Towards the end of the new Coen Brothers movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, the titular character, a folk singer, plays a song about seafaring for his elderly father, who's in a nursing home and unresponsive to the world around him. After the events of the movie, Llewyn has given up on his chosen career and is taking his farewell of his father before joining the merchant marines, his father's own profession. We know from a previous discussion with his sister that he has a troubled relationship with his father, whom he has contempt for as a non-performer who “just exists.” What we're witnessing, then, is Llewyn's attempt to reconcile with his father and have a moment of connection with him before he leaves. It's significant, too, that he's trying to forge this connection through his art, which he's renouncing. We watch and listen as Llewyn sings the beautiful, moving song, wondering if Llewyn's music will be able to break through their estrangement, through his father's dementia, through the barriers of taste and personality that separate them even as Llewyn is resigning himself to becoming his father. The elderly man's face changes; there appears to be some emotion, some struggle in it, though we can't tell what it means. What will his verdict on the performance be? Then Llewyn's expression changes and he stammers out "Wow," twice, in shock. Jump to the next scene, where we were learn in another conversation between Llewyn and his sister that his father shit himself during the song.
The Sublime and the Scatological
What does this mean? Is it a statement that art is not powerful enough to transcend all of those barriers? Is it the filmmakers' verdict on Llewyn's art? The father's? Is it an absurd juxtaposition of the sublime and the scatological, art and mortality, with no further meaning? A comment on Llewyn's egotism even when he seems to be doing something generous and loving for another person? In any case it seems to be the movie's most succinct proof that Llewyn is incapable of doing what his more successful peers effortlessly do: in the language of Bud Grossman, the Chicago impresario who told him (after another moving performance) that there's no money in his music, he can't “connect with people.” It also literalizes the rancorous metaphor of his friend's girlfriend, who's pregnant with a child who may or may not be Llewyn's, in which Llewyn turns everything he touches "to shit, like King Midas's idiot brother.”
The Coen Brothers make movies that connect with people – both critics and the public – although oddly by concocting protagonists who can't connect with people. Or so I've heard. Actually Inside Llewyn Davis is the first time I've watched a Coen Brothers movie all the way through since Barton Fink (1991). Jonathan Rosenbaum's review of that film, as vitriolic as Jean's attitude to Llewyn, so eviscerated the filmmaking duo for me that it's taken me over 20 years to want to watch another one of their movies. Ironically, Inside Llewyn Davis is Barton Fink revisited, and while it's more artful and less arty than the much earlier film, Rosenbaum's central complaints still apply: that the filmmakers refuse to commit to any side, instead condemning artists and commercial impresarios alike as phonies. If the brothers are fond of anyone at all in Barton Fink, it's John Goodman's psychopathic, pyromaniac “common man,” with his furious refrain, “I'll show you the life of the mind!” But although Goodman seems to have materialized to take revenge on Fink, the intellectual, political playwright, for his condescending delusion that he can write about the lives of ordinary people, one suspects that the brothers are able to get behind him because his nihilistic viewpoint is where their true sympathies lie. In Inside Llewyn Davis, that viewpoint is encapsulated by the encounter between father and son and art and shit in the nursing home.
The viewpoint for which the Coens seem to have the most sympathy in Inside Llewyn Davis, however, is the non-human one of the two identical (except in gender) cats: Ulysses, who starts off Llewyn's adventures by escaping when he leaves the apartment where he's crashed; and the female cat whom Llewyn mistakes for Ulysses, who accompanies him on the trip to Chicago when she's rejected by Ulysses' owners, who is abandoned by him on the highway, hit by him on his way back in a different car, and is last seen hobbling into the snowy woods in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. Nothing too bad is allowed to happen to either astonishingly resilient feline, which somehow makes the movie feel relatively gentle-spirited despite the protagonist's ill-luck and ill-behaviour. The Coens may still have contempt for humanity, but they've found a way to give their movie a heart even so, and it's a relief for the viewer, as for Llewyn, to be able to just worry about the cats rather than about the meaning, if any, of Llewyn's loser life. Cats, after all, don't seem to be troubled by the fact that they just exist.
The Good and the Great
The other big advance over Barton Fink is that it's not as simple to dismiss Llewyn as a phony when several times in the course of the film he treats us, rather beautifully, to a song. He may be an obnoxious fuck-up whose career is going nowhere, but he's a talented guitarist and singer who appears to be fully in earnest when he sings. For that reason, the movie raises, in Rorschach fashion, many more questions about art and the artist's life than Barton Fink. I went to the movie with a musician friend who confidently asserted at the end of it that the protagonist was “only mediocre” as a performer; most reviewers seem to more or less agree, with the general consensus being that Llewyn Davis is “good but not great,” and the movie a parable about what happens to artists in that category, who are, after all, more numerous than the great; a minority of reviewers, however, have thought that the protagonist is obviously talented and merely unlucky.
