Friday, January 10, 2014

Folk musicians totally miss the point of Inside Llewyn Davis

Not sure why I should be surprised that folk musicians are disappointed in the Coen brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. Their work expresses an often bleak worldview with protagonists who are, more often than not, deeply flawed idiots. The brothers themselves have even referred to their three films starring George Clooney as the Clooney Idiot Trilogy. But people are usually turned off by dark, bleak, or superficially nihilistic tales, so why would folk musicians be any different? They are, by definition, musicians for "the people," after all.

The problem with the criticisms coming from the contemporary folk music scene is that they seem to want the Coens to have made a movie they didn't actually set out to make. They want Inside Llewyn Davis to be a historical representation of the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 60s. They wanted something they could walk away from feeling self-congratulatory about. It seems many have also been under the impression that the Coens were trying to make a Dave Van Ronk biopic when, in fact, Van Ronk's memoir served only as a jumping off point - an entry into that world from which they could draw some inspiration and detail. Instead, what the folkies got was a sepia-toned melancholic portrait of a character. That's right - a character - a work of fiction!

Llewyn Davis is a self-important louse. He's not the most likable of characters, even by Coen brothers standards, but he's not supposed to be representative of any particular historical figure. Nor is the film meant to educate the American public on what happened in that tiny enclave of Manhattan fifty years ago. They rather purposefully left out any reference to politics and civil unrest that was going on around that time specifically because the focus is on Llewyn. The setting and the musical tradition is background paint that helps inform. But look at any Coen brothers film, especially the truly stylized period pieces such as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Barton Fink, The Man Who Wasn't There, and Miller's Crossing and tell me you think those were intended to be historical films. They all take place in a darkly romantic fantasy vision of Depression-era southern dust bowl, WWII period Los Angeles, post-war American suburbia, and a Prohibition-era gangster-run noir city.

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