Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 3
Hey guys, be cool, don’t go reading this if you haven’t seen the movie, it’ll just spoil it for you.
The movie doesn’t tell us, but after Llewyn gets punched by the mysterious Southerner in the alleyway behind the Gaslight the narrative begins. We’ve just seen the end of the movie, now we’re going back to the beginning. The movie doesn’t tell us that, of course. There is no title card that says “Three Days Earlier” or anything. Rather, the movie plays with that doubt. Llewyn wakes up in someone’s apartment on someone’s couch with someone’s cat sitting on his chest, and this all seems to be part of his routine. He makes himself at home, he strums his guitar, He makes himself some eggs, he peruses the apartment’s artworks and record collection. He finds a copy of his own record, the one he made with his partner, the Timlin and Davis album If We Had Wings.
He drops a needle on the record and listens to himself and his partner singing. The song is titled “Fare Thee Well,” but folk-song aficionados know it as “Dink’s Song.” And, as this song comes to be fairly important to the narrative, it behooves me to discuss it.
“Dink’s Song” was first noted (by folk music aficionados) in 1908. John Lomax (father of folk music aficionado Alan Lomax) heard it sung by a black woman in Texas, singing it as she washed her clothes by a riverside levee-building camp. It is called “Dink’s Song” because the only thing John Lomax knew about the woman singing it was that she was called “Dink.”
So for the purpose of our analysis, let’s say that Dink qualifies as “authentic.” Here is a woman, singing as she washes her clothes, for the purposes of we don’t know what — keeping a rhythm, passing the time, entertaining herself, expressing herself, whatever. Let’s set aside for the moment the idea that Dink is singing “to impress the ethnomusicologist.” If Dink is “authentic,” singing from the heart for no commercial purpose whatsoever, what does that make Timlin and Davis? They may be champions, they may be preservationists, they may be motivated by celebration and joy, but they are still singing “Dink’s Song” for money, for a commercial end. However gorgeous and heartfelt their recording is, and it is, it’s not authentic. They don’t know, and cannot know, Dink’s life. (Assuming “Dink’s Song” actually begins with Dink, and not from some earlier source, which is a dumb assumption to make.) The narrative of the song is one of loss: the singer has lost a loved one and now cannot go home. Well, everyone has lost a loved one, and people in their 20s often can’t go home for a variety of reasons, so the song is certainly singable by a wide variety of folks. But has Llewyn felt the kind of loss the song implies, and can he go home? And if he cannot, why not? Again, as with “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” the narrative will slowly unfold the answers to those questions.
Llewyn leaves a note on the sideboard: “I was a sorry mess last night.” Because of the previous sequence, we think he’s referring to getting punched in the alleyway. On a second viewing, we realize that Llewyn apparently apologizes for being a mess every goddamned morning. (The notepad gives us the location of the apartment, near Columbia University, and the job of the lessee, a professor in the sociology department. For those unfamiliar with New York geography, Columbia University is at the opposite end of Manhattan from Greenwich Village. And, for the young, it was once possible for downtrodden artists, even folk singers, to live in Greenwich Village in 1961.)
But he’s about to make a worse mess. As he leaves the apartment, the cat gets out and the door locks behind him. And, since this is the Coen Bros, there’s a good bet that the cat “means” something. Let’s say for now that the cat symbolizes “responsibility,” and that Llewyn’s handling of the cat is a mirror of how he handles his other responsibilities. Because, if nothing else, Llewyn is really bad at handling responsibilities. First he tries to fob the cat off on a neighbor (who isn’t home) and then the elevator man (who refuses), then tries to contact the owner (a Professor Gorfein) but gets only his secretary. He gives the secretary a message, “Llewyn has the cat,” which gets repeated back to him as “Llewyn is the cat.” So maybe the symbolism of the cat isn’t that difficult to parse: the cat is Llewyn, Llewyn is the cat.
Considering, however, that Llewyn and the cat end up having markedly different character arcs, maybe Llewyn is not the cat. Or, keeping in mind the last time the Coens contemplated a cat in one of their movies (ie Schroedinger’s cat in A Serious Man), maybe Llewyn is the cat and is not the cat at the same time. In any case, the cat will turn out to be okay, in part, the narrative suggests, because, unlike Llewyn, it pays attention to its surroundings. It watches out the windows of the subway train as it rushes from Columbia University down to Greenwich Village. We don’t know it, but the cat, unlike Llewyn, has plans to make it home.