and into melodrama, made it obvious from the start where it was going. The video betrays the song’s toughness by ending with a cathartic scene in which the rapist is exposed. The lyric allows no such happy ending. It’s about trying to live at the very bottom of a crushing power structure. And it shows that great songwriting can bottle a major issue in a single story that leaves you stunned.


Here are my Top 20 albums and singles of the year. And here’s a link to my Spotify playlist of roughly 100 songs I enjoyed in 2014.


  1. Owen Pallett – In Conflict
  2. FKA twigs – LP1
  3. Manic Street Preachers – Futurology
  4. St Vincent – St Vincent
  5. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
  6. Sky Ferreira – Night Time, My Time
  7. D’Angelo & the Vanguard – Black Messiah
  8. Caribou – Our Love
  9. Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence
  10. Kate Tempest – Everybody Down
  11. Kelis – Food
  12. Wye Oak – Shriek
  13. The Soft Pink Truth – Why Do the Heathen Rage?
  14. Scott Walker & Sunn O))) – Soused
  15. Taylor Swift – 1989
  16. Lewis – L’Amour
  17. Wild Beasts – Present Tense
  18. Aphex Twin – Syro
  19. Eno*Hyde – Someday World
  20. The Juan Maclean – In a Dream


  1. FKA twigs – Two Weeks
  2. Todd Terje – Oh Joy
  3. Caribou – Silver
  4. Future Islands – Seasons (Waiting on You)
  5. Sofi de la Torre – Vermillion
  6. Taylor Swift – Out of the Woods
  7. Idina Menzel – Let It Go
  8. The War on Drugs – Red Eyes
  9. Kira Isabella – Quarterback
  10. Jane Weaver – Argent
  11. Röyskopp & Robyn – Do It Again
  12. The Soft Pink Truth – Ready to Fuck
  13. Beyonce – XO
  14. Elbow – Fly Boy Blue/Lunette
  15. Porter Robinson – Hear the Bells
  16. Clean Bandit – Rather Be
  17. Schoolboy Q feat. Kendrick Lamar – Collard Greens
  18. Vic Mensa – Down on My Luck
  19. Jenny Lewis – One of the Guys
  20. Perfume Genius – Queen


St Vincent at Shepherd’s Bush Empire
Kelis at Metropolis Studios
Miley Cyrus at Phones4U Arena
Future Islands and Courtney Barnett at Field Day
OutKast at Wireless Festival
Kate Bush at Hammersmith Apollo
FKA twigs at Hackney Empire
Underworld (Dubnobasswithmyheadman) at Royal Festival Hall
Kate Tempest at Village Underground
Goldfrapp at Royal Albert Hall
Jesus & Mary Chain (Psychocandy) at Troxy
John Grant at Royal Festival Hall
Manic Street Preachers (The Holy Bible) at Roundhouse

The ballad of John and Russell

“The press continued to treat John with undisguised hostility. The Times objected, in its ruling-class fashion, to the “unfortunate image of hippy earnestness directing liberal causes from the deep upholstery of a Beatle’s income.”

The Daily Mirror’s abuse was more flamboyant. It ran a headline naming John “Clown of the Year” at the end of 1969. “John Lennon means well,” the tabloid began. “But it is not what goes on in his mind, rather what comes out of the mouth, that sets Mr Lennon slightly apart from his fellow human beings. And out of that particular mouth this year has emerged the most sustained twaddle and tosh since Zsa Zsa gave way to Cassius Clay.” Reviewing the period that began with the nude Two Virgins cover and ended with the Hanratty campaign, the Mirror found the bed-in the most outrageous. “That fatuous affair” had been based on “the notion that the contentious forces of mankind would pause in awe of this nut-nibbling couple in old Amsterdam.” The article concluded, “Mr Lennon’s cry is ‘Peace!’ How about giving us some, chum?”

Source: Jon Wiener – Come Together: John Lennon in His Time

There are many differences between the two men  – only one, for example, ranks among the greatest artists of modern times and it’s not the one who was in the remake of Arthur – but the tone of the loftiest hatchet jobs on Russell Brand feels awfully familiar.

How do you solve a problem like Nigel?

Ukip leader Nigel Farage


In recent weeks, most people I know have been thrown into a funk by Ukip’s apparent invulnerability. Attacking them feels like wrestling smoke or having a dream in which you try to run but your feet turn to lead. Ridicule doesn’t work. Exposing candidates as racists, Islamophobes, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists or crackpots who thinks pro-Europe politicians should be hanged for treason doesn’t work. Perhaps it even enhances their cachet as plucky anti-establishment renegades who say the unsayable, though that’s no reason to stop. They get knocked down. They get back up again. They’re still favourites to win tomorrow’s elections. What can be done?

I think Ukip’s critics should be careful with words. The party is not, despite what many people say, fascist, unless you drastically reinterpret the word to mean “right-wing and nasty”. Its members are not all racists. Some are even non-white (although one of those, former youth leader Sanya-Jeet Thandi, recently quit the party and accused it of appealing to the “stupidity of ignorant anti-immigrant voters for electoral gain” and “giving positions in the party to people with racist views”). People who make hateful generalisations about Eastern Europeans are particularly keen to say they can’t be racist because their targets are white. That’s why Farage can say he wouldn’t want Romanian neighbours and get away with it whereas if he said the same about West Indians he’d be toast.

