The Great American Losers

Unlike most other American directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been interested in depicting failure. Their new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, takes such an unblinking look at humiliating defeat.

At the Q & A session following a screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, a member of the audience asked lead actor Oscar Isaac what he thought would ultimately happen to his character, struggling folk singer Llewyn Davis.  Since the movie ends with young Bob Dylan taking the stage, wouldn’t Dylan’s phenomenal success and transformation of the folk music scene serve as a rising tide that lifts Llewyn Davis’ leaky boat?

Oscar Isaac laughed at the very idea.  “Llewyn’s stuck on the hamster wheel,” he said cheerfully, adding that maybe he’d wind up giving guitar lessons in Greenwich Village.

Nobody laughed in response. Even the suggestion that a fictional character would fail to make it in America is, apparently, deflating. It was a tough crowd for a Coen brothers film.

Because unlike most other American directors, Joel and Ethan Coen have always been interested in depicting failure. Their new film Inside Llewyn Davis takes such a steady, unblinking look at continuous humiliating defeat, it’s hard to see how the film can find an audience of any size, at least in the US. Here, we don’t like to think about failure, though it stares most of us in the face every day.

We’ve been conditioned to believe in the power of positive thinking. If we can’t convince ourselves we’re moving Onward and Upward toward success, we’d rather not contemplate our lives at all.

If Inside Llewyn Davis weren’t so funny, none of us could stand it.

The exemplar of failure, Llewyn Davis claims to “fucking hate folk music” because he’s gifted at it, takes it seriously, and is getting nowhere with it, while other less talented and driven folk musicians do better than he does. The film’s set in Greenwich Village, 1961, right before Dylan’s ascension which will cause the general public to suddenly give a damn about folk music and start paying real money to hear it.  In the pre-Dylan era, struggling folk acts play a few clubs in major cities and eke out precarious livings if they’re lucky.

Llewyn Davis is not lucky. He sleeps on the couches of those who are barely getting by themselves, and during the day he schleps his guitar around the snowy streets of New York City, trying to manage the mess of his life. The mess involves his chronic homelessness, his stalled career, his dicey relationship with his senile father and reproachful sister, his tendency to impregnate young women who then need money from him to pay for abortions, and his other tendency to alienate everyone including the people who are nice and kind and generous to him, or who at least could help him get somewhere career-wise. And then on top of everything else, there’s the cat.

The cat is very important to the Llewyn Davis narrative. A handsome, expressive orange tabby that escapes from the apartment where Llewyn Davis is crashing, the cat becomes a minor obsession of Llewyn’s. He keeps losing and finding it, chasing and carrying it around with him. But for all his trouble, the cat he returns to its worried owners turns out to be a female orange tabby virtually identical to the cat he lost. “Where’s his scrotum?” shrills Mrs. Goldfein. In valiantly trying to safeguard the cat, or rather both cats, Llewyn endeavors to get one small symbolic aspect of his life under control. And fails.

The circular storyline of the cat is part of the overall relentless cycle of the narrative, which starts and ends at the same place, in an alley outside a folk music club where Llewyn Davis is getting beaten up. This beginning/ending scene was the inspiration for the film, according to Ethan Coen: “We were in the office, and Joel said, ‘OK, suppose Dave Van Ronk gets beat up outside of Gerde’s Folk City. That’s the beginning of a movie.’”

The Coens took as inspiration Dave Van Ronk’s musical repertoire as well as his album Inside Dave Van Ronk, with its haunting cover image of Van Ronk, rumpled and shabby, sharing a doorway with a self-possessed grey-and-white cat. The Coens also borrowed certain Dave Van Ronk traits such as his history with the Merchant Marines and his furious contempt for commercialized pop-folk groups like the Kingston Trio. Supposedly the Coens were even intent on casting a big, shambling Van Ronk-like guy, before they auditioned the compactly built live-wire Oscar Isaac and were wowed by his combination of formidable acting and guitar-playing skills.

Isaac’s performances of songs such as “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well,” and “Green, Green Rocky Road” add a level of painful poignancy to the film, because Llewyn Davis isn’t just some sad-sack — he’s fiercely talented. But he’s also alienated, strident, bristling with resentment, and inclined to be uppity about his refusal to sell out, until he’s truly desperate and has to grab the short-end money. In a moment of financial distress, he agrees to sit in on the recording of a hilariously dreadful novelty tune “Please, Mr. Kennedy;” then at a moment of professional arrogance he blows up at his kindliest, most supportive friends because they ask him to sing a song at a social gathering. (“You know, I’m not a trained poodle. I do this for a LIVING.”)

