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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

"Boyhood" and Robin Williams Essays at RogerEbert.Com

Hello, dear readers, wherever you are. Just a little update. I've been fortunate enough in the past to have some pieces linked by, Slant, the House Next Door, and the Dissolve, and in the past month even more fortunate by having the fine folks at Ebert publish my work on their website, a thrilling honor. 

Richard Linklater's Divine Comedy: "Boyhood"

 The first is an essay about Richard Linklater's Boyhood, probably the best film of this summer, about which I draw some parallels with Dante's Comedy. It's admittedly a little book report-ish, or Lit major-y/Religion minor-y, but fans of The Tree of Life stuff from the past might find worthwhile stuff in it. Please click here to read and share with friends throughout your social media outlets.

The second was sparked by the tragic death of Robin Williams last week. I look at my favorite Williams movie, Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King (1991), written by Richard LaGravenese, and its relationship to trauma, mental illness, and the healing power of storytelling. Click here to read and, again, share. 

Retrieving the Grail: Robin Williams and "The Fisher King"
I will continue to post material at L'etoile Magazine out of Minneapolis. I recently got a bad haircut, which should be keeping me indoors. 

In other news, my friend Tommy Mischke has a new podcast up and running, and I hope you give it a try. The Mischke Roadshow is now several episodes in and has Tommy back in action and form. 

Thanks for visiting,

Remembrances of Matinees Past

We’ve been reminded this week of how Tim Burton’s Batman, the Jack Nicholson/Michael Keaton box office smash that altered how a generation of moviegoers responded to hype and marketing, just turned 25. Discussing the Burton Batman has been quelled in recent years, thanks in part to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy with Christian Bale as the caped crusader, to say nothing of the campy and dreadful Joel Schumacher sequels (the first of which credited Burton as a producer) from the decade before that. Suddenly, this Batman is news again, and very much appreciated. In 1989 it inaugurated a renewed interest in comic books, the silly old Adam West TV series from the ’60s was suddenly back in syndication, and Hollywood studios had a fresh orchard of published ideas and characters from which to pluck and plant new franchises (the Superman series with Christopher Reeve had by this time died; and we don’t have time to discuss Howard the Duck).


Of course when we compare Batman‘s impact to how novelty characters have worked in the last 10 years, it’s a fairly limp resurgence. The first comic book movie, as I recall, to follow up was a straight-to-video Captain America. There was also a tedious television series of The Flash which could never get its pace in order and was soon canceled. Burton’s hotly anticipated all-star sequel, Batman Returns, had the indelible mark of its director, but the Wagnerian noir of the first film was replaced by fetishistic Gothic indulgences (personified by Burton’s grotesque–and doubtlessly personal–rendering of Danny DeVito’s Penguin) that could not excite the movie fanboys as much–in fact, it repelled some of them. Then you had The Shadow, The Phantom, Batman Forever, and finally Batman and Robin, which kind of crapped on everything, with a cherry on top. Batman did change hype and blockbusting (even in a summer when it was one of the few big releases that wasn’t a sequel–Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were all released around this time), and Burton’s touch broke out of the MTV music video style that became trendy with Rocky III and Flashdance. But its impact is not as powerful as Jurassic Park would be four years later, Steven Spielberg once again (as he had with Jaws in 1975 and E.T. in 1982) setting summer movies on a whole new trajectory. Whereas Batman‘s environs are somewhat retro, an artful futurism groomed with the fabric of German Expressionism, with two loudly dressed men at its center, Jurassic Park heralds the future with new creations that quite literally gobble up the human caretakers, the filmmakers, to quote Richard Attenborough’s John Hammond, “sparing no expense” in the spectacle, or as 1993′s other Spielbergian hero, Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson), says, it’s less about the work than “the presentation.” The tumult within Gotham City is rather intimate when set against the non-stop propulsion of Speed, tornado touchdowns in TwisterIndependence Day‘s alien invasion, and Armageddon‘s catastrophic asteroid. The popular notion of the journeying hero–like Rocky, Luke Skywalker, Tom Cruise in Top Gun or Days of Thunder, Indiana Jones, or Batman–was, for a time (Harry Potter and Frodo arrived in 2001), replaced by extreme sound and fury (which is still here, yes, though at a kind of Ludicrous Speed kind of sound and fury).

Caught in a Loop: Tom Cruise

The lumbering thesis here could be, “Whatever, you guys, Tom Cruise is great and has always been great.” Every so often we hear about how lame Cruise is from our friends and in the press, followed by two weeks of forgiveness as whatever film being released turns out to be, at the very least, not bad, often with Cruise impressing with his indomitable movie star charm. And then, like in Groundhog Day–or Cruise’s latest, the comic sci-fi actioneer Edge of Tomorrow–the same sequence begins with everyone, save for the valiant if out-of-breath Cruise defenders, back to their original dismissals.

Edge of Tomorrow

Cruise was able to carry a large movie on his name for about 20 years, slipping between genres–action (Mission: Impossible), romance (Jerry Maguire), thriller (The Firm), and character-driven drama (Magnolia)–while, like a classic movie star, always maintaining his Cruise-ness, his Cruise-osity, his Cruisoise: the indelible grin and charm underwritten with a kind of basic Cruise character arc detailing a cocksure guy whose world is crumbling. This week the overheard banter at a neighborhood coffee shop, as relates to Edge of Tomorrow, featured some guy complaining about Cruise (in the manner of Clint Eastwood to the Chair), “You have no talent and you play the same boring guy over and over again.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kelly Reichardt's 'Night Moves' of the Soul

Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves delivers as a relentlessly intense suspense story while, despite the familiar, “movie heist” tropes of its plot, being in perfect accord with the director’s notoriously sparse, quiet, observant, but tacitly explosive previous films—Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Meek’s Cutoff. A shuddering before/after narrative about a Portland-based eco-terrorist trio’s (Jesse Eisenberg, Dakota Fanning, Peter Sarsgaard) plot to blow up a dam, Night Moves faultlessly strums the tune of crime-film contingency with the same relentless tension of Kubrick’s The Killing, while crucially building on Reichardt’s theme of modern day economic disparity and the problem of progressive ideals at odds with progressive action.

Night Moves

The opening image, of the dam in question as plotter Josh (Eisenberg) grimly looks on, shows the subduing of the natural world by human invention which has become a background banality. This young man could be weighing the ramifications of an illegal transgression he’s preparing or, saturated with exhausted melancholy, fixating on the end of the world. There’s mention of Science’s prognosis of the End a few times, but maybe it strikes the budding activists in this film with the same faith coupled with doubly-bound intangibility as the “World Vision” eschatological Christians referred to by Dena (Fanning) at an environmentalist film screening. Following the insolubility of Meek’s Cutoff, where frontier travelers trying to outrun the expanding Republic westward encounter a perplexing “Tree of Life” at the conclusion, Night Moves examines the ramifications of both ideas and actions, enveloping much of the eerie wilderness and haggard urban outposts in darkness. It’s a film with a deep social conscience that proceeds to excavate intimate Dostoyevskian layers of individual psychology, where decisive action begins. Social activism/politics and individual psychology prove to be similarly murky.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Dziga Vertov's Doors of Perception

Recently editor and New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote an impassioned call-to-arms for film critics to consider the formal elements of what they were evaluating. “I see a lot of writing that describes what a piece of art is about, not so much how it is about.” Consequently film criticism skates on surfaces, using adjectives regarding the artifice without digging in and asking why the artisans behind these ingenious visual and aural behemoths have made their decisions. The negation has increasingly fed into a film culture consumed by celebrity and easy to take political stands, while the idiosyncrasies of creativity, subject to myriad tools of machinery, are largely ignored.
Grand Budapest Hotel
Considering the author’s formal design: “The Grand Budapest Hotel”
Seitz is a film lover fascinated by the sensual touch of authors, and he understands the pressing need to anatomically dissect a film’s connective tissue and sinews. Look at his visual essays on Michael Mann and Terrence Malick—two of the most accomplished formalists in feature narrative filmmaking—or his book The Wes Anderson Collection. Anderson’s newest project—and arguably 2014’s best film—The Grand Budapest Hotel, is as interested in its own storytelling medium as Cervantes was with Don Quixote, with fictions constructed within fictions through an artificial pre-war Europe of false capitals, liveries, and armies, Anderson and cinematographer Robert Yeoman’s camera aspect ratio alternating through different historical periods, beginning and ending with a contemplation on the beguiling sepulcher of the “Author” and the mystery of what the creator wants to communicate to us.

