Sunday, January 12, 2014

Itzik Basman v. David Thomson On Inside Llewyn Davis

I just saw this movie yesterday and thought it was great so I'm belatedly adding my few two cents though Jake's comment pretty well says it all.

I'm unlike Thomson not bothered at all by "Inside" in the title. Of course the plain reference is to Davis's album, which he thought had been sent to Grossman, a folk impresario with a firm grasp on the prices of things but not so much on their value. But past that obvious reference are other meanings intended by the Coens, surely among the most cerebral, artistically driven and self conscious of film makers. What marks and enlivens Davis, amongst all his haplessness, bad luck, carelessness, passivity and the ongoing unstable shambles of his life, is his integrity-making commitment to the purity of his art.

His singing is beautiful, as Jake notes, haunting too, and evokes what is beautifully soulful and timeless in the songs he sings. (Thomson may find his singing boring but if he does he's missing wide swathes of what this movie is about.) That inner directed commitment is what is inside about him and is pervasively evident. It's evident when he sings. It's evident in his song selection when he sings so affectingly before Grossman and it's evident in his rejection of Grossman's offer that he change himself up some and possibly fit in with a trio.

Thomson misses too the the ideas of externality and insideness that the Coens drive through the movie from beginning to end as emerge from the contrast between the mess of Davis's day to day life and the singularity of his commitment to his art. A lot of what all that mess goes to is his relative indifference to most conventional things and to his intense desire to be uncompromisingly successful doing his art. So that desire and his trying to act on it, going to Chicago, seeking out Grossman, singing for him all give form to what is inside Llewyn Davis. In missing this, Thomson misapplies what the Coens mean by "Inside," and wrongly complains that they, despite the movie's title, don't render adequately Davis's interiority.

I'd argue the same conceptual problem affects Thomson's complaint that the "interest in life," by which I think he means vitality or √©lan, and which he finds, for example, in Lebowski, emerging from its weird and crackingly great ensemble energy, is missing in this movie, which is flawed by Davis's apparent lack of sufficient inner life, the inner life an artist needs to "make it," asThomson has it. That for Thomson makes the  movie without interest and obstructs any desire we might have to get inside Davis.

I say, "All all the contrary." Understanding and appreciating the shining beauty of his singing, when inner light and outer light are heightened, and his commitment to it are to be inside him. What we are distant from, outside of, are the absurd stupidity of Jim's song Please Mr. Kennedy, the faux authenticity of the well scrubbed Irish singers with their "nice sweaters," and the pathetic folk singer from Arkansas playing her pathetic auto harp--both among the worst manifestations of the folk song revival of the fifties and sixties, the former its antiseptic, commercial sanitizing, the latter its dreary attempt at atavism. If Thomson doesn't get that beauty, so central to the movie's meaning, he can't get the movie.

Too, Thomson misses in fact how hard Davis struggles, the lengths he goes to, in order to "make it." He dismisses Davis's belief in his own artistic possibilities; he says they're ill thought through; and he says Davis doesn't believe he either will, or deserves to, "make it." But Davis has been set back and is deeply affected by Mikey's suicide. He has a deep belief in the meaning of his own professionalism and thus rightly takes offence at his professor friend's bugging him literally "to sing for his supper." He keeps at his incompetent agent whether there's been any response to his record from Grossman, which it turns the agent, Mel, never even forwarded.  His entire freezing, hard, long trip to Chicago to see Grossman is his belief in himself in action.

Thomson confuses entirely inside and outside in his criticism here, mashing them up. All the outside of Davis, the entire messy shambles of his life, his hapless hard times, are not, as Thomson argues, the measure of his lack of commitment and lack of pursuit of his artistry. He fails, it seems, but decidedly not from want of trying on his own terms or want of self-belief. In a word, the proof of Davis's insideness is in the hearing of his singing.

The criticism that Oscar Isaac "seems disinclined to command the film, as if he felt Llewyn lacked the chops or charm to do that" while in my view misconceived harbours a good insight into the movie. Isaac plays his role exactly perfectly, evoking by his every reaction his laconic nature, his personal quietness, except the one time he gets drunk and obnoxiously mouthy. Davis's underlying truth, his inside, is the unadorned beauty of the resonantly meaningful songs he sings so  beautifully. They are quiet, slow moving songs--and contrary to Thomson, the songs tell their stories, moving from beginning to middle to their end. But his lack of personal charisma, the lack of a compelling personal presence, the straight forward assertion of his art all form the Coens' exploration of artistic success, the need for that thing that makes the Grossmans amongst us see the money in it.

There is thus a large theme implicit in Davis's lack of success, a variant of "mute and inglorious Miltons," resident in how many gifted talents who don't "make it" for any number of reasons, including artistic integrity, a theme encompassing the strange arbitrariness and caprice of the bitch goddess of commercial success and what counts to get it.

One last note: somehow because the Carey Mulligan character seems to Thomson to be on the brink of some apocalyptic end, this marks what is deficient as missing cinematically in Davis and hence the movie

....As it is, her character seems closer to the kind of despair we might expect to find inside Llewyn himself. The singer makes no progress, but he never really seems in danger or agony. Whereas the girl is on the edge of checking out...

What prescriptive maxim about film has it that Davis needs to be experiencing life threatening despair, must be driven to his screaming emotional limits. Thomson's is really a dumb observation. Why can't Thomson be satisfied that Davis is who he prosaically is, that quiet prosaism contrasting so vividly with the "poetry," so to speak, of his singing, a contrast of a piece with the movie's fundamental and paradoxical meaning. Under that meaning, no reason exists for Davis's danger or loud agony--his quiet agony is apparent and effective enough. (And as post script, both I and my fellow movie goer thought Mulligan's acting was bad. We didn't believe in her anger towards Davis. And we appreciated his quiet, prosaic calm about her, mildly suggestion that "It takes two to tango."

(Sorry that my two cents became four cents.)


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