Sunday, February 16, 2014

Please, Mr. Kennedy: Deconstructing Inside Llwelyn Davis

All of us know how incredibly behind I am on posts; I am taking precious time to draw your attention to the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis; why? Because being "inside" Llewyn Davis is actually being "inside" the life of a socialist (Davis attempts to rejoin the Merchant Marines towards the end of the film but can't, not because he's a communist, as he states, but because of the ridiculous red tape imposed by the union). The Coen Brothers are remarkably talented, and this latest film provides opportunities to discuss their film on a number of levels and a variety of creative ways; it's also one of a very few anti-socialist films being released (another example would be The Book Thief). How do we know the film is pro-capitalist? Mozart.
This post, as always, contains spoilers, but I don't think your experience of the film will actually be ruined with this spoiler. In the trailer above, Jean (Carey Mulligan) tells Llewyn that everything is going to keep happening to him because he wants it to,... towards the end of the film, you realize, everything is starting over and going to happen again. Why? We will spend the post discussing this through various levels of text the Coens present to us. One of the popular approaches critics use to discuss films is called the auteur approach: it's French (meaning "author") and based on a particular director imparting their vision to the film they are creating: for example, you "know" an Alfred Hitchcock film when you see it, there are techniques he employs that no one else does (well, "did") and you know the feel of his films, like Steven Spielberg (before 2008) or David Lean, Fellini, Wes Anderson, etc. The Coens, because of the body of work they have built, and because they have a specific "style," could be approached from the angle of "What makes a Coen Brothers' film a Coen Brothers' film?" and you could analyze and compare all of them. We're not going to do that, however, the various characteristics of Inside Llewyn Davis we will be discussing can be applied to their other films as well (especially how they use music to create a sub-text of commentary).  
Davis sings folk songs, so, as he himself says, "They are never new, but they never get old," and he didn't write any of them. We have visited the "politics of music" in a film from last year, The House At the End of the Street (Jennifer Lawrence, Elisabeth Shue). Lawrence's character is a budding musician using the latest technology and entering music competitions, whereas the socialist symbol of the film is still stuck listening to music on cassette tapes from the early 1990s (please see Everything Is a Secret: House At-the End Of the Street fore more). In what is basically the next point in the story, Davis wakes up in an apartment (the viewer isn't sure where) and Davis listens to Mozart; why is this important?
Because F. Murray Abraham is in the film.
I think this is from the opening scene. Llewyn sings at The Gaslight Café which was a historical location for poets and singers; case in point: towards the end, when Llewyn exits to go see "his friend" outside, the not-famous Bob Dylan has got on stage to start his act. Davis complains throughout the film about how the Gaslight is a dead end and worthless, however, the Coen Brothers wanted to emphasize that many famous artists got started there and Davis' inability to launch a career was not due to a lack of opportunity, rather, a lack of talent (we will substantiate this further a bit later). Why bother to do this? Most of us in the audience probably don't have much of an ear for music--okay, at least I don't--so the film makers take pains to illustrates that those who have an ear for music, and who have the respect of their peers, don't see much talent "inside Llewyn Davis," which is probably where the name comes from: by the end of the film, you realize there is nothing good inside Llewyn Davis, just someone who thinks he is better than everyone else, and that lack of innate goodness bears the equivalent fruit (fruit that's not so good, mediocrity). Davis' condescending attitude towards Troy (who tells Davis that Grossman has signed him to his label and is a very good man) is later heightened in how Roland Turner treats Davis (the film makers have to treat Davis carefully so the audience will keep "identifying" with him throughout the film, but Roland Turner gives us the concentrated dose of Davis' unlikeability which Davis himself hints at when he meets Troy and Davis tells him that Jean never ever said anything nice about Davis to anyone.
In 1984, Amadeus, starring Abraham, was released to great critical acclaim and introduced a new generation to the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It can be argued that bringing this into Inside Llewyn Davis, based on