Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen brothers’ brilliant new film, is built upon a fundamental paradox: on the one hand, it portrays a moment of deep and decisive cultural change; on the other hand, its narrative pattern is one of recycling, repetition, journeying and the returns, the reaffirmation of one of the Western world’s most durable myths.
On the one hand, then, we are in Greenwich Village, late 1961, “inside” the world of that small pocket of performers attempting to celebrate and revive the tradition of American folk song. Among these singers, Dave van Ronk, the “Mayor of MacDougal Street,” was as large a fish as they come in a fairly small pond. In 1963, he issued an album called Inside Dave Van Ronk. The Coen brothers’ film depends on this name, on his characteristic repertoire (especially “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” and “Green, Green Rocky Road”), on some details of his biography (his ticket as a merchant marine sailor), but little at all on his personal life and character.
In 1961, “folk music” was still, largely, a genteel, inoffensive, sideline eccentricity. It may have had the occasional political bite, as with the Weavers, but most rough edges had been smoothed out, as with the Kingston Trio. A rather vague notion of “authenticity” prevailed over any sense of engagement with the contemporary world. Commercial success was suspect and largely disdained. Folk music was, above all, safe.
Into this scene came a steamroller—young, rough, dubiously authentic, and fundamentally unsafe—called Bob Dylan. And he just blew out of the water all the fine young singers like Llewyn Davis.
Davis is a fictional character, but he stands for a whole generation of singers who just did not make it the way Dylan did. It’s not that he is a bad singer—that would be too easy—he is in fact a very good singer, both character and actor. The soundtrack CD is a pleasure to listen to, and if Oscar Isaac does not win his namesake prize then some stars are grievously out of joint. This is beautiful music, perfectly realised.
But it ain’t Dylan. In three minutes, Dylan’s song “Farewell” dominates the soundtrack. Again, the Coens play it subtle rather than obvious. They show the singer only in brief silhouette. They do not use “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which would have been the overkill obvious emblem for a new kind of song. Instead, “Farewell” is a new/old creation, Dylan minimally reworking a traditional song (“The Leaving of Liverpool”) and copyright-claiming it as his own. It’s a fugitive song: it did not appear on any official Dylan release until the film’s soundtrack album.
As such, it typifies what Dylan did (and what Llewyn Davis, splendid as he is, never could have done). Dylan busted out. He wrested folk music out of the hands of its genteel promoters (those who see “their” folksingers as emasculated pets), and thrust it into the front line of political protest. Then, appalled by the burden laid upon him, he explored a sense of individuality that opened even newer territories. And thousands followed him. Dylan transformed popular music; by doing so, despite his massive unwillingness to answer for it, he changed the world.
The change is implicit, never explicit, in Inside Llewyn Davis. Take the scene in which Llewyn, given the chance to audition for a big Chicago promoter, chooses to play the very austere and tragic “Death of Queen Jane.” It’s a glorious, heart-breaking performance. The promoter’s verdict—“I don’t see very much money here”—is so many things at once. It ignores the aesthetics of the performance, which are wonderful (especially in the dropping of the guitar accompaniment for the last verse, so utterly effective in the film, but ignored, inexplicably and regrettably, on the soundtrack CD). So the scene is a critique of crass commercialism: beauty doesn’t sell. But it’s also a critique of short-sightedness: six months later, this kind of folk music would have sold. And maybe two years later, once folk went electric, it wouldn’t have. None of which makes any difference to Jane dying in childbirth, or to Llewyn’s futile fidelity to his art.
Folk music became important. In Dylan, it merged with political protest; again in Dylan, it morphed into rock. Suddenly it was omnipresent: America itself became Desolation Row. This was the message that Dylan brought: not any specific era or issue (for or against the Vietnam war), but that mass media could become the arena in which such topics could be discussed and determined.
But that all began back there in the Gaslight Café. After that silhouette, after that semi-new, semi-old composition, nothing could ever be the same again. Everything changed—and yet, at the same time, everything repeated itself. Dylan’s song is a re-working of an older ballad; and that ballad is about a man leaving—leaving his lover, leaving his home—going away, but with the implicit promise of return.
When you listen to the soundtrack CD in isolation from the film, it becomes overwhelmingly obvious that every song on it could be called “Farewell”—as indeed several of them are. They are almost all songs of departure and leave-taking, of men going off to sea (as Llewyn does at the end) and promising to come back. “We’ll meet another day, another time,” Dylan sings. The key pattern is circular: things will happen again, though not necessarily in exactly the same way.
The whole structure of the film is circular. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in the liner notes to the soundtrack CD, “The movie takes the form of a folk song: there’s a first verse, then a series of verses—in each of which something awful happens—and finally the first verse comes around again, seeming changed.”
Things happen twice, with a difference. “Dink’s Song” appears both as a duet on record and a solo on stage. Llewyn’s futile audition to the producer is replayed as a tender farewell to his father (and that scene in turn replays the young Dylan’s performances for the dying Woody Guthrie). The cat returns twice (and once more as a movie poster for a Disney picture). There are two proposed abortions, with different outcomes. (One of the film’s most heartbreaking moments is Llewyn’s inability to take the highway exit to Akron.) Llewyn is beaten up twice, or else the scene is simply repeated twice, but the second time supplies a plausible, even applaudable motivation. The final line of the film is “Au revoir”: farewell, but more literally, until seeing again.
The classical name for this pattern—of a man leaving home, heading out to sea, promising to return, and eventually doing so—is of course Odyssey. So indeed the wandering cat eventually turns out to be called Ulysses. The phrase “gate of horn” (meaning the gate through which true dreams pass) may indeed have been the name of an actual club in Chicago, but its first appearance in Western literature is in the Odyssey.
The Coen Brothers have been here before (everything happens twice): O Brother Where Art Thou? was also based on the Odyssey. But what is intriguing here is the juxtaposition of these images of recurrence with that moment of decisive change, the advent of Dylan. For a moment the circle is broken; something decisively new happens. But when it comes to making the old new, and then making the new old again, nobody over the years has been more adept than Bob Dylan.
When Llewyn comes back from sea, as I’m sure he will, he will find everything changed. If he comes back early enough (say, 1962), he may even find a market for his music; if he waits too long (say, 1965), everything will have changed again. But change and repetition will still be stepping out together, in their mythological dance.