Note: This blog entry was written by Dan Levine.
Dave Van Ronk, folk revival legend and at least partial inspiration for the most recent Coen brothers film, used to come in to the book store I work at. His visits were frequent and fondly remembered. This was many years ago when Lena Spencer was still alive and running Caffe Lena, and if Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger, ever did claim a permanent address it was likely “Caffe Lena, Couch, c/o Lena Spencer.” The owner of the store remembers Van Ronk, unlike his cinematic doppelganger a devout socialist, even if he never took it onstage with him, complaining “Those Leninists and the Trotskyites are still bitching at each other in the park all the time.”
Llewyn Davis however, never seems to take on any sort of political stance. Sure, he’s disdainful toward a fellow folk singer who happens to be in the National Guard, but the Coen’s can only come to an understanding of his disdain for the soldier as a sort of aesthetic disgust at the grotesque blandness of his person, the loud way he eats cereal and his dumb eyes, the dumb eyes of a wild animal wandering at the edges of the free way. The Coens, if they have a political side, have never adequately expressed it; my suspicion is that they haven’t one.
And besides, the connection to Van Ronk is tenuous at best, because in Llewyn Davis we have just another archetypal Coen cypher meant to wander about a shifting landscape of grotesques. One might as well call him Llewyn Davis-Fink-Lebowski. This is standard operating procedure in Coen brothers films, and if you like them as many people seem to, then you’ll love this. If like me, you aren’t especially impressed by a general hatred of everything redeemed only by a dry sense of humor and some indication of a specter of anxiety at being a failed artist, then you’ll likely be mildly entertained, mildly impressed at the same confident control of the medium they’ve always had, but walk away thinking “Ok, so what was the point?” Which is exactly what I did.
The film ends with a scene of meaningless repetition underscoring the meaningless repetition of the protagonist’s life; he’s trapped in a floating existence. In some circles this could pass for meaning something. The early 1960s folk revival, interesting for other reasons, mostly involving race politics and class privilege, is here merely a convenient backdrop and a set-piece to inspire subtle visual gags. A running one involving Davis taking care of two cats and carrying them around with him everywhere scores periodically, though it eventually becomes another way to underline the theme; though he’s killed one cat with his car, Davis, upon returning to New York after a failed sojourn to Chicago, encounters the first cat again. The folk cafe where he was playing in the beginning of the film takes him back after he fails to get work on a merchant marine. The cycle repeats finally shot for shot. We get it.
I will give the Coens credit for their location shooting; New York City looks like New York City, when people go from one place to another they do so in a time frame that makes sense given the distance between the two locations, and the characters have a relationship to each space that suggests they live in the city and are familiar with it. Perpetually broke people’s apartments are in buildings that look like they’re buildings where people would live if they were perpetually broke, and they pass the Don McKellar test-the couch is against the wall. Woody Allen would do well to take note of this.
Shout-out to earlier blog supporter and fan Yvonne Davenport! She gave us our first nudge to embark on this endeavor. All the best.