© 2014 by James Clark
Two folksingers, Jean and Llewyn, at a time (1961) and place (Greenwich Village) supposedly welcoming to their calling, are in a coffee house discussing her imminent abortion. She’s married to Jim and theirs is a musical partnership beginning to be noticed for their undemanding lyricism. Llewyn, on the other hand, was partnered with Mike Timlin (not, perhaps, a successful baseball relief pitcher), until the latter committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. That defunct duo’s one and only album, “If We Had Wings,” was not without generous hooks and telling harmonies. Of late Llewyn’s been a soloist, and Jean, who tells him a bit earlier, “Fuck you, you asshole! Everything you touch turns to shit! I miss Mike!” [Perhaps he was the reliever, picking up the starter prone to losing his stuff], asks, “Do you ever think about the future?” Llewyn calmly retorts that her notion of progress being the suburbs and kids (unequivocally from Jim) is not for him. “It’s a little careerist and a little sad.
It’s, as noticed, 1961, and, across town, Holly Golightly, in the film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, lives with her ginger cat (“no name slob”). She maintains, “We [namely, she and No Name] belong to nobody…” and, “Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of…” She finds that a visit to the jewellery emporium, Tiffany, always picks her up with its “quiet and proudness.” Llewyn sponges off of (among many others) Mike’s parents, Upper West Side academics. On one occasion he comes by (dropping off their ginger cat which he had carried, lost and then hunted for around town after having it locked out of their place) as they are getting started with a dinner party involving a few PhDs—among them an Early Music expert.
The object of Jean’s non-precious disapproval loses what concentration he had that day, in feeling like a rude alien amongst a clutch of erudite and tenured intellectuals who also manage polite, even gentle, attentiveness to a species seldom factored into their lively scope. (He begins his vertigo by feigning incredulity at a young couple’s Chinese-Jewish compound name for their young child.) Foremost in that off-putting vein of mastery and affection (but not deriving from Tiffany and Company), are Mike’s parents, unfailingly, liberally generous toward their son’s former musical colleague and soul-mate. The Dad, demonstrating professorial skill in impromptu drama to leave the guests with a bracing memory, urges Llewyn to give them a song (being transient, he always totes his guitar). The scruffy crasher shows real discomfort about this spate of ethnology, prompting the Mom to remonstrate quietly, “I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul!” Feeling a shortage of “proudness” (not at all remedied by cracking to the studiously motionless member of Musica Antiqua, “This should interest you. It’s one of my early ones”), he begins to give them the lost duo’s title song from its album, in the form of “Fare Thee Well” (Dink’s Song). And promptly Mike’s Mom takes his part in the harmonizing, which completely derails the performance. “Why did you do that?” he asks threateningly, looking for levelling the playing field of expertise, a manoeuvre Mike the Fireman would have often carried off without beaning anyone. “Fuck Mike’s part!” Llewyn (a bit like O Brother’s Baby Face telling off the robbery victims) priggishly declares, “I do that for a living! I’m a fuckin’ professional! It’s my fuckin’ job! It’s not a fuckin’ party game!” That barrage of careerist spleen sends hitherto sanguine Mom into hysterics, punctuated by her returning from the bedroom, where she and the cat had retreated, and yelling, “That’s not our cat! Where’s his scrotum, Llewyn?” (At which he’s run off, with the female ginger cat hurled in his face.)
As you see, Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) is another of the Coens’ startling air shows. (Or, to stick with the baseball metaphor, they remind one of those skinny young closers, like Brandon League when he was a Blue Jay) who routinely get up to around 100 mph.) That said, the movie we’re moving in on is so much more than predictably (hittably) flashy. We can begin to see what’s bothering them if we have an eye or, better still, an ear, for the mission this self-assertive musical protagonist attempts to bring to life. The morning he wakes up at Mike’s parents’ apartment, the ginger cat sitting purring on his chest, Llewyn goes on to play the disc he and Mike cut and, though banal and ragged events obtrude (scrambling eggs, and the cat’s being locked out with him), their close and true harmony in a minor key, over muffled thundering guitar work, produces a tremor and gives us flight, just as the girls did on the Old Timey radio station, in O Brother, doing “I’ll Fly Away.”
The lyrics they choose to retain sidestep the plunge to raunchy, goofy vulgarity which the full traditional text provides, in favor of a stripped down (and details-slurred) platform for displaying the haunting uncanniness of modern sensibility. This mining of the frisson of impasse hangs out there, in ether hallowed by performers not merely as good as dead, but, in the case of the rescuer, actually dead. And that striking tenuousness of this golden moment richly informs the gritty doggedness of Llewyn’s profferment of his musical powers.
