Second String: Inside Llewyn Davis (03/14)

Inside Llewyn Davis, Joel and Ethan Coen’s re-creation of the Greenwich Village folk-music milieu, set over a few days in the winter of 1961, came into focus for me about halfway through. The Coens’ Job-like title character, played by Oscar Isaac, has hitched a ride back from Chicago, where he’s failed a last-chance audition. The owner of the car is fast asleep; Davis is driving in a snowstorm in the middle of the night. He’s got the radio on, and for a moment an old folk song comes through the speakers: some impossibly addled, a cappella, doo-wop version of “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

It was funny. It was fun. It was bizarre, like the Drifters’ imp-of-the-perverse 1953 version of “White Christmas,” and like that record, this unexpected “Old MacDonald” was in love with the music for its own sake, on its own terms, as an opportunity to play, to dart in and out of the corners of the song, and then to soar. Suddenly, the rest of the music in the film—Llewyn Davis’s performances of the folk-scene commonplaces “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” “Fare Thee Well (Dink’s Song),” and “The Death of Queen Jane”; or “Five Hundred Miles” by a proto-Peter, Paul and Mary (a folk duo played by a believable Carey Mulligan and a skim-milk-voiced Justin Timberlake, plus a faceless character Stark Sands, whose crowd-pleaser is “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a nightclub ballad in folk-music clothing)—collapsed under the weight of everything it wasn’t.Whatever this strange apparition on the radio was—as it happened, an early-’60s recording by Nolan Strong & the Diablos of Detroit—it wasn’t self-righteous. It wasn’t vain. It wasn’t pious, reverent, polished, sterile, and self-congratulatory. It wasn’t dead.

The music around which Inside Llewyn Davis turns—much of it, particularly that sung and played by Isaac’s Davis, presented not in the usual music film’s snippets but in full-length performances—is dead at its center. Listening as Davis sings–and if you can assume that the actor-singer-guitarist Isaac was following what the Coen brothers and their musical director, T-Bone Burnett, wanted him to do, you can let him disappear into his character without blame–the songs aren’t stories or testaments, riddles or mysteries, haunts or allegories, comedies or fables of morality. They’re inanimate objects.

“You don’t sing folk music—it sings you,” John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in the notes to the Inside Llewyn Davis soundtrack album (Nonesuch Records, 2013). That’s true, and that’s precisely what doesn’t happen on the album or on the screen. Sitting on a stool in the MacDougal Street basement club the Gaslight Cafe, Llewyn Davis, a tousled head of thick, dark hair, with a dark beard and big, dark eyes, begins “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” His guitar playing is expert, each note following the one before it with all the suspense and surprise of someone reciting the alphabet. His singing is mannered, pushed by grimaces and desperate lunges. It’s a folk-music equivalent of American Idol over-souling, the blizzard of melisma that signifies the replacement of soul with technique.

If the singer doesn’t sing the song—the traditional, handed-down, seemingly written-by-the-wind folk song—but the song sings the singer, it’s because the singer is listening to the song. It won’t tell the same tale twice. As the singer listens, he or she hears a story lurking behind the story, an unplayed theme hiding in the melody, an unvoiced curse in the rhythm. Whatever world the song is from—whatever world it is—begins to open up for the singer, and he or she faces its trials, accepts or refuses its dares, meets its characters, and replaces his or her face with theirs. But as Davis sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” it’s impossible to hear him thinking, impossible to hear him knowing what it would mean to have a rope around his neck, to feel it clinch, to be dead. “Poor boy,” he says under his breath to seal the verse, but there’s no poverty, and no person; the phrase is a sad-eyed little device, and nothing more. “Been all around this world,” he follows. That phrase, jumping from song to song all through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, didn’t mean you’d been to England and Spain, France and China, as the singers sometimes claimed. It simply said that you’d earned the authority to tell whoever might be listening, a few people on a street corner, the audience at the Gaslight, how the world looked to you: “I’ve traveled this world,” the West Virginia slide guitarist Frank Hutchison sang laconically in 1926 in “Worried Blues,” sounding as if his tongue were coated with dust. “Boys, it’s all around.”Here in the movie’s Gaslight, there’s no experience in the way the words are put into the air, no conviction behind them, for that matter no world to go all around. “Got so goddamn hungry,” Davis sings. But you don’t believe for a second he was ever hungry, despite the fact that in the film he has no money, nowhere to live, and not a meal he doesn’t cadge: His singing doesn’t draw on his lived experience, it erases it. “Went up on a mountain, there I made my stand,” he sings. “Rifle on my shoulder, and the dagger in my hand, poor boy.” It’s words climbing a cadence, and you don’t believe this person ever made a stand, that he ever held a rifle or a dagger, that he ever thought of it, even in his most vengeful fantasies, even as a boy playing Jesse James or Wild Bill Hickok.