Again and again, discussions of racism get derailed by a false binary: one is either a racist or not a racist. In reality, one can be racist towards certain groups and not others. One can count people of colour as friends but be instinctively prejudiced towards any who are strangers. One can even consider oneself anti-racist and still make certain subconsciously racist assumptions. The anti-racism movement has succeeded in making people horrified of being accused of racism but not in making them not be racist. We’ve reached a point where anything short of being caught in the act of burning a cross on someone’s lawn can be hotly denied. Many will insist “I don’t have a racist bone in my body”, clearly subscribing to the orthopedic theory of racism. (“Congratulations. The operation was a complete success. We’ve removed the fibula that didn’t want immigrants living next door and now you’re racism-free.”)

I don’t want to go down that road so let me just point out that Ukip supporters are older and whiter than the average voter and disproportionately obsessed with immigration. 92 per cent of them agree that “mass immigration is making parts of the UK unrecognisable and like a foreign land” while 51 per cent agree that “The Government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain).” This isn’t just about Brussels. Farage can keep insisting that the only issue is Europe but his anti-immigrant button-pushing makes his pantomime of puzzled disappointment with the party’s barmier members look comically disingenuous. Bigots in Ukip? Gosh, how can that be? He’s like a man who walks around with a string of sausages hanging from his back pocket and then complains when dogs chase him.

The wave of recent mini-scandals may have deterred a few floating voters but it’s left only a minor dent. Some candidates are swivel-eyed extremists? It doesn’t matter. Their facts are distorted and their predictions wrong? It doesn’t matter. They’ve disowned their 2010 manifesto and refuse to specify any policies beyond leaving Europe? It doesn’t matter. They’re so reliant on one man that trying to name another Ukip member who appears reasonable and halfway professional is a very short game? It doesn’t matter. They’re seeking election to a parliament they don’t believe in, which, as we’ve seen from the activities of anti-state Tea Party congressmen in the US, is a recipe for fractious inertia that helps nobody? It doesn’t matter. They’re chummy with some of Europe’s most unsavoury fringe parties? It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because Ukip are less a political party than a mood. As the Spectator’s Alex Massie suggests, Farage’s appeal is the flipside of Russell Brand’s. Disgust with mainstream politics, globalisation and, in many cases, immigrants has created an angry bubble so impervious to facts that it strays into conspiracy theories: 67 per cent of Ukip voters said they were more likely than the average Briton to feel “alienated”. Farage obscures his lack of ideas in a mist of simplistic rhetoric and phoney rebellion that’s attractive to people sick of the dreary slog of politics as usual. While the other parties talk about tough choices, Farage makes it easy. Leave Europe, pull up the drawbridge and Britain will be magically restored to whatever cock-eyed, Sunday-night-TV golden age you carry around in your head.

Some of their voters’ deeper worries are understandable, which is why they’re wooing Labour voters as well as estranged Tories, but the solution (send ‘em back home and close the door) is as bogus as it is pernicious. Unfortunately, this is how right-wing populist parties shape the national conversation. First, they exaggerate the downside of immigration and gather a following. Then the media and mainstream parties feel obliged to respond by buying into the exaggeration and catering to “valid concerns”, regardless of whether those concerns are grounded in fact. Usually, voters who are obsessed with immigration decide to stick with the party that serves its bigotry undiluted but by then the issue has been artificially inflated and something must be done. No party leader can dare to say that he refuses to respond to this largely illusory crisis.

The media, always in the market for a telegenic wag, has inflated Farage’s importance and thus his support. The same outlets that wrung their hands over whether to give Nick Griffin a platform have rolled out the red carpet for Farage, even though Ukip deputy chairman Neil Hamilton has said that his party attracts “decent” and “non-racist” BNP voters who feel “swamped” by immigration (ah yes, the famous non-racist BNP voter) and Griffin himself has accused Ukip of “using all of our rhetoric, they are using our slogans, they are recycling our posters and people like it”. Even now that the media is, belatedly, giving Farage a harder time, he has all the publicity he needs.

I’d like to think that the negative press will make some dyspeptic voters tempted to go for Ukip as a protest vote think again once they realise they’re joining some very unpleasant company. Like most countries, Britain has a proportion of incorrigible hardcore racists but not enough to explain Ukip’s poll ratings. Come the general election, when Ukip will have to break their strategic silence on policy and articulate a vision for the economy, education and so on, its coalition of malcontents will be hard to sustain. Truly successful parties are sustained by groundwork, pragmatism and attention to detail, not hot air and hating stuff. Moods are powerful and unstoppable until they pass, and this one will pass.

For now, the only course of action left if you dislike Ukip and the side of Britain that they represent is to turn out and vote. Sorry if that sounds condescending. Angry people with the wind at their heels certainly will, and the bored and disillusioned will allow them to exaggerate their importance. (If Russell Brand’s anti-voting stance seemed unhelpful last year it feels actively destructive now.) You can’t build a lasting political party on anger and prejudice but you can still cause a lot of damage.

Thanks to @davidwearing, whose Twitter feed has been a valuable source of links and statistics.

Tony Benn 1925-2014

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


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?


Pete Seeger 1919-2014



Pete Seeger was a good man. There aren’t many musicians you can say that about without seeming simplistic. Music is often progressed by flawed, volatile, glamorous egotists, and thank God for them. But Seeger carved out his place in history with a quieter, rarer set of qualities: nobility, generosity, humility and, when things got rough, breathtaking courage. Perhaps uniquely, he became one of the most important singers in America without ever being a star, because he believed in the song rather than the singer…


More at the Guardian…



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,298 other followers