March 4, 2014

Nothing is A-Changin'

by Luke Burns

At the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, the film takes a surreal turn, looping in on itself. Events from the beginning of the film are repeated, making it seem as though the titular character is doomed to relive the same series of days over and over again—a Groundhog’s Day scenario, only worse, because Llewyn is unaware of this endless, hopeless, repetition. The fear of failing—artistically, financially, and socially--is what pushes Llewyn through the film. But the end shows us that failure isn’t the worst fate that can befall an artist. The worst thing that can happen to an artist is stagnation.

We’re tipped off to this truth by a lyric in the song “Hang Me”, which Llewyn plays at the beginning (and end) of the film: “I wouldn’t mind the hangin’/but the layin’ in the grave so long.” Dying isn’t so bad because, hey, at least something happened.1 What’s really bad is being in a deathlike state—a state in which you’ve done everything you’re ever gonna do, and can’t do anything new. This is the state that Llewyn finds himself in at the end of the film. The film’s allusions to The Odyssey and reference to The Incredible Journey should be seen as counterpoints to, rather than analogues of, Llewyn’s story. In those stories, the characters are trying to get back to where they started, but their journey causes them to change. Llewyn, on the other hand, goes on a journey and returns home, but he doesn’t change, and he doesn’t learn anything.2

Worst of all, the music that Llewyn plays, his supposed raison d’etre, becomes part of this cycle of stagnation. One of Llewyn’s go-to jokes in his on-stage patter is, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” But one could equally say, “If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s Llewyn Davis’s life.” Llewyn doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy playing folk music, though he certainly seems content to play the same songs over and over and over again.3

A question that nagged at me throughout the film is: what is Llewyn’s emotional connection to folk music? Llewyn’s rendition of “Queen Jane”, for example, is incredibly moving, and the song touches on some of the things that he’s grappling with in his life. But the song is not about him, it’s not about his historical moment, and it’s not his voice.  Llewyn doesn’t own the songs he plays, a fact that is driven home when a middle aged midwestern woman takes the stage after him and performs one of the same songs that he just sang. One of the central ideas of folk music is that it’s a common heritage, something we all share—but Llewyn can’t stand seeing someone else playing “his” tunes (see also, Llewyn’s reaction to Mrs. Gorfein joining in when he plays for them at dinner), and his possessiveness drives him to new heights of assholery.

Llewyn is failing his art, but his art is also failing him. Llewyn’s inability to move forward in his own life seems to be connected to his inability to create a coherent narrative about his life through music. He is unable to transform his personal experiences into song, to use his talent to give meaning to those experiences, to merge his life with his art, and as a result, he’s just spinning his wheels.

The main way that the end of the film differs from the beginning is the appearance of Young Bob (as he is called in the credits), who serves as a counterpoint to Llewyn, and points to how Llewyn could move forward. Bob Dylan is an artist who has violently broken with his past many times (not unlike the Coen brothers). During the period in which the film takes place, Bob is still primarily a folk singer, but he’s making the move to playing his own material—indeed, the song he plays when he takes the stage is an original composition. But Llewyn ignores Bob, stalking into an alley behind the club to get a repeat beating at the hands of a mysterious stranger. Young Bob sings “Farwell”, and Llewyn delivers the last line of the film: “Au revoir!” That is, literally, Till I see you again.

Any number of people will be happy to detail all the times that Bob has, in their opinion, failed over the course of his career. And they’d be right, too (sometimes). But failure’s not the worst thing that can happen to a person. There’s a line in “Fare Thee Well” that echoes the one from “Hang Me”: “It aint the leavin’/that’s a-grievin’ me/but my darlin’ who’s bound to stay behind.” Better to move on than to stay behind and find yourself in the condition Bob describes in a very different song he wrote some 30 years later:

                    I was born here and I’ll die here, against my will
                    I know it looks like I’m moving, but I’m standing still

*     *     * 

1 In the same way that, as Roland Turner backhandedly points out, at least it was original for Llewyn’s musical partner to jump off the George Washington Bridge instead of the Brooklyn Bridge.

2 Joyce’s
Ulysses, which also prominently features characters wandering around a city and another artistic young asshole, Steven Daedalus, is actually probably a more apt point of comparison than Homer.

3 “Please Mr. Kennedy” may be total schlock, but at least Llewyn actually seems to actually be having fun when he’s playing it.

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