As he staggers through a week or so of joyless expression of the soul, our anti-hero keeps the faith in that inaugural recording contract, not by blowing us away with awesome stuff (Mike’s specialty –begging the question, Why did he retire early?), but by exuding the sense of some huge and arcane superiority while in fact peppered by huge, continual dismissal and embarrassment. He’s at a hotbed of folk soulfulness, the Gaslight Cafe, and a young novice onstage alerts the audience that a major force of the magic is amongst them, that bringing Llewyn to cry out, “I don’t have my guitar!” But in fact the major force being beckoned was the “intact” duo, Jim and Jean, who had allowed the earnest young rookie to sleep on their couch while Llewyn (and the cat) slept on the floor. While that pop-up trio simpers through a version of “500 Miles” which verges on Mouseketeer territory (the singer/actor playing Jim, Justin Timberlake, in fact having been a regular in the show’s early 1990’s incarnation of the realm of Annette; Jean is played by Cary Mulligan, dimple-cute, like the early star)—“I can’t go home thisaway…”—and yet unlocks some doors (even if bordering on golf courses), the man without a guitar glumly withstands loneliness at the top. He does in fact display disaffected superiority everywhere he goes. He tells his sister, Joy (as joyless as she is consistent), raising a family at their parents’ former home in Queens, “I might go back to the Merchant Marine and just exist.” She chafes, “Exist… Is that what you think of life outside show biz?” At the film’s end (Llewyn having flubbed entry into life at sea) he’s onstage at the Gaslight and his performance of the motif, “If I had wings like Noah’s dove/ I’d fly up the river to the one I love/ Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well…” comprises a heartbreaking compound of focus and distraction. The song, as arranged (probably by Mike) was to embrace the melancholy of irrevocable impasse; but, crucially, without self-pity. That night the singer’s devastated options introduce a register of rant into proceedings the celestial disinterestedness of which stage a largely futile rally. At the song’s end there is warm applause—more, one would guess for the exposure of melodramatic, bathetic pain, than for the true, disinterested heart of the effort. The night before, he had loudly ridiculed a shy middle-aged lady onstage who attempted, with a variant of a harp (a flying machine), to fill the room with Appalachian piety. After the choppy seas of his fishing (onstage) for that elusive gold that sets him apart, the lady’s “husband” beats him up—“My wife up there, cryin’”—in the alley by the Gaslight (light full of hot air). As he lies there, watching his assailant’s departure, he musters a little smile and says, “Adieu!” A trace of disinterested gold; but far from the goldmine he could almost taste.
Funnily enough, Llewyn is perhaps most incisively a rare figure in the enactment of a type of caring which a wide range of the population can palpably (if incompletely) appreciate. His being inadvertently affixed to two ginger tabbies (one of which he takes as far as the outskirts of Chicago) reveals him to be desperately committed to their survival, if not thriving. You could say the intensity of this relationship would boil down to not wanting to preside over the second premature demise in Mike’s family. Or you could also argue that those ragamuffins closely parallel his own precarious rootlessness (the era of the Stray Cats being some decades ahead). But the way he holds and soothes them (and the way they clearly love him), in noisy subway cars and in that car ride to the Windy City, suggests he, almost subliminally, takes them for icons of sorts, conduits to the grace his own carnality consistently betrays. The enigmatic, splenetic old drug addict and jazz devotee, having commissioned Llewyn as a driver for the entry to the Second City, sneers, “Grown man with a cat… folk singer with a cat…”[along with, “Folk songs! Thought you said you were a musician!”]. When Llewyn has to leave that companion in ditching the OD’d know-it-all, he has a moment of feeling sick. Then, in the hitched ride back to New York, the supposed Folk City, driving in the rain on no sleep, he damages another ginger cat, frantically parks and arrives back at the scene in time to see it limping into the bush. On returning to Queens he tells his senile father, “Takin’ off, Pop. Won’t see you for a while. Shippin’ out… try somethin’ new…somethin’ old…” He plays a number his father used to like—a sea shanty (definitely redolent of somethin’ old)—and at its end he says, exhaustedly, “Wow,” on seeing his father’s dead, angry face. He tells an attendant at the Home, “He needs to be cleaned.” Then, to his sister at the homestead, he says, “I’m tired. Dad’s great. I can see what I have to look forward to…”
Within this feline motif the Coens have brilliantly brought onboard Truman Capote, the philosophical hooker and her ginger cat. That Holly the movie figure ends up (unlike the Holly in the novella) embracing with the most slender of threads the rain-soaked cat, a lover and Moon River gives us pause about Llewyn. And that he ends up with the most slender of threads gives us pause about Holly. She has, nonetheless, pithily sent a couple of heads up, to Llewyn and to us: “If you let yourself love a wild thing, you’ll end up looking at the sky;” and, “I don’t want to own anything until I’ve found the place where me and things belong together.” (The main chauffeur on that marathon highway flight to Chicago is one “Johnny 5,” who resembles mass murderer, Richard Hickock, so closely delineated in Capote’s In Cold Blood. He’s busted on a parking infraction before racking up murder #5. As a temporary partner to this beat poet [“on the road”] and resentful show-biz also-ran, like his boss, our resentful [quite pathological with the rural lady at the Gaslight] protagonist comes briefly into the orbit of Capote’s transient psychopaths.)