As executive music producer T-Bone Burnett pointed out at the same Q and A session, Llewyn’s a guy who, when he finally gets his big audition for agent Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), doesn’t sing something punchy like “Cocaine.” He sings “The Death of Queen Jane,” a slow, bleak ballad “about a medieval cesarean section.”

Llewyn Davis is ultimately no Dave Van Ronk — he’s not headed toward “Mayor of McDougal Street” status, mentoring Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and Joni Mitchell, beloved by all.  Bud Grossman’s delivers the implacable verdict on Llewyn Davis: “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

The Coens’ tendency to observe human failure unblinkingly comes across as juvenile sadism to critic J. Hoberman, who in his review of Inside Llewyn Davis published in Tablet Magazine, sums up their career in this way:

An undeniably talented two-man band of brothers, the Coens take pleasure less in confronting their audience or authority in general, than in bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement. Theirs is a comic theater of cruelty populated by a battered cast of action figures and a worldview that might have been formulated not from a Buick 6, à la Dylan but the Olympian heights of a bunk bed in suburbia.

It’s an interesting implication, that Bob Dylan’s creativity is rooted in true working-class struggle, whereas the Coens’ suburban middle-class background can produce no empathy for human suffering. (Actually, as is now well-known, Dylan’s early circumstances were middle-class Jewish Minnesotan, like the Coens.) Since Hoberman mentions it, however, it seems to me remarkable that the Coens, who were so successful so young, should remain such exquisite observers of angst-ridden lower-class life in America.

From the outside, people tend to imagine that a life lived perpetually struggling and short of money means melodramatically dreadful things, which of course it often does. But few imagine the continuous petty discomforts and disadvantageous trade-offs that make up the day-to-day grind. The sheer inconvenience and gratuitous difficulty of every aspect of life were among George Orwell’s major revelations when studying the lives of the working poor for his book The Road to Wigan Pier.

The Coens convey with great precision the kind of maddening details that consume the lives of people who are down and out, and create relentless chains of small, dark comic incidents leading to potentially dire consequences. And the consequences all seem to involve money.

For example, Llewyn tries to borrow money from his sister that would come from the sale of their father’s house. She tells him all the money is earmarked for their father’s care in a nursing home. In the midst of this distracting conversation, Llewyn is concentrating on floating the loan and carelessly tells his sister to throw away the last remaining boxes of his old stuff, which he considers worthless. Later, when in despair of ever succeeding in folk music, Llewyn tries to re-join the Merchant Marines, he finds he can’t just sign up and ship out, he has to first pay his back union dues, which takes every cent he has. Then he goes to say good-bye to his sister and pick up his Masters Mates and Pilots License, only to hear she gave away all his old stuff just like he told her to, including the box containing his license. Back at the union hall, he finds out there’s a substantial fee to replace the license, and Llewyn is flat broke. They won’t let him ship out, and they won’t return the dues money, either.

So it’s back to folk music, playing another dead-end gig at the Gaslight Cafe.

Or look at another chain of dread: Jane (Carey Mulligan) is pregnant, maybe by Llewyn, and demands that he raise two hundred dollars for an abortion. Llewyn approaches his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake), who also happens to be Jane’s husband, and tries to borrow it without telling him what it’s for. Instead of lending the money, Jim helps Llewyn financially by setting him up to play at the recording session for Jim’s song “Please, Mr. Kennedy.” In order to collect the money up front for the recording session so he can give it to Jane, Llewyn signs away his rights to any song royalties. There’s a strong implication that he’s given away his piece of a hit novelty song.

Any working-class person will watch these scenes half-laughing, half-cringing, because that’s exactly how it goes. It costs money to do anything, go anywhere, so if you can’t efficiently juggle how you lay out your precious bits of cash and credit here and there in complex patterns, you’re always in danger of grinding to an absolute halt. And this is a film about a character trying to avoid the dead-end by constantly circling. Or as the Coens describe it, Inside Llewyn Davis is “an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.” It’s a grimly funny exercise in futility, covering the Greenwich Village circuit with Llewyn Davis lugging some combination of guitar, overnight bag, and cat, on foot through the snow, on the subway, to his agent Mel’s office, to Jean and Jim’s apartment, to the Gaslight Cafe, to the Goldfeins’ apartment, back out on foot again.

