Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 5











This movie is still in theaters. If you keep reading this analysis, things will be spoiled for you. Just sayin’.

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The morning after Troy performs to such acclaim, Llewyn wakes up on the floor of Jim and Jean’s apartment. Normally, he would have slept on Jim and Jean’s couch, but his place has been given to Troy. Now, Llewyn is woken by the sound of Troy eating breakfast cereal, sitting straight back on a rocking chair, the bowl in his hands. “Well that was very good,” he remarks after finishing his simple meal: the tiniest pleasures are a cause for reflection in Troy’s world.

“What’s next?” says Llewyn. “Do you plug yourself in somewhere?” Llewyn sees the guileless Troy as a machine, a robot, a tool of the military-industrial complex. Troy (a Trojan horse?) sets Llewyn straight on that tip: he’s in the army for the discipline, but he’s getting out in a few months and is going to become a folk singer. He mentions one Bud Grossman, a club-owner and big wheel who has expressed interest in representing Troy. Every Coen Bros movie has its head guy, the guy from whom all power flows, and Bud Grossman is this movie’s. Bud Grossman (whose name means, literally, “big man”), we gather, has “cracked the code” of making a living off of Folk music. He has his club, The Gate of Horn (which was a real club in Chicago), which, the reader will not be shocked to learn, has roots in Greek mythology. There are two gates, one of horn and one of ivory, through which dreams pass. The gate of horn produces “true” dreams, and the gate of ivory produces “deceptive” dreams. A nightclub called The Gate of Horn, then, would be a place where one would go to hear the truth, as expressed through dreams, which is what songs (and movies) really are. So Bud Grossman, we gather, will be a final arbiter of truth and deception. He likes Troy, and therefore we gather that Troy represents truth, at least for Bud Grossman.

But for now, the point of the scene is that Troy has taken his youth and invested it in a craving for discipline, which is one thing Llewyn has decidedly not done. A self-styled artist, Llewyn has to “feel” it or else he can’t abide it. And if his path hurts or offends, that’s the offended party’s problem. The one creature he feels any responsibility toward is the Gorfein’s cat, who, when Llewyn opens the window to have a cigarette, dashes out of and vanishes into the great city. Llewyn is more upset about the cat getting lost than he is about Jean’s unborn child. Perhaps because the cat sort of is Jean’s unborn child, or perhaps another of Llewyn’s unborn children, all those potential lives out there, just as Troy is a potential version of Llewyn.

Llewyn takes Jean out to Washington Square Park to talk about her pregnancy. The headline of the scene is “Jean Does Not Like Llewyn.” “You should not be in contact with any living thing,” she hisses. She so regrets having sex with him that she would rather abort her pregnancy than risk the chance that the baby might be Llewyn’s. We’re reminded that Llewyn has been down this road before, with a “Diane,” and “knows a doctor.”

After Jean’s anger is somewhat spent, she says “I miss Mike.” Mike, the reader will recall, was Llewyn’s old singing partner. The tone in Jean’s voice suggests that perhaps she was in love with Mike, and perhaps had sex with Llewyn because he reminded her of him. Perhaps they both missed Mike, and spent a night together to comfort each other. For that matter, the death of Mike may be the inciting incident of Llewyn’s downfall, although he seems to have had plenty of personality issues before that event. In any case, Mike, dead as he is, has made the genuine final farewell, that one gesture that clearly separates the authentically pained from the posers.



5 Responses to “Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 5”
  1. Michael Avolio says:

    Great analysis so far. Curious where you’d put the act breaks. The trip to Chicago feels like a strange departure from the main narrative to me, but maybe that’s due to the pace of it more than anything else.

    It bears mentioning that Bud Grossman is at least partly influenced by Albert Grossman, who put Peter, Paul and Mary together (hinted at in the film) and ended up managing Dylan himself.

    I wonder if other characters are based on anyone in particular… I haven’t read the Van Ronk book.

    • Todd says:

      I’m going to say that the movie has four acts. The trip to Chicago begins the third act, and the third-act low point is Bud Grossman’s rejection. The rest of the movie is the fourth act.

      I wouldn’t say that Bud Grossman is based on Albert Grossman, if only because, with the exception of Dylan, none of the characters in the movie are anything at all like their real-life counterparts. Llewyn shares a couple of biographical details with Dave van Ronk, but absolutely none of his personality, and the movie is pretty clear about that. Although Albert Grossman did, in fact, run the Gate of Horn folk club, so you may be entirely correct.