What with Audrey being a real-life Cinderella and Capote being one of the most egregious celebrity hounds on record, we find ourselves ready to take the measure of the situation room these observations have carried us to. We can introduce the mainspring of this plane crash by picking up Llewyn’s trail after abandoning the tabby in the parked car with the self-medicated jazz spokesman. The excruciatingly distracted musician comes to a snowy Chicago and its folkie shrine, The Gate of Horn (a term by which Homer, in the Odyssey, looks into the difference between true and false dreams). There he auditions for the owner, a shrewd but empathetic insider, named, Budd Grossman. Having had no sleep and been confined to the mobile psych ward of Johnny 5’s wheelhouse (making him part of a short-lived duo recalling Mike’s going to that makeshift gallows, and Llewyn’s own hostility), the ambitious protagonist (perhaps tiredly cowed by the comparative grandeur of the establishment and perhaps finding Jean’s dilemma [and that of another woman he more definitely impregnated] momentarily overwhelming) chooses to display his commercial viability by performing the least marketable song in his repertoire, a medieval ballad about “The Death of Queen Jane” (not quite the kind of flesh creeping mawkishness allowed to kill itself in the form of the young duo by the banks of the Seine in Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, but being blindsided along the same lines of that “Early Music” preciousness one of Mike’s parents’ guests banks on). Here, though, Llewyn invests it with professional skill and his standard reservoir of besieged pride. “King Henry, King Henry, will you do one thing for me?/ Will you open my right side and find my baby/ And find my baby?” The businessman/scholar tells him, without a trace of satisfaction, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He astutely recognizes that Llewyn should ‘get back together” with a more realistic, physically focused partner (like Mike). And he cites Troy (the earnest, deferential [traditional] kid calling on Jim and Jean, and being an army man about to be demobilized), who had introduced this melancholy star-maker’s name to Llewyn, as being able to “connect with people” (a skill that spacey Holly had readily put into practice).
Before they go their separate ways, Llewyn asks the soldier boy, with time spent in Europe, if he’d ever met Elvis. Showing a tiny trace of disdain, Troy avers (pointedly noting that many [misguidedly] have asked that of him) that he’d never met “Private [rightly, he would think, cut down to size] Presley.” By 1961 Elvis was a star headed for astronomical global fame. That Llewyn would care about such blue-collar persuasiveness sets in relief the disarray of his career goals. Though having bought into the researching and solid citizenship of the folk métier, he, being in fact from a blue-collar family (very unlike the middle-class college youngsters comprising the folk music market), is, like Grossman (though at a less resolved and far less satisfied level), not unaware that his refined choices smack of suicide and preclude paths worth exploring. Embodied by actor/singer, Oscar Isaac, his every move exudes painful disdain for a surround of half-measures—an astronomically predominant surround (seemingly only to be reliably countered by wild things like cats). Setting for himself the paradoxical task of effectively touching that self-sparing market, he (without the perhaps more skilful pinpointing, navigational skills of Mike) is clobbered at every turn. (The beatings he undergoes in the alley at the beginning and end signal that, unlike Audrey’s Holly, he lacks the suppleness of kinetic sensibility to stay afloat in a world history dishing out a dizzying array of oppressively sustained travesties, high and inside.) Inside Llewyn Davis amounts to a fascinating probe of the rigors (a favorite word of the President at that time) entailed in, as Holly Golightly would say, finding “the place where me and things belong together.” But not only that, it goes on to savor the peppery tolerance for such (unfocused) iconoclastic strivings even then, and, by extension, moreso now.
