Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 11



Homeless and jobless, Llewyn goes once again to Jean, not to stay or even to crash, but just to rid himself of his belongings. Jean, surprisingly, shows a little concern for where Llewyn might stay. Until he forgets when he scheduled her abortion for, that is.

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Jean has good news for Llewyn: she’s talked the manager of the Gaslight into letting him play the following night. Llewyn refuses: he’s done with folk singing, ready to start anew as a merchant marine, like his father — his brain-dead, incontinent father. “The Times is gonna be there,” urges Jean, but Llewyn, exhausted by his life of delusions, still refuses. Unfortunately, the merchant marines don’t want him back — he’s got to pay $85 dollars for a new license, money he doesn’t have. So now Llewyn can’t even quit the way he wants to; he has to play if he wants to quit.

That night, with nowhere else to go, he goes to the Gaslight to see the show. This is not the show the Times will be at, that’s the following night. Instead, on the bill tonight are a vocal quartet who sing songs of prison and executions and canals in Auld Ireland. Are the men onstage Irish? They affect the accents, which is a guarantee of nothing: Bob Dylan affected the phoniest-baloney accent ever sliced, and continued to alter his voice to whatever style he deemed appropriate. It’s just show-business.

As if to underscore the point, the Gaslight’s manager, Pappi, sidles up to Llewyn and talks about how Jim and Jean draw a crowd not because they’re talented but because they’re sexy. He then lets slip that he’s “fucked Jean,” although it’s unclear when. When Llewyn asks, Pappi merely shrugs and says “If you want to play the Gaslight…” So either Pappi had sex with Jean in exchange for getting booked at the club, or else she offered herself to him while Llewyn was out of town, in order for Llewyn to get the booking during the all-important Times evening. In either case, that’s the last straw for Llewyn: the Gaslight, what is supposed to be a haven for authenticity, is as corrupt and phony as any Vegas showroom or Hollywood backlot.

So when the quartet introduces the next act, a middle-aged woman from Arkansas named Elizabeth Hobby, Llewyn’s mood is as black as pitch. Mrs. Hobby takes the stage and informs us that this is her first trip to New York, and she’s going to sing a song she grew up with. She’s got an autoharp, that least hip of folk instruments, and is homely and plain, dressed in what an Arkansan might wear to dress up for her first club gig in New York City. “Where’s your hay bale?” jeers Llewyn, “Where’s your corn-cob pipe?” The joke here is that Mrs. Hobby is, in fact, the real deal, one of the “folk” who makes “folk music” what it is. It’s not show-business to her, she loves the music and has sung it all her life. Llewyn, at the end of his rope, has chosen to ruin the debut of a genuine folk artist. He keeps up his jeering until he gets ejected from the club.

The movie does its best to play it down, but that is, in fact, the climax of the narrative: Llewyn has been drawn through the wringer of “authenticity” to the point where he doesn’t know authenticity when he sees it, and, in fact, lashes out at it when it’s in front of him. There is no indication that Mrs. Hobby wants a career in show business or to write jingles or be in TV. She’s unpretentious, not a poser, and rightly horrified by Llewyn’s outburst.

Llewyn goes, one last time, to the Gorfeins’. He’s humbled and deferential to them: he has, perhaps, seen now that, despite their silliness, they’re good people who have welcomed him as family. The Gorfeins’ dinner guests tonight are a couple of middle-aged squares, who have heard Jim’s “Please Mr. Kennedy” song and are delighted by it. That, Llewyn sighs, is the record-buying audience: squares looking for a laugh.

The biggest surprise of the evening, though, is the return of the Gorfein’s cat, whose name is Ulysses. The Greek Ulysses famously took ten years to get home from the Trojan War, but the cat only took a couple of days. (And the Ulysses from O Brother Where Art Thou took about the same amount of time.) If Llewyn is the cat, does that make Llewyn a Ulysses, and does that make the Gorfeins’ apartment his home? And, if a cat can get home from Greenwich Village to the Upper West Side just by memorizing the subway stops during its trip downtown, can Llewyn reach a similar resting place after traveling to Chicago and back, leaving a handful of wrecked lives in his wake?