“Not everyone can sing these songs convincingly,” Dylan wrote in 2004 in Chronicles: Volume One of the likes of Davis’s repertoire, of Joan Baez’s versions of “The Death of Queen Jane” or “Silver Dagger.” “The singer has to make you believe what you are hearing and Joan did that,” Dylan said.

I believed that Joan’s mother would kill somebody that she loved. I believed that. I believed she’d come from that kind of family… I believed Dave Guard in the Kingston Trio, too. I believed that he would kill or already did kill poor Laura Foster. I believed that he’d kill someone else, too. I didn’t think he was playing around.

The absolute absence of such drama is what Davis’s music is all about. He is going through the motions with all his heart and soul. In the Coens’ 0 Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) it made perfect sense that a radio station recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow” by three escaped convicts and a hitchhiking blues singer calling themselves the Soggy Bottom Boys was a runaway hit; Dan Tyminski’s voice coming out of George Clooney’s mouth made you want to hear it again and again. The music in Inside Llewyn Davis makes it impossible to understand why anyone was interested in this stuff in the first place.“Bob and me, we were both writing,” the Village-folk-scene-maker Fred Neil, in the late ’50s a would-be teen idol and cowriter of Roy Orbison’s “Candy Man,” told David Hajdu for his book Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Mimi Baez Farina, and Richard Farina, “but I knew how to sing.” Listen to Dylan singing “Farewell” at the end of the film, or in a different performance at the end of the soundtrack album. It’s unquestionable that compared with Isaac, with his fine picking and his wide, clear, reassuring tone, Dylan can’t sing or play at all. For that matter, neither can Emry Arthur, who, in 1928, made the indelible first recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow”—and who, despite his rudimentary guitar playing, was hired to back up other musicians for their own recordings: “He couldn’t reach the chords,” the Virginia banjoist Dock Boggs recalled long after his session with Arthur. “He’d been shot through the hands.” And that does matter: Davis’s “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and his “Dink’s Song” (collected in Texas in 1908 by the folklorist John Lomax from a woman named Dink, and recorded in a Minnesota hotel room in 1961 by Bob Dylan, who outrageously offered, “heard it from a lady named Dink”) are lifeless, and Dylan’s half-borrowed “Farewell” is evanescent, a will-o’-the-wisp that, as it plays, you are desperate to touch, that carries a beauty that’s just out of reach.

Like Neil, Davis knows how to sing, and the critical response to his singing has been one great swoon. Does it speak to some deep resistance to, some discomfort with, the bad voice of Dylan, of Carole King, with what’s now generations of the forced, constructed unnaturalness of punk singing, from Dylan to Johnny Rotten to Kim Gordon to Kathleen Hanna? Davis is a jerk, a loser, preening and priggish, a leech and a bore, a fuck-up and a bully. “But,” wrote Kent Jones in a Film Comment piece that echoed hundreds of other reviews, “whenever he picks up his guitar and sings, he’s an angel.” But the songs he sings don’t want angels. Angels are sexless: That’s not what the carnal reverie of “Dink’s Song” wants. Angels are innocent: That’s not what “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” wants. “He’s an angel”—if that resistance to the punk voice does hover somewhere inside Llewyn Davis, the phrase is a Pavlovian response. Not an idea or an argument, but an affirmation that neither is necessary. It’s what James Agee railed against seventy years ago in his essay “Pseudo-Folk”: “Nasty, tricky little midgets… ‘sophisticating’ this extremely sophisticated art out of all relation to its source and, in the same gestures, achieving a once-over-lightly loving-up betrayal of the unaroused body of all the rest of the music.” Agee speaks of “vicious pseudo-folk”: Those are the right words for the Coen brothers’ re-creation of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem’s signature song, “The Auld Triangle,” on their screen four eggshells smoothing away the all but suicidal regret of Brendan Behan’s song about an Irish Republican about to be executed into an exercise in hitting notes, a vile moment that is uglier than what happens in Llewyn Davis’s performances, but not different.

But it’s the Coen brothers! They’re cynical! They’re sarcastic! They’re ironic! It’s supposed to be bad! I don’t think so. I don’t believe T-Bone Burnett set out to produce bad performances of good songs, and I don’t think that Joel and Ethan Coen meant Nolan Strong & The Diablos to show up Davis for the mediocrity that he is or to show up the film critics who are so touched by his music as, again in Agee’s words, “the sort of people who enjoy this sort of decay.”