There is a moment and its coda in which the mine field the world has become for Llewyn presents itself with special transparency. In the aftermath of obliquely dissing his sister about the unworthiness of “existing,” when measured against show biz and its promise of stardom (a stuffiness including lecturing her that a disc of him singing as a nine-year-old [which she likes] “ruins the mystique” of a polished pro), he hears from Mike’s dad that he’s to report at once for a recording gig at CBS. Suddenly he’s a different man. The calmly intent VIP enters the flutter zone of one of Elvis’ groupies and we see him pounding into the glass and aluminum record company’s cathedral. “It’s an honor to meet you,” he grovels to the producer. Then, in a sleek studio, he meets up with Jim and another guy, in a cowboy hat, who have decided to call themselves The John Glenn Singers, as germane to the project at hand. (O Brother’s Three Stooges opted for The Soggy Bottom Boys, along a similar sightline of being ready to do anything for a few bucks. That would introduce Holly’s far more discerning prostitution.) The producer on the other side of the glass wall is guardedly bullish about what is transpiring—a middle management hired hand hoping to climb the corporate ladder, in marked contrast to the owner/operator of WEZY radio, whose ecstasies about the sparks emitted by the Stooges are heartfelt. (Add to this the fact that CBS is the producer of this film, and we’re looking at crosshairs not only trained on music biz, but movie biz.) Jim quickly explains to Llewyn the chord patterns of the song; and all it takes is one time through, to achieve the desired result, the desired result being what is known as a “novelty” number to assuage a big market for what is widely understood as “feel good.” “Please, Mr. Kennedy…” the singers yelp (occupying the role of a reluctant astronaut), “…I’m not planning to be a hero!/ Please, Mr. Kennedy, I don’t wanna go to outer space!” (That this jingle is based upon an earlier (1960) “novelty” on the theme of, “Please, Mr. Custer, I don’t wanna go,” sharpens the sense of massacre the players have signed up for.) When the dust settles, Llewyn asks, as if being overtaken by food poisoning, “Who wrote this?” Jim, smiling that Father Knows Best smile, admits, I did!” Llewyn desperately goes on (as did the Soggy Bottom Boys) to take a quick ($200) pittance (waiving any royalties), from an Organization Man happy to have one more proof of his own smarts to bring to the weekly review.
The third guitarist, Al Cody, has a Johnny Cash timbre that adds to that iota of spiky musicality the pros manage to ice upon an indigestible stupidity. Crashing at Al’s prior to teaming up with the inscrutable and forgettable Johnny 5, Llewyn finds a box full of Al’s unsellable first and only discs, bearing the “feel bad” title, “Five and Twenty Questions.” Just prior to going there, he drops by his and Mike’s label. This financier, whom we saw before, in an office out of the era of Scrooge, pretending there was not a penny forthcoming from sales (and whom Llewyn denounced as a bluffer), is now absent. His secretary, bringing to mind a grandmother-vampire, explains the absence with, “He’s at a funeral…He likes funerals…” Then she drags out a coffin-like box of “Yours and Mikie’s’” beyond-remaindering, unsellable first and only discs. The title on the cover, “If We Had Wings,” directs our attention to the barely mobile crone. “Better take them,” she croaks, “before I throw them out.”
Mike’s parents easily forgive his recent rudeness (and their real pet has made it home on his own). Jean, in her last encounter with him, hearing him declare he’s going to sea, regards him with warm bemusement. She tells him she’s secured an unprecedented second-time-in-the-same-month gig for him, at the Gaslight. The owner of that club, whom he punched during the fracas raised by his vicious outburst against the Appalachian lady, welcomes him back. None of these gestures, however, alters in the slightest that implosion which makes necessary that any effort to comprehend Llewyn’s situation be about his “inside,” his having made his stand from the point of view of an aggrieved victim of a multifarious refusal to harmonize with his nebulous vision of mysterious “outer space” as captured, momentarily, by factors of accomplished song. Hence his sign-off for each performance: “It’s not old. It’s not new. It’s called folk music.” That mantra is more an invocation for himself to produce dynamic verities that have never had their moment in the sun. Taking that faint starriness with utmost seriousness, he not only demonstrates an imperative to subject himself to a painful vigil on behalf of lucidity putting to shame mainstream securement, but he puts in motion premature musical dedications to that shrine as most in need of fostering. Though his efforts meet nothing but bemusement, indifference, incomprehension and hostility, he doggedly and quite blindly persists in a métier presuming a rich correspondence to a unifying force of creativity millions of light years away from the mainstream and its tappable markets. As his little prayer in the form of an authoritative definition of folk music brings him forward, he has replaced comprehension with wishful thinking. Custer, indeed. Operating from a patchwork premise to the effect, “If it’s true, it must predominate,” Llewyn allows himself to run with delusions of grandeur. “If it’s true, it must make me rich and famous.” But our planet and our universe don’t speak that language.
