Inside Llewyn Davis

It was never new, and it never gets old

llewynThe Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity.  Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way.  Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn.  Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.

The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler.  Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed.  There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes.  Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.

Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself.  The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story).  The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines).  Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties.  He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet.  This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.

The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward.  Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer.  It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act.  But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible.  Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.

There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic.  The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day.  Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses.  Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.”  Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.

The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn.  Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago.  Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.

Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski.  Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted.  Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish.  Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him.  “And losers?”  In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going.  Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were.  But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron?  Is his record ever going to sell?  Will his relationship with his sister improve?  Will he visit his father again?  Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.

I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds.  But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out.  He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done.  He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.”  How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.

Does Llewyn achieve anything?  I’m more inclined to look at micro details.  Llewyn has made steps.  Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot.  Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him.  He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it.  Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate.  “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

Argo

A great American what?

The unfortunate part of Argo is its timing.  The suspicion and mistreatment with which the film’s American characters are met in Iranian airports is the exact treatment Middle-Eastern folks receive in American airports now.  Additionally, the Iranians are portrayed as bloodthirsty animals just waiting to unleash gunfire on anyone revealed to be American “spies.”  Their well-documented fascination with American movies and culture is touched upon; however, these scenes are brief and stylistically backwards, making a group of Iranian soldiers seem like, for lack of a better term, dummies.  There’s also an added dramatization in which armed revolutionaries chase an escaping airplane down a runway, which sounds worse than it is.

As a film, Argo is drama 101.  Its structure is simple and effective, and its narrative is complete.  There is a stigma revolving around Ben Affleck, as though he’s somehow the successful hack of the current Hollywood generation; sure, his acting is sometimes pretty flat, but he’s a good filmmaker.  He knows the ropes of a realistic drama.  Argo is a movie that is allowed to be two hours – it vibrates with a sort of quiet that renders its scenes tense and thrilling without the contrived insertion of fight scenes and villains.

The narrative, based on a true story, follows Tony Mendez (Affleck) as he is pressured by the CIA to come up with a solution to a problem: Islamic “extremists” have taken over the U.S. embassy in retaliation for the country’s support of the recently deposed Shah Pahlavi.  Six of the embassy staff escape capture, however, and end up virtual hostages of Iran as they are housed in the home of Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor (Victor Garber) with little hope of escape.  Mendez and his supervisor, Jack O’Donnell (Bryan Cranston) will team with renowned Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers (John Goodman) and fictional movie producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), and together they will create extensive marketing for a fake Star Wars knockoff.  The six hostages will take on the identities of the movie crew after Mendez makes contact with them in Tehran, and with the CIA’s help, will board a commercial aircraft out of Iranian airspace.

As this is a film, the plan must not be an instant success, but Affleck’s dramatic license is not as egregious as it may have been in other hands. Immediate problems include the fact that the extremists are re-piecing the shredded documents from the abandoned embassy, which means they’ll soon discover the identities of the six missing staff and be able to recognize them on sight.  Additionally, Taylor’s housekeeper, Sahar (Sheila Vand), who does not speak English, may be onto the identities of Taylor’s six “house guests,” and Taylor and Mendez fear who she might tell.

The film’s action, though evenly paced and quiet, is climactic, particularly when the plan is put into motion and the six hostages plus Mendez are out in the open, attempting to make their way through the airport.  A slew of real footage from the crisis is used, particularly in the beginning, almost in an attempt to say, “Look how close to real life we made this movie look!” but which doesn’t distract from the story for long.  In the end, we see some photos of the real people next to the actors who played them, voiced over by a speech from the real-life Jimmy Carter (whom Affleck wisely decided not to have appear as a character in the film), all except Mendez, since Affleck seems to have been rightfully embarrassed/ashamed about casting himself, rather than a Latino actor, in the role of the hero.

In fact, Mendez is really the only character we don’t get to know very well.  Carter refers to him as a “great American” for what he sacrifices to get his people out of Iran.  Why does he go so far to do this?  The mission is classified, so he’s not doing it to impress his estranged fiance’ (Taylor Schilling) and son.  He’s (thankfully) not a staunch patriot, as we see him sleeping through the morning news reports and wrestling with his supervisors (mainly Cranston’s character) about which technique they should use to stage the escape.  As a bad acting instructor would ask, what’s his motivation?  Affleck’s Mendez reaches Boring Hero status by the time the mission begins.  As author Clint McCown would tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.

Goodman and Arkin play the most enjoyable characters and provide some truly funny moments, including industry-savvy-yet-accessible Hollywood banter, in a film so awash in its own seriousness.  Goodman’s character at one point quotes Karl Marx’s line about tragic history repeating itself as farce, and cites this quote as belonging to “Marx,” after which Arkin replies, “Groucho said that?”

