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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Movie Review: “Inside Llewyn Davis” (Ethan Coen/Joel Coen, USA/France 2013)

The Coen brothers have become some of the most highly-praised and biggest name filmmakers in the world, with their every release greeted with the same fervor that names like Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Woody Allen once received in the past. And, rather shockingly, they have generally lived up to the hype, producing an excellent body of work that includes few true failures, even if they have not always been as good as, say, Barton Fink (USA/UK 1991) or Blood Simple. (USA 1984). Even by the Coens’ lofty standards, Inside Llewyn Davis has been highly praised, so my expectations were high. As has happened a shocking amount of the time this year, the film really lived up to the hype.

This film purports to spend a few days in the life of Llewyn Davis, a folk singer in 1961 who is barely hanging on to the periphery of the Greenwich Village music scene while seemingly everyone around him is finding ways to success. He’s an angry, self-righteous musician, the sort of “artist” whose face turns to a disapproving scowl as soon as an audience is willing to sing along with a song and subsists only on his friends’ largesse. He’s really an archetypical struggling artist, pushing away everyone who tries to help him, insulting the types of acts that people actually enjoy, and ignoring when the future of music is practically sharing the stage with him because he is so enveloped in his own solipsistic world.

And that selfish view of the world is at the center of Inside Llewyn Davis, a film that really shares its central point with what David Chase was telling us in The Sopranos: people are (or at least Llewyn Davis is) too selfish, proud, and lazy to change, even when the necessary changes are standing right in front of them.

The details of the plot that unfolds around Llewyn Davis really aren’t important for a film that is so much about character development, with the entire plot really being meant as nothing more than a device to elucidate his character. He was part of a duo with Mike Timlin, who would go on to be a pretty good journeyman major league reliever, until Timlin’s suicide left our irascible central character as a reeling solo act playing traditional folk music in a world that only seems to want sweet group harmonies. He isn’t making it on his own, but his ego won’t permit sublimating himself to a group even when he’s given the opportunity, whether through being a part of the hastily-arranged John Glenn Singers recording a simple novelty song or being asked to join a new trio playing the same kind of music he tries to play on his own. He’s not failing for a lack of talent; he’s failing because the world seemingly doesn’t want an act like him.

Only, the world does want a solo folk act, as the film’s incredible ending tells us. Bob Dylan arrives on stage, reminding us that a solo folk singer was just about to become one of the biggest stars in music history. All of the anger and cynicism Llewyn Davis feels in his life could seemingly, if channeled into original music, turn him into the same kind of star, but he’s too busy trying to keep people from entering his world uninvited to notice. While Dylan is on stage changing the world, he’s getting beaten up in an alley for insulting a poor older woman who had the temerity to play some dull music in front of a drunken Llewyn Davis. (Side note: Davis is actually insulting her because he’s angry to discover that he isn’t alone in getting his friend Jean to have sex with him. Llewyn Davis considers himself to be something special, and the idea that he’s not drives his heckling as much as the music and liquor does.)

The Coens show an excellent grasp of narrative structure, building the entire film as a flashback that we don’t know is a flashback before its Dylan revelation, and more importantly show an excellent focus on their point. Davis is shown again and again to be a man too stuck in a rut and too convinced of his own genius to join the future, and the Coens waste no time in subplots that don’t tell us of that. They also use some of their trademark gallows humor—mostly through their on-screen avatar John Goodman—to tell us that Llewyn only has two possible endings: either he becomes the folk version of drugged- and burned-out jazz musician Roland Turner or he follows his friend Mike by throwing himself off a bridge.

The Coens had to turn to a new cinematographer in Bruno Delbonnel, and it seems that the forced change from Roger Deakins served them well, as Delbonnel provided several striking new looks for the Coens. Given the similarities between them, it would have been tempting for the Coens and Deakins to repeat the sepia-toned look of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (UK/France/USA 2000) for this film, but instead they team with Delbonnel for an interesting combination of looks, ranging from the smoke-filled high-contrast lighting of the clubs Llewyn visits to the cavernous, brightly-lit restaurant where he shares a meal with two traveling jazz musicians in Chicago. And all along the way, we are given visual reminders of Llewyn’s world: the hallways in Greenwich Village are all tiny hallways funneling down to the doorways he wants, forcing him to go where he has always gone, while the restaurant in Chicago is so wide open that his presence is easily lost within it. The Coens and Delbonnel have crafted a special film visually, one that easily surpasses just about anything else in recent memory.

The acting throughout the film is excellent, but the only person with a lot to do is Oscar Isaac, who is spellbinding as Llewyn Davis. Not only is his performance stellar in all of the usual ways and his singing and playing excellent, but the way he infuses Llewyn’s performances with his personality is frankly inspired. Where most singing film parts are praised just on the basis of singing ability, Isaac deserves any plaudits he receives because his performance is fully and completely acting, even though he does prove to be quite an excellent musician. The other standouts are the always-excellent John Goodman, playing the Ghost of Llewyn Davises past as he insults everything Davis plays as inferior to his own style of music and Carey Mulligan (still always Sally Sparrow to me), who turns out to be able to play the angry, selfish-in-her-own-way Jean with a level of realism that she could easily have lacked. Nobody other than Isaac really has a lot to do, but everyone fits well and does what is asked excellently.

And of course the music, supervised by T-Bone Burnett and performed mostly by the actors themselves, is a wonder. There are times when the film loses its way a bit because it is too lost in its music to remember its story, but that’s an understandable mistake to make when you have music this good, and a small mistake in any case. The Coens also made the smart and powerful choice of almost entirely eschewing non-diegetic music, giving us a silence to Llewyn’s non-performing world that befits his feeling about it.

All told, Inside Llewyn Davis is an excellent film. It may be a bit longer than it needs to be because of its fascination with its own music, but it’s excellent in all aspects and undoubtedly worth seeing.