21 December 2013

Portrait of an Artist as An Angry Man - Inside Llewyn Davis

I grew up with an image of folk singers as kind hearted people wise and noble singing of peace this land being made for you and me and the eternal hope of love. Folk singers were Pete Seeger Peter Paul and Mary and Joan Baez. They were sweetie pies who strummed guitars and slept under huge comforters with wild flowers on them. They weren't rich but they weren't poor and performed for charity and stood for equal rights and an end to war (where have all the flowers gone?). None of em were a wit like the titular character of the Coen Brothers' latest film Inside Lleywn Davis. So thank you Joel and Ethan Coen for shattering another one dimensional stereotype.

Oscar Isaac with a Jewish sounding name plays the half Italian half Welsh Davis and so of course Isaac is half Cuban and half Guatemalan. Welcome to the United Nations of Coen. Isaac had a few roles of little or no note until channeling the fictional 1961 folk singer struggling to....To what? Be famous? Rich? Pay the bills? Practice his art? Make it from one day to the next? What does he want anyway and what exactly will he do with it when he gets it? Anyone's guess. He really doesn't really think of the future a point made to him in no uncertain terms by a "friend" Jean (Carey Mulligan). This is a friend he may or may not have impregnated but certainly boinked. It's odd to think that they were intimate because the foul mouthed Jean does little else then tear him up one side and down another. Maybe he deserves it. Jean lives and sings with Jim (Justin Timberlake) who plays it perfectly bland. Hats off and waving to Mulligan for taking such an unglamorous role and doing so well with it she may be a star but she's an actress first.

So this Davis fellow is --  as they say -- down on his luck. Way down. He's got no home no winter coat no money and no partner. His former partner having taken a swan dive off a bridge. Demise met. Oh yeah and he's stuck with a cat. Or cats. There is an issue with one and its scrotum or the lack thereof (hey no spoilers here). The cat(s) is no superfluous character(s). We have a scene on a moving subway train from the subjective point of view of the feline (thanks to Germano for reminding me) that few others besides the Coens would attempt let alone pull off.

This is the Coen brothers and there are no throw away characters including those that are fur bearing creatures. Minor characters are fully realized individuals vivid and interesting or grotesque or amusing or wonderful but never just attached to the furniture. Certainly not Roland Turner (John Goodman) a rotund...what the hell is he anyway? The beauty of a lot of Coen brothers films is that there are so many characters that defy easy description. You can't just stick a word to them. Like Turner and his driver and oh by the way their drive to Chicago with Llewyn -- whatta trip man! Not to mention Llewyn's trip right the hell back to New York and what a short strange trip it was. But the point started out being characters that have well characters and that my friends is part of the richness of this film.

But when it comes to characters Llewyn Davis is in every scene. He carries his despondency and bitterness and anger and hopefulness with him. He's always moving forward maybe from crashing in this pad or the other but he's not idle. He is the quintessential struggling young artist. One without a day job. They are all over the world and have been for decades. Lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of them. They have dreams of success and for many success is requisite because it will allow them to practice their art. The true artist wants room and space and time to create. To sing to write to direct to paint to act to joke to play. Making a living at it is not an end to itself but the vehicle to allow that creativity to bloom over and over again. Alas it's a cruel world the competition fierce and that fire that keeps you going can burn out so easily. Perseverance baby it's the key ingredient in talent. So watch Llewyn struggle with life and art simultaneously. (Maybe they're the same thing. I dunno.)

Of course he's dealing with anger. Why shouldn't he? Why not heckle and berate and be surly and cuss like a sailor which come to think of it a sort of day job for him. How do people deal with rejection and subterfuge and disappointment without getting unholy pissed off? Plus in a narrative structure it makes him more interesting than the scrubbed public images of folk singers.

The Coens are nothing if not meticulous. They created the early '60s here just as they create the '80s in No Country For Old Men (2007) the 70's in A Serious Man (2009) the 50's in The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) the Old West in True Grit (2010) and so yeah they're versatile too no two films alike. But by god they're good. Inside Llewyn Davis is a case in point. You remember that tired ole review cliche: "I laughed I cried it became a part of me." Yeah I do too....

I won't spoil the ending of Llewyn Davis because then I'd be spoiling the beginning and I don't know what that means but it all comes out to something and if you ever figure it out let me know.

Anyway I enjoyed the hell out of the movie.

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