And here the narrative ends. But of course it doesn’t end, instead it continues where it started, like a reprise of a chorus. Suddenly it’s the beginning of the movie again, not the next day but the day a few days ago, before all this craziness happened. Llewyn is now reborn, a man who needs to sing one more set in order to get the money to ship out for good.

Llewyn leaves the Gorfeins’ apartment for the last time, and we remember that, the first time through this sequence, they showed him playing “Dink’s Song” from his album with Mike. That may be why he chooses to follow “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” with “Dink’s Song” in his set that night at the Gaslight: he’s leaving where he came in. But before he gets to the club, he passes by a theater showing the Walt Disney movie The Incredible Journey (which was not released until 1963). That movie, of course, deals with household pets who, against all odds and reason, cross vast differences to find their home. Ulysses the Greek did that back in The Odyssey, and Ulysses the cat did it over the past few days, but can Llewyn ever really return home? What, in the end, did his journey mean? And where, really, did he get to?

So here we are, back at the Gaslight, on the night the Times is coming, and Llewyn singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang me.” And somehow, as if by magic, questions of authenticity have evaporated. Llewyn, for all his flaws, and they are legion, seems eminently qualified to sing this song of execution and persecution, of hard traveling and dashed expectations. “One more before I go,” he says afterward, leading into “Dink’s Song,” his tie to his own past, to Mike, to lives and loves lost in the American wilderness. “Fare thee well, my honey,” he sings, with genuine force and emotion, not just to his love, but to the audience, his children, show business, everything, perhaps even his life.

Pappi is cheered by Llewyn’s rendition of “Dink’s Song,” because of its association with Mike, who, it seems, was always Llewyn’s better half, and forgives him for the mess he caused in the club the night before. The next act takes the stage, a gangly young man unmistakably Bob Dylan. Dylan starts off his set with a song titled “Farewell,” yet another goodbye song. Is he singing to Llewyn, or is he just another poser, a young man pretending to be world-weary before his time?

As Dylan sings, and the Times is in the crowd listening, and the folk-music world is about to explode into the national consciousness, Llewyn goes out back to receive his beating. The man administering the beating, it turns out, is Mr. Hobby, the wife of the autoharp-strumming naif from the night before. Llewyn watches, aching and bleeding, as Mr. Hobby hails a cab in the street and storms out of New York, never to return. The folk music scene, it seems, is no place for a folk singer. The most often-used word in Llewyn Davis, it seems, is “farewell,” but as Mr. Hobby drives off Llewyn salutes and says “Au revoir.”

This could mean two things, and the Coen Bros, being the Coen Bros, point to neither. The most obvious meaning is that Llewyn is saying good-bye (in a pretentious, mean-spirited way) to the folk scene altogether, and will take his share of the night’s sales and re-join the merchant marines. But another possibility exists: this, remember, is the night the Times has come to the Gaslight, and has, presumably, seen Llewyn sing his electrifying set. We know what happened after the Times came to the Gaslight and saw Dylan: they printed a glowing writeup, which was read by John Hammond, who signed him to Columbia Records, and the course of American music was changed forever. While Llewyn might never attain Dylanesque fame, it’s possible that, like Dave Van Ronk, he might become a genuine folk hero, a champion of the form, “The Mayor of MacDougal Street.” That is, it’s possible that Llewyn, resigned to death is, in fact, on the verge of a re-birth. That the movie ends with this question dangling is its most aching paradox.


10 Responses to “Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 11”
  1. Michael Avolio says:

    The Irish singers are based on The Clancy Brothers, who were Irish (and instantly recognizable in the film because the Coens got the detail of the sweaters dead-on).

