Just to be clear, I was there. The movie takes place in 1961, as the village Bohemian scene was transitioning from Beatnik to Folk. I rolled into town in ’67, as the scene was twilighting into Folk Rock, Woodstock and what would become the 70’s. The basic elements were the same – non-professional but earnest performers playing songs in shabby little clubs for quiet audiences looking for, for lack of a better word, “meaningful” entertainment. But things had gone national and the Village was about to go back underground. Jack Hardy hadn’t arrived yet, but he was on his way. Van Ronk was around - you’d see him on the street sometimes. But like I said, that’s not what the movie is about. It’s no more about the “historical” Dave Van Ronk than the New Testament is about a Jewish guy from Galilee.
Llewyn Davis is, to say the least, a composite character. There’s some Van Ronk in there, but I also spotted, in no particular order:
Dylan, obviously, who slept on Dave’s couch but didn’t knock his wife up;
Henry Miller, who slept on his friend’s floors and did seduce their wives;
Kerouac, who wrote books before anybody wanted to read them and, like Dave, did his stint in the merchant marine;
Jimmy Stewart’s character in “A Wonderful Life”, who also got punched in the mouth for insulting another man’s wife;
Dostoevsky’s philosophical axe-murderer Raskolnikov, who had the advantage of knowing what he was guilty of;
And, maybe most of all -
Camus’ Meursault, the Stranger or, in the alternate translation, the Outsider, who sees what everybody else is doing but can’t seem to buy into it and suffers the consequences.
Whether the Coen brothers purposely picked bits and pieces from these various spice pots to make their L. D. soup, or if it’s just me filling in the blanks, the big picture is hard to miss. This guy is an analogy for the artist in revolt against his (and the human race in general's) reality – simple as that. It’s in the opening scene, loud and clear. The audience is hanging out - the man on stage has a noose around his neck. The choice of “Hang Me” as the opening (and closing) number is no accident. The artist is looking death in the face – “went up on the mountain, there I made my stand” - and when death calls his bluff and sends a dark angel in a business suit to knock him on his ass (while a kid from Minnesota runs off with the paying audience),the pieces lock into place.
With the Village, the road and a short stop in Chicago as the setting, the story is all about the human animal as a stranger in his own world. And Llewin Davis’ world is the only world we get to see. He’s not only in every scene, he is every scene. When he leaves a room, we leave the room. When he’s on the phone, we don’t get to see the person he’s talking to. We get our information, or lack of it, only from him. We even go to the bathroom with this guy. You don’t see many movies like that.
The film doesn’t do subtle. When Llewyn hitches a ride with a Neal Cassady-esque driver who’s been reduced to chauffeuring John Goodman’s “forlorn rags of growing old” cynical, crippled, apparently drug-addicted aging musician (Llewyn’s foreseeable future), the part is played by – guess who? – Neal himself (Garret Hedlund from On the Road). The cat (it’s all about the cat) is named Ulysses and rises from the dead for crissake – but the only Penelope our wanderer has to come home to wants to abort her child because she’s afraid it might be his and Llewyn isn’t dying for anyone’s sins but his own – which, from the evidence presented by everybody who knows him, is the simple fact of his existence and the additional charge that he just won’t buy the program. Llewyn’s songs, with the exception of a few snatches of “Green Rocky Road” sung essentially to piss off John Goodman’s character, are about the tension between life, death and the harm we do each other – “Hang Me” obviously, “The Death of Queen Jane” about a woman who aborts her baby to save its life, and “Fare Thee Well”, otherwise known as “Dink’s Song”, about a woman abandoned by her lover when he gets her pregnant – the “historical” Dink was reportedly dead when John A. Lomax, who collected the song, went back to find her: “One of these days, won’t be long, call my name and I’ll be gone”. Like I said – not subtle. Dink didn’t get any royalties either.
The seeming exception to the above, if you’ve only heard the soundtrack, is “Shoals of Herring”. Not so. In the most poignant scene in the film, Llewyn sings the song to his dementia-ridden father, whose only response is to soil himself as the last chord is struck. As with all the performances in the film, and in defiance of our sound-bite ridden culture, the song is sung in its entirety, with the camera remaining on the father’s blank stare for an almost unbearable amount of time – as ever, we see what Llewyn sees. The point and redeeming grace of the movie, is that he keeps singing anyway.
Under what appears as indifference (Camus again) L. D. is staging a protest for us all. Whether we stand with him or smack him down for telling the truth is beside the point. He’s on the gallows, guitar in hand. The heckling of a “poor girl whose just trying to sing” that earns him his bloody nose is in fact a protest against the club owner’s power to exploit performers in general, female performers especially, and Llewyn’s pissed-off Penelope specifically.
There’s a lot going on in this film. It’s not for the multiplexes and it’s certainly not a nostalgia piece. Whether it’s successful as a work of art, whether it will “last” is not for me to say. I don't care. I got my money’s worth – some serious meat to chew on that I’m still busy swallowing. In that way, it’s similar to what really happened in the Village and why the rest of the country got interested. When I moved into a storage area sized room on 27 West 11th street (right across the street from the “bomb factory” that blew up two years after I went off to New Jersey to get married), I was looking for the world of the “In the Wind” album liner notes. Lucky for me, it was still there when I got there.
I found it in this film in ways I didn’t expect.