Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Greenwich Village Girl Reflects on "Inside Llewyn Davis"

IN case you have been visiting another planet since November 2013, let me bring you up to date: the reality of global warming is still being debated by a few idiots, New York City has a dynamic new mayor (hooray), and the Coen brothers have birthed a new film, "Inside Llewyn
Davis," their idiosyncratic take on the burgeoning folk music scene in Greenwich Village in 1961.  Hooray?   Not so much.  Not from this born and raised Villager.

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   There seems to be a wide disconnect in reactions to the film (a stunning 94% rating by critics on, but only a 76% rating by viewers).  A reviewer I hugely respect, A.O. Scott of The NY Times, has practically made a full-time job out of his enthusiasm for the film.   To be so out of sync with someone whose taste I generally trust puzzles me. Could it possibly be because of my over-eager anticipation to see and hear a tale about the old Greenwich Village, replete with a stunning soundtrack and quirky characters, shot on location all over the streets of my childhood? 

    Rumors abounded for months before the film’s release.  I had previously seen and admired virtually all of the Coen oeuvre (some films several times); their skill, intelligence and dark humor have carved out a unique niche in the pantheon of American filmmakers.  Yet, I must have unconsciously hoped that their dystopian take on humanity and its foibles would be softened in their treatment of the unique scene that was the Village in 1961. 

    Like everyone else, I admired the gritty realism of the cinematography and set design.  That hallway in the fifth floor walk-up, barely the width of Llewyn’s shoulders!  The cigarette smoke, the sweaters! The garbage cans! 

    However, for me, the emotional zone of the film as occupied by Llewyn was essentially a numb center, occasionally enlivened by a blast of profanity from Jean.  She’s the supposedly meek and lyrical half of a folksinging duo who has cuckolded her partner by sleeping (and being impregnated) by our anti-hero, the sort of Dave Van Ronkish folksinger Llewyn Davis (get it? Wink, wink- a Welsh name, like that Dylan guy). Her one-note stridency depressed me and didn’t ring true for the period.  Is having 90% of Jean’s dialogue be four-letter words (actually, mainly one four-letter word) the only way to delineate her character’s despair and anger? 

   Now, it really doesn’t matter that I grew up in the ‘50s in the Village, and witnessed the emergence of the folk scene- the washtub & mop handle basses being plunked in the dry basin of the fountain in Washington Square Park, the feverish collecting of albums by Pete Seeger and the Weavers, and learning songs like  “If I Had A Hammer,” in our 5th grade music class. I wasn’t a true insider. But.   Seriously, Coen brothers?  This is your best shot?

    When I read the recent interview with the ex-wife of Dave van Ronk in The Village Voice, I felt that I was not so off the mark in my reactions.  She laments that this film completely misrepresented the spirit of that time, the joyous collective spirit of people making music (and not money!) for the love of it.  When a NY Times obit for beloved sandal maker and musician Alan Block (he died at 90 on Oct. 23, 2013) describes his shop in 1961, overflowing with musicians from all over the country, jamming ecstatically at all hours of the day and night- one really has to ask why would artists as talented as the Coen brothers make a film about this music scene that is so mean-spirited and flat, so shaggy-cat.  This was a lazy and  wasted opportunity.  Do we really care that much about the freakin’ authentic period ambiance and the smoky cafĂ© lighting and the vintage street signage? Are we that easily seduced?

    There is so much to say about the pain of not making it as an artist in America, and about the legions of those pilgrims to the Village who were left by the wayside, or committed suicide, or died in poverty.  Why did you choose to tell this story with an unsympathetic “hero” who sucks the life out of everything he touches, who never connects with us, or anyone else?

    With a little more effort you could have made a film that would have ripped the heart out of your audience.  We lined up, we bought our tickets, we were bursting with anticipation.  Why did you stay on the surface of your subject, tease us, insult us, bore us, disappoint us? 

      Because you are Ethan and Joel Cohen, and you can.  But shame on you, boys.


Jan. 27, 2014