I don’t even know where to begin with this profound swoon of a movie. Glenn Kenny’s review over at Ebert is a great place to start.
First off: Where the hell has Garrett Hedlund been all my life?
He’s not in it much, but he is an emissary from another world, the world of the Beats, the world of the gearheads and tough guys, who wore motorcycle boots and slicked their hair. Leftovers from the 50s. But with all of the upheaval in the 60s, the gearheads are eternal. They are with us still. His character, Johnny Five, would fit right in in Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop, a movie about a road race but it’s really about the exhaustion left in the culture from the 1960s, the collective hangover. And while the hippies and protestors and flower-children were tailspinning into their own chaos, following their notions to what seems now to be the logical end, with events such as Woodstock and Charles Manson, out there there were still guys who slick their hair into a pompadour, worked on their cars, a cigarette dangling. And maybe a battered notebook in his pocket with some poems written down inspired by Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky.
In other words: the Dean Moriartys of the world.
When the film goes on its random journey to Chicago, it leaves the cloister of Greenwich Village, and the feeling that neighborhood had that everything worth happening in the world was happening in a 4-block radius, it puts the lie to the belief that folk music was the center of all. Not that it wasn’t worth striving for and believing in, of course, but it’s a dash of cold (literally: there’s a blizzard going on), and the self-centeredness of our eponymous character is put to the test, when faced with the taciturn Johnny Five, chain-smoking and driving, and answering to questions in one-word blunt answers. This guy has no time for that shit.
But then, at a rest stop, Johnny Five pulls out a notebook and reads one of his poems.
The look on Oscar Isaac’s face as he listens is hard to describe, but it’s something I am still thinking about. Big world out there, man.
There’s something about what it means to be a man, circling in the film’s subtext, an important and relevant discussion. What does it mean to be a man in a world where everything is changing so quickly? You have to be responsible, you have to honor your agreements, you have to apologize when you’ve done wrong. But Johnny Five seems a different species altogether, it is an image of manliness that already seems like a throwback, even though the 50s were only a couple of years prior. How do you understand your role in an atmosphere of such flux? There’s also something about what it means to be a Jew, even though that is never spoken. But so many of the characters are Jews, and the Jews were so important to the cultural/political/societal changes that were going on at that time. But what does it mean to be a Jew? There are the Upper West Side Jews, the kindly couple who let Llewyn crash there and introduce him to their intellectual friends as “our folk singer friend”. There is Llewyn’s sister, who cannot believe her brother swears so much. There is Llewyn’s father, lost in dementia. And then there are those who populate the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. Llewyn Davis is a wanderer and an exile, from his own culture and from his own life, really. The tabby cat he adopts (by accident) turns out to be named “Ulysses”. Both Ulysses and Llewyn are striving for some kind of home. Llewyn Davis crashes on people’s couches so the home he is looking for is not an address. It is something else: the great yearning for self-expression exemplified in the best folk music, and the hushed silence of the rapt audience (it was bad form to criticize anyone, even if the music sucked, because “we’re all in this together” – which is the harbinger of the Peace-Love thing that would explode in the late 60s, reaching its apotheosis in ominous ways, the followers of Charles Manson being the prime example). Llewyn Davis does not play by those unspoken collective rules. He heckles other singers at the Gaslight, he rolls his eyes at the earnestness, he gets beat up in an alley by the husband of a woman who had played the autoharp on stage.
But the thing about stardom is: It does not require you to “play well with others”. As a matter of fact, it requires the opposite. To become a star at the level of, say, Bob Dylan, one must have a rock-hard sense of self and a giant ego. It is required. I would almost hazard a guess that no one who is truly humble has ever become an important star. How could they? Stardom doesn’t just happen, you have to flat out want it more than anyone else. There are certainly those who benefit from a “right place/right time” kind of thing, a tapping into the zeitgeist thing, and those people may ride the wave of a trend for 5 years, 6, and then they become a nostalgia act and play at tiny folk festivals for the rest of their lives for their aging Baby Boomer constituency. (No shame in that, by the way.) But to have a career like Bob Dylan’s, which has now lasted 50 years? That’s not “right place/right time”. That’s intention. This is why we praise stars who maintain their humility, because it is DIFFICULT for those people to do so. So in a way, Llewyn Davis understands things better than most, he understands the way the culture might be going, even if he couldn’t or wouldn’t put a name to it.
But it’s “out there”, a feeling, a gigantic generational movement afoot, it’s in the air. He lost his singing partner, and he is now a solo act. Solo acts were not “in” at that time, a part of the feeling that being together was better than being separate, although Bob Dylan would change that. What was “in” was the collective: trios, and duos. Or, in a gorgeous scene which warmed my Irish heart, a quartet, of “four Micks” in Irish-knit sweaters and we all know who THEY are supposed to be.
To be in it for yourself was seen as being against everything that the burgeoning folk music scene was about. There was no place for individual ego in a love-fest where the expression was seen as the most important thing, not HOW you express yourself.
The way the film ends (and I won’t give it away) gave me goosebumps because it says, in no uncertain terms, this small collective will end, and stars will rise, just as stars rise everywhere. You cannot hold back the individual who shines brighter. The Group Theater, in the 1930s, tried to do away with the star system as a way to combat that. The actors were listed in alphabetical order in the programs, there were no individual bows, the cast bowed as an ensemble. However, it could not be denied that little Julie Garfinkle had something special, that success was calling to him in a way that it was not calling the others. Unfair? Sure. That’s life, kids. Julie Garfinkle took small parts, did them great, bowed with the rest of the cast, and felt fortunate that he was part of such an amazing group. But he had to become John Garfield, his star power and his ego and drive demanded it, a compromise which weighed heavily on him, his heart always yearning back to New York theatre and the comfort of the collective.
Clifford Odets wrote an entire play (The Big Knife) about his dear friend John Garfield/Julie Garfinkle, and the compromises the character had to make in order to become a star. Because it was Odets, it was all about Money vs. Integrity. This polarity is sometimes naive, and yet it weighs greatly on some stars. Look at Kurt Cobain. This is a very real strain in our capitalist culture. It’s not an accident that I would think of Clifford Odets and the Group Theater and John Garfield after watching Inside Llewyn Davis; after all, it was the Coen brothers who brought us Barton Fink, a fictionalized account of Clifford Odets’ own battles with Money vs. Integrity during his time as a screenwriter in Hollywood. These are deeply American themes, very class-aware themes, out of style now perhaps, but still existing. The anxiety about Money vs. Integrity is there in Inside Llewyn Davis too, and it’s fascinating because nobody has any money yet. But the ending of the film says: they will, brother, they will. And THEN what?
The times they are a-changin’. And we can hold hands in rapt silence in our Greenwich Village coffee shops all we want, but stars will rise. We will follow them, feeling validated that “one of us” has reached so high. But we will have conflicting feelings about the money, about the stardom, about someone who seemed to be “one of us” turning out to be … an individual, after all. This has been well-documented elsewhere, exhaustively, and I won’t go into it, and the film doesn’t go into it either, but the ending suggests where we are going. It throws the rest of the film into sharp and almost agonizing relief.
These are my initial thoughts. I’ll come back to it again and again, I’m sure.
One of the Coen Brothers’ best.