Monday, March 31, 2014

"Dressed for the Occasion": On Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan's "No Holds Barred"

Welcome. It's the Niles Files fourth annual April Fool's blog. Undermining my reputation like nothing else, which is hard. Hi! Again, hi! If you're really bored and life is still pointless, like it was last year, check out 2013's entry on UHF, 2012's piece on Young Einstein,or the selection from the year before that, Bill and Ted's Excellent AdventureHave a good day! Wheeeee!

Thomas J. Hart’s No Holds Barred begins its bellicose exchanges on a black screen, the verbal wranglers out of sight but indelible by the sound of their voices. “I dress for the occasion!” color commentator Jesse “the Body” Ventura proclaims to his straight-man counterpart, “Mean” Gene Okerlund, who’s just pointed out the audacious outfit of the Body. “I’m dressed of course stupendously!” Ventura adds. “Stupendously I…think would have to be the word,” Okerlund says before returning attention to the eagerly anticipated clash about to transpire in the ring.
Promotional image from the 1989 motion picture of warring bodies, “No Holds Barred”
No Holds Barred was the marvelous first attempt of WWE (then, WWF) promoter Vince McMahon to successfully migrate his sports entertainment empire to Hollywood, tellingly at the end of a decade he had helped define. The prologue between Ventura and Okerlund is not throwaway stage banter, but, as we finally see Ventura’s wacky hairpiece looking on, we understand that it cuts into the motion picture’s stance on wrestling and McMahon himself, a suit unable to “dress for the occasion,” controlling the dialogue but, like Okerlund dwarfed by Ventura, not really understanding the words. In film, McMahon’s collaborator and star, Hulk Hogan, was the scene stealing Thunder Lips in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky III, leading to a fruitful relationship with A-Team actor Mr. T, who would co-headline the first Wrestlemania. McMahon’s pay-per view ventures in the decade effortlessly married west coast screen icons to professional wrestling, and finally, in 1989, No Holds Barred would attempt to be celluloid deliverer for McMahon and Hogan’s silver screen legacy, the two straddling disparate worlds of coliseum action and swanky restaurants, the same way Hogan does in the film.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"The Wolf of Wall Street": Martin Scorsese's "You Can't Do That On Television"

The late period of filmmaker Martin Scorsese is entrenched in the manifold meanings of illusion, a theme of grave importance as our collective collision with images has accelerated along with available technology and the encapsulating web of cyberspace when, while a world so widely canvassed would seem to be becoming more objective, our senses are saturated in manufactured images—or illusions, and so susceptible to gross manipulation. Scorsese has successfully migrated from the idiosyncratic crystal explosions and chemistry of analog moviemaking to digital’s binary code, yet what’s interesting about the trajectory of his career, along with the technology of his profession, is how he’s linked the art and business of image production to the psychological and spiritual problems he, as an artist, is bent on exploring.

Wolf of Wall Street

His controversial new film The Wolf of Wall Street, about corrupt and decadent Long Island broker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), is much more than another rise-and-fall (or “fall”) arc of a criminal overwhelmed by his luxurious excesses (it seems like a WASPy white collar version of Goodfellas or Casino); in its dizzying whiz-bang episodic carnivale of unreliable anecdotes, Scorsese has made an indictment of our present day submissiveness to the profit-motivated allure of moving pictures, the dulling narcotic of visual sensory intake that aids the evasion from existential realities. Scorsese has made the antipode to his preceding feature, the earnest and moving ode to illusions, Hugo, in which fantasy opened the real world up to transcendent irradiation. The Wolf of Wall Street is also a fantasy, but the sanctuary of images, where the viewer is transformed, is replaced by the passive lull of television. The screen isn’t in dialogue with reality. It's the Leviathan Hellgate mouth that swallows reality and replaces it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Orbital Noose: Inside Llewyn Davis

For a condensed (-7,000 words) version of this essay, click here. 

"In woman's womb word is made flesh but in the spirit of the maker all flesh that passes becomes the word that shall not pass away." James Joyce, Ulysses

Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen’s latest mordant exercise of their favorite trope, Man vs. Universe as Sadistic Yet Impersonal Bastard, follows folk musician Llewyn (Oscar Isaac), a careless and tetchy fellow who can't get a hold of success. Described as “King Midas’ idiot brother,” where everything he touches turns to shit, his failures might be deserved retribution, or he simply might be bereft of the necessary tools to connect with people. His prospects and promises are unblossomed and withering, and he submits to “just existing,” relinquishing his dreams. But Inside Llewyn Davis cannot be reduced to the rather unconventional admonition that artists give up. Whatever Llewyn’s fate, he must create. His vocation is an imprisonment--and a death sentence.

His lot in life is abuse at the hands of the inscrutable Talmudic God, the recurring Coen character who haunted A Serious Man, and is elsewhere referred to in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers, and True Grit, with dream-infecting emissaries like avenging motorcycle angel Randall “Tex” Cobb in Raising Arizona and cartel hit-man Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. The question of Llewyn Davis in this folk era Amadeus (translated: beloved of God) is the cause for failure—is it from without or, as the title suggests, within? The Coens again make a world that’s strictly material just as it’s awesomely mystical, a Greenwich Village Ulysses of Spinozistic Matter-as-God, "Thought"—or the Word—struggling to become Extension, Flesh, Real, reflected in the opening handheld image of the singer’s alchemical and technological midwife between the within and without, a microphone. On LPs, set in motion on their spindles, the Word becomes Matter, but like the many unpurchased records of Llewyn (and other struggling artists we meet), this transubstantiation only takes up space in backrooms, behind coffee tables, and finally the landfill.

Though Inside Llewyn Davis is set in a terrene world, it suggests a metaphysics where the Greenwich Village of 1961 is privy to some cosmological intercession.  The creative artist draws his material from the eternal soup, the likes (and lyrics) of which are removed from his or her own biographical experiences, extending above an individual and a time. Llewyn’s own definition of a folk song denotes the eternal, something “that was never new and never gets old." The catchy could-be-hit written by Llewyn’s successful acquaintance Jim (Justin Timberlake), “Please Mr. Kennedy,” pleads the sitting president not to launch the John Glenn Singers into the cosmos, far away from earthbound comforts of a happy home and family. Jim, with his wife and singing partner Jean (Carey Mulligan), has apparently bridged the divide between creativity and down-to-earth domesticity (aside from Jean’s clandestine cheating with Llewyn), while still enjoying some success with an expendable income and a faithful audience singing along.

Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis
Jim’s a folk musician who's part of the folk, one of us. Llewyn, restlessly migrating between couches and asking for money, can’t connect with the folk, no matter how beautifully he makes an old song new. He doesn’t do harmonies, so he answers Chicago-based promoter Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), or at least doesn’t since the suicide of his partner, Mike Timlin. The title refers to more than Llewyn’s one solo LP, but also to how there’s just too much Llewyn Davis inside Llewyn Davis, and through his odyssey we see that he, much as he dismisses Jim’s song, is the one in outer space, orbiting around and around, a pre-Major Tom space oddity more hopeless than George Clooney’s astronaut in Gravity. His restless destiny of repetition is to bring new life into the world, dying and resurrecting again and again with the cruel reminder, like a sock to the face, that “it isn’t your show.” His orbit isn’t just any abstract circle, but a noose, like the rope Llewyn sings about in the film’s opening number “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” That song fits a sardonic mold that audiences familiar with the Coens would attribute as droll comedy, but Inside Llewyn Davis is the pair’s most heartbreaking and dramatic work. Llewyn is alone and plagued with reminders of death, like Mike’s suicide, strumming along with Mozart’s Requiem after waking up at the Upper West Side apartment of the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), a pair of married Columbia professors whose décor suggests passion for art and long dead civilizations, and the fact that his manager Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson) spends an awful lot of time going to funerals (“He likes people,” Mel’s secretary tells Llewyn, who replies “Fewer and fewer.”)

Living without creating means just existing, and Llewyn is caught in a bind where artisanship is both an angry rebuke to placid existence (“Hang Me”’s lyrics: “Went up on the mountain, there I made my stand / Rifle on my shoulder and a dagger in my hand”) and the thin strand onto which he hangs, above “just existing” when he can’t just “exist.” Too sensitive to life, to just exist amounts to breathing death for him (“I wouldn’t mind the hanging / But the laying in the grave for so long”). The gravity pulling him down from the labors of creativity is something sinister, and the lyrics of departure and mortal intimations throughout Llewyn’s story nod to a longing for death.

As with other Coen films, multiple screenings of Inside Llewyn Davis open it up, muddying its seemingly lucid and minimal constitution as an accretion of uncanny mildew grows through the foggy and wintry dreamscape of Greenwich and the frosted open road. This song of itself contradicts itself and contains multitudes. The structure is circular and we end up where we began with Llewyn at the Gaslight Café, a popular venue for folk acts, singing “Hang Me” and then being ushered into the outside alley where he’s greeted by a tall stranger who swiftly punches him in the face. This is the same scene, confirmed by the banter and audience silhouettes inside, but some details have changed in the last 100 minutes.