It's comforting, of course, to think that great artists will always be recognized, sooner or later; but I don't think we have to take that away from the movie. What I took away was the rather more unsettling notion that an artist may be as good as anyone else and yet never become successful. Everyone knows that the majority of artists are unsuccessful, and not necessarily because most of the unsuccessful artists are merely good and most of the successful ones great. First, someone in a position to help you has to believe, rightly or wrongly, that you're good, or that money can be made off of you, or both; and then you have to be able to sustain a career after the first break. It's accepted wisdom that the wise accept the verdict of those in the industry and quit when it's clear that they're getting nowhere, as Llewyn does; on the other hand, it's also accepted wisdom that many famous artists faced a lot more rejection than that without giving up; then again, sometimes going on despite years of rejection and failure really is delusional (compare Burton's Ed Wood).
But the noncommittal stance of Inside Llewyn Davis undermines an idea about art that's even more fundamental than the idea that greatness will ultimately be recognized and rewarded: the idea that we are able, without any external cues, to tell a good performance apart from a great one. How, aside from the reaction of the people in the movie, do we know that the performance we've seen is a great one? And how often, in real life, are we exposed to new music, or a new movie, or new book, without any context at all – not a murmur of buzz, not a glimpse of a review, not a word of reputation? The last time it happened to me was with Lana Del Rey's “Video Games,” a song that made me believe I'd discovered a new artist of genius; and after I went online and read that she was a label-manufactured phony, and then read all of the stuff about what an embarrassment her Saturday Night Live performance was, I doubted my impression. I'm often incredulous at the things that people think are great (especially premium cable TV shows), but I'm easily intimidated into thinking that things aren't as good as I think they are, at least if there's no vocal, influential, articulate minority taking up the cause of artist or artwork.
So Inside Llewyn Davis, whether purposefully or incidentally, raises questions not only about the life of the artist but also about art itself. There's only one director I can think of who uses performances in his movies in such a way that the viewer is convinced that the performance we've witnessed is great even though we're unfamiliar with the performer: I'm talking, of course, about David Lynch. The two most striking instances occur in Mulholland Dr., and they are Betty's audition scene and the Club Silencio performance of “Llorando,” in which Lynch lays bare the elements that go into making us believe that a performance is great. Our ability to be moved by the performance depends on our belief that the singer is, in that moment, feeling the emotions she's singing about, even though we know that we're watching a recorded performance and that, even if it were live, the singer may just be “putting on” the emotion. It helps, too, that the song is intimately familiar and yet rendered in a foreign language so that our sense of its emotional power isn't hindered by the banal lyrics of Orbison's classic pop song. Likewise, in her audition scene Betty transforms the banal soap opera dialogue and scenario she's been given into great drama by calling upon her tortured emotional life and unearthing her dark sensuality. When Lynch has the singer collapse onstage while her pre-recorded voice goes on, he calls attention to our assumption that a great performance means the unveiling of the performer's inner life in front of our eyes. It couldn't be that the performer is faking, or miming, that experience. If the most authentic emotion can be faked, how can we ever trust that we know what's going on inside another person; and if we can't do that, how can we allow ourselves empathy? Is performance a window into the performer's soul, or a mask that the performer assumes?
The Coen Brothers' interest in performance in Inside Llewyn Davis is very different from Lynch's in Mulholland Dr. or than Jerry Lewis's in films like The Bellboy, The Errand Boy, and The Patsy: Llewyn the loser and failure is not allowed a moment even in dreams or in a fantasy sequence where his skill as a performer is unmistakably spotlighted, and his father's reaction to his song in the nursing home is at a polar extreme from Betty and Rita's tearful, epileptic/apocalyptic response to “Llorando” at Club Silencio. It would seem that one of the things that Inside Llewyn Davis is about is, after all, countering the alchemical myth of art: no matter how beautiful it may be, it cannot transform dementia into lucidity or estrangement into a miraculous rediscovery of the meaning of home and family, which is to say, the sense of presence. “It's not opera!” Llewyn shouts at the man who's beating him up in an alleyway, It's a Wonderful Life style, for heckling his wife the night before. But when he finds some opera on the radio while driving home through a snowstorm at night, the gorgeous, peaceful music becomes the soundtrack to suddenly slamming into the reappearing cat. The beauty of art offers us no shelter from the demand of other beings that we respond to their needs, or our demands on them, or from our and their complete inability to meet those needs; nor does it count as a response, although it may count as an appeal.