Coen Bros: Inside Llewyn Davis part 8
So Llewyn, for the first time in a while, is now truly homeless, due to circumstances entirely within his control. For the next few days, his home is Al Cody’s car, which is being driven to Chicago by a couple of friends of Al’s. He takes his cat, which is not the Gorfein’s cat and not his cat, in fact we don’t know whose cat it is, and neither does Llewyn. The cat is, currently, just another orphan of the storm of Llewyn’s life. Spoiler alert!
Driving the car is Beat Personified Johnny Five, and in the back seat is old-time Jazzbo Roland Turner. Roland is full of stories, and full of himself, full of the romance of the road and the life of the musician. He’s not stuffy and ascetic like the Gorfeins’ early music friends, and he doesn’t seem to be an urban hick like Al or a striving careerist like Jim. He’s definitely run down though, you can tell that his time in the spotlight has ended. He’s trudging around the museum of his memories now. Is that the future of Llewyn, a fat old has-been with his stories and his condescension and his bum leg and his need for frequent bathroom stops? Is that cost of “authenticity?”
Even though Llewyn just refused to sing for the Gorfeins, he sees nothing wrong with singing for Johnny Five and Roland, even though Roland is asleep and would prefer to remain that way, and Johnny hasn’t said five words since the trip began. Llewyn’s music can be, it seems, anything he wants it to be at any given moment: a precious gift, an expression of the self, a valuable commodity or an impertinent irritant, a jab to the more high-falutin’ music of his elders, almost a proto-punk.
Roland needles Llewyn about the ease of folk, suggesting that it’s not a form for “serious” musicians – that’s his argument for jazz’s “authenticity.” Llewyn then tells Roland (and us) the fate of his partner Mike: he threw himself of the George Washington Bridge. Even that strikes Roland as inauthentic: a real musician, he says, would throw himself off the Brooklyn Bridge. When Llewyn retaliates with a threat, Roland strikes back with a threat of voodoo: one day, he says, “your life will be shit, and I’ll be somewhere laughing my ass off.” And while it’s easy to believe Llewyn’s life will one day be shit (he’s pretty much there already), it’s hard to buy that Roland will be laughing anywhere at all.
While Roland and Llewyn are sleeping, Johnny Five suddenly turns chatty. “Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs, Orlovsky,” is his idea of a conversational salvo. He then mentions that he did “Three weeks in The Brig” (even though that play was not produced for another two years). The production was “closed by the cops. Long story.” The short version of the long story, for those interested, was that The Brig offered an intense, no-holds-barred depiction of life in a Marine prison. The show was such a sensation that congressional hearings were called to investigate the events depicted in the show and the theater producing the show was closed. That, the scene seems to suggest, is the price of “authenticity” – you get shut down by the authorities.
That night, at a rest stop, Johnny Five treats his companions to some of his poetry. Johnny seems to be a self-styled Beat, and while Roland appears to like Johnny’s poem well enough, Llewyn is not impressed. The Beats had hit the scene a good five years before the winter of 1961, which to my mind makes Johnny Five a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, an imitator, and thus inauthentic. It’s not authentic to imitate something five years old, it is, however, authentic to sing a song that’s a hundred years old.
Roland excuses himself to use the bathroom, the third time we’ve seen him do so. When Llewyn comes to the men’s room, he finds Roland passed out in a heroin crash: what we thought was a weak bladder is really a bad habit. So we can add “crippling addiction” to Roland’s other “authentic” qualities. And it’s perhaps worth noting that the word “hip” originated with the jazz musicians of Roland’s time, as a term to differentiate between those who used heroin and those who did not. Roland is a portrait of what happens when hip becomes old.