In the prologue we only heard the echo of traffic, while in the final moments we hear Bob Dylan inside performing a song that closely mirrors the theme of what Llewyn has just sang (“Farewell”). The bar exchanges between Llewyn and club owner Pappi (Max Casella) are almost identical, save for, following Llewyn’s apology for his lewd behavior the previous night, Max not saying “It’s just music” before mentioning Llewyn’s “friend” waiting for him. The vocal cadences between Llewyn and the truculent stranger are different, Llewyn this time not having time to confusedly say “I’m sorry?” before a fist blasts his nose.

Ineluctable modality of the visible: the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis
Are these just the editorial alterations of the Coens’ cantankerous longtime (and fictional) cutter Roderick Jaynes for the dramatic punchline of Bob Dylan’s entrance as the folk vagabond messiah who will take off, succeeding as Hibbing-born Robert Zimmerman “inside Bob Dylan” who, Martin Scorsese’s documentary No Direction Home reminds us, consciously concocted an image like a brilliant chameleon or shape shifter, while Llewyn Davis, who is wholly Llewyn Davis inside and out, fails? Could Llewyn, had he been the second act while The New York Times’ Sidney Sheldon documented this night, been the recipient of Dylan’s accolades, the infinitesimal factors of fate working out thusly? Is this a literalization of Jean’s assertion that life for Llewyn will never change because he doesn’t want it to, or does it point to a Deus Ex Machina, like the flood in O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the punishing Book of Job whirlwind and x-rays from A Serious Man? It could be God, but like Inside Llewyn Davis, both of those narrative events technically have “logical” conclusions as natural phenomena. The misfortunes of the Coens' heroes set a dialectic of free will and predestination in motion. As Zeus says in The Odyssey, "Ah, how shameless the way these mortals blame the gods! From us alone, they say, come all their miseries. Yes, but they themselves with their own reckless ways compound the pains beyond their proper share."

More than a few impassioned viewers of Inside Llewyn Davis have been ridiculed for their theorized corollaries, drafting non-sequiturs through meandering movie interpretation. Inside Llewyn Davis is such an otherwise straight-forward narrative, beautiful in its simplicity and architectural execution, that it doesn’t need such elliptical speculation. But, like the cat’s namesake, James Joyce’s Ulysses (or like A Serious Man), the immanent world is screaming for a transcendental interpretation of events, reading not graffiti on the restroom tile but Talmudic Book of Daniel writing on the wall. Llewyn has to smile with but of course! realization upon learning the cat’s name is Ulysses, or seeing the poster for Disney’s The Incredible Journey (about three animals using their natural instincts to get home safely across a vast untamed wilderness) at a local movie house, the same way Stephen Dedalus sees an old milk woman as disguised Athena visiting Telemachus. The catch is that, while like Scorsese’s Dylan Llewyn has “no direction home,” he’s unable to shape shift and acclimate through the vagaries of time, his ticking mortal clock grossly off rhythm[1]. He's not Dedalus, or even Icarus. He never got off the ground.

The chronology is confused by the film’s structural design, covering Llewyn’s progress over the course of six days—two of which might be the same day, suggesting how Llewyn is a creator who can never cross over to his day of rest. In addition to the loop beginning and end, the moments preceding the finale are so strikingly close to what followed the opening, with Llewyn waking up at the Gorfeins’ and the same orange cat pouncing on his chest, that we almost may confuse these scenes as identical. The earlier wake-up has Llewyn accidentally letting out the cat, dragging it around Manhattan before losing it; the second time, he aggressively braces the door to make sure Ulysses stays put. The order of events makes it clear that these are different mornings and yet, bookended by the Gaslight alley reprimand, there’s the unmistakable mien of ineffability, the remembrance of jumbled incidents made more malleable through the emotional onslaught of Llewyn’s unfortunate affairs as time has lost much of its context (Llewyn notes how his journey through the week feels a lot longer than it actually was).  

The order of events could be careless screenwriting over-scrutinized by eye-rolling IMDB goof-sniffing movie culture (if we work out the math, the day Llewyn wakes up is a Sunday, which doesn’t seem likely as the Gorfeins are giving lectures at Columbia), or maybe it’s a pathogen the authors have playfully injected into the film’s DNA, in perfect accordance with their themes. Keeping with Ulysses, the Coens themselves then aren’t unlike the Creator Stephen Dedalus refers to as “[the] playwright who wrote the folio of this world and wrote it badly (He gave us light first and the sun two days later), the lord of things as they are whom the most Roman of catholics call dio boia, hangman god…” The not-so-fastidious-but-awfully-abstruse God of the Torah is also a frustrated artist uncertain of his creation, unable to control it and destroying it, then building it again as the same shit keeps going down. Birth, Death, the Divine, shit and grit, bodies restless and docile, young and fresh and haggard and corpulent, are all rolled together in this beautiful portrait of the artist as not-so-young-a-man-anymore-and-drowning, a hero story about an individual who suffers and fails so that we can have our immortal Bob Dylans who succeeded. Llewyn is an anti-Gilgamesh who, having lost his soul-mate and Enkidu, strives for an elixir of immortality and fails. 


The Coens have done something extraordinary, inviting doubt into presuppositions of the narrative while—ever so subtly—suggesting a Super-Naturalism working through the detritus of Llewyn's journey, as if the struggling musician has somehow stumbled into another dimension. He's weirdly not unlike those unfortunate video-makers going in circles in The Blair Witch Project, the trapped vacationers in the Evil Dead movies, or, to name another frustrated artist whose end throws a wrench into our expectations, Jack Torrence in The Shining, revealed to have indeed always been at the Overlook Hotel.

Inside Llewyn Davis is then an accompaniment of the uncanny to A Serious Man, where the stranger at the door is a Dybbuk and is not a Dybbuk, where the conclusion is both divine retribution and mere chance, and where the story is both a small wry drama and a cosmic religious riddle. The filmmakers have even written a part for the Schrodinger cat from poor Professor Larry Gopnik’s (Michael Stuhlbarg) physics lesson, where the creature is both alive and dead. In Inside Llewyn Davis, the cat opens a slew of interpretations prompting us, like Larry, to probe for meaning when there may be none. The cat is both Llewyn’s double (Professor Gorfein’s secretary mishears Llewyn on the phone, repeating back to him the obvious symbol bait “Llewyn is the cat” instead of “Llewyn has the cat”) and his opposite (military fatigued folkie sensation Troy Nelson, played by Stark Sands, remarks that the cat is “very contented,” antonymous with Llewyn’s state of being). It's also his mute assailant (the mysterious stranger from the alley walks away from Llewyn, the image beautifully dissolving to the Gorfeins’ hallway, the cat in harmonious step with the violent assailant, on his way to wake Llewyn from sleep's contentment). “Explain the cat,” Jean demands of Llewyn, and he can’t—and neither can we. The cat is a mystical interloper, a Wonderland critter Llewyn chases through his trials and final judgment in Chicago. The cat is lost, recovered, then discovered to be not only the wrong cat, but the wrong gender (“Where is its scrotum?” Mrs. Gorfein protests). The “wrong cat” is abandoned and by coincidence possibly killed by Llewyn, driving home on his cross-country road trip after passing the Akron exit, while the original Ulysses, like his Homeric namesake, finds his way back safely to the Gorfeins.

Yet—yet—the first image we have of the cat is its high-tailed rear end, which, when say compared to a similar feline that berates Elliot Gould in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye, is scrotum-less, while Ulysses, back at home in Mrs. Gorfein’s arms, has its paw, as if by design, blocking its genitals. The Coens repeatedly call attention to the mystery of the cat and its gender (the mystery of reproductive function; and remember that Athena comes to Telemachus in the guise of Mentes, a man--and connected to that the idea that Athena was, as with artistic creation, born from Zeus' mind and not his loins...see, this shit keeps coming and coming), as Llewyn, on the phone with Mr. Gorfein, twice is corrected after referring to it as a female. Going along with the treacherous mythopoetic reading of Inside Llewyn Davis, as pure abstraction the cat—whether belonging to the Gorfeins or not—is the film’s androgynous and prophetic Tiresias or oracle, skittering between the world of the living and the dead, which, remembering writers like Thomas Mann and Yukio Mishima, is where the creative artist dwells, fertile with creativity yet constantly neutered by failure, reminded of his sterility by an inability to adjust to the domesticity everyone else grasps harmoniously.

"Where's its scrotum?"
Llewyn chases and holds dearly onto the cat[2], something of Nature though domesticated, but either (a) he has to let it go to pursue his dream, or (b) it runs away when he’s ready to settle down and “just exist.” He can fall in love and make love (to Jean and to a woman named Diane from two years earlier), but the women deny him the role of fatherhood; he can be invited to dinner at the Gorfeins, with other musicians in attendance, but awkwardly fumbles in an attempt to make headway in a conversation with a keyboardist; he can sit with important friends like Jim and Jean at the Gaslight, but has to ask Jim if Troy Nelson, singing “The Last Thing on My Mind,” is any good, later looking on befuddled as Troy, Jim, and Jean sing “Five Hundred Miles” as a perfectly mellifluous trio, the audience joining during the chorus. The lyrics relate to sadly leaving someone behind, but the whole world—more than just the folk music scene—seems to be moving along fine without poor Llewyn. As Jean, centered in the frame, begins to sing her solo verse, the camera takes Llewyn’s adoring point of view, slowly moving in on her face. Pushed to close-up, her gaze is directed at Llewyn, but as he raises his hands to acknowledge the connection, the spell is broken and her eyes flutter toward her husband. Similarly, just when Llewyn is settling down in Jean's apartment and calmly speaks to the cat (“What’s your name again?”), Ulysses breaks for the open window, disappearing. Won’t Llewyn be a part of the world—or can’t he? Is he free, or imprisoned by predestination?

Peering beneath the countenance of Inside Llewyn Davis, invoking alchemy and proclaiming that the Coens have made a picture about the delivery, death, and redemption of the Word, a big allegory about the varieties of human existence in its eternal recurrences spinning around a flat circle (a term now in vogue thanks to True Detective, so I gather from myriad think-pieces) not unlike the LP of Timlin and Davis’ “Fare Thee Well” that Llewyn plays before setting out on a Manhattan morning, is trippy stuff, the respondent eye-rolls perhaps justified had not the Coens executed their film with such a mysterious consonance and stark lushness, Bruno Delbonnel’s color palette similar to the “snot-green scrotum-tightening sea” of Joyce, as meanwhile the suffering writer (I), to use Buck Mulligan’s phrasing, attempts to prove by algebra that Llewyn Davis’ grandson is the Coens’ grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own cat, or what have you.
The Goy's Teeth: A Serious Man
But the film is wrought with varying vectors for asking questions and drawing conclusions. The end credits tell us the film is “kosher” (just as A Serious Man assured us that “no Jews were harmed in the making of this film”), nodding to a holy subtext. The Coens’ Hebrew origins offer insight to how their work plays out, as unfortunate characters try to crack the elusive riddle of the Law. The Torah gives us stories but stubbornly evades closure, or the humanistic assurances of contemporary literature. Readers are left to contemplate the ellipses in the narratives, though if they think about it too much, like Larry Gopnik, they risk God’s wrath (or the Twittersphere’s). The Torah gives the Law and stories, but not answers or clearly defined associations. It's the Hebraic parataxis as opposed to the hypotaxis. The temptation of Eve in the garden, Noah’s rebuke to Ham, the demand that Abraham kill his son Isaac, or God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart so that more people can be smote, are all nonsensical and demand further articulation (or midrashic method of finding gaps and filling them in). The great Rabbi’s “sage” advice, appropriated from modern secular culture, is the best we can hope for: when the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy around you dies – you better find somebody to love.
Set in 1968 suburban Minneapolis, A Serious Man dives into the problem of trying to map out the mystery. It offers much delight with “The Goy’s Teeth,” where a dentist tries to understand why God has sent him a Hebrew message on a gentile’s pearlies, but the episode resolves like Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor,” a Christian puzzle where the Inquisitor argues against Christianity while Christ himself is silent with no fulfilling answer to the questions of uncertainty. A good man who’s facing a divorce, blackmail, and some heinous allegations from a tenure committee, Larry struggles to get answers from three rabbis, and the viewer tries to get answers from the film.

Strangers on a train: Darren Aronofsky's "Pi"
Sundry elements address themselves simply by their omission, demanding us to keep digging and reading: Vietnam and the political climate (“the new freedoms,” mentioned by the sexy neighbor, Mrs. Samsky), the suspenseful geopolitical climate in Israel, the storied legacy of anti-Semitism in Minneapolis (so pronounced and yet segregated within the city, as St. Paul next door was extremely friendly to Jews), and, most pressingly for Larry (and verbally addressed by his dreams), the fact that socially respected douchebag Sy Abelman (Fred Melamed) is “seriously fucking” Larry’s wife (Sari Lennick). The small story of Larry is a subset of a much bigger story happening on a global—and cosmological—scale. The “Uncertainty Principle” proves that we can’t know what’s going on, though we’re still responsible for it on the Mid-Term, and yet somehow the Sy Abelmans of the world do know what’s going on—even though he’s not intellectually curious and just likes to indulge in fine wine, dining at Ember’s, ruining Larry’s marriage, and writing foul letters to the tenure committee about Larry.

God speaks through the body with the mysterious Hebrew letter’s on the goy’s teeth, in Larry’s stomach during a routine physical (the blerping sound as the doctor applies pressure to the abdomen), the ominous x-rays that portend his death, and how Larry’s brother Arthur (Richard Kind) drains his cyst just as he drains his mind into the “Mentaculus” map of the universe. God is outside and inside, non-matter Pure Thought and grossly physical, reality a subset of Him. On Larry’s television we see a sci-fi movie with a great tremulous brain, a religious song Larry’s son is learning for his bar mitzvah seeming to emanate from it. Trying to discern that sinister brain, as Hashem is something of a horror-movie villain akin to The Lord of the Rings’ Sauron, destroys Larry.

Matter as subset of God: A Serious Man
The tree of knowledge, of probing and giving a shit, is indeed quite damning, and the Coens’ dark observation is that apathy sews the seeds of happiness; one may be locked in what Kierkegaard calls "despair," but if you can live with it, the Danish philosopher's "aesthetic" stage is the route to take for getting by. Think of Inside Llewyn Davis’ predecessor, True Grit, where the need for Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) to get revenge on the dull-witted man who killed her father results in several more unnecessary corpses, the death of a beloved horse, a maiming injury to Texas Ranger LeBeouf’s tongue, and the loss of Mattie’s arm. If only Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) in No Country for Old Men hadn’t given a shit about returning to the sight of a bad shootout to give water to a dying man;. if only Ed (Billy Bob Thornton) in The Man Who Wasn’t There hadn’t been enticed by “dry cleaning” and the question of “where the hair comes from”; if only Tom Reagen (Gabriel Byrne) in Miller’s Crossing hadn’t been stirred by his love and loyalties and just shot Bernie Bernbaum (John Turturro) in the head; and, most amusingly, if only the Dude didn’t mind the unchecked aggression of the Rug-Peers in The Big Lebowski, he’d still have, um, his car and his CCR tapes. Engaging in the human condition, as playwright Barton Fink (Turturro) does in Barton Fink, unlocks the “life of the mind,” thoughts schlepping through discarded brain matter, a fiery hell revealed to Barton through the serial killer Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Barton should just keep his screenplay wrapped in the conflict of what’s in the ring of his wrestling picture; all else, so the rabbis remind Larry in A Serious Man, is frivolous. Forget Vietnam, freedom, Israel, Sy Abelman fucking your wife, and Hebrew letters on teeth. Helping other people? Couldn't hurt. But play golf! Live life! Just cut the hair! Fuck it, dude, let’s go bowling!

As we ask with Larry, “Is Hashem trying to tell me that Sy Abelman is me, or that we are all one, or something?”, we now wonder what God is doing “inside” Llewyn Davis and how we interpret what’s happening. The film (in conjunction with A Serious Man) reminded me of another Jewish filmmaker’s mystical exploration of the fabric of reality, Darren Aronofsky’s cyber-religious thriller Pi, about obsessive mathematician Max Cohen, committed to the belief, shared by the Hasidic Jews stalking him, that numbers reveal the patterns of the real world; his salvation is drilling a hole through his brain, relieved from the original sin of knowledge. Max is repeatedly told to let things go, “take a bath,” and submit to chaos while the grainy Manhattan reality mixes in overt hallucinations like a bleeding stranger (him) on the nearby subway platform, a brain, his brain, lying on some stairs, and a mysterious man staring at him and singing on a train[3].