The would-be breakthrough character in the film is Sahar, who despite the paranoia of Mendez and Taylor, actually protects the hostages and the mission at the risk of being killed by interrogators who fanatically support the Ayatollah.  Of course, since this is a Hollywood movie, the misunderstood foreigner with a heart of gold must, as a rule, be played by a beautiful girl in her early twenties, but the inclusion of a sympathetic Iranian character (with her own ambitions, despite how little they may be touched upon) is a positive gesture.

Best Picture buzz already surrounds Argo.  It won the Toronto Film Festival, which has predicted BP at the Oscars for the past five years.  Due to its (in)convenient timing, the film may slide into home, beating out Lincoln and Les Miserables, the other shoo-in nominees, and it may deserve it (over the other nominees, that is – not over every film that came out this year).  Argo may be a bullet-for-bullet example of what a screenplay is supposed to look like, but there’s also a heart there.  I’d have appreciated it if the heart wasn’t so glowingly red-white-and-blue, but it’s there all the same.

Argo (2012); written by Chris Terrio; directed by Ben Affleck; starring Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman, and Alan Arkin.

The Artist

Count me a Peppy Miller groupie

I want to be brief this time, because I want you to experience The Artist with a clear mind.  In fact, do me a favor and see it before you read this.

Michel Hazanavicius’ film is a silent, black-and-white labor of love featuring French actors Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo, who play a silent film star and a rising Hollywood actress, respectively.  The story follows George Valentin (Dujardin) and Peppy Miller (Bejo), with the former’s career in steep decline after the “talkies” become popular in the late 1920’s.  Peppy, however, goes from being a Valentin groupie to an even bigger film star than he, albeit with a bit of his guidance.

Dujardin has been nominated for and won plenty of awards for his role as Valentin, but to be honest, it’s Bejo who steals the show here.  Watch her dance, examine the subtle ways in which Peppy’s character changes between when she’s acting in the films-within-films and when she’s being herself, experience her knowing eyes.  She’s a star.  In many ways, Peppy is also the rags-to-riches hero of the film, taking care of Valentin when no one else cares, and earning everything she gets, despite the fact that much of her story is “montage-y”.  Thankfully, Bejo has also been nominated for plenty of awards, and with any luck, she’ll soon be known for more than A Knight’s Tale.  Dujardin, while deserving every award he receives, keeps Valentin hammy throughout the film, and while you can chalk it up to Valentin becoming so self-absorbed that his film characters have melted into his personality, it becomes a bit distracting, almost as though we’re watching a parody of a silent film, at times (it’s also hard to ignore when you’re watching a silent film whose story revolves around silent films).

The film begins to stumble when it tries to complicate its characters.  For instance, why did Valentin have to be married in the beginning of the film?  His mistreatment of his wife and eventual divorce set up plenty of dramatic conflict, but virtually no payback comes from this later.  The only conflict it creates is whether to root for Valentin or not – Dujardin plays him sympathetically, but is the character himself really a good guy?  Going after younger girls when he’s already married, becoming the embodiment of vanity – sure, the idea is that he gets over himself later, but this would have been more effective had he been a bachelor.

John Goodman appears in the film as Al Zimmer, the boss of Kinograph Studios, and his broad facial expressions lend themselves well to the silent film.  James Cromwell plays Clifton, Valentin’s valet, and Malcolm McDowell has a walk-on role as a character simply known as the Butler.  It’s a great cast in a wildly ambitious project, and perhaps the saddest thing about the film is that there likely won’t ever be another like it: The Artist is a period piece imitating an art form that no longer exists.

A note on the period piece, in part brought to my attention by my filmgoing partner over dinner: the film is incredibly true to the time period, but it was a time period when all of the attention was on white men (not to say that most of it isn’t still).  Peppy comes a long way in the film, and so on, but Valentin is the central figure.  My argument was that the film is aware of its setting and gender/race roles, and that watching it in 2011, we watch it through a certain lens: this is how it was, not how it is, and this knowledge enables innocent enjoyment of a fun, smile-laden, musical romp like The Artist.  But are we all so self-aware?  Does the remaking of period pieces like this perpetuate the gender/race problems of former eras, and continue to make them “okay” simply because we think we may, as a culture, have grown past them?  Something to consider.

To end it on a lighter note, The Artist is a wonderful film, and will most likely win Best Picture at the Oscars.  While not the best film of the year, it’s one of the most historically significant and certainly the most ambitious overall (tightly squeezing past My Week With Marilyn).  May the careers of these new silent film actors continue to flourish even when they once again appear in the talkies.

The Artist (2011); written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius; starring Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo