I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

Subtle and surreptitiously soulful, Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest has a light, tender touch and a surfeit of sincere, deep feeling, two things the Coen brothers generally lack. A lot of the emotion comes from the music itself, supervised by T. Bone Burnett, a man who really knows his way around a ballad. The film is as melancholy as the somber, smoky, sweet songs filled with steely, blue notes, providing a startlingly straight-faced departure for the directing/writing/producing/editing duo behind Fargo, No Country for Old Men, The Big Lebowski, Burn After Reading, and Raising Arizona. Marvelous and mordantly funny, Inside Llewyn Davis is deeply personal, boldly original, and highly emotional.

The sounds of the early sixties folk music revival float in the air like a strange, intoxicating perfume, reflecting the lonesomeness and romance of the traveling life, particularly the meandering, fraught journey of a guitar-strumming balladeer trying to reconcile his life and his art. Oscar Isaac, who portrays the title character with sincere conviction and a haunting humanism, can definitely sing, in a fine, clear tenor voice that palpitates with the poignant pain of loss, longing, and loneliness. All of the songs speak to this pain and to the rootlessness and regret of his existence: “Fare Thee Well,” “Five Hundred Miles (Away From Home),” and especially “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” which opens the film: “wouldn’t mind the hangin’ except for layin’ in the grave so long, poor boy... I been all around this world.” The words and chords don’t just enrich the movie, they complete it, tapping into reservoirs of otherwise inaccessible feelings.

Llewyn is devastatingly handsome in his disheveled way, talented but unlikeable. In the beginning of the movie, a suited, fedora-sporting stranger beats the crap out of him in the club’s back alley. The reasons won’t be arrived at until the end, but, after sitting through about an hour and a half of Llewyn’s life, there’s no doubt he deserved it.

Half of a folk singing duo trying to make it on his own, booking small gigs in small clubs, the character is like a sardonic, surly, self-defeating Sisyphus, pushing his boulder up life’s steeply angled hill. Taking the form of the odyssey (more Joyce than Homer) as they did with O Brother, Where Art Thou? the filmmakers throw Llewyn from one strange misadventure into the next. He is a familiar kind of Coen antihero, taking his rightful place in the gallery of losers, deadbeats, and hapless strivers the brothers have assembled over the years. Inside Llewyn Davis’ eponymous character is another incorrigible, irresponsible fuckup, having, among other misdeeds, unintentionally impregnated a friend, who also happens to be the wife of another friend (Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake as singing duo Jim and Jean). “You’re like King Midas’s idiot brother,” Mulligan’s fellow folk singer tells Llewyn, throwing him withering looks and offering a precise and scatological explanation of exactly what she means.

Llewyn has nowhere to live but the apartments of anyone who will have him and some who won’t. He makes his hosts cry, swears in front of children, heckles other acts at the Gaslight, alienates well-meaning Upper West Side supporters and early-music fans, and generally behaves like a dick. He has a box of unsold records, no winter coat, and a cat he inadvertently inherits, loses, finds, returns, and eventually sort of adopts. His conscience is more troubled by the cat than anything else; it’s almost as if he thinks rescuing it will make up for everything he’s done wrong.

Defensive and defiant, Llewyn is out to prove himself. He impulsively joins a crotchety, superior, shambling jazz musician (John Goodman, priceless—can we please give the man an Oscar already, or at least a nomination? Please, Academy?) and his monosyllabic, beat poet “valet” (Garrett Hedlund) on an ill-fated voyage to Chicago, where Llewyn hopes to meet the reigning folk impresario, a goateed club owner and manager played by F. Murray Abraham. The Windy City brings only wind, street-sullied snow, and a sense of rootlessness more pronounced than ever. In between sleeping in train stations and facing the biting, bleak cold, Llewyn manages to get an impromptu audition with the club owner. Noting the title of Llewyn’s solo album, the manager asks the singer to play “something from ‘Inside Llewyn Davis.’” He does, in both senses of the term. The agent is visibly moved, and so are we. He listens, waits a beat when the mournful ballad is over, and then delivers one of the funniest, saddest, and truest lines of the film.

Here is where the troubled relationship between art and commerce rears its ugly, necessary head in all its painful glory. This scene is the heart-breaking echo of an earlier, hilarious musical sequence in which Timberlake’s Jim calls Llewyn in to do harmony and guitar for the recording of a novelty song about the space program (“Please Mr. Kennedy! (Uh oh!) Please don’t send me into outer space!”). Llewyn, after asking incredulously who wrote this nonsense—and finding out that the friend he just asked did—signs away his royalty rights in the session in order to get paid $200 upfront. He can’t tell a hit when he hears one, a handicap the clear-cut, popular, but infinitely less gifted Jim doesn’t share. And that’s too bad, because the beautiful ballads Llewyn sings are not going to get him out of the Village. The adamantly uncommercial character prefers (impoverished) artistic purity. The times, they are a-changin’, and Llewyn won’t be changing with them. You feel for him, but it’s also impossible to not laugh at his awry adventures.

The Pre-Dylan 1961 New York folk scene, like Barton Fink’s 1940s Hollywood, is both a real time and setting and a place of mind, evocatively sprung from the filmmakers’ bountiful imaginations. Their Greenwich Village abounds with faded denim and espresso-bar steam, cramped cold-water flats and Kafkaesque hallways narrowing toward infinity, in the generous mixture of surrealism, period detail, and pop-culture scholarship that defines their work. Bruno Delbonnel’s (subbing for usual Coen cinematographer Roger Deakins) wintry, desaturated images, all ochre and russet, cloud-gray and autumn-leaf, don’t just cast a mood; they conjure a misty, magical, vanished mode of existence.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song,” Llewyn says in the beginning of the movie. Coen’s sad, sweet film has the same sort of feeling. It looks faded, dusty, enchanted, like a cherished old record discovered under a pile of crap in a long-deserted attic. But the emotion that runs through it, deeper and more mysterious than mere sympathy, makes it throb with immediacy and freshness. 

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