Jean (Carey Mulligan)
The “patterns” in the Coens’ film refuses to make the meaning transparent. In addition to the mysterious presence of the cat (One cat? Two? Male? Female? Double? Opposite? Oracle? Nothing more than a mammal without a single tie to something Super-Natural?), and the loop structure, there is the question of the Gorfeins and their relationship to Mike Timlin (subject of the first easily refuted Llewyn Davis internet theories). And why did Mike jump off the George Washington Bridge (existentially, and when the proper bridge to jump from, everyone knows, is the Brooklyn Bridge)? There is the question of Jean’s pregnancy. Is Llewyn the father, or Jim? Why does Llewyn capitulate so easily to her demands to get it taken care of (proof that Llewyn isn’t nearly as much of an asshole as so many reviews insist that he is)? As she asserts that Llewyn should never have sex again without “condom on condom,” there’s the hinted possibility that Llewyn was at least wearing a condom. In an early Gaslight scene, Pappi says that he would fuck Jean if could, and then, days later, after Llewyn has procured money for Jean’s abortion, Pappi happily verifies that he has fucked her. This rouses Llewyn’s deep-seated resentment and he takes it out by spewing vituperation at the poor, middle-aged woman on stage, Elizabeth Hobby (Nancy Blake).

Is there any stable reality to graft this film? Has Pappi just slept with Jean this past week (questionable, as she’s already performed at the Gaslight and Pappi makes it clear that if you want to play there, you have to sleep with him)? Were Mike and Jean lovers (or was she his sister)? Indeed, we may also question the degree of intimacy between Mike and Llewyn, anti-Gilgamesh and anti-Enkidu, who completed each other in their creative intercourse and procreation (ambiguous sexuality is scattered throughout: in Llewyn's relationship to Mike, Roland Turner to beatnik valet Johnny Five, Llewyn not answering Roland's question, "You queer?" and later Pappi mentioning how a lot of men come to the Gaslight not only because "they wanna fuck Jean" but because "they wanna fuck Jim!"). The Coens’ little movie pointedly resists being an elegiac documentary to the legacy of its setting, instead telling a story of desperate lostness where simple ins and outs prompt our uncertainty and question the fabric of the presented reality. 

It’s little wonder that music historian and critic Greil Marcus hates Inside Llewyn Davis, or that Terri Thai, former wife and manager of Dave Van Ronk (who partly inspired the character of Llewyn), would write a Village Voice piece pointing out how the film incorrectly portrays the Greenwich Village scene (it’s a piece penned with such agonizing earnestness that it would fit in perfectly as one of the Coens’ fake introductions to their published Faber and Faber screenplays). The film’s inwardness expressed cinematically outward asserts a resolute individuality and detached fuck you to the collective, to connectivity, to the Folk and the Folk Scene, the hero unable to embrace the Transparent Eyeball but ever-fixed as Transparent I Bawl, the sad disposition of recurrent failure, hungering to be remembered and rewarded, to be transcendent and etched on stone, to be at peace, meanwhile making do on a couch.


Because of Llewyn Davis’ bad luck, the film earnestly hints that he is literally, in a Super-Natural way, cursed. The most compelling of theories regarding Inside Llewyn Davis involves the film’s anomalous and off-beat section, when Llewyn, with $200, knowledge that his ex-girlfriend carried his child to term two years ago, and the ambition to audition at the Gate of Horn for Bud Grossman, agrees to ride with the gigantic and flamboyant jazz musician Roland Turner (John Goodman), a drug addict walking on two canes, accompanied by his marble mouthed “valet,” Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund).

Roland Turner (John Goodman)
This midsection is marked by unnerving strangeness as three uncomfortable eccentrics travel through freezing drizzle, fading amber sunlight, and starry nighttime flurries stealing visual coherence, as if they were traveling through a dimensional portal. The fat jazzman harasses the folkie about his name (“Llewyn” becomes “Lou N.” and “Elwyn”), ethnicity (Roland calls Llewyn a “flamenco dancer” because of his complexion, the Welsh-named Llewyn asserting his mother was Italian) and the simpleton “Cowboy Chord” music genre in which he performs. He also insults the intelligence and lifestyle of Mike, who, it is at this point revealed, committed suicide. Llewyn, with sizzling rage and sadness, interrupts Roland’s fatuous verbosity, “Would that cane fit all the way up your ass, or would a little bit stay sticking out?

Roland falls silent for a moment. He twirls the cane and becomes a demonic harbinger with his response. “Okay. Okay,” he says, and then, delivered with magnificently eerie cadence by Goodman, continues, “Except threats and intimidation won’t work with me. You wanna know why? This would interest you. I studied Santeria and certain other things that squares like you would call the ‘black arts,’ due to lack of understanding, from Chano Pozzo in New Orleans. You say you’ll mess me up? I don’t have to make those childish threats. I do my thing And one day you’ll wake up wondering, ‘Why do I have this pain in my side?’ Or maybe it won’t even be that specific. Maybe it will be, ‘Why isn’t anything going right for me? My life is a big bowl of shit. I don’t remember it being a big bowl of shit. Meantime, Roland Turner is 1000 miles away, laughing his ass off. Think about that, Elwyn,” he finishes, poking Llewyn’s shoulder with the cane, like a wizard's staff. “In this car, bad manners won’t work.”

Clean Asshole Poems: Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund) and Roland
The implication is that Santeria black magic is to blame for Llewyn’s subsequent misfortunes. These misfortunates aren’t out of step with Llewyn's luck preceding this sequence, but I can’t shake how the whole section assumes the character of something eerily phantasmic, accented by Delbonnel’s photography. With Roland and Johnny Five, it’s as if Llewyn has crossed a threshold on this Tuesday cross-country drive, the film entering a kind of Walpurgnis Night. Night falls and Llewyn sees red lights of traffic, blurred by precipitation, like ominous warnings to turn back. Three hours outside of Chicago, the three men sit at an Oasis restaurant, a preternatural promontory above the earth with headlights diffusedly blazing below. The awkward banter has finally reached a trancelike stupor, Johnny Five reciting Peter Orlovsky’s “My Bed is Covered Yellow” and Roland hissing “Yesssssss” in reply.

Llewyn and Roland both enter the lavatory, and while Llewyn sits on the toilet he notices pen graffiti by the tissue roll: “What are you doing?” There’s a thud from another stall and Llewyn rises to investigate. Collapsed on the floor and foaming at the mouth, Turner has overdosed. His gigantic and foaming form suggests life reduced to a prodigious tub of guts, the latrine background recalling the warning of how Llewyn’s life will become a bowl of shit. And yet, with the nonchalant Johnny Five, Llewyn tries to help and is concerned for this man who may have cursed him (again: not an asshole).

The writing on the wall: What are you doing?
But—“What are you doing?” Llewyn could be the mythic artisan patron Daedalus trying to fashion wings (recalling the Timlin and Davis LP, titled If We Had Wings) to escape the minotaur maze of merely existing—again like Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus trying to find direction in Mr. Deasy’s Hegelian straight line toward One Great Goal (while Stephen’s story in Ulysses’ 17th chapter concludes with a circular dot), his pursuit of artistic success not in congruence with a career but with solving some ultimate riddle of existence and finding a creative Philosopher’s Stone through the “ineluctable modality of the visible” and spotting the “contransmagnificandjewbangtantiality” of the universe. Llewyn could be the new messiah on the “road to Galilee” sung about in “Green Rocky Road,” a Parzival foolishly stumbling into invisible castles and retrieving the lost grail.

Or, if we believe our eyes and silence our wandering speculation, he could simply be a guy taking a shit. Which brings us to

That writing on the wall brings us back to Llewyn’s predicament as an artist and his function as a man. Jean repeatedly berates him by calling him an “asshole," and then more to the point, “shit”: he is “shit” and everything he touches turns to “shit.” There’s resonance to these abundant scatological references, carrying with their stench the fear of anyone who creates, and alongside that, an anxiety about meaning that soaks through much of the Coens’ oeuvre. “What are you doing?” the graffiti, like the gods, are asking. Llewyn is shitting. All his toils, talents, and worries amount to shit: pulpy, gritty, disgusting waste to be flushed out to the same sea to which so many of these folk songs aspire, the great snot-green mother that gave life, on which Llewyn almost sets sail as a sanctuary from his stunted creativity but never reaches. Replete though the film is in nautical imagery, the ocean is seen only once in the distance. Llewyn is instead left with shit, the output of every human being that is necessarily repressed from polite conversation (and movies).

Just existing: Hugh Davis (Stan Carp)
Llewyn visits his catatonic father Hugh Davis (Stan Carp), at the Landfall (sounds like “Landfill”) sailor’s retirement home, speaks to him without hope of reply, and then sings the old man a lovely sea shanty, “Shoals of Herring.” The performance, where Llewyn’s words are met with glints of recognition from the old sailor, is perhaps the most poignant moment in the entire Coen catalogue. The song ends, and Llewyn looks penetratingly at his dad. “Wow,” he says. What’s happening? Has a breakthrough occurred between father and son, now bound by their seamanship?

