Archive for the ‘Films and Filmmaking’ Category

Analysis: “Inside Llewyn Davis”

July 1, 2014

A slice of the life of an urban folksinger, Inside Llewyn Davis, set in Greenwich Village, 1961, is the latest creation of writer-directors Joel and Ethan Coen. Because analyses of films are obviously spoilers to those who have not yet seen them, I do not ordinarily need to provide spoiler-alerts, but this is the first film I have analyzed that is only six months old. So, please see the movie first and then read the following paragraphs. The story is loosely based on the life of folk-blues singer and acoustic guitarist Dave Van Ronk, a leading figure on the Village scene in the day. A section of Sheridan Square is named Dave Van Ronk Street in his honor.

Although not a “fan” of anyone, I admire the Coens’ genius and filmmaking style and have enjoyed watching, dissecting, and praising their work, including this one—despite its warts. They might have made the lead character completely fictional rather than a quasi-portrayal of Van Ronk, but then the subtle lose-win juxtaposition of Van Ronk and Bob (Zimmerman) Dylan on that cusp of a new era of music marked by Dylan’s ever-avant-garde style under the eventual guidance of Al Grossman (“Bud,” in the film) would have been lost, and that juxtaposition is the essence of this story. Grossman and Dylan (and Joan Baez) resided in Woodstock, New York during my 1964 stint in summer-stock theatre. I remember seeing the Beatles being driven through town to Grossman’s by limousine for a creative powwow.

Llewyn Davis is a talented but largely unsuccessful bohemian folk performer who bums around the Village, sleeping on friends’ and associates’ couches and generally misbehaving. Dave Van Ronk had feet of clay, and there may be accurate anecdotal material in the film, but Dave generally dressed well, was widely admired, and was considered a multitalented intellectual and a cultured gentleman. Unlike Davis, Dave was a large man both in terms of achievements and in his physical stature, and also unlike Davis who is seen driving to and from Chicago, Dave did not drive. I still have a copy of the original Folkways vinyl: Inside Dave Van Ronk, and those songs (for me) surpass the music performed in this movie, although the score is good.

Call me OCD but it further disturbed me to see 1963 and 1964 cars in 1961. More important, the casting was not right, although the actors performed well. Oscar Issac is cow-eyed and too collegiate-looking, and the inclusion of Justin Timberlake—like an out-of-place artifact—gives those scenes a surreal quality. The DVD commentary makes references to the budget, which seems apologetic regarding these quality issues. Despite its flaws, The New York Times called it “The Best Picture of the Year.” That remains to be seen, but it is very good overall.

The opening scenes are artfully composed and reminded me instantly of Goya’s Black Paintings, especially “Courtyard with Lunatics.” The connection is so strong that this must have been part of the directors’ comedic intention. But the beginning of the movie is not the beginning of the “story”; it is a foretaste of the end—a premonitory dream Llewyn is having. The Coens did something a bit similar at the beginning of A Serious Man. With the of end of the dream sequence, the plot—which is more like an embellished chronology of events lifted from a daily journal—begins to unfold with Llewyn waking up from his nightmare of being beaten.

The climax of the story—the event that tells what the film is really about—occurs where Llewyn stands in front of the movie-house studying the poster for Walt Disney’s The Incredible Journey, which conjures analogical insights for those who take time to ponder archetypal scripts of all forms of animal life, including cats and humans. This reveals the deeper comedic quality of the story—“Llewyn has the cat” and “Llewyn is the cat.” In the incredible (fool’s) journey only those who follow their instincts across life’s physical and psychological wildernesses survive to achieve. The poster also reflects the truth that only one pack member arrives in the prominent alpha position, a truth further reflected in Dylan’s trek from Minnesota to New York and from obscurity to fame as well as in Dave Van Ronk’s alpha role as “Mayor of MacDougal Street.”

From the climax to the end, Van Ronk’s date with destiny, portended in the opening dream sequence, unfolds in its fullness and reveals its meaning. The alley assault on him, which takes place while Bob Dylan is singing in the background, symbolizes Dylan soon taking the alpha position as well as symbolizing Dylan’s perceived assault on the sensibilities of many lovers of acoustic guitar-driven folk music when he changed “the mode of the music” to folk-rock and made “the walls of the city shake,” to borrow some Fugs lyrics. The film’s ending is reminiscent of the end of A Serious Man where Gopnik’s children are outside the school watching the oncoming tornado. In this case, Dylan was the oncoming tornado when he arrived in the Village in 1961. He recorded “The Times They Are a-Changin’” in 1963, moved from acoustic guitar to electric in 1965, and continued to shape-shift and remain popular to this day.

In reality, Dave Van Ronk was Bob Dylan’s friend and guru in Dylan’s early years. In Bob’s Chronicles autobiography his first reference to Van Ronk acknowledges Dave as “king of the street” and says “I loved his style.”