Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 4
Now, don’t go a-readin’ this here analysis before you’ve seen the movie, because it’s awesome. The movie I mean.
Llewen takes his cat, or rather the Gorfein’s cat, to a friend’s apartment in the Village, drops it off with a saucer of milk and goes to see the guy in charge of his label, Legacy Records. Legacy Records does not seem to be a huge operation. It has, apparently, two employees, Mel and Ginny, both witheringly old. Their office is a mess, they can’t find anything; this is not a high-powered recording company. Llewyn, we learn, is not selling records, and didn’t really sell records when he was part of a duo act either. He doesn’t even have a winter coat (a detail inspired by this record cover).
What does Mel want? Is Mel a marginal chiseler keeping money from his hard-working charges, or is he just barely scraping by himself? It’s difficult to say. Mel seems closely related to any one of the many characters from A Serious Man, he is both things at once. On the one hand, he brushes Llewyn off as a pest, on the other hand he offers him a winter coat. When Llewyn calls Mel on his bluff, Mel gets angry: is he actually angry with Llewyn, or is his anger just part of the bluff, a way to keep his money and his winter coat? Is Mel a good-hearted loser who believes in his sad-sack acts, or is he a penny-pinching miser tone-deaf to commercial trends and incapable of selling an act? He scolds Llewyn for being rude, but then gives him forty dollars. Either the forty dollars is a small percentage of what he owes Llewyn (which other characters later hint at) and/or he’s being generous with an act he considers a friend.
Llewyn makes his way back to his friend Jean’s apartment. Jean is furious, first about the cat, then about being pregnant. (In a movie filled with songs, and plot points, about unborn or missing children, it’s tempting to believe that the cat, unnamed as it is, stands in for one, or all, of those missing children. Which is another way of saying that Llewyn himself is a missing child.) Llewyn is hoping to crash at Jean’s for the night, but finds that his place has been taken by a young soldier named Troy. Troy, it seems, is the exact opposite of Llewyn: a soldier instead of a bohemian, naive instead of streetwise, patriotic instead of cynical, enthusiastic instead of world-weary. The one thing they have in common is that they’re both folk singers. Troy, in fact, is singing at the Gaslight later that night.
(The Gaslight, it occurs to me, also turns up in The Hudsucker Proxy, with Steve Buscemi tending bar. Bob Dylan, who, like the Coens, is a Minnesota Jew, turns up on the soundtrack to The Big Lebowski and, my favorite, as the unspoken punchline to a joke in The Ladykillers, when Irma P. Hall makes a reference to a civil-rights event being attended by “a Jew with a guitar,” a line spoken as though “a Jew with a guitar” was as wondrous and as absurd as a pig with wings.)
Troy sings his number at the Gaslight (“The Last Thing on My Mind” by Tom Paxton — a tiny bit anachronistic, since Paxton wouldn’t record it until 1964). It is, once again, a tale of lost love, of sorrow and separation — none of the songs on the Llewyn Davis soundtrack have happy endings, or even rousing choruses. The word most of them share is “Farewell.” (With one wicked exception, which we’ll get to soon.) Troy holds his own at the Gaslight, much to Llewyn’s bafflement and dismay. Jean’s boyfriend Jim shows up and confirms the audience’s opinion: “Wonderful performer,” he gushes, “Wonderful.”
Llewyn takes the opportunity to ask Jim for money to pay for an abortion. He doesn’t mention that the girl who needs the abortion is Jim’s own girlfriend Jean. Jim can’t do it, he couldn’t give Llewyn money for “another” abortion without telling Jean.
Up on stage, Troy finishes his number to warm applause. (Oddly enough, “finger snapping” is not represented in this movie, even though the Gaslight is where the cliched beatnik habit took root: the upstairs neighbors of the Gaslight complained about the noise, forcing the audiences to find a quieter way of expressing their appreciation.) He begins to ask “someone special” to come up and join him on stage, and Llewyn rolls his eyes. He can’t stand to be called upon to perform, certainly not by the likes of a straight-arrow loser like Troy. His consternation is misplaced: Troy asks Jim and Jean to come up instead, leaving Llewyn doubly insulted. Now he’s been overlooked by a straight-arrow loser.
(Llewyn keeps the entire world at arm’s length, but has he earned his weariness, or is it all just a pose? As someone remarked recently, Llewyn’s primadonna behavior would be forgiven if he were a genius, but he’s not a genius. He’s doing all the things Bob Dylan did at the same time – sleep on people’s couches, skulk through the streets of NYC with a guitar on his back, break hearts and be a jerk – but he doesn’t have Dylan’s magnetism and raw talent. In a way, Llewyn’s problem may be that he loves folk music too much to sully it, whereas Dylan started sullying it early on, cannibalizing it for its raw elements and spinning them into pop gold. If Llewyn had become successful, would he have also “gone electric,” or would he have been one of the ones jeering Dylan that fateful day?)
Onstage, Troy, Jim and Jean sing “Five Hundred Miles,” another song of painful separation, this time about a lonely railroad man who is too ashamed of his poverty to come home. Llewyn, we will learn, is also poverty-stricken, but need he be? He seems to have chosen his path when easier paths were laid before him. (There is also the matter of the not-talked-about breakup of his duo act, which we’ll get to later.) The song is a big hit in the room, everyone in the club seems to know it and sings along, much to Llewyn’s dismay. Pappi, the club’s owner, plops himself down next to Llewyn and says “That Jean. I’d like to fuck her.” His profanity sticks a sharp needle into the glowing balloon of the trio’s performance, and we feel violated that he’d bring such a base show-business attitude to such purity. But then Llewyn nods and says “Uh-huh,” and we realized that he, too, thought the exact same thing the first time he saw Jean onstage. If Jean is the purity of folk, Pappi is the music industry ready to make folk its bitch.