Monday, January 13, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

This movie punches me in the emotional gut. It knocks me down, out cold.

Why is that?

I’ve seen Inside Llewyn Davis twice now. The first time I loved it, but in a sort of subtle way, muted somehow. I spent two hours after the movie feeling beaten down, broken somehow, but in a good way. Like muscles after a long run. As I sat with it over the coming weeks, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was a melody stuck in my head, metaphorically and literally as I purchased the incredible soundtrack and couldn’t stop playing it on loop. The more that melody ran through my head, the stronger I felt, the more devastated I became. It had poisoned me like a nasty bite that left an unremovable and slowly spreading depression through the rest of me.

The second time out it didn’t hit me as hard as the first time. I spent more time concentrating on the technique – editing, music, cinematography. It helped that I went with a friend who didn’t appreciate it as much as I did, so the mood was more analytical. And yet the aftermath was even worse than the first time. I couldn’t do anything with myself but go home and go to bed.

A day later I saw that friend commenting online, wanting to hear what others opinions on how the movie work so well for others. She wanted to be convinced. Technically she was asking someone else for their opinion, but I’m not going to NOT flippantly throw my own opinion into the ring, so I set to writing. Quickly I realized I still didn’t have an answer for her. What in the hell is it about Inside Llewyn Davis that makes me broken when I think about it?

Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie about an asshole who is also an amazing musician, but because of his circumstances, he never makes it. Okay. Why doesn’t he make it?

If you ask him (at least at the start), it’s mostly other people. There’s no money here, right? The wrong people saw him at the Gaslight. His partner happened to be depressed, which wasn’t his partner’s fault, but still. Or maybe if Llewyn’s manager wasn’t a lying jerk, was someone who actually cared about his music…

There’s also an element of bad luck to it, which is a little frightening. It’s a long way to get your one shot, it takes a lot of work, it’s really hard to get there. And once you’re there, even if you’re great, you can still fall back down. That’s a tough reality.

But it’s worse than that, because Llewyn doesn’t get just one shot. He plays the Gaslight every month, and he never gets recognized. He plays the same night as Dylan, and while Dylan gets to go be Dylan, Llewyn gets beat up in an alley. And I’m sure outside the immediate story told, there have been other chances, or at least flickers of them.

Backing up further, there’s obviously an element of self sabotage to Llewyn’s fate. If he wasn’t such an asshole most of the time, maybe people would like him enough to give him a chance. If he didn’t get Jean pregnant, maybe he could’ve actually gotten royalties from Please, Mr. Kennedy. Or maybe if he just picked a manager who didn’t lie to him, he’d have a better idea where he stood. Maybe the way other people treat him is as a result of his own actions. Shocker!

Maybe he’s just needed to grow up a little before he has a real shot of making it. Who knows how long he’s been couch surfing - why hasn’t he found a way to make money? His blind faith in his identity as a folk singer is problematic for actually living his life. In a sense, giving up or at least compromising with that identity is what the movie is about.

So that’s the question - if you’re really a great artist, if you really want to do this thing, how much are you willing to compromise? Compromise who you are as person, even if you’re an asshole. Compromise the integrity of your art by playing novelty songs just so you can pay the bills. Compromise the integrity of your relationship by sleeping with a sleazy bar owner so the friend you’ve hurt can get another chance. Compromise your identity as an artist and get a job at a bar or move to the suburbs because what the hell else do you think you’re doing?

And in fact, Llewyn gets multiple chances to make that compromise. Grossman offers him the chance to shave that goatee and join a trio. If he wasn’t such a fuckup, he'd have royalties on Please, Mr. Kennedy. Other chances would come along - maybe Jim’s about to hit it big, and he’s clearly on call as a session musician for Jim. But that wouldn’t be good enough for Llewyn. As we see in Grossman’s office, it’s not about being any musician, it’s about his own art.

The movie’s point is that in the end, you’re going to have to compromise. Maybe you’re going to end up teaching instead of making, and all that grading will cut into your theorizing. Maybe you’re going to spend all your time practicing your technique without actually producing anything you’re proud of. And if you compromise too much, maybe you’re going to end up stuck doing something for the rest of your life that you never wanted or intended to do for very long.

That’s what destroys me when I look Inside Llewyn Davis, that fear of “just existing” is a fire in my heart I didn’t know was there. And when I look at myself, I’m terrified, absolutely terrified, that what I see is someone who’s going to end up there, who’s going to be willing to compromise away all his art for one reason or another. Maybe for family, maybe for money, maybe for sickness, maybe for death. And man, I wouldn’t mind the hangin, but the lyin in the grave…

And obviously Llewyn is the extreme end of being unwilling to compromise, scornful of those who do. I am not so much. And I'm not nearly as much of an asshole. But I still worry that other people hate me or judge me. And I worry that I am the kind of person who will just move to the suburbs and live out the rest of my life just existing.

I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be there. But I can already feel myself falling.

And this movie burns that nerve.


I’m in love with that opening cat sequence. First there’s how human it shows Llewyn. It’s so easy to empathize with that mundane annoyance bordering on anguish that comes with that cat, to the point that I think this sequence is the only reason I’m willing to identify with Llewyn at all through how big of an ass he is. It’s this minor inconvenience with grave consequences for him, for his friends, for this poor lost little kitty. Arguably it’s all his fault, arguably it’s just dumb luck, but here he is with this cat, doing the best he can even if that’s not very good.

But there’s something about that cat combined with the beautiful, sad song that hits home on an even deeper level, past the insecurities about my life and identity as an artist. The moment we spend as the cat, watching the subway stops fly by, and the moment we spend watching that cat while Llewyn is distracted by commuters and the commuters by him… it’s a private moment where I’m reminded what it’s like to be alive in a world rushing by so quickly, so much faster than I can track it. I’m lost, but it’s beautiful. I’m confused, but it doesn’t matter.

In that moment, I want to try as hard as I possibly can doing whatever it is that I’m here for. I want to explore, discover, make sense of the world. I want to express myself! I want to go make something! I want to run away from here and see where I end up.

And for a moment, with a leap out of Llewyn’s arms, that just what I do.