Thursday, February 20, 2014

Save The Cat

See the cat?

You only have to watch about 20 minutes of Inside Llewyn Davis to understand why it got passed over for every Academy Award nomination except cinematography and sound mixing.  It looks and sounds great.  The problem is, all these good-looking people sound like dicks.  You wouldn’t know that from reading most of the reviews, which say that it’s bleak but tender.  Which is only true if you include the music; take the songs away, and the tender goes with it.

Story-wise, it’s widely assumed, and continually repeated, that the events in the film are based on the life and early career of Dave Van Ronk, one of the great pre-Dylan Village folkies.  They are and they aren’t—there are enough similarities to make the comparison, but the essentials are so different that it’s like listening to a cover version that sounds so little like the original that it becomes a different song entirely, like The Pretenders doing “Stop Your Sobbing” or Sinead O’Connor doing “Nothing Compares To You.” From what little I know of Van Ronk, on the worst day in his life he was nowhere near the total jerk Llewyn Davis is for most of this movie. 
See the cat?

But then everybody’s a jerk in this movie, which takes place in a 1961 that is populated by assholes, womanizers, bitter women who are dumb enough to sleep with womanizers, struggling musicians, uncomprehending relatives, silly intellectuals, and producers who don’t know a good thing when they see it, but sure do know one when they can make money from it.  Structurally, it’s a song where the verses finally catch up to the refrain, sort of like “Rocket Man” by Pearls Before Swine, where the chorus is only understood after the final verse tells you why it has to be what it is. 

Thematically, it’s about how talent alone just isn’t good enough.  You can be a talented as hell, but if you don’t have something more—luck, a presence, the goodwill of an audience—you will never make it to the next level, the level where there’s money in it.  And truth be told, the movie also, subversively, makes the totally opposite case:  the reason why talent isn’t good enough is because you need something less, not something more—something that the untalented can recognize in themselves; something middle of the road.  There’s a scene in the Gaslight where Davis watches an audience sing along to a performance, and the look on his face tells you exactly why no one will ever sing along with him.  And yet when one character does, a little later in the movie, he goes ballistic.

And given that this is also a movie about failure—failure to get that lucky break, failure to take that highway exit to Akron, failure to make the right choice between royalties and a cash payout, failure to treat women like people, failure to know what you want, failure to live up to other people’s expectations, failure to live up to your own talent—this is a hard movie to like.  Especially since most of those failures are committed by the main character.  If the Coen Brothers wanted me to reach into the movie and beat some sense into Llewyn Davis, then they succeeded.  
I also couldn’t help noticing that the only women in this movie are an angel who curses like a merchant marine, a moralistic shrew who is blamed by her brother for doing exactly what he tells her to do (and she still comes off looking guilty), the wife of a professor who is reduced to tears by someone she thought was her friend, and an out-of-town singer who is heckled by a drunken self-loathing lout.   So if the Coens wanted me to storm into their office and bitch slap  the pair of them until they write three-dimensional females, then they succeeded there as well.
But the real success here? The music, which redeems every unforgivable action in the film.  It's everything the rest of the movie isn’t, and the best song in the film (go figure) is a three-minute novelty number about astronauts that is performed and directed so perfectly that it will make you giddy with delight.  In fact, just listening to the soundtrack will give you a completely different vision of this film.  On the basis of its music alone, Inside Llewyn Davis is about a vibrant, hopeful, emotionally-charged era which is reaching back into the past in order to make sense of the present. 

No bleak; all tender.  All jewels.  But when it comes to the film itself, it's like seeing those jewels in a setting that takes away their value.  There’s a case to be made that this, too, is intentional—that the contrast between inside and outside, the difference between creators and their creations, is the main thing that this movie is about.  But like the movie’s hero, it’s lacking that certain something which would add up to success.

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