And there is the nightmare plunge toward Chicago to show us–even if it’s beyond Llewyn’s fathoming—a hard core hatred calling the shots. A crippled hulk, needing two canes (and, usually, other sets of hands) to give any semblance of mobility, has been put in touch with Llewyn as someone needing a lift. Soon after they get on the turnpike, it is clear that this is a lost highway, a form of imprisonment determined by desperation. As mentioned, the one being chauffeured resents and ridicules the presence of that lithe and self-confident and loving ginger cat and his companion, readily targeted as arch-enemies of orthodox ways feeling unaccustomed dismissal (while in fact one of the newcomers is way too orthodox). (Holly had a much more dangerous thing going, and she brought it into view in telling us [on the subject of her ginger cat], “We don’t belong to each other: he’s an independent and so am I.”) The valet-requiring oracle, on hearing Llewyn, rather defiant and rather brittle, declare his grand passion for folk songs, fires off the invidious comparison of folk’s threadbare technical toolbox as against the lush equipment in the service of jazz. On hearing of his former partner’s suicide at the George Washington Bridge (up where Mike’s parents live), the man with all the answers sophistically reproves the deceased artist’s choice of making such an eccentric statement when he could have availed himself of the far more impressive, venerable and famous Brooklyn Bridge.
Actor, John Goodman, here as the jazzman, is one of several casting godsends the Coens have unearthed through the years, and, in the matter at hand, his physical bulk (almost resembling a sideshow freak) back there in Johnny 5’s menacing vehicle, combined with engrossing wit and expressive aggression constitutes a rare and telling embodiment of the reflective violence at the heart of Inside Llewyn Davis. The hectoring tone he emits on the order of the odoriferous steel mills at Gary, Indiana, on the portal of Chicago carries with it advantages of subscription to the massively popular old and impertinent, against which Llewyn (desperate for cash infusion) has no effective response. On a driving shift and being frequently prodded by one of Goodman’s canes, he tells him he’s trying to figure out how far up his ass that cane could go. Instantly, his enemy cites his own mastery of “black arts,” which would supposedly kill the driver if he chose to do so. Always a sure fix; but our protagonist vividly, if confusedly, also absorbs such majoritarian simplism to the point of self-poisoning. (Would that be germane to Mike’s despair?) More to this warfare and its weaponry, the boss-man OD’s in a family restaurant washroom and, as carried back to the car to sleep it off, his pit-bull energies fall into abeyance. As the drive to Second City peters out, Llewyn sadly leaves his ginger soul-mate, who has no more hope of bringing motion to the unconscious dead weight in the back than the singer has with his market of risk-averse music consumers.
Unlike the cat, however, Llewyn is nowhere near his potential. Amidst this period of revving up for awards to “Best Picture,” the Coens bring to us a thrilling but hard to comprehend entry. Their deft and clear-eyed engagement of a cosmic dilemma does not fit well within a scrum of careerist head-banging. What it offers, whether accepted or not, is a treasure of the too-long-overlooked depths making the world go round. Jean bitches, “Explain the cat!”—an instance of the eruption of irony by which the screenplay brings to bear an omnipresent gulf between crude and creative motion (otherwise instilled by Llewyn’s body language violated by a host of presumptuous thugs, skilled in wrapping themselves in trappings of rational, humane civilization). One figure who gives short shrift to masking his intolerance is the troll at the alley by the Gaslight, always quick with the gambit, “Had to open your big mouth, didn’t you, Funny Boy? It wasn’t your show!” Llewyn always maintains that the outcome is up for grabs—“It’s not the Opera, you numbskull!” But the stalker silences him with punches and kicks, and leaves with the prissy denunciation, “I’m getting out of this cesspool!” During the pummelling near the end, the stranger claims that the woman, making Llewyn’s flesh crawl and pushing him in the direction of his own intolerance, is his wife. But perhaps more to the point of this hit and run is the club owner’s account of the healthy attendance figures for the appearances of Jim and Jean. “Half the guys come because they want to fuck Jane. And half the guys come because they want to fuck Jim!” (Averring that he himself has recently fucked Jean, the club owner, Pappi, brings some clarity to the unprecedented break coming Llewyn’s way; and, moreover, we now see that, behind that hissy fit about her pregnancy problem, she well might have been disconcerted by the whole Serendipity Singers.) While leaving a message with Mike’s dad’s secretary to buy time as he tries to find the runaway cat (Ulysses), the secretary misspeaks, “Llewyn is the cat…” But in fact he is indeed more cat, in his mixed-up heart, than he is a species like Jean and the sadist in the alley.