      • Michael Avolio says:

        In addition to the Gate of Horn connection, there’s also the Peter, Paul, and Mary thing — Albert Grossman put them together, and Van Ronk was briefly considered to be a part of that. I assume that’s what Bud Grossman is alluding to when he asks Davis if he’d be interested in the trio he’s putting together.
        But the Grossmans (Grossmen?) do seem to have different personalities, from what I’ve heard about Albert Grossman, just as Davis has a different personality than Van Ronk.

        Thanks for the act info!

  2. Tom McHenry says:

    The Washington Square Park scene made me think about the symbolism of coats in this movie similar to hats in Miller’s Crossing or suits in Hudsucker Proxy. Llewyn, we’re told repeatedly, has no winter coat, yet he gets offered one and turns it down, then in this scene wears Jim’s coat (even though we’ve clearly seen he’s willing to suffer the cold of just his blazer when it suits him). Something, something, I dunno, coats as stability? Or coats as a kind of outward appearance and personality?

  3. “But for now, the point of the scene is that Troy has taken his youth and invested it in a craving for discipline, which is one thing Llewyn has decidedly not done. A self-styled artist, Llewyn has to “feel” it or else he can’t abide it. And if his path hurts or offends, that’s the offended party’s problem.”

    I think this is a slightly perverted way to look at the foil between Llewyn and Troy in this scene.

    What’s far more significant to my eye, than Troy’s pride and celebration of discipline, is the insignificance he places on his failure to believe in war. “I don’t even condone war toys,” he solemnly declares. And yet he’d just as soon wear the uniform and sign his name to actions that by definition go against his will.

    (Talk about “connecting to people!” Troy connects to people not with his sweet voice! But with a gun, by coercion, or by a drone, a stealth voice that lulls you to give up your cash. He connects by being a daft hypocrite, something like Forest Gump in his ability to reflect upon himself, sure only of the certainty of following orders.)

    Well, he sells his will for what? Not discipline. That’s an excuse. A fetish. A rationalization. And that’s why we laugh when Llewyn calls him a robot. He’s following a program, hardly better than a computer. (Similar to things you’ve said already.)

    I’ll tell you this. The man (Troy) wears a lot of green. Green is a very strong theme or character of its own in this film. In the dead of winter. What is a greater way “to hurt and offend” than indulging a war machine driven by money as Troy does?

    It is true that Llewyn is somewhat callous, offensive and hurtful, but we must remember that we are inside his dream! We are all angels and demons in equal measure in our dreams. In dream we become whole and express everything. We play all archetypes there.

    [The sources of Llewyn’s anger and where and how he directs it is an interesting digression to consider.]

    My issue with the quoted excerpt is that it privileges Troy’s behavior and diminishes Llewyn’s, without the mockery attended to Troy in the film. Even if that’s part of Llewyn’s character study, to be the perennial loser who can’t get his shit together… It’s like seeing the hero only through consumer-proletariate eyes, wherein the only value is that which can be reduced to some quantitative currency, as base as money.

    The Hero (our hero, Llewyn) seeks alignment between the microcosm of his body (the body, which acts out will) and the macrocosm of the earth by way of making his words sing true and to resonate through people’s hearts and memories, aspiring to remake the world (in 7 days, no less), such that he may then project that body-earth alignment from the microcosm of the earth onto the firmament and thus himself become a god. But he fails, as we all* do, in riding the cycle over and again.

    It is not some crummy expressionistic, ego-gratifying, subjective individuation that Llewyn seeks in his journey (here above refashioned as a sort of ‘life-style’ choice.) He already knows himself plenty. After all, while Troy stands in this scene, Llewyn is reclined, wrapped in the fabric of the rainbow in its myriad patterns and configurations. He is one with the cosmos.

    [There is some suggestion in the imagery that Llewyn may be the fateful age of 27, verging on Saturn’s return.]

    He is seeking Legacy, Royalty, assent to the God-head, to timelessness.

    Which brings us back to folk. If it was never new, and it doesn’t get old…

    It’s real. The way dreams are real. Or songs are real. Or stories. Movies. A glimpse beyond the veil.

    Otherwise, this is an incredible summary so far. Most thorough review I’ve seen. I’ve a lot to expound in some other areas. Mostly in agreement. Thanks for re-painting it so clearly and creating this opportunity.


    *Well, most of us fail to project our images upon the firmament. Dylan was saddled with that crown of god-head and look how it treated him. Holding up Dylan as the measure of success, while speaking of Llewyn’s failure, is hyperbolically absurd. It’s like holding up Shakespeare or Newton and saying everyone else is a failure.