Which is hardly the last word on folk music today, or even the first word. Watch the Texas noir series True Detective on HBO, listen to its theme song, the Handsome Family’s “Far from Any Road,” from their 2003 album Singing Bones, and fall down the rabbit hole that the Coens’ version of the Gaslight was built right on top of, to cover it up and seal it tight. Who picked that song? True Detective‘s music supervisor, T Bone Burnett.

Artforum, March 2013

3 thoughts on “Second String: Inside Llewyn Davis (03/14)

  1. I look forward to the appearance of this review in — what does it say? 20054? — but really, I’m fascinated by how bad the movie is, and Marcus’s autopsy. Fascinated, too, that unmentioned in the review is the memoir on which it’s based, and the person, whose repertoire it is that Davis sings: Dave Van Ronk. What a strange magic all this unmentioning is. I wonder what Van Ronk would make of it.

  2. I was very disappointed in this movie-and,as someone who’d read the Van Ronk memoir,I’d been eagerly awaiting it…yes it did a terrible disservice to the music-but perhaps there were some 16-17 year old seekers out there who’d had no exposure to folk,and this movie opened up that world & sent them to some of the great stuff that’s now available..including the GM edited The Rose & the Briar…..on the other hand it could have turned them off altogether…….

  3. “The SONGS,” it may be true, “[are not] stories or testaments, riddles or mysteries, haunts or allegories, comedies or fables of morality,” in themselves, as you say, but the FILM certainly, incontestably is. It’s all of those things, with the possible exception for ‘morality fable,’ as I will attempt to illustrate.

    The songs of ILD are presented in service to the film, as they ought to be. As such they are rendered authentically, that is, on analogue film, live-edited, not overdubbed, if not quite masterfully to your taste, nor even “alive,” as it were, then at least on life-support. If you spend more time with ILD, then many subtle secrets, implications, and patterns will be revealed. Suffice it to say, at least, that it holds up to repeat viewing with the fortitude of the Big Lebowski, improving with every look, new information ever-coming to light. The music serves the picture framed as such, and as I hope you will find, that’s well enough.

    For instance, eventually one may discover a theme which ties together that Old MacDonald song, the interlude at the Fred Harvey Oasis (franchise precursor to McDonald’s’ mass-market dining dominance), the “Please Mr. Kennedy” production (“It’s a thing”), “Green Green Rocky Road”… – all around the notion of ‘canned culture’ or fast food with its ever-diminishing nutritional value in modern life, that imitation of life resulting from the ever-present reduction-valve of monetary translation of full spectrum local quality into transferable quantity, and on that foundation, its inevitable, inherent extraction.

    Roland Turner taunts and bullies Llewyn from the back seat of his chrome chariot, mocking the folk form, “12 notes in a scale, dip-shit. Not 3 chords on a ukulele,” by speak-singing a series of notes, “G-G-C-G-C-D-G.” But these are not the notes he sings. They are not even notes of a known melody. He’s singing the sound of the melody of Taps, the funerary dirge, but the letters remain a disconnected mystery. If one does a simple gematria-like translation of those key-letters to numbers (as taught by A Serious Man in The Goy’s Teeth section), one gets 7-7-3-7-3-4-7.

    Low and behold, the google oracle reveals that this is the U.S. Patent Number for Monsanto’s first patent-claim for hybrid GMO corn, registered on May 9, 2008: US7737347B2. (B2 or not B2, is the question.) Here we have the legal apotheosis of the industrialized harvesting of earth’s bounty AND the beginning of the corporate ownership of genetic sequences, beginning with corn, ending with you. This is the patenting of life itself – a devolution toward automatic slavery, trans-human A.I. integration, and genetic tyranny, the seeds of the creation of the dystopian human hive. This little cypher, then, alludes to the subtle, most useful subject of the film, and reason for perennial review. It’s an important message for discernment, awareness and coping as we enter the emergent hi-tech neo-feudalist paradigm, which one may find slowly enveloping us, if one has but eyes to see it.

    This is not the only puzzle in the film latent for the probing viewer to resolve, but it might be one of the most revealing.

    I disagree, as a matter of taste, for what its worth, about the characterization of Burnett/Isaac’s collaboration as ‘dead at its center.’ I heard the album before I saw the film and something in it captured my spirit, hit me, so that I knew there was something special here, and I’d never be the same. But I acknowledge the slippery nature of subjective, personal appreciation, and I’m content that it’s not for everyone.

