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.
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.