    Earlier in the film, when Jim and Jean are onstage with Troy at the Gaslight, Pappi says he’d like to fuck Jean. So the implication could be that Pappi had sex with Jean between then and the end of the film, but it could also be that he’s lying at the end or that he’s hiding it from Llewyn earlier in the film. There’s also the shrug of “You wanna play the Gaslight…” The obvious interpretation of “you” is “one”, as in “Jean”. But he could also mean “you” as “Llewyn”, implying that Jean had sex with Pappi so Llewyn could play the night the Times was coming.

    Your reading of the ending is more ambiguous than mine, and I like it – knowing that Dylan was the one who profited in real life from the Times review, I assumed whatever chance Llewyn had that night evaporated when Dylan took the stage. But it’s true we don’t witness that happen, and so we’re left not knowing what happens to Llewyn next.

    • Todd says:

      I figured the Irish guys might be the Clancy Bros, which, together with Mrs. Hobby, indicates that the Gaslight had, by the end of Llewyn’s week, grown to the point where outsiders were coming from the world over to stake their claim to authenticity.

  2. Todd,

    This was all a really great read and very good summary.

    I just noticed that you have a review of the Shining from 2010. I certainly plan to read it.

    I’m curious, have you seen Room 237, and if you have, have you had any inclination to revisit your thoughts on the Shining in the blog medium?

    Regardless of particular angles of investigation into the Shining put forth in 237, I know that I, for one, had to reconsider it and Kubrick in their entirety, upon viewing that doc.

    I feel like Inside Llewyn Davis has similar potential for exploration. Would love to hear your thoughts.


    • Todd says:

      I enjoyed Room 237, but I could not say that it taught me anything about the movie. It did, however, teach me a lot about what goes on in the minds of the people featured.

  3. Chris says:

    Nice take on the final section of Inside Llewyn Davis, Mr. Alcott. I’m most appreciative. Let me see if I can add my 2 cents and flesh out a few additional ideas. The theme(s) that looms most significantly here are 1) the notion of homelessness, the perpetual state in which Llewyn finds himself throughout the film, and 2) the implicit, symbolic notion of a search for a home, which in this film becomes a complicated, if not ironic, construct -certainly in Llewyn’s particular case. Of course, the notion that a “great journey” will inevitably lead us home is one of the great primal narratives of all story telling, and a mainstay of literature – also, the sort of stuff that really brings out the kitsch in Joseph Campbell. And this, I also suggest, is the target of the film, what the Coens, with wonderfully sly subversiveness, strategically turns on its head. In the final section of the film, Llewyn spies the theatre poster advertising the Disney film “The Great Journey,” about a group of pets finding their way home after crossing hundreds of miles. Putting the story of Ulysses the cat and its obvious parallels aside, I would suggest what the Coens are truly saying to the audience here is: hey, look, we threw in a somewhat Disneyfied element to keep the story going and its emotional center intact, but the fact is, the only place “home” exists is in a Disney-style fantasy. Home is a sentimental narrative that belongs to children and animals. In the case of adults, there is no such thing as home. Homelessness is the true spiritual/ontological state of being an adult – how Llewyn experiences the world in this film. And this, I believe, is the emotional center and realization in the film.