No. The next scene has Llewyn informing an orderly that his father soiled himself. For Llewyn, “wow” points not to accomplishment but to excrement.

At my first screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, I overheard one respected critic, who otherwise adored the film, mention how this fecal punch-line counted as the picture’s one misstep. But the linking of feces, arriving at the most inopportune moment, to deepest human sentiments and relationships carries something that enriches this story of Greenwich Village and creativity[4]. Excrement relates to the raw process of existence: forms animated to life, eating, digesting, shitting, dying, consumed by nature, and themselves becoming shit. It’s an unbearable process to embrace, famously recorded in literature with Gilgamesh looking at the worm emerge from Enkidu’s corpse. The Landfall experience with his dad gives light to what Llewyn has to anticipate—“You don’t even have to get up to shit,” he tells his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles). The respected but docile father is an omen much as the fleshy corporeality of Roland is, a man who is similarly zombie-like, aging and running on the fumes of drug addiction.

Meanwhile, the John Glenn Singers, so cowboy-hat adorned Al Cody (Adam Driver) jokes, are first going to tour “Uranus,” while Johnny Five, if we can discern his words, is infatuated with the “Clean Asshole” poems of Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s lover who believed that the asshole was divine. And when Llewyn explains to Roland’s snide interrogations that he’s Welsh, the jazz man mentions how a serving of Welsh Rarebit found himself “purging from every orifice, one in particular like a fire hose," and snidely asking, “Does everything from Wales make you shit yourself?” Hugh Davis' reaction to his son's song implies as much. Everything in Inside Llewyn Davis seems to come back to Roland’s “bowl of shit,” beginning and ending with Llewyn’s consignment to “this cesspool” (sewage drain) by the back-alley stranger.

And with excrement, there’s Death everywhere, beginning with “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a prayer to be relieved from the cycle of conceiving, trying, failing, and forgetting, and lingering with the memory and mystery of Mike’s suicide. The undercurrent of unanswered expectancy and failure is mortal insignificance, the futile common denominator of the human body which flashes out quickly or lingers long past ripening, flesh playing out its final years as a prison of tissue and sinew, piss and shit.


Even if it’s only been twice, Llewyn Davis has a knack for getting women pregnant, ironic for an individual who, if life was hollowed out to just existing, would rather not be here at all. The restroom graffiti and the rest-home accident are Providential messages: stop what you’re doing. Indeed, condom on condom not only for biological procreation, but artistic creation. The film’s most crucial scene, at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, pits Llewyn in the presence of Grossman, played with magnificently restraint by Amadeus’ own patron saint of mediocrities Antonio Salieri, F. Murray Abraham, who casts cursory judgment on the young man who’s traveled hundreds of miles to make himself heard.

The patron saint of mediocrities, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) in Amadeus
The context is important. Llewyn is a man bound to his family only by necessity. Joy--who could be a single mother--is not pleasant to be around, his father is catatonic, and being that the Davis' house is being sold, presumably his mother has died. Though his early offering as a young artist was for his parents (Joy mentions the EP Llewyn recorded of "Shoals of Herring" at age eight), he struggles to be of the same rootlessness we associate with self-created mavericks like Dylan. He believes he’s impregnated the woman he loves (as vitriolic as Jean is to Llewyn, I don’t think we can underestimate that how sincerely he adores her), but she’s going to terminate the pregnancy in a few days. The doctor who performs the clandestine abortion has informed him the procedure will be free of charge because Diane, the old girlfriend from a couple of years ago who had the same problem, decided to carry to term, moving close to her family in Akron, far away from the rococo Greenwich scene. The doctor couldn't tell Llewyn, who doesn't have a stable residence. Llewyn is now a father with physical progeny to match his artistic progeny. He’s made something that might outlast him, a mark on the world, a living being that’s a part of him. And that same cycle is happening currently with Jean.

Consider the song he chooses to play for Grossman, a truncated version of “The Death of Queen Jane,” a melancholy old ballad about the queen, truly beloved by the otherwise infamous Henry VIII, in agonizing labor. She begs the midwives, and then the king himself, to cut her open, sacrificing herself so that her baby may live, but Henry will not allow it: “If I lose the flower of England, I shall lose the branch too.” At IndieWire, Sam Adams brilliantly writes of this moment for Llewyn, “It obviously reflects his mixed feelings about his (possibly) two children, one alive and unseen, the other unborn and soon to be dead. But it's also about self-sacrifice, and about how in order for something new to come into being, something old may have to die first.” (Michelle Dean, in her fantastic piece, also describes this scene in a mythological way, also calling Llewyn’s performance a sacrifice).

F. Murray Abraham as Llewyn's final judge at the Gate of Horn, Bud Grossman
After Llewyn sings how the country folk were fiddling and dancing the day the new babe was born yet how beloved Queen Jane (whose name recalls Jean) was “cold as a stone,” Grossman promptly says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” The curt judgment is utterly final and insurmountably hopeless. After this last chance blitz through the heartland, suffering the company and curses of Roland and Johnny Five, abandoning the stray/decoy cat, hitchhiking through sleet and treading through puddles, and being harassed by law enforcement officials in train stations for trying to get some rest, the crushing sense is not simply that Llewyn give up. It’s much graver.

Though he says that Llewyn’s “not green,” Grossman proposes the young man trim his beard to a goatee, change his hair, and join a trio he’s putting together—the description of which matches what we know as Peter, Paul, and Mary. “Do you do harmonies?” Grossman asks, and Llewyn replies, tremulous and somewhat defiantly, “No.” He won’t not be Llewyn Davis. He quickly adds that he did do harmonies with his former partner. “My suggestion—get back together,” Grossman says. “That’s good advice," Llewyn says. "Thank you, Mr. Grossman.”

The sacrifice: "The Death of Queen Jane"
Behind Llewyn’s gentle capitulation is something more than an abstract sacrifice found in music, but real death, the noose of “Hang Me” and “Fare Thee Well”’s observation that “Life ain’t worth living without the one you love,” Mike Timlin’s tragic leap of faith and, in this film’s Sisyphus loop, what Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus said was “the one truly serious philosophical problem,” the intimate question of suicide. Camus goes on to say, “An act like this is prepared within the silence of the heart, as is a great work of art.”

There’s no indication, however, that Llewyn has any plans to follow Mike off the bridge. I imagine he’s marveled by his soul-mate’s leap (and betrayal?), and what’s left is the powerful longing for non-being. Llewyn hitchhikes out of Chicago, which hangs in the distance like the Emerald City, and takes the wheel while the generous young man who picks him up gets rest in the passenger seat. On the nocturnal road, the lights of Akron catch Llewyn’s eye. If he could only take the exit, stepping into the future instead of curling back into the past, like surrendering himself to the merchant marine again, his father’s line of work. The doo-wop sounds of Nolan Strong and the Diablos’ “Old MacDonald” pivot the atmosphere even more to a positive direction home. But Llewyn misses the exit—after which the familiar but blurry orange shape leaps onto the road, smacking into the car’s bumper.

Anguished, Llewyn brakes and investigates. We see the blood on the car and the maimed creature stumble into the dark woods to die. Whether it’s the cat Llewyn left behind or not doesn’t matter. It’s an omen that can be interpreted any number of ways. Should he turn back? Should he, like the cat, give up and die?

The music playing throughout this moment is a song from Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, “The Heavenly Life,” describing the sacrifice of a lamb and an ox while highlighting the release from earthly toil and shortcomings in the hereafter: “We enjoy the heavenly pleasures / And avoid the earthly things. / No worldly tumult / Does one hear in Heaven! / Everything lives in the gentlest peace! / We lead an angelic life! / Nevertheless we are very merry: / We dance and leap, / Hop and sing! / Meanwhile, St. Peter in the sky looks on.” Again, the message appears to be, with those lyrics and the creature limping into the darkness, that Llewyn quit this life.  

"He's adorable": Howie Greenfung
Llewyn’s life has always been geared towards creating, but what he’s fashioned is useless and plops to the ground like shit. The sentiments of childbirth and art run hand in hand, with Mrs. Gorfein annoying Llewyn with her belief that “singing was a joyous expression of the soul” (we might wonder about the Gorfeins’ parental association to Llewyn and Mike, and if it might have something to do with how they’re a barren couple eager to adopt company so that Mrs. Gorfein’s “famous” meals can have an audience). But the agon of music, writing, or I imagine child rearing, isn’t so simple, either alone or in collaboration with a soul-mate. Llewyn might be recognizing this as he looks at the photograph of what is not exactly the most fetching or photogenic of babies, the child of two other Gorfein guests who’ve bridged their surnames, without a dash, to title the boy: “Howie Greenfung,” a mucus-colored name if there ever was one, perfect for this little result of two people fusing and procreating. But Howie doesn’t seem too happy to be existing. “He’s adorable,” Llewyn says, but his glance at the photo indicates an unfortunate kinship of misbegotten genesis. Solo or in harmony, creating doesn't guarantee beauty. What happened to Llewyn's family? The unmentioned mother, the silent father, the austere (and apparently unmarried) sister raising Llewyn's docile nephew, Llewyn's childhood home being sold with no inheritance for him: the family comes to nothing, like Llewyn's solo craft. The artist’s fear resembles the onanistic Victor Frankenstein, where his fatherly labors give life to something abominable, execrable, and better off dead (not that Howie Greenfung, who will probably see better days, is looking that bad, but you get the general idea). 