    With that said, I think you’re absolutely, coincidentally, accidentally correct, Greil, to arrive at that phrase. ILD’s music is ‘dead at its center’ insofar as this movie is a necromantic meditation fit for 2013/14. It is about the loss of analogue memory to exo-cognitive colonization, the stacked cards against the analogue self, a wake for the non-corporate individual, the plight of the non-integrated circuit, that difficult artist driven by his inner light and inner ear, and it is an allegory of an anti-hero’s journey to the underworld to recover the lost soul of his dead partner. Llewyn is simultaneously an Alex-from-Clockwork-Orange figure – an Id-figure whom we painfully must learn from to know ourselves and understand the context of our predicament – as much as he is an Orpheus-figure, attempting to return harmony and memory from the wilderness (one man, one lyre/guitar at a time) to the dis-harmonious “civilized,” the mere consumers-cum-somnambulant-cogs facilitating a vast industrial, cannibalistic feed-lot operation. The invisible antagonist of the film is the centralized technocratic “culture” of mass media production, if that word culture can be applied to a machine.

    So it is ironic or telling, perhaps, that “Old Macdonald” tickled your hippocampus on first viewing, GM, more than any of the other songs in the film. This represents the ascent of the machine and the flipping of obsolesced analogue images (such as the family farm) into nostalgic sales-pitches for a happy-go-lucky future in which we are all the branded livestock and the product of industrial production. We hear the song at the very moment when Llewyn neglects to pursue his actual legacy, avoiding the exit leading to Diane’s infant in Akron, preferring rather to return to the Apple where his false-legacy’s abortion awaits. In this sense, on some level, your review dismissing the virtuosity and mystery of the film, thus participates in the gaslight. (I must assume you have done this unwittingly, unless you, sir, are some Grand Master Magician of Reverse Psychology, slowly stirring the cauldron of consciousness with deft omniscience and expert hypnotic facility to compel your readers to seek on their own against your recommendation, in which case I defer to your omnipotent greatness with a puppy’s shame.)

    Additionally, concerning the phrase ‘dead at its center,’ if we become conscious of the book-ends that frame ILD – that is, A Serious Man on one side, and Hail! Caesar on the other (all three incorporate a-pair-of-cats motif, and fit together on a historic-fiction calendar with a phi relationship between them, ILD at the phi-point forward in film time and in reverse in historic time) – then the ‘dead at its center’ quality may take on the character of the calm at the center of the vortexing storm. HERE is the electro-magnetic stillness at the point of inflection where the plane of inertia crosses the polar thrust, the point of absence from whence presence becomes manifest. This image helps to reconcile the near-symmetricality of the plot events and the cyclic nature of its action. Llewyn stumbles through events unclear exactly about what’s happening to him, why its happening, or what he’s experiencing, per se, attempting to observe some pattern around which he may navigate in the traumatized flux. Something has changed, even in addition to his partner taking his own life from the GWB, if that’s indeed how Mike Timlin died. The stars have shifted out of alignment, and for a moment, mysteries are revealed to the watchful, and to Llewyn, if he can salvage himself before the churn recommences.

    If Llewyn’s public and artistic life is anything like Van Ronk’s, then we may not un-reasonably assume that LD is actually the victim of COINTELPRO style surveillance and management, as was consequently revealed in FOIAs for Van Ronk’s FBI dossier well after the film’s release. (I’ll concede this is fanciful monday-morning quarterbacking in the finest of Menippean media ecology traditions, but tradition it is none-the-less.) What appears to them as maligned happenstance, bad luck, and organic asynchronicity, it turns out – in Van Ronk’s case, certainly, as he presciently surmised, and perhaps in Llewyn’s case, too – are actually the results of an inherent entropic order, the result of nudges, sabotage, and gauntlet-walls imposed by the federal secret police disrupting the lives of mere minor folk-singers by their gluttonous budgets and bottomless paranoia. Hence the cause of death of Llewyn’s dead partner is worthy of open inquiry, to forever remain unresolved. This, perhaps, is one of the natures of the vortex we may want to vigilantly observe in the post-Snowden world. I’ve digressed.

    ILD appears to me a humble exegesis on the function, myths and methods of the industrial mass-media gaslight, how it usurps our legacy one contract at a time, how it games our better intentions, exploits our expectations, misunderstandings and ignorance by misspelled homonym or lumped synonym, corrals us by phony fashion and trumped up trend, and how it usurps our ancient poetic consciousness, that which was always preserved in timeless folk traditions to resist the avarice and insecurity of passing, petty tyrants and unworthy usurping king-wardens. When positioned adjacent to Hail! Caesar – in which we see how the sausage of culture gets produced through vast stage-managed operations centrally and invisibly controlled via a single mysterious Mr. Schank on the other end of a phone from NYC, and, incidentally, transferable as Mannix himself, to Lockheed’s creation of the Hydrogen Bomb – then we have the sketch of a model for how thoroughly canned, directed, and phony our death-cult mechanized culture really is.