    I also believe the Coens extend this critique of the home narrative to the very idea of the burgeoning early 60’s folk music industry itself. As we all know, the central notion of true “Folk music “is “home” and its associations of regional authenticity. Genuine Folk music, like the Blues, belongs to – or better put, is rooted – in real historical places and times. The Gaslight may be a commercial venue to Folk singing in New York, but it’s certainly no true home, and this is underscored by the irony, as Mr Alcott perceptively points out that a true folk artist such as Mrs. Hobby, is nearly jeered off the stage by Llewyn himself. But I’ll suggest another way to asses Llewyn behavior here: Llewyn has been playing in the Gaslight for years and he’s no closer to finding his true home or calling, yet he’s certainly more connected to the club and the New York folk community than Mrs. Hobby. It is “turf” to him. Yet Mrs. Hobby, as a true folk artist with genuine regional provenance, may have a greater claim – a greater authenticity. In other words, who does the Gaslight really belong to? Llewyn, a so-called folk singer who has played there for years, but hasn’t the provenance of a true folk artist, or Mrs. Hobby, a true folk artist but who has no formal connection to the Gaslight? What I suggest here is that Llewyn’s cruel behavior is like a growling dog fighting for his turf – his idea of home – but it’s also an act of existential aggression, unwittingly provoked by the seemingly sweet Mrs. Hobby’s existential threat. The Coens are clearly winking at us as to the authenticity/inauthenticity of “folk music” born in the coffee cafes of New York’s Greenwich Village, of which Bob Dylan, our pre-eminent folk artist, is clearly the product of. Ultimately, it makes little difference whether an artist’s roots are authentic or inauthentic.

    I’ll have a few more thoughts on this at another time.

  4. Steve says:

    It seems to me that Llewyn already is what it took Dylan a few years to become: cranky, acerbic and aloof. It seems to be only a matter of timing that allows Dylan to go on to fame and fortune while Llewyn is left crumpled and washed up.

  5. Billy says:

    I took something quite different from ‘The Incredible Journey’ reference in that it seemed as though it was mocking Llewyn. Look, a dumb household pet could navigate through the harsh, unforgiving wilderness and find comfort in home, reinforced by Ulysses actually achieving this feat. Whereas Llewyn seems destined to wander never achieving that comfort and solace.

  6. Graham says:

    Hi Todd, Thanks for your comprehensive breakdown of Inside Llewyn Davis which I saw fairly recently in the UK. I need to see the movie again to see it my first impression could be correct (or not!) What I thought was that at the end of the film when Llewyn leaves the apartment it is (in time) a repeat of the first time he left. However, because he stops the cat from getting out it implies that what follows will take a different direction and thus his life will pan out differently. Could this be a possible interpretation?

    I can’t recall if in the apartment scenes both times he bears the marks of his beating in the alleyway. If he doesn’t in the first scene but does in the last then my idea is wrong.


  7. Steven Strauss says:

    I’d go so far as to say that Roland Turner found the wave of folk venues replacing jazz venues, on the streets and in the hearts of the hipsters, threatening. Just as I was preparing to mount my charm offensive in the late seventies with my sheaf of clever original songs Disco arrived and I spoke of it no more appreciatively than Roland Turner speaks of those dull bland folk acts that were screwing up his buck harvest. Turf war, indeed.

  8. BenjaminJB says:

    I’ve just recently (finally) watched Inside Llewyn Davis and I don’t have a beat/scene-by-scene breakdown, as you do; but I did want to make one comment about the whole movie, which is that the father-figures and quests are a lot more fractured here than in other Coen films.

    I mean, as you pointed to, there’s a lot of Coen marks in this film:

    -a protagonist pushed around by the world, searching for some sense of identity/home;
    -a secondary cast of American grotesques, almost cartoony;
    -and a quest directed at some big man/father.

    Except whereas many other films have a single (or sometimes dual) big man with a coherent quest–think of Barton Fink with the studio head who later is mocked up as a general, who is almost all the Institutions together–Llewyn runs into (and through) father-figures/quests at an alarming rate. The professors/quest for the cat–jazzbo/journey–Bud Grossman/get a gig–the Merchant Marine/return to the sea, etc.

    I think that lack of a coherent quest/arc for Llewyn gives the film a particularly bleak outlook.

    (Also, “Bud Grossman” is a Big Man, but with “Bud,” he seems almost avuncular and growth-oriented. He never reacts as terribly as Mr. Lebowski or the studio head in Barton Fink, etc. Maybe that’s another reason why this film seems so bleak: the world may be against Llewyn, but it isn’t trying to destroy him. There’s no malice, it’s just that Llewyn doesn’t fit in anywhere.)