Monday, 3 February 2014

Silence, Exile and Cunning

The Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis is a beautifully made film that offers a counterpoint to their Oh Brother! Where Art Thou, being another playful interpretation of Homer's Odyssey. The earlier film filtered the tale through references to Preston Sturges's Sullivans Travels, which echoed Gulliver's Travels, itself a parody of Homer's epic. Their latest also references Groundhog Day (and thus Dante's Inferno), turning the abrasive protagonist's increasingly miserable journey into a circle of Hell, but the chief influence I think is James Joyce's Ullyses, mainly because of the centrality of music and the idea of authenticity (the setting is the New York folk scene in 1961). But if Joyce's classic ends with an affirmative "Yes!", this film delivers a downbeat "Maybe". As in their earlier work, the happy ending is ruthlessly undermined.

Early on, Jean, one of the friends that Llewyn routinely sponges off and whom he may have got pregnant, describes him pithily and repetitively as "shit" and then more poetically as "like King Midas's idiot brother". He is brownfinger (his clothes are largely autumnal shades of brown, contrasting with wintry grey backgrounds). Everything he touches turns to shit: he misses out on a share of the royalties of a hit song, he loses his remaining money in a vain and Kafkaesque attempt to rejoin the merchant marine, he mislays a friend's cat and compounds the error by returning an inadequate looky-likey ("Where's his scrotum?"). When he visits his senile father (an old sailor asked after by Llewyn's tormentors at the sailor's union) and plays him a favourite song (actually the contemporary Shoals of Herring), the old man craps his pants.

Late on the name of the cat is revealed to be Ullyses, which suggests that far from being a mere McGuffin the tabby brown was the real hero of the tale. At one point Davis stares hard at a poster for the Disney film, The Incredible Journey, which told the "true life" (i.e. faked) story of how three domestic pets returned from the wild to the comfort of suburbia. The cat's name would suggest that Davis, subtly played by Oscar Isaac, is actually a riff on Stephen Daedalus, a young man with father issues seeking escape. Interestingly, there is no reference to Llewyn's mother, and he is repeatedly offensive to the mother substitutes among his friends and fellow performers.

The heart of the film is an extended road trip from New York to Chicago, in which Davis shares the cost with a fat old junkie jazz musician, played by John Goodman, and a wannabe beat poet, played by Garrett Hedlund. Though some will find this overlong to the point of trying, it is a clever essay on the barren stupidity of authenticity, as the two other characters monotonously pursue their stereotypes to the point of torpor. The jazz muso spends much of his time catching flies, when not shooting up in the toilet, dissing Davis's former partner, Mike, for choosing the George Washington Bridge to jump off (Brooklyn Bridge is "traditional"), and cursing Davis with some New Orleans voodoo shit. The beat poet "valet" is taciturn, self-absorbed and selfish. Even the camera seems obsessed with his profile.

Goodman is partly referencing his own one-eyed bible salesman in Oh Brother! Where Art Thou, and here shares the Polyphemus role with F Murray Abraham's Chicago club owner who turns down Llewyn for a gig, advising him to rejoin his partner Mike ("That's good advice", deadpans Davis) and stating of his music: "I don't see a lot of money here". The meta-irony is that the film's production values are drenched in money, with shots down car-filled New York streets (rather than across) that must have cost a mint to restore to an early-60s look.

In New York, Davis is assailed on all sides by the inauthentic, like an older Holden Caulfield. His friend Jim, played by Justin Timberlake (who started out in Disney's Mickey Mouse Club), gets him a recording gig for an execrable novelty single. He bums a sofa for a few nights off Al Cody, another session performer, who reveals his real name is Arthur Milgrum. Jean, Jim's girlfriend (played by Carey Mulligan), who demands that Davis pay for her abortion, is revealed to have let the Gaslight CafĂ©'s owner screw her. Four ersatz fishermen in cable-knit sweaters are now on stage there, soon to be replaced by an early Bob Dylan, who Davis literally and figuratively turns his back on. Marcus Mumford is on the soundtrack. How much suffering can a man bear?

Ultimately, Davis soldiers on, rejecting the suicide option of his erstwhile partner, rejecting the turn off the road to Akron, where an old girlfriend may be bringing up his kid (he discovers along the way that she didn't have the abortion he paid for), rejecting the music ("Four micks and Grandma Moses"), and rejecting his past (the remains of his youth were thrown out along with his seaman's licence papers). We have no idea where he goes or what he does, but his final words, "Au revoir", spoken after a beating by a faceless deus ex machina in a stetson, hint at exile.

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