Monday, December 23, 2013

NY Film Festival: Inside Llewyn Davis

A 1960s Greenwich Village folk singer: a modern-day Ulysses on a circular odyssey that goes nowhere is the premise of Joel and Ethan Coen's brilliant, latest film Inside Llewyn Davis. Based loosely on the early career of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, and his classic album Inside Dave Van Ronk (which features the singer at the threshold of a door, with a cat peering outside), the film recreates Camelot in the Village: a time when college students sported button down shirts, browline glasses, and short hair, and the Gaslight Cafe inside a basement of MacDougal Street, was the gathering place for the booming folk scene. In a matter of years it would all come to a halt when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival, and the British invasion rocked America.

The look of the film is prodigious. Shot on film by cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel, it has a palette of desaturated hues reminiscent of old Eastmancolor. The iconography of the film owes its look to yet another record cover: "The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan," which features the singer, arm in arm, with his then girlfriend Suze Rotolo, walking in the middle of the street at the corner of Jones and West 4th on a sad, snowy day. This famous album features eleven original songs (including Blowin' in the Wind, Masters of War, and A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall), an achievement that proved to be another death knell to the myriad of singers in the Village that were performing traditional songs. Singers like the unfortunate, mythical Llewyn Davis.

It's not just the fact that Llewyn, played with wondrous pathos by sad-eyed, newcomer Oscar Isaac, is not able to create new material that is a fatal drawback, but it is also the way he deals with his friends that closes many doors for him, and will eventually doom his career.  His friend Jean (Carey Mulligan) accuses him of making her pregnant, even though she's not sure if the child is his or her husband's Jim (Justin Timberlake).  Just the same, she demands that he pay for the abortion so that Jim never finds out. In one of the more poignant scenes Jim, Jean and their friend Troy (Stark Sands), a private in the Army on his way to Fort Dix and presumably Vietnam, sing Hedy West's great folk song "Five Hundred Miles" leaving Llewyn Davis in the audience, a mere spectator, divorced from being part of a great performance.

Later on, Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with Roland Turner (John Goodman), an actor turned Jazz musician, and his taciturn driver Johnny Five (Garret Hedlund). Mr. Goodman, in a phenomenal, minimalist performance serves as a combination Cyclops and Lotus Eater in Llewyn's misbegotten journey, which ends in disappointment when Chicago club promoter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) decides, after hearing him play, that there's no money to be had in Llewyn's brand of folk.

Llewyn hitchhikes back to New York, tired and broken: his aspirations rapidly disappearing. In an unexpected, but brilliant turn, the structure of the film comes back to its beginning once again. Llewyn performs "Hang me, oh Hang Me" at the Gaslight, and gets beaten up outside the club by a mysterious stranger, as he did in the initial moments of the movie. Llewyn's life and career, seem to be spinning in circles, out of control, and going nowhere fast.

In turning their amazing talents to a down-and-out character from another decade, the Coen brothers have touched a nerve with our very own time of marginalized, unemployed millions in an unstable economy. The story of Llewyn Davis, homeless but filled with dreams of better things to come, speaks to our time, as it lovingly recreates a page of history largely forgotten today.

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