by Miller Francis
I sat in the theater as Inside Llewyn Davis began, feeling that familiar ecstasy of great film anticipation, assuming I would soon take my place among those singing the praises for Joel and Ethan Coen’s “love letter to the Greenwich Village folksong music scene”. As a contemporary of that era, I lived through those times, and like so many was inspired by those who began to break with 1950s Eisenhower-era conformity, its Mad Men values based on cut-throat competition, by the musicians and audiences who searched for authenticity, integrity and community in immortal songs drawn from the lives of the dispossessed.
I had been transformed by the music, buying most of the major albums of the period, and seeking out documentaries that have kept that music alive right up to the present day. I had read many of the memoirs and autobiographies of key artists of that time, most especially Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Suzie Rotolo’s A Freewheelin’ Time and David Hadju’s Positively Fourth Street. I made an effort to go back and pick up on artists and events I missed at the time, going far beyond nostalgia to discover another, darker dimension to the folk scene in Bob Coltman’s amazing bio, Paul Clayton and the Folksong Revival. To my shock, I also found that the best, most compelling singer of all, next to Bob Dylan himself, had been completely unknown to me–the awesome and tragic Karen Dalton.
As for the Coen brothers’ body of work, I consider several of their films among my favorites (The Big Lebowski to name just one). I’ll never forget how my jaw dropped when those goofy fugitives in O Brother Where Art Thou entered a radio station and began to perform “Man of Constant Sorrow”, setting a new standard for a film’s use of, and respect for, what is often referred to as roots music or Americana. T-Bone Burnett had been unleashed to work all his magic, and O Brother –film, soundtrack and concerts–deserved all its accolades and popular success.
Oh, and I’m a lifelong cat person.
Little did I know that all my background, experience and love for cats would merely set me up for one colossal bummer when I finally saw Inside Llewyn Davis. Rather than a fond love letter, what I saw unfold on the screen was more like a cruel letter of foreclosure, written with a pen dipped in poison.
Generally, the film did look something like films and photographs I’d seen of Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Bruno Delmonel’s cinematography was impressive, and the production design paid a lot of attention to key details. At first, it looked right, but something was off. All the color was drained out, leaving mainly somber grays and browns. I was familiar with the Coen brothers’ claim that the look of their film came from the iconic photograph of Bob Dylan and Suzie Rotolo on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, a photo that had been deeply embedded in my mind since the day a friend put Dylan’s newly released record on the turntable, eager to see my reaction. But what that photo expressed at the time was the spirit of hope, joy and human resilience, blooming out of the deepest winter.
My friend Dave Zeiger, who was known to pick up a guitar and sing before he became a filmmaker, wrote me, “I personally have spent hours in my life gazing at that photo, drinking in the sense of youth, abandon, and the promise of adventure embodied in Dylan and Rotolo. Let New York be as cold and dank as it wants, WE’RE here, and the world had better watch out.” The only thing the Coen Brothers used was the frozen snow and bitter temperature. In a L.A. Times interview, Ethan was challenged about his use of the word “oppressive” re this photo. “There is something romantic about it,” he replied, “but it’s also hard New York. They’re not walking down the beach in Maui. They look cold.”
Same with the characters. Even those who demonstrated acts of kindness were mocked and ridiculed, particularly for their kindness. Most of the people who inhabited Llewyn Davis’ world seemed cold and mean-spirited, crude caricatures and composites of real people. As for Llewyn Davis, he was, to put it mildly, a total asshole, expressing contempt for every aspect of the very folk scene in which he aspired to achieve success.
First and most important, while Llewyn Davis was, you could say, having a bad week, I never felt that he was particularly “unlucky” or that his bad run of events were exclusive to him. I learned that his singing partner, with whom he had recorded an album, had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge, but Davis’ reaction to that event seemed curiously flat. I reacted strongly to the film’s misrepresentation that Davis was the only down-and-out musician in the scene who had to struggle to survive. I knew enough to know that life wasn’t a bed of roses even for those who managed to achieve some measure of success. Even musicians like Paul Clayton whose albums did sell fairly well, was pretty much on a level not that far above poverty, but they were part of a supportive community united by their love of their music. But in the film, it’s only Davis, the only non-phony, who is kicked out of this Garden of Eden of aspiring, comfortably well off “whitebread” folksingers. Despite how Davis treats those in his circle, they are amazingly tolerant and forgiving. They provide him with places to stay, food to eat, and gigs to play. He, on the other hand, treats each of them with contempt, and so does the film.