    It’s quite perfect, I think, that a necromantic comic-tragedy about the preservative and restorative power of folk-music – and the severing of its private, communal, unsurveilled, analogue transmission^ – should have seemingly dead performances at its center. That’s what its about. The come-down from the sugar-high. (To translate the Blackrock-conformist and unintentional prophet Neil Young, ‘You can’t be 20 on Zuckerberg.’) The re-animation of a plasticine corpse. In case we haven’t noticed, the spirit of life is being slowly drained out of us and sold back to us stuffed, sweetened and shellacked. This is an old story, one that’s been long in development, even back in 1961. Before Harry Smith assembled its corpus, and Dylan reanimated it, thus inspiring generations to at least nominally wake, the folk tradition was on life-support under the weight of mass culture and post-war commodification. Little did the establishment of the time realize until too late, a folk song or rock song is capable of communicating a novel’s worth of ethics in under 3 minutes 30 seconds. As folk should inherently be, it was a resurgence of type, theme, and poetic voice, then, now dead again, as then it was resurrected, and so it may be again. Death is always at the center of the perennial life.

    [^ The usurping of analogue transmission occurs in the film’s period via market forces confronting malcontent artistic pride, and in our period by BigTech-kettling by algorithmic expedience, rendering all art today as either profitless hobby, or commodified advertisement for service, at best, mind-control fodder for identity assimilation and rent extraction, at worst.]

    As your review of the music and the two comments that follow all demonstrate, ILD is not a piece of art that will reward expectations of verisimilitude & historical accuracy, nor tolerate un-suspended disbelief. One should not make the mistake of treating it as if it could or should. It is much more akin to The Shining than it is to Almost Famous or Walk the Line. One doesn’t “like” Finnegans Wake; Finnegans Wake just IS. It is intentionally full of discontinuity, strategic anachronism, deep irony, googleable (that is, exo-cognitively resolvable) mysteries, and self-deprecating schadenfreude, all beneath a soft gloss of authenticity and the faithful image of nostalgia. Hopefully the tunes are catchy, enough, and memorable, a little. Llewyn is not a hero who will gain your sympathetic identification by saving a cat, as the old industry yarn goes. His story is not history, nor historical fiction. It is not a film that suffers demands to entertain its audience on their terms, nor to be entertaining on a shallow surface, but perhaps clumsily, self-defeatingly. It is not a film about Dave Van Ronk, about J. Edgar Hoover in the shadows, about the Folk Scene, about Bob Dylan, nor about the 60s in the Village. Though these things are all there, you will be disappointed if you look for them. ILD does not charm you with a carrot; it charms you, if it does, by making you aware of the stick attached to the carrot. Its logic is apophatic, a logos wrought by noughting, argumentation by exclusion. It is a film the viewer may ascend to, if impelled, like Everest.

    To conclude, Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about you – not you, Greil, but about all of us – right now. I propose one watches it like you return to the folk songs of your record collection – when your spirit knows what’s good for you… if there’s any “you” left in that lumbering, automatic stalk of yours, you high-fructose corn syrup saturated, gene-therapy-topped-off American, you app-addicted consumer product, you. (Aren’t we all, by degrees?) If there is a way to heal, and to discover the indigestible, undiscovered Self, then keep listening on unsurveilled, unledgered vinyl listens, and keep watching on non-streaming devices, outside Alexa’s purview; by nurturing this non-networked, analogue currency, some living seed may come forth from that Dead Center unobserved by HAL’s red eye, and it may come forth in you. If Greil is aesthetically correct, then you will surely be able to match Llewyn’s skill, and best his Orpheic virtuosity with ease. No experience even necessary, …but you must pursue the target, or you’ll surely find the stew bland.

    With love, the cantankerousness of a couch-surfer, deep breaths, and meta-dudely evangelism,

    PS. Please pardon my pretense, self-indulgence, tardiness, and long-form carbuncular sabotage. Thanks for the opportunity presented by the comments section, and by your most always excellent discernment, Greil, and the good ear that comes with it. I hope I’ve not been so saccharine in my rebuttal as to prevent your reconsideration in light of distance and broader horizons. Godspeed.

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