Anatomy of a Scene: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA/France 2013)

Introduction to Anatomy of a Scene Series

I’ve been thinking that I might try writing some more non-review things out here, so here is the first crack at a new concept, which I am calling “Anatomy of a Scene” as an extremely pretentious reference to Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger, USA 1959) (he said, as if there were non-pretentious references to 54-year-old movies).

The basic idea is that I’m going to just write about one scene and what everything in it means, and how it is either just a great scene or an exemplar of the entire film. Since I can easily tell from the traffic data that WordPress provides that older films are essentially blog-killers, I thought I would introduce this “series” with a recent film, Inside Llewyn Davis. I do feel I should note that the film is not actually in front of me as I write this but rather it has to come from memory. (That’s not ideal, obviously, but like I said older films are traffic-killers!) I did watch the film in theaters twice, so hopefully my memory doesn’t get any of it actually wrong, but I cannot guarantee that. If something is wrong, by all means mention it in the comments.

Setting the Stage

I have already reviewed Inside Llewyn Davis on the blog, but here is essentially the story up to the scene I am discussing: Llewyn Davis is a struggling folk musician in Greenwich Village in 1961. He was slightly more successful in a duo with Mike Timlin, but Timlin’s suicide left him an angry, embittered solo folk act in a world of harmonic, inoffensive groups and robotic, gentle singers. He alienates his friends with his self-centered “artistic temperament” so that he is eventually driven to tag along with two old jazz musicians on a car trip to Chicago to take one last shot and finding management with Bud Grossman, owner of the Gate of Horn club. Importantly for this scene, his friends Jim and Jean have met a new up-and-coming solo folk singer in the robotically inoffensive army veteran Troy Nelson, who has a music career lined up for when his enlistment ends in the near future. Davis arrives at the Gate of Horn too early for Grossman but waits and then meets with him only to discover that his crooked manager, unsurprisingly, never sent Grossman his new solo album, Inside Llewyn Davis, as he promised to do. Grossman asks Davis to “play me something from inside Llewyn Davis,” and it’s clear that those last three words do not mean the album.

The Scene

Davis and Grossman enter on a very long shot of the stage area of the Gate of Horn. The shot is from a balcony far above, showing us a cavernous, very dark auditorium with a shaft of bright light essentially pointing down at one table near the back. The room has a smoky, hazy look that not only evokes the image of the time but also emphasizes the almost dream-like feeling this pilgrimage has had for Davis as he takes one last stab at staying in the music industry. The dark backdrop with such a bright, high-contrast shaft of light lends the auditorium an almost religious quality, as though Davis is seeking his final salvation (which, of course, he is).

We cut to the two men arriving at the table. Grossman, walking with the confident air of the guy who actually owns the place, takes a chair down off the table and sits, facing the stage. Davis crosses in front of Grossman to take down the other chair and sit in front of him, taking out his guitar and briefly checking its tuning (but not actually having to adjust any of it, since the guitars in this film are magically always in tune). Davis has certainly never had any question of his own musical abilities throughout the film, but this moment is essentially the only time we see some doubt creep into his mind: Oscar Isaac (Davis) walks tightly, like a man who is concerned where his every footfall lands and what it will mean to the other person in the room, and then he almost starts playing before thinking better of it and waiting a second, indecisive about the start. I have played guitar for about 13 years, and I can certainly recognize that behavior, because it’s how I feel anytime I play and anyone even might be able to hear me, but it’s out of character for an egomaniac like Llewyn Davis.

But then he starts to play, and the nerves drop away quickly, so much so that his performance is absolutely dripping with ego. Not only is he performing without a hint of worry, but he is continuously looking over at Grossman with a canary-eating grin, certain that he is impressing the old manager, who looks back completely impassively throughout. He even decides to deliver the ending a cappella, so overflowing with pride in his own voice is he. And for good reason: it is, like all of Davis’s performances in the film, essentially pitch perfect from start to finish.

He finishes and looks at Grossman, certain that he’s won the management that will turn his career around. And then Grossman responds, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Shocked and devastated but desperate enough to want to hear what Grossman has to say, he listens further: Davis is certainly “no frontman, that’s for sure,” but Grossman is putting together a trio of two guys and a girl and hasn’t filled the last slot yet, so would Davis be willing to cut some of his facial hair and be a sideman there? No. “I don’t have what, say, Troy Nelson has.” No, “he connects with people.” Davis explains that he used to have a partner. Grossman responds, “That makes sense. My advice? Get back together.”

Davis stares back angrily and says, “That’s very good advice.” This exchange is executed with typical back-and-forth medium shots of the two actors, but the Coens and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel add an extra element, shooting Davis straight on and Grossman from slightly lower. It’s a clear but subtle enough effect, making Grossman clearly the more powerful member of the conversation, even though Davis is the protagonist and the one doing and saying interesting things. It emphasizes what Davis is feeling at the moment, essentially putting us in his shows as he faces this stunning rejection.

Aftermath

After this brilliant scene, we are left with one clear question: Why was Davis, so clearly such a talent, rejected?

First, look at what happens before he plays. A confident performer wouldn’t sit down next to Grossman when the stage is about thirty feet away and available.

Then, he’s asked to play something from inside himself and what does he actually play? A traditional English folktale about a C-section that results in the mother’s death. We already know who Davis is at this point, and it’s not anything like this song. He’s a cynical, angry, almost brutish artist who scowls on anything that receives popular attention. And yet he plays a mawkish ballad as his audition. The idea that Davis’s unwillingness to look inside himself for his music is a theme throughout the film, most clearly referenced by the title and Bob Dylan’s arrival at the end, Dylan of course being someone who plays the exact kind of music that Davis should be playing, if he were only willing.

Further, we have already seen some examples of what kind of music actually will sell in this world: Troy Nelson is so robotic that Davis asks him if he has to “plug himself in” somewhere, but his simple-minded inoffensiveness draws him a favorable crowd and, as Grossman says, allows him to “connect with people.” Jim and Jean always draw a crowd because of their good looks, which is clear enough even before Pappi outright says it later on. Jim writes a guaranteed hit with a silly little topical novelty song about the silly idea of sending people into space. Davis’s hardcore, rough-edged, cynical take on traditional folk music is nowhere to be found in any of these examples, and indeed is the antithesis of what makes those examples popular.

There is even an example in the two different performances we get of “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song)”: The recorded version from Davis and Timlin is a country jaunt that’s as much about love as the loss of it, driven by a two-man harmony. In contrast, Davis’s solo performance is a raw, spare outpouring of pain and loss. His performance is powerful but receives no more than polite applause from the audience and a comment from Pappi that “you and Mikey used to do that song,” intimating that he prefers the duo performance.

The film is essentially about Llewyn Davis as a character, and he is never more clearly defined than in this meeting. His ego, his talent, and his failures are all obvious in this scene. Without seeing another moment in the film, one could understand what it’s about quite clearly just from this scene. That’s why this scene is so great, and such a great example of why this film is so great.

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