Women in particular come in for major abuse. Jean (Carey Mulligan) is portrayed as adorable on stage but a foul-mouthed “bitch” to Davis, demanding that he pay for an abortion. She can’t stand the possibility that he may be the father of her child, rather than her official lover Jim (Justin Timberlake). Late in the film, when a club owner claims to have “fucked” Jean, we learn along with Llewyn Davis, that the odds of his paternity have just shrunk by a third. He has been used once again. I didn’t believe for one minute the epithet-laced diatribe that Jean throws at Davis. Like so much in this film, it came across as part of a manipulative set-up to demonize her and contribute to a false picture of Llewyn Davis’ victimization by others. Similar criticisms apply to Davis’ hypocritical interaction with his sister, and his reaction when the Gorfeins, folk music enthusiasts who have allowed him to crash in their apartment, ask him to sing for their friends. “I’m not a trained poodle,” he snarls. Lillian Gorfein (Robin Bartlett) replies, “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul.” The film wants us to see her and her sentiment as ridiculous. Later, he cruelly berates her for singing his dead partner’s harmony part.
Two scenes almost caused me to walk out of the theater. In the first, Davis sings a song for his senile father in a nursing home. Some have described this scene as “moving” and “emotional”. Did they ignore how it concludes? With a cruel joke at the father’s expense, reducing his invalid condition to yet another “unlucky” inconvenience for his son. It is only in the world of Inside Llewyn Davis that a jerk like Davis could be considered the “victim” in such a situation.
The second scene was even harder to take. After yet another misogynist joke about the club owner’s requirement of sexual favors by women who perform on his stage, Davis launches into a truly vicious, mid-performance tirade at Elizabeth Hobby (Nancy Blake) modeled apparently on Appalachian mountain singer Jean Ritchie, complete with autoharp. Davis disrupts her performance, loudly curses, calls Hobby “Betty”, declares “I hate fucking folk music!” and continues to verbally abuse Hobby (as well as an Irish singing group modeled on the Clancy Brothers) to a line of fans waiting to get inside the club. How do those who see Davis as an apostle of folk music authenticity, punished for his musical integrity and refusal to “compromise” tradition in the face of rampant commercialism, view this scene? The Elizabeth Hobby/Jean Ritchie character is the antithesis of other film targets like Peter, Paul and Mary, Jim and Jean, etc. She is about as authentic and genuinely traditional as a folksinger can get. So why is her performance the event that finally unleashes the full venom of Llewyn Davis?
Throughout the film I looked in vain for some clue, some backstory to the Llewyn Davis character. What are his motivations? If, as the Coen brothers argue, Davis is incurably “self-destructive”, why is that? To put it simply, why is he such an asshole? He does what he does simply because that’s what’s written in the script. He’s not so much a complex, multi-dimensional character, just someone who appears in each of the film’s episodes. This is no Odyssey.
After I saw the film, I trolled through countless reviews, all of them expressing almost unlimited praise for Inside Llewyn Davis. Most saw it through the stereotypical filter of Authenticity/Integrity vs Commercialism, painting Llewyn Davis as a suffering, “uncompromising” proponent of genuine folk music crushed by a wave of commercialized whitebread Folk Lite represented by the other musicians depicted–Jim and Jean), along with a silly cartoon of Tom Paxton called Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), and an absurd parody of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Al Cody (Adam Driver). Most reviewers saw the somewhat bland, if technically well performed songs sung by Oscar Isaac as amazingly different from the equally well performed songs by other characters. They seemed to share the befuddled look on Llewyn Davis’ face as he checks out the audience in a folk club, astonished by the wave of affection unleashed by a frankly beautiful performance of “500 Miles” by his friends.
I soon had to conclude that the writers of these reviews had seen a completely different film, and began to wonder if they had possibly projected a film they wanted (needed?) to see onto actual images that in fact depicted the exact opposite. I read descriptions of scenes that were nowhere in the film, or interpretations of scenes and characters that had no basis whatsoever in the assembled images. One of the most desperate attempts to read some motivation into that script came from a few critics who swear up and down that Davis is suffering from prolonged mourning for his suicidal singing partner. I defy anyone to find one scene, or frame, in this film that supports that view. What’s actually on the screen rather suggests his partner’s suicide derived from being treated like shit by Llewyn Davis.
As Inside Llewyn Davis opened in more theaters, a slight awareness of the film’s problems began to surface. A Time magazine review used the provocative title “Folk You”. The New Yorker pointed out some obvious fault lines. Here and there questions were raised about the sour tone of the film, embodied mainly in its protagonist but also permeating the entire film. As more audiences began to take a closer look at the character of Llewyn Davis, the word “asshole” started popping up as the word of choice. Interestingly enough, new articles and promotion stressed how sympathetic the Davis character remains, despite his repellent behavior. This first wave of partially critical reviews focused mainly on the realization that Llewyn Davis was decidedly NOT Dave Van Ronk, noting the discrepancy between details from the world brought to life in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and the world depicted in Inside Llewyn Davis. Interestingly enough, the Coen Brothers were quoted as being amused, almost contemptuous at anyone who could possibly get the idea that their film was about Dave Van Ronk.
