The opening scene in the new effort by Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis, introduces us to our hero, such as he is, singing the old folk song, “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It is, as we will learn, an unsubtle clue into the hopelessness at the heart of this film. This is the story of the hapless and fictional folk singer named Llewyn Davis, circa New York City 1961. He is performing at the threshold of what would become the great folk revival that swept the United States at the dawn of the 1960s. While that historical moment was one primed with anticipatory optimism, this film exists somewhere else.
What we have here is a study in perseverance for an artist at neither the top, nor the bottom, of his craft. Unfortunately, the artist in question is someone of such character, that in the end we are left to wonder whether or not we care. On one level, you cannot fault the Coens for telling the story of a man who lives somewhere in between and doing it in a way that both recreates a world now gone and raises that world to the level of art in the uncanny way they are able to do. This is a Greenwich Village – and Morningside Heights – at once familiar but also dream-like. The problem is the nature of the dream.
The film is loosely based on the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, who himself was a folk singer in that time and published posthumously with the aid of Elijah Wald, his memoir, The Mayor MacDougal Street – referring to the famous Village street where the folk revival was concentrated. Had Van Ronk not, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, put down in writing what was in his mind, perhaps the contrast, or better said the void, at the center of the film would not be so glaring. Alas, that is not the case.
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Van Ronk had a passion for music. He began as a student of jazz – particularly jazz from the 1920s – he then followed his musical curiosity to blues, before landing and finding modest success with folk music. He was also a “man of the left,” being at times – according to his memoir – an anarchist and a Trotskyist. Political activism was central to who he was, yet he seems to have been able to draw lines in such a way that his music was not agit-prop. In his words, “I was in search of a movement that somehow combined socialism with individualism – a tall order.” That said, his book tells the story of an artist so in love with the music he discovered that he gave his life to embracing, popularizing and propagating it. He went from performer, to recording artist, to mentor, to elder. His moniker, “Mayor of MacDougal Street” dated from his days playing the Gaslight club in the Village, but it also stands as a proper epitaph for someone who saw himself as having some responsibility for a larger community of artists.
In contrast to that, Llewyn Davis and those around him don’t seem to believe in much. As Van Ronk’s former manager and ex-wife, Terri Thal, pointed out in a recent Village Voice piece, “There’s no suggestion [in the film] that these people love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period.” Llewyn Davis is for the most part on his own, with only the most tenuous connection emotionally to those around him. His relationships – his friend’s girlfriend, whom he has impregnated; his fellow folk musicians, on whose couches he crashes; and his family – are contentious and he is condescending toward them, though we are lead to believe at least part of his state is because of unprocessed grief after the suicide of his musical partner. His lover Jean offers an alternate explanation: He is an “asshole.” It’s a tough call.
Perhaps most striking in its absence here is any historical context. True, this is not a documentary, and the filmmakers’ prerogative is in play to make something standing outside of time – yet this is Greenwich Village 1961! In that respect, the film’s place oddly exists outside of the world that actually created it; the civil rights movement, the Cold War, the ensuing explosion of antiwar protest – events that would exercise such cataclysmic power in US society, changing it forever. Van Ronk, whose book is far wittier than this film, called the folk revival of the early ’60s, the “Great Folk Scare,” i.e. likening it to the Red Scare, because of its perceived subversive element. Here, as the writer David Hadju pointed out in his book, Positively Fourth Street, you had this beautiful young woman, Joan Baez, singing murder ballads, challenging the set roles of women in post-Eisenhower America, or the casual intermingling of young white artists with old Communist Party members and fellow travelers, and black bluesmen, to say nothing of gawking tourists. This did have a subversive edge, one that was a bellwether of what was soon to overtake the larger society.
It needs to also be pointed that Llewyn Davis knows no black artists, while the real Village in those days saw such luminaries intermingled into the scene as the Reverend Gary Davis, John Lee Hooker, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor. This is not a matter of demanding from this work some abstract political correctness, but would it have been so hard to include this aspect in a film that is keen to get details right in so many other ways? One is left puzzled by the omission.
As more than one moviegoer remarked on exiting the film – this on East 86th Street in Manhattan on Christmas day – Inside Llewyn Davis was depressing. That about sums it up, but then you need to ask why? Dave Van Ronk, Joni Mitchell, Richie Havens, Tom Paxton, Phil Ochs and countless others who passed through that scene had a basis for hope for the future and a better world – though in hindsight it was a hope that turned out to be overly optimistic. Llewelyn Davis lives in a different place. He, like the rest of us now, is in circumstances where a desirable dreamscape, let alone a castable template for a better world, is not there. We are left to map out something better, a new direction home, if you will. This is something that cannot be done by anyone on their own – a point which, at the end of the film, if you look really hard, you can see.