After returning from Chicago, Llewyn resolves to submit to the comfort of the womb, the sea with which he’s familiar. While dropping off his stuff at Jean’s, she’s gentler with him and offers a gig at the Gaslight, splitting the basket with another act. “The Times will be there,” she says encouragingly. It’s possible that she’s sacrificed herself for Llewyn, sleeping with Pappi to secure him a gig as a token of appreciation for what he's done for her. But he shakes his head. “I’m out. I’m done. I’m going back to the merchant marine…It’s not going anywhere. And I’m tired. I’m so fucking tired. I thought I just needed a night’s sleep but it’s more than that. But thank you for trying. I love you.”

"Hang Me, Oh Hang Me"
Tremendously realized by Oscar Isaac, it’s Llewyn’s most truthful moment, not only because of his quick declaration of love (which I maintain is achingly sincere), but the fatigue of his labors is something to which a lot of us find heartbreaking affinity. It's the visage of creative burden. Repeated failure chips away at indefatigability. The alchemy of creating is hard, just as it’s intimate[5]. It’s another realization the film has in common with Peter Schaffer and Milos Forman’s Amadeus, where Mozart, the greatest of musical geniuses, is being “murdered” by his composition of the Requiem (which, again, we hear at the beginning of Inside Llewyn Davis) and has to tell one of his sponsors, regarding the delayed composition of the lighter Magic Flute, that it’s done but still “in my noodle.” Moving Thought to Matter appears sedentary but it’s exhausting, like the apocryphal notion that Jesus Christ was fatigued after casting out demons and performing miracles[6].

Llewyn wants out, capitulating to life and agreeing to “just exist.” But like gangster Michael Corleone, just when he thinks he’s out “they” pull him back in. To secure his place on a sailing vessel leaving Friday morning, he’s forced to relinquish most of his remaining cash from the “Please, Mr. Kennedy” session for old union dues. “I’m leaving naked,” he admits, looking at his few remaining dollars but resolved to be newborn on the ocean. However, hours later he finds out he can’t set sail because Joy threw out his mate’s license along with his old recordings: his severance from the omphalos of his existence fittingly disqualifies him from "existing." Even with his receipt he can’t get his dues back (as with Taxi Driver's pun, the function of "unions" is set against the lone individual). He’s again penniless, couchless, and driven to the scaffold to play and fail. The cause of this mishap is terrestrial and logical, contingent on his own carelessness, but nevertheless the sense is Providential, or as the would-be suicide Salieri hears Mozart’s laugh in Amadeus, “That was God—that was God laughing at me!”

I’ve mentioned Thomas Mann a couple of times, and though the Nobel Prize-winning German man of letters (1875-1955), writing about his homeland from the 19th century European Union (Buddenbrooks) to the hells of World War II (Doctor Faustus), is quite removed from the 1960s folk scene, his recurring themes of the artist and death are in accord with Llewyn. Mann’s lonely artisans waver uncomfortably between the living and the dead, bourgeois domesticity and bohemian decadence. In his little known story “The Hungry,” Mann words the creative individual’s problem through his protagonist Detlef: “If only once to escape the inexorable doom which rang in his ears: ‘You may not live, you must create; you may not love, you must know.’” Or, to quote “Please Mr. Kennedy”: “I need to breathe, don’t need to be a hero.” 
For Mann, the artist is entangled in a Faustian contract, bestowed to his nature as a child, and he languishes in a painful apartness from the stream of humanity. Mann’s titular hero (and perhaps closest of autobiographical alter egos) in Tonio Kröger attempts to explain himself in a way that’s not dissimilar to Llewyn Davis and his “cool and finicky relationship with human beings.” “An artist stops being an artist the instant he becomes human and starts feeling,” Tonio says to his friend, a decadent “scenester” of sorts, Lisaveta. “Is the artist really even a man?” he asks. “It strikes me that we artists all vaguely share the fate of those specially treated papal singers.” He is apoplectic when reminded of his “calling.” “Don’t talk about a ‘calling’…! Literature is no calling, it’s a curse—just so you’ll know. And when does this curse make itself felt? Early on, terribly early. At a time when one should be living in peace and harmony with God and man. You start feeling marked, in an enigmatic antithesis to others, the ordinary people, the respectable ones. The gulf of irony, skepticism, conflict, knowledge, emotion that separates you from other people yawns deeper and deeper. You’re lonely, and there is no communication with others. What a fate! Assuming that your heart is still alive enough, loving enough, to feel how awful that is!...Your self awareness is intensified because you feel the mark on your forehead among thousands of people and you sense that it escapes no one’s notice.” Though Llewyn disdains “careerism,” his motive may be less based on principle than resentment, lacking the tools to adjust comfortably to this new art haven and utopia of Greenwich like Jim and Jean or Troy Nelson, who Llewyn mocks by asking if he has “any higher function.” In the company of artists, Llewyn seems like the only "marked" man. There are so many coincidences that we can accept that there is an Order to the universe, but whatever that Order is, it isn't there to be friendly with Llewyn.


Mann’s final great artist protagonist, Adrian Leverkühn in Doctor Faustus, makes the demonic pact explicit, the musician’s journey conjoined with a pursuit of hidden knowledge (Leverkühn resists studying music as a young man and instead studies Theology). Based on the apocryphal story of Nietzsche in the brothel, the Mephistophelean bargain for genius is linked to deliberately contracting syphilis from a prostitute (something Luchino Visconti incorporated into his adaptation of Death in Venice). Leverkühn is a marvelous musician, but he cannot get close to anybody, and any attempt at closeness ends in ruin. He’s damned, his genius amplified by an unquenchable longing becoming exponentially cancerous. The syphilis infects his body and brain, and with his public confession comes a stroke followed by a decade of insanity and paralysis. This “joyous expression of the soul" is a prison sentence shackling together an individual’s mind and body during a losing wrestling match with the ineffable. Llewyn Davis’ place is one of utter restlessness, the Mannian mandate for the artist not unlike Scorsese and Kazantzakis’ portrayal of Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, whose “place is on the cross,” not “with women, with children,” the last temptation not being, as that film’s controversies suggested, sensual pleasures of sex but rather basic domesticity, which the readers, listeners, viewers—and worshippers—take for granted.

"It wasn't your show."
After Llewyn is rejected by “the living” and winds up back on the cross at the Gaslight, his sickness-unto-death is sung by a Clancy Brothers-styled trio of Irish performers. The song is “The Auld Triangle,” which refers to Mountjoy Prison in Dublin, where a large metal triangle is repeatedly clanged to waken prisoners (being rudely woken up one of the film’s most pronounced motifs), in this case foreshadowing an inmate’s execution. This is when Llewyn learns that Pappi slept with Jean. He drunkenly steps away from the bar and brusquely disparages the folk scene that’s fostered him for so long, harassing Elizabeth Hobby and her performance of “The Storms Are on the Ocean,” yet another song about leaving with promises to return. The frustrated and obstinate Llewyn is deliberately interrupting the circle of there-and-back-again eternal recurrence, forgetting himself and so damning himself to the same beating the next night from Mr. Hobby, God’s emissary with the message “it wasn’t your show.”

“Do you believe in it?” the dying Mozart stops dictating to Salieri in Amadeus, wondering about the meaning of his requiem. “The fire which never dies?” “Oh yes,” Salieri answers. Both God’s beloved and God’s neglected are in similar arks, offering sacrifices and prayers through their fingertips that likely go unheard or unanswered, capitulating and swerving through demands that lead back around to the same troubles. There’s Perdition behind Mozart’s genius, as we see torch-wielding demons swirling around the hero of Don Giovanni, and in Salieri’s frustration, as he burns a crucifix and plots Mozart’s death. The same infernal fire scorches—and drives—the artists of Mann, Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, and myriad mythological wanderers and messiahs.