Let’s get this straight. The filmmakers declare from the git that their inspiration was The Mayor of MacDougal Street. All the events in their main character’s life are drawn from Van Ronk’s life. Llewyn Davis’ album cover is a direct copy of Inside Dave Van Ronk, from which comes the very title of the film. They have Davis sing songs made famous by Van Ronk. Then, they ask smugly, how could anyone possibly think our film is about Dave Van Ronk?
The key discrepancy, which became clear when I finally sat down to read The Mayor of MacDougal Street for myself, was the fact that Llewyn Davis is in fact the anti-Dave Van Ronk, a bitter opponent of everything Van Ronk stood for throughout his artistic life–his values, the example he set for young musicians, his art as a singer/guitarist, his role in the real-life folk song revival in the 1960s. And it wasn’t just a contrast with the memoir edited and assembled by Elijah Wald. It was the other books and memoirs, most important, Bob Dylan’s own Chronicles, absolutely free of revenge, vitriol and gossip, and this from the man who wrote “Positively Fourth Street” (probably with good reason!). I should have smelled a rat from a frequent comment by the Coen brothers, different versions of which popped up in interviews: (Ethan) “Joel just suggested in the office one day. It was a long time ago, before the Van Ronk book came out. We were sitting around the office, and he just suggested, ‘OK, a movie starts with Dave Van Ronk getting beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City in 1961.’” (Dec. 6 interview with Steve Pond)
Still, the critical pedestal on which Inside Llewyn Davis had initially been placed remained solid. To put it mildly, critics seemed mesmerized by what the Cohen brothers had accomplished. A. O. Scott, who went on to declare Inside Llewyn Davis the best film of 2013, declined to speculate fully on what the film might mean, warning against “easy distinctions between sincerity and cynicism, the authentic and the artificial”. Then he shared with his readers this extraordinary conclusion: “But at least one of its lessons seems to me, after several viewings, as clear and bright as a G major chord. We are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding. But somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition — our songs and stories and moving pictures, old and new — manage to be beautiful, even sublime.” With this sleight of hand, the central contradiction of Inside Llewyn Davis–its misanthropic “cosmic joke” point of view vs. the life-affirming music and culture of its setting–was transformed from the film’s major flaw into its greatest achievement. And more than that, a “lesson” to be taught.
While up to this point Inside Llewyn Davis seemed like a sure thing, its brilliance unquestioned, with numerous awards to follow, a stubborn vein of discomfort with the film throbbed uncomfortably below the surface. One New York Times reader commenting on A. O. Scott’s review, expressed the dilemma faced by dissenters from the film’s acclaim: “Was I missing something? So, after taking a brief, unscientific poll of top critics, I noticed that, according to them, the brilliance of Inside Llewyn Davis is rooted in all the subtext, hidden meanings, metaphor and allegory that are sprinkled throughout the film—all you have to do is properly seek them out and intelligently interpret them. Well, there you go. I made the mistake of just watching the movie.”
Then something happened that changed everything. Terri Thal, Dave Van Ronk’s ex-wife, put her reactions to the film into an article printed in The Village Voice. She was remarkably candid, while at the same time quite diplomatic and generous.
After making it clear that she was not involved in the film’s production and had had no contact with the filmmakers, she said what I and so many others were thinking: “I knew it wasn’t supposed to be about David but used some of his memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn’t expect it to be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s. . . the movie doesn’t show those days, those people, that world.” She finds a few things to praise, but is not shy in detailing numerous examples of the film’s misfires and outright fabrications, including the film’s cavalier treatment of abortion, which at the time of the film was illegal.
But it’s her criticism of the way the film depicts the folk scene of that era that hits the mark: “In the 1950s and ’60s, there were other folk-music scenes. The old-timey musicians; the bluegrass people; the people around Alan Block’s sandal shop; the people the real Jim and Jean hung out with. There was some interaction, but even if the people in those groups didn’t see each other daily or weekly, there was goodwill. No one would know that from Inside Llewyn Davis. . . In the movie, no one is nice. There are hints of friendliness in the Tom Paxton character and in Jim, who gets Davis some studio backup work (which didn’t exist for folk musicians at that time). Everyone is somewhat dumb and somewhat mean. There’s no suggestion 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. . . Musicians supported each other. David and I had hordes of people in our apartment several times a week, many of them folksingers, many of them uninvited drop-ins who always were welcomed. I cooked; we talked politics; the musicians played. They introduced new songs and arrangements and often jammed. We had fun.”
Perhaps Thal’s sharpest criticism concerns the character of Llewyn Davis and his talent as a singer/guitarist: “The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well as Oscar Isaacs does? I don’t believe it. That schmuck couldn’t make that music.” Reading this, I wondered if my own critique of the film had not gone far enough.
In words that now sound prophetic, Dave Van Ronk himself criticized recent depictions of the folksong revival that had begun to appear:
“Most of the books that have been written about this period do not really capture the feel of it, at least in part because many of the people who were involved are not able to talk about it honestly. A lot of them are bitter because they have not done as well as they hoped to do, for one reason or another, and they they look back at the people who did better and think, ‘That should have been my success. I was robbed, I was cheated.’ So they talk about how much was stolen from them, how they were screwed, how all their friends fucked them and turned their backs on them. But all of that is after the fact. Nobody except a handful of real paranoids felt that way at the time.
“Back then, we weren’t all clawing over each other’s bodies, trying to fight our way to the top. Mostly we were having the time of our lives. We were hanging out with our friends, playing music, and sitting around at all-night poker sessions upstairs from the Gaslight. Win, lose or draw, there was something absolutely ridiculous happening, and we were laughing all the time–when we weren’t fighting or brooding drunkenly. It was very mercurial.”
With Thal’s reactions to the film out there in the mix, I felt certain that the genie was out of the bottle. Since Thal’s clear-minded dissent appeared, more viewers, including musicians who are concerned to one degree or another by Inside Llewyn Davis‘ dark vision, began to speak up. A New York Times article by Melena Ryzik quoted Suzanne Vega: “If the scene had been as brown and sad as all that, why would anybody be drawn to it? Dylan would have gone somewhere else. We all would have. Someplace with some energy.” Singer-songwriter Christine Lavin spoke for a growing minority when she eloquently declared “I HATE THIS FILM” (her caps).
Inside Llewyn Davis uses Bob Dylan as a mostly unseen presence who only appears at the very end of the film, singing inside the club while Davis gets his comeuppance from Elizabeth Hobby’s husband in the alley out back. This, we are to believe, is the ultimate “unlucky” coincidence for Llewyn Davis.
But this reduces Dylan’s transformative impact on the music scene to the narrow aspect of “success”. In fact, Dylan would not only soak up everything he could from the musical traditions of the past but go on to transform all he had absorbed into the creation of new music for a new era. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of the scene he walked into and eventually bid farewell, most notably its purist insistence on acoustic instruments and topical songs. At some point, preservation must give way to creation and transformation. But just as the Coen brothers’ film doesn’t deal with the political context of the folksong scene, it doesn’t (can’t) deal with even part of its at times sharp musical contradictions.
I suspect that the original conception for the film was based on a character who sang in an unorthodox, less popular style, just as Dave Van Ronk did, with a voice more rough and challenging than some of the smoother instruments of the other young traditionalists. The music that T-Bone Burnett gave Oscar Isaac to listen to in preparation for his role was that of Tom Waits. But Isaac doesn’t have a Tom Waits/Dave Van Ronk-type voice. The Coen brothers apparently decided to go with what they had, without altering their script, a possible fatal undercutting of what they originally set out to do. It’s interesting that when you listen to the soundtrack curated by T-Bone Burnett and Mark Mumford, which has been central to the robust promotion of the film, most of what you hear, while beautifully performed, is still somewhat bland, especially to those expecting another O Brother Where Art Thou. What really jumps out at you, apart from Dylan’s rough hewn “Farewell”, is the single song included by the real Dave Van Ronk, “Green Green Rocky Road.” It positively leaps out of the speakers with its power.
Some might argue that whatever the merits of the film, at least Inside Llewyn Davis will draw more people to the scene it depicts, spreading the music to a wider audience. That’s certainly true, especially where Dave Van Ronk is concerned. But it’s a mixed blessing. There are some pretty unfortunate strings attached. Terri Thal writes, “The Coens say they hope to create a revival of the music through the movie. A revival of traditional music is already under way. But I can’t see the depressing world shown in this movie attracting people to it.”
After a major publicity campaign for Inside Llewyn Davis centered on its music and beating a very loud drum for its widespread critical acclaim, judging from its surprising, almost complete shutout from awards by both the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards, it appears that the wheels might have come off this misbegotten project. When all is said and done, Joel and Ethan Cohen made the film they wanted to make, a nasty “cosmic joke” set in Greenwich Village in 1961. Clearly there is an audience that finds some kind of pleasure in their reverse Disneyland of misanthropy and random misfortune. But to many of its viewers, Inside Llewyn Davis is a tale told by “King Midas’ idiot brothers” (to borrow their own words), full of music, yes, but also cruelty and falsehood, signifying nothing.
Guest writer Miller Francis wrote music and film articles in the 1960s/70s for the Atlanta underground newspaper The Great Speckled Bird. From 1982-1996 he hosted a radio show, “Revolution Rock: By All Music Necessary” on WRFG Atlanta. His novel, If Heaven’s Not My Home, is now under consideration by a publisher. He can be reached via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org