Friday, December 20, 2013

and ... a cat

The thing about folk music - which, for present purposes, may be defined as "what people with guitars sang in Greenwich Village clubs in the early 60s" - is that it's the only type of music that I enjoy listening to irrespective of its quality. This is part of what I liked about the movie A Mighty Wind. I enjoyed the songs, even though it was part of the movie's point that none of the songs were really any good.

Now we have Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers movie set in the heyday of the same folksinging milieu. Without the appeal of the music, I might not have found it very rewarding watching. Musically, though, it's a treat. There's at least half a dozen songs heard in full or nearly in full, as well as fragments of several others. Llewyn Davis's tragedy is that he's not a particularly outstanding or successful folk singer, but he's good enough - certainly better than the characters in A Mighty Wind - and I enjoyed listening to him and the avatars of the likes of Tom Paxton, Peter Paul & Mary, and the Clancy Brothers who also get a musical say in this film.

Here's a clip of perhaps the least typical song in it. Llewyn gets an emergency request from his friend Jim Berkey to perform as a substitute in a recording session of a novelty song at a big-name label, so he goes in and this is what he gets. Here's Oscar Isaac as Llewyn [think Dave Van Ronk] ("Look, I'm happy for the gig, but who ... who wrote this?"), Justin Timberlake (!) as Jim [think Jim Glover or Paul Clayton] ("I did"), and Adam Driver as Al Cody [think Ramblin' Jack Elliott] ("Uh-oh!") in "Please Mr. Kennedy", Take One:

Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." Inside Llewyn Davis, it's also dark. This is a bleak movie without much plot. Llewyn wanders around, sleeping on the couches of long-suffering friends and people he just met, trying and failing to get his career running, not quite good enough to get the magic, but it's evident that his bad or hasty decisions are making much, though not all, of his own bad luck. He's a burden on everyone who knows him, but only the two women closest to him seem seriously exasperated by him. They're both grumpy and caustic throughout the movie, termagants enough to raise suspicions of authorial misogyny. If you're sensitive to that, this might not be the movie for you.

Or you might read it as funny. There's a lot of dark humor in this movie, as much as in many previous Coen brothers movies. The humor mixes with the bleakness rather as in Fargo, but is far more successful at coming out because Inside Llewyn Davis lacks Fargo's element of horror. I could not laugh at Fargo, and shudder at the idea of anyone doing so, but this one provokes a wry smile at least. Unlike the previous Coen musical film, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, this one is not stylized in its storytelling, but entirely naturalistic, though it also has its striking pieces of symbolism.

And ... a cat.

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