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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Outside Llewyn Davis

                                             “There was music in the cafes at night,
                                                And revolution in the air.”
                                                                   B. Dylan   
                                                     
Critics are raving about “Inside Llewyn Davis,” the new film by Joel and Ethan Coen evoking the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961.   But the Coen brothers, and most of the critics, weren’t there at the time.  As one who was there, I’d say the Coens got it wrong.

Not so much in the details. McDougal Street looks a lot like it did in 1961, with the coffee houses and the grimy Kettle of Fish tavern.  The Gaslight Café, which in the film is a mash-up of the Gaslight and Gerde’s Folk City, looks like neither, but enough like a typical folk club of the period.  Oscar Isaac, as the title character, looks and sounds a little like Dave Van Ronk, on whom he is “loosely based,” though both his beard and his voice are neater, his guitar playing is nowhere as complex and sophisticated, and his commitment to folk music is suspect.  The surrounding cast of characters – the sleazy bar owner, the dysfunctional folk-record producer, the mumbling beat poet, the chick who sleeps with too many guys, the kindly abortion doctor, the phony folkies who hope to cash in on their music, the cynical talent manager who knows how to make that happen --  are all based on real types of the period. 

What’s missing is the spirit – the electric atmosphere that made the Village a magnet for every kind of artistic rebel.   Llewyn is a loser, a self-absorbed artist, easily discouraged by failure.  Dave Van Ronk was a musical genius and an indomitable force on the folk music scene.  He never made money from it, but he never quit, and he never quit because he loved the material so completely that he made it his own, his own identity.  To watch and hear him perform for small change in the Gaslight Café was like a religious experience – he hovered over his guitar, savoring notes as he bent them into blues, croaking out the old complaints in his untrained, roughed-up but gentle high tenor voice.   Here was a man in love with an America that had practically disappeared in the militarized, commercialized and sanitized world of the forties and fifties.  In love, and able to express it in songs he’d copied and adapted from obscure field recordings.   And not about to sell it out, or give it up, no matter what. 


That was the spirit that had infected young Bob Dylan, when he arrived from Minnesota.   He tells it in his autobiographical book “Chronicles:” Immersed in folk music, he writes, “I had already landed in a parallel universe, with more archaic principles and values…   A culture with outlaw women, super thugs, demon lovers and gospel truths …. Stagger Lees, Pretty Pollys and John Henrys….   I felt right at home in this mythical realm made up not with individuals so much as archetypes .. metaphysical in shape, each rugged soul filled with natural knowing and inner wisdom.”

What a difference from the mythical realm of the Coen brothers, a fictional America that is conventional on the surface, but underneath seething with anger and despair, ruled by lies, sadism, contempt and irrational violence.  It is that realm that the brothers now superimpose on Greenwich Village, 1961, robbing it of its historical importance as a turning point for America.   In their history, a poor artist like Llewyn is rejected by a heartless machine that trashes the authentic world of folk music and turns it into a product to be sold.

That happened, of course.  But here’s what else happened:  Dave Van Ronk kept playing his music through the sixties, the seventies, the eighties and the nineties, until he was a beloved elder statesman, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.”  Bob Dylan took his parallel universe and turned it into an imaginative realm that grips us to this day, never departing from his mythical American archetypes.  

And here’s a whole other picture, if you like:  for the perfect antidote to the Coens, see “The Power of Song,” the 2007 documentary about Village folk-singer Pete Seeger, who discovered in folk music his own template of an alternate America.  Seeger used music as his sword and shield, recruiting peaceful armies to battle against McCarthyism, Jim Crow, the war in Vietnam, poisoning of the Hudson River, and more.   And he won those battles. 

The Coen brothers will have none of that.  Indeed they go to gratuitous lengths to reinforce their image of the folk-singer as loser.  In a revealing interview, they say they wanted to begin the movie with a scene of a folk-singer getting beaten up in an alley.  But then they had to deal with the question, “why would anyone beat up a folk singer?”  Good question, but they manage to come up with an unlikely plot device to justify a scene that looks like "The Godfather."  Even more gratuitously, they invent a character whose specific function is, in Joel Coen’s words, “to take the piss out of folk music .. to send it up.”   John Goodman plays the role of an obese, drug-addicted, venomous jazz musician who hates folk music.  As far as I know this character is not based on anything in the real world, just an artifact from the Coens’ mythical realm. 

O Brothers, where art thou? 

-- Copyright 2014 by Tom Phillips