Homeless and carless, Llewyn constantly negotiates the weather and its effects, which take on exaggerated importance. At a rock-bottom point in Llewyn’s life, when he’s stranded along a highway and has to walk through dirty snow-banks into town, he steps in a hole full of slushy water that engulfs his entire shoe and has to limp along the rest of the day with a sopping wet foot. The Coens have us gaze upon that foot in close-up as Llewyn sits in a diner, trying to unobtrusively get the shoe off in the vain hope his sock might dry out a little. For those not raised in a snow climate, you should know in order to fully appreciate this scene that there are few things more achingly uncomfortable, more lowering to the ego, more likely to make you go home in defeat if you have a home, than the cold, soaked foot in winter.

This is a winter film; cinematographer Bruno Delhommel casts a cold smeary pallor over everything. The look of the film was ironically inspired by the cover art of the album that made Dylan internationally famous, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, featuring happy Dylan and clinging girlfriend strolling the wintry streets of New York City. The desolate lighting shows up most chillingly during Llewyn’s eventual visit with his silent father, who suffers from dementia and doesn’t recognize Llewyn, in the stark nursing home room that glows dimly grey-blue. As Llewyn tells his sister bitterly, “Good to know what I have to look forward to.”

Only, if you follow the logic, Llewyn doesn’t own a house, and therefore has no major asset to convert to cash that would allow him to afford a nursing home anyway, even if he lived to achieve old-age senility.

There’s an unmistakably contemporary topicality to these themes of hardship, joblessness, pinched resources, scarce opportunities, and swiftly lowering expectations. Though the film is set in 1961, it’s not a 1961 we’ve ever seen posited in any other period film that readily comes to mind. Here is no vision of the “Camelot” presidency of JFK, of martini-drinking advertising executives in sleek suits, or even of the comparatively flourishing folk music scene in its Bob Dylan heyday.

Here is an alternate vision of America in its great era of prosperity. The Coens have made a movie about failure in an era when, the standard pop-histories tell us, nobody really failed. They continue to look at the struggle of those on the margins, at failure among bungling strivers with grandiose dreams. The directors somehow maintain their faith that we’ll actually be interested enough in our own lived experience to appreciate their black comic vision of it.

It also seems important to note that, alone among American filmmakers, the Coens continually find ways to represent or allude to the generally ignored leftist radicals of our history. Dave Van Ronk was an open Marxist and a Trotskyist member of the Fourth International. The character of Barton Fink from the film of the same name was partly based on Clifford Odets, a socialist and one-time Communist Party member who wrote his best-known plays for the strongly leftist Group Theater. Even Jeffrey Lebowski, “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski, claims to have been a former  sixties activist right at the pulsating center of legendary groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society, taking a leading role in crafting their founding manifesto:

I was, uh, one of the authors of the Port Huron statement. The original Port Huron Statement. Not the compromised second draft.

The Coens’ odd-angle approach to this history is nevertheless telling, as it generally connects in oblique ways to their failure-and-struggle-oriented narratives. For example, as the Coens point out in a recent interview with Andrew O’Hehir in Salon, they were interested in the political factionalism of the early sixties folk music scene in New York City when working on Inside Llewyn Davis:

[There were] disputes among the communists, between the Trotskyites and the Schachtmanites [. . .] Llewyn is involved in a labor union. There’s this whole scene in Union Square on 14th Street, where a guy that I know who was involved in that scene said you used to have guys like Ewan McColl in the union halls, trying to teach the guys in the unions how to sing these labor songs and folk songs. What was actually happening at the time, of course, was that all the kids downstairs were listening to Elvis.

Of course, Llewyn Davis’ union hall experience is just another scene of comically complete alienation and defeat. It’s not that the Coens approach the history of the radical left with any more piety than they do any other subject or group of people. It’s that they continue to observe and present it at all, especially in the context of struggle, hardship, and failure in America, which seems so remarkable.

There’s no question, Inside Llewyn Davis is a great film. Though as Bud Grossman says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”