Mozart (Tom Hulce), exhausted, in Amadeus
Llewyn Davis is forgiven for his outbursts by both the Gorfeins and Pappi and again he assumes the noose’s hold and sinks into the Sisyphus orbit. The chorus of his story, as he recognizes the Disney movie poster, is the incredible journey, departing and dreaming to glide back on the wings of nature “like Noah’s dove,” as “Fare Thee Well” reminds us. The dove from Genesis flies out from the ark to find land, returning to Noah twice before being sent out one last time; he's never seen again, his absence signaling how life on earth can begin. That’s Mike’s story, who flew away never to return but, upon Inside Llewyn Davis’ conclusion anyway, not Llewyn’s. The opening song by Timlin and Davis concludes with the lyrics that life isn’t worth living without the one you love, but Llewyn’s euphonic solo version eschews this and repeats the first verse, “If I had wings like Noah’s dove / I’d fly up the river / to the one I love” (though this time prefaced with the warning, “One of these mornings, it won’t be long / You’ll call my name / And I’ll be gone,” indicating that Llewyn could just as soon change his mind). By Providential damnation or defiant choice, Llewyn lingers and languishes, even despising the community that suffers his tetchiness and lack of finesse. It could be heroic strength in character with a philosophical amor fati as he embraces eternal recurrence—or he may instead decay and bloat like Roland Turner, bitter and supercilious, the breathing omen of ill-worn artistry that satanically mocks the naïve living.

Before meeting his destiny once more in the alley, Llewyn looks at the young man from Minnesota singing his own “Farewell” ballad: “Well it’s fare thee well / My own true love / We’ll meet another day, another time / It ain’t the leaving that’s grieving me / But my darling who’s bound to stay behind. / Though the weather is against me / And the wind blows hard / The rain, she’s a-turning into hail / I still might strike it lucky / On a highway going West / Though I’m traveling on a beaten trail.” Bob Dylan’s journey, as a man able to wizardly weave together a mystique and fabricated identity, stealing from his friends and lying about his origins, will from here connect into the arterial mainline of Greenwich, the folk scene, and the entire world. The song is less applicable to Dylan than to Llewyn’s journey westward into midnight, strewn with cautioning red lights and brittle snowfalls.

Like Harold Ramis’ spiritual comedy of repetition and an inscrutable Providence governing time and the weather (and sharing the same “doozy” puddle in which the hero soils his feet), Groundhog Day, Dylan’s song and Llewyn’s story muddy the perspective on who is exactly being left behind. Though Llewyn appears stuck, he’s the nomad always ecstatic in his circumlocutions. He’s on a road to nowhere but at least trudging on a path to somewhere. The rest of the world marks time, gliding smoothly along the straight line of the future, arrested comfortably in the steady flow of the ever-present, and being naively present relieves one from the nightmare of history. Maybe the materialization of Dylan’s music in the final minutes, when it wasn’t there in the beginning, is another sign that Llewyn’s time has passed, and it’s time to, um, face the music. Like clockwork he goes into the alley to confront the shadowy figure, and takes his punch (this time not saying “I’m sorry?” before the fist collides with his face, however). Consigned again to this cesspool, he doesn't stay down but ascends through iron bar shadows and follows his bellicose aggressor, who gets into a cab and drives off.  

Llewyn looks on somewhat wistfully, not saying “farewell” in accord with Dylan but rather says “Au revoir”—indicating they’ll see each other again. At that quiet utterance the cab’s wheels screech and turn a sharp corner. The linear trajectory forward is thwarted and Fate's Emissary will inevitably come around again. Llewyn’s time line (Timlin) appears sealed, but his stations are a prayer that it be not as strictly predestined as Nietzsche’s exacting idea of eternal recurrence (the differences between the Coens’ prologue and epilogue indicate as much), allowing for variations through its infinitesimal complexity congruent to the Hasidic notion that the Torah’s letters, though containing the future, are unscrambled in their movement through the present moment. As in song, the Word or prayer lives and breathes. Maybe Llewyn succeeds, maybe he dies, maybe he "exists" as a sailor, or maybe he hops on that familial straight line to Akron to see, and even raise, his child[7], a true Odysseus. The hangman god’s incoherent and uneven folio of this world, where everyone encounters many lives but always ends up meeting themselves, at least imagines that the rambling and penurious Llewyn Davis can somehow weave through the ragged floppy eared manuscript, finding himself in us as we find ourselves in him, resting and paroled through one solitary and satisfactory lifetime from the iron-barred trappings of his inborn nature, at long last fashioning wings.


Recommended Stuff by Some Brilliant Folks Whose Succinctness & Insights I Envy: 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker:

More Richard Brody:

Bilge Ebiri: 

Glenn Kenny: 

[1] A close, and admittedly fanatical, reading of the film’s depiction of time doesn’t add up, from the week’s chronology to the anachronisms of diegetic references like The Incredible Journey and a reference to the controversial play The Brig, both from 1963.
[2] It’s interesting to note how the cat Pickles plays a similar role in the Coens’ much-derided 2004 film The Ladykillers, bolting out the door and getting Tom Hanks’ scheming professor into trouble immediately, later serving as watchful and mute judge as the thieving, titular “ladykillers” come to their final judgment—smote by God, the soundtrack of gospel songs reminds us.
[3] Inside Llewyn Davis twice gives us a peculiar looking man staring at Llewyn on a subway train, the gaze silent but judging, knowing.
[4] Another powerful 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave, is also very much about creativity and artisanship, and is one of the few serious motion pictures to show a character shortly after relieving himself, as Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stands up from a squatting position in some tall grass and tightens his belt.
[5] A lot of artists—musicians, filmmakers, writers, etc—don’t like talking about their craft any more than some couples like talking about conceiving children; of course, quite the opposite is true in both categories, so, as Emperor Joseph II says, there it is. Moving on then.
[6] Believe me, toiling away on this Inside Llewyn Davis piece, which likely won’t amount to any money or much positive reinforcement, makes me strongly empathize with Mozart’s whisper to Stanzie regarding the Requiem, “It’s killing me.” And I still have three other things I have to finish within the next week, goddammit. Anyway. Where was I? Yes.
[7] Inside Llewyn Davis was, according to Film Comment’s annual critics’ poll, the best film of 2013, setting it highly perched with other Coen pictures like A Serious Man, No Country for Old Men, Fargo, and Blood Simple (and, upon cult rediscovery and reconsideration, the heralded Big Lebowski). Those modern classics, themselves surrounded by Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, O Brother, The Man Who Wasn’t There, Burn After Reading, and True Grit, make it boggling that these filmmaker brothers, who’ve worked in perfect professional harmony for nearly 30 years, could make a film about loneliness and artistic failure so acutely and trenchantly, with such feeling and sympathy, Oscar Isaac’s Llewyn arguably being their most vivid human concoction, and certainly the most poignant.
                  But Inside Llewyn Davis did not find an audience, failing to connect with people, and even after winning the Grand Prix at Cannes and sweeping the National Society of Film Critics, it was startling that such an acclaimed film from these prestigious filmmakers wound up being shut out of the Academy Awards’ major categories, especially in a year when there can be as many as 10 Best Picture nominees. Its failure to do so was, so be it, charming to say the least, in step with Llewyn’s luck.
                  Llewyn’s counterpoint might have been Spike Jonze’s Her, the story of lonely and introverted professional heart-felt-letter writer Theodore Twombley (Joaquin Phoenix), who’s initiating a relationship with his iOS system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johanson).  Jonze’s picture was on just as many top ten lists, and did manage to secure itself Oscar attention (winning for its screenplay), and one could wonder if these two films, which both failed to become box office successes, were adored by the online universe so well because 20-something and 30-something writers couldn’t help but see themselves in Llewyn and Theodore. These are both creative individuals past their prime, detached from the bulk of humanity and existing inwardly. As Llewyn has his procreative anxieties, so does Theodore, whose last name has a womb in it (and who strangely has sexual fantasies about pregnant celebrities), and suggests a certain procreative duality. “Samantha” is not real, but his ideal projection unleashed and building her own intuition. Inside Llewyn Davis and inside Theodore Twombley, the world is woven (and in the latter, even mass manufactured).
                  The crucial difference is that Theodore has had self-made stability. He’s unhappy and listless, but, going through a divorce, he’s realizing that nothing he heretofore experiences will equal that which has already happened to him. He has a steady job, a nice Los Angeles apartment, and the means to acquire the most current technology. And he has a pretty-good-but-eeek date with Olivia Wilde.
                  Those “best years” remembered fondly probably haven’t happened to Llewyn, whatever contentment allotted him at best occurring in brief flashes.  I don’t want to admit that this is why I feel such stronger kinship for him than for doing-pretty-good-for-himself Twombley, finding Her to be a visually amazing, smartly affecting, rich, but at times one-note film, but it’s probably the case.
                  That’s what I got. Now let's eat.