Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Trouble with Llewyn Davis

I finally got a chance to see this film after great anticipation.  It had won the Grand prize at the Cannes Film Festival back in May,  runner-up to the Gold Palm winner Blue is the Warmest Color.  For whatever reason, the Coen Brothers decided not to release the film until December and then only in limited theaters.  In the meantime, the film received great praise, topping many critics' polls.  This of course led many to ponder why the film was essentially shut out of the Oscar nominations.  It's only two nominations are for cinematography and sound mixing.  So what gives?

This film seemed to take the point of view of Bob Dylan's Like A Rolling Stone moreso than anything Dave Van Ronk ever wrote or sang, although Llewyn sings several signature Van Ronk songs.  What we get is not the charismatic Mayor of MacDougal Street but rather a washed up folk singer, bumming sofas and cigarettes off people, as he drifts toward nowhere.  Llewyn Davis, of Welsh rather than Irish and Dutch origin, is little more than a hobo with a few plastic wrapped vinyls in his basket to remind himself of his earlier days when he was wanted.

Apparently the premise comes from the idle speculation, what if Dave had been beaten up in the alleyway behind Gerdes Folk City in 1961?  The result is a character cobbled together from Van Ronk's life, as described in The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but then inverted into some woefully sad projection of Bob Dylan's plaintive ballad.

The allusions don't stop there.  Near the end of the film, the Coens have Llewyn singing to his father in a Merchant Marine home that is very reminiscent of Arlo Guthrie Jr. visiting his father Woody in Alice's Restaurant.  It is the one touching scene in the movie, and helps and briefly lets us inside Llewyn's weary blues, but it is just as quickly tossed away when he glibly tells his sister where he had been, severing his one last family tie.

At the same time, there are numerous real references, notably Jim Glover and Jean Ray, who were very active in the Village scene in the early 60s.  In Llewyn's relation with these two in the film, he has more than a parting resemblance to Phil Ochs, who briefly played with Jim and Jean.  But, that all occurred after 1961, which is the year this film was set.

The Gaslight similarly was real, but as you can see it was a few steps down into the basement cafe.  Also, the Gate of Horn in Chicago, which Llewyn strikes out for in hopes of getting a better producer for his music.  Along the way he finds himself sharing a ride with an acerbic old jazz musician played by John Goodman, who doesn't think much of folk music.  This is echoed by F. Murray Abraham's character, Bud Grossman.  You start to wonder if the Coen Bros. think much of folk music themselves, as all the memorable lines are the most disparaging ones.

We all know the Coens like to pull our leg, but this is nothing more than a shaggy cat story.  Unlike Groundhog Day, which this film oddly evokes with all its repeated incidents, Llewyn never gets it right.  He is subjected to the same fate at the end of the film as he was at the beginning, leaving him more abject than before.

The shadow of Bob Dylan casts an ominous presence over this film, as if these are the last days of Village life before Dylan took over.  I suppose it is meant to be metaphoric to some degree, but there are so many real references that fact and fiction become tangled and disjointed in this film.  This is especially frustrating for those who knew Van Ronk.  There was no love in this movie for music or anything else.

The Coens say they weren't trying to recreate Van Ronk in the film, but then why go to the trouble to take so much from his life and leave Lllewyn hanging there like a complete unknown, when we all know what became of Van Ronk and Dylan?

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