It is not my birthday.
Perhaps this is the reason I’m wearing my good clothes, my night clothes, any clothes.
Someone is supposed to be meeting us here.
Another there, then another, and soon we are five at a table for four
confusing two waiters who are
forgetting our food orders,
and sexily serving up vanilla-sauced soufflé.
I hear pillow talk at the table next door.
As everyone digs and scrapes at mounds of meat and soft cheese,
I listen to the clinking of silverware,
and to the overdubbed mouth of the woman seated diagonal to me.
Infinitely musical, and simultaneously subliminal.
I tell the lady she isn’t speaking loudly enough,
that the expression on her companion’s face is one of puzzlement and not insight,
But the crowd doesn’t abate,
and she, of course, can’t hear me.
I wonder where we’d be if it were my birthday,
but only for a moment before I remember I’m in the presence of others.
Two, in fact,
and none are merrier alone or apart.
It’s always crowded in Los Angeles; isn’t that the way—
Drivers complain of terror twilight from the windows of their shiny sedans as we
stand in line to place our names at the end of a list before
standing in line for a consolation prize.
But care not; the line for the line for the bar looks beautiful,
snaking into a shape that stretches
far longer than the diagonal that connects its head and moving tail.
I’m already tired as we make faithless donations to this city’s talent,
actors (*aspring), model
We make for the door,
and someone asks me why I’m so sleepy.
I kill the part of myself that longs to explain that I tire of company more than I become incapable of keeping my eyes open or my conscious aware,
and shut that oaken door.
Who will ever know if they are able to understand me
above the din and murmur of nighttime.
A neon sign ushers us from marble to pavement,
and its cheery hum backlights and blurs the view of a dying tree.
Bowing my head outside the reach of those light rays,
I can see its leaves are fallen and scattered,
mixed with cigarette butts—
rosy shades of apple that no Boy knew to catch, or eat, or sell.
My lips move to an unsynched symphony of static,
a deafening cocktail of car honks and cab heckles.
So maybe I consider forgiving my inquisitor,
outside the doorway to a dimly-lit golden light box,
for not being able to hear.
For a film in which not much happens in the way of events, and its created 1961 Greenwich folk scene inhabited by a slew of colorful characters of which almost none are remotely likable, Inside Llewyn Davis explores the always-relevant balancing act that exists between art and artist, and also between that art and an audience, in a way that feels exceedingly honest even if familiar, and by virtue of that, invaluable.
As the cyclical nature of the film’s narrative might suggest, Llewyn is trapped in his present reality— repeatedly tempted by forces to give up or compromise his chosen life and job really, and rarely seeing monetary gain or general reward from it aside from some semblance of artistic integrity. Scarily reminiscent of the actual present where the generational flaw that blankets my age bracket is a tired sense of entitlement, the 1961 New York that Llewyn exists in is speckled by success-hungry peers and carefully molded personas pretending to apart of “the hustle.” And though the self-destructive Llewyn is far from a role-model citizen, the ease with which I personally identify with him is probably rooted in his conscious decision to be the exact opposite of that.
Vastly different from the kind of artist who starves themself in order to turn out a piece on struggle, or writer who does LSD for the sake of their next article, Llewyn isn’t a romantic. He’s not living the life of a vagrant to generate forced inspiration, but rather an immensely talented individual grappling with not having what has become the societal definition of success despite this talent, his plight made even more troubling as its integrity is not enough to keep even a roof over his head— or as he puts it, buy him a winter coat.
Using the music industry as a mechanism to depict such capitalist-centric relationships allows the inclusion of some hilarious, even if archetypical, characters. Inside Llewyn Davis is a Coen comedy after all, and thusly introduces an array of personalities, from the commercially inclined pop musician Jim aptly played by a tawdry Justin Timberlake, venue owners and talent buyers at the historical Gaslight Cafe, to a great segment with a Jazz enthusiast/snob played by Mr. John Goodman.
A subtle romance exists between Llewyn and Carey Mulligan’s character Jean, who, as it turns out, commodifies herself in exchange for a mild chance at fame. She can justify her frustrations with Llewyn— in her mind they want the same things— and in doing so unabashedly spews some of the best lines, but Oscar Isaac as Llewyn Davis is the talent here. While the only movie I’ve ever seen him in prior to this is Drive, Isaac brought something to that role that pulled focus away from a strikingly shot Los Angeles terrain and an extremely popular co-star, and did so in a comparatively short amount of screen time.
Strumming out folk songs more convincingly and genuinely than many real-life musicians and inspiring sympathy for a character that neither deserves or asks for it, here Isaac plays his part like the only sane man around (he’s totally the only sane man around) and his sincerity is clearly reflected in the resulting performance as he carries this movie, scene by scene, bewildered and alone.
What with the musical aspect and the bluey-green tinted landscape of Llewyn’s melancholic and humorous world, it makes sense that many would compare this to the Coens’ sepia-toned O Brother, Where Art Thou? (there’s the color correction, the allusions to Homer’s Odyssey, T Bone Burnett’s folk-soaked music built into the narrative), but more fitting are the comparisons of Inside Llewyn Davis to the similarly structured A Serious Man, the protagonist of which is trapped in a universe of hopeless despair, anxiety and nihilism, and seems to be the only one aware of this reality.
"If it’s never new and never gets old, then it’s a folk song." Llewyn repeats (something along the lines of) this twice, bookending the entire narrative with this refrain. And in the end, Llewyn’s story is not new— not for the Coens and not in general.
Llewyn ultimately fails in his attempt at success, but thereby remains the maker of his own fate. He’s not forced to take on another partner, wear a cable knit sweater, or sing silly songs about the space race, but he also remains homeless, jobless and penniless by the narrative’s end. Somehow this comes across as a kind of demented hope, even if that hope isn’t enough to upend what it means to be successful.
The social commentary is there, but the Coens’ decision to continually make films exploring the inner-workings and integrity of the human mind will always be more artful than works with clear agendas. Framing that creation in 1961 and briefly depicting future activist Bob Dylan singing on a small stage in one of the penultimate scenes really drives this home. Inside Llewyn Davis now just merely exists in society, much like the characters Llewyn encounters merely “exist” (as he so eloquently puts it) within his world, prompting audiences with important questions regarding art and love and success and politics, questions that seem to be asked less and less in mainstream art, and doing so affectingly and without blatant intent for influence.
What else is life if not this experience.