Let’s see if we can tease away from the non-stop emotional violence battering Llewyn/Ulysses (and the lethal physical grind he subjects himself to) a structure of action for not merely surviving (“existing”) but having that good time he knows to be out there calling to him. He and Mike had chosen for their debut (and finale) album title song, “If We Had Wings,” by way of a lament about the seeming impossibility of consummate panache. Llewyn’s rejoinder to Jean’s (come to think of it, rather wooden) tirade included the sense of her domestic aspirations being “a little square.” That manoeuvre traces to the duo’s in fact having “wings,” being conversant with a dynamic from the perspective of which to find the mainstream vastly defective, dangerously pedestrian. Another of those double entendres involves Llewyn trying to receive some monies from his new (and solo) album, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” His recording producer and booking agent, mole-lie and high-strung, as befits a life-long embezzler, claims there have been no sales at all—“People need time to get to know you as a solo act” Llewyn argues—with as much [in his case, accidental] spin on the delivery as Timlin would dish out—“It’s not a big re-education.” Underestimating, in that vein, the difficulty of clearing the square, implies that “a big re-education” (a big re-alignment of initiatives pertaining to “squares”) constitutes unfinished (actually barely started) business for anyone like Llewyn (a soloist more solitary than he dares to realize).
Holly can see the long-term suspense she’s booked into, as an “independent.” Llewyn has allowed his love for creativity to wash over to humankind, come what may—a step which the hard knocks intrinsic to the protagonist’s “inside” strongly posit as a big misstep. The racist volleys streaming from the inert jazz dinosaur—his names, Roland Turner, implying much more motion than actually mustered—serve to set in relief a reflexive hatred of “winging” (Turner asks if he’s gay), demanding far more trenchant and skeptical deployment of creative love. Llewyn’s eyes are a study of keeping a distance, as Budd praises Troy. But in his rather stuffy refusal to consider becoming a member of a trio which the Gate-of-Horn attendant was putting together, was Llewyn allowing his disdain (more easily discharged toward mercenary but cognizant Budd than the pathological jazzman) and vanity to shut down an avenue worth exploring? Similarly, the long-suffering parents of Mike Timlin—namely, the Gorfeins (Fairchilds)—for all their squareness, were far from unmindful of reflective striving. Could he not sustain an independent scrutiny of possibilities—solo and ensemble—while treating them as more than hoteliers? Telling Mike’s Mom, the one person showing real enthusiasm for his music, “Fuck Mike’s part!” would seem to be inattentive at best.
But Llewyn, as we get further inside his sensibility, is, in his far more gentle way, as addicted to the pursuit of his own majesty as Turner is. Inside Llewyn Davis gives us much to ponder. A bit of gold-dusting upon this platinum dazzler of a movie entails the close, multifarious inspection of the crippling disease of needing to find and hold fast to a state of one’s being a celebrity. At the end of his strident rendition of “If I Had Wings,” our would-be merchant marine tells his audience, before it bursts into generous but not Dead-Head-level applause, “That’s all I have…” The careful cinematic revelations here would tend to make that a questionable statement. Llewyn is indeed finished as a professional musician. He might even follow in Mike’s footsteps. But he, like all of us, is free to be bigger than a celebrity. (Mike Timlin, Audrey, Elvis and even the squawking re-education-resistant Bob Dylan, who follows upon Llewyn’s last gig, are bound to disappear. Mike’s parents’ guest’s Early Music and even Homer are far from immortal (though the role of academic preservation increases the drama). This film’s last gift would be the paradoxical irony of the deliverers of this marvellous, entirely cinematic challenge of creativity being themselves show-biz celebrities. Their striving for innovative transparency is clearly mindful of the persuasive powers of a glamorous international cause celebre. Perhaps like the emergence and experience of good wine, the elation of attracting attention by way of something rare might not be entirely sterile. But the film’s ability to leave us with consideration of creativity beyond creative products is a most thrilling and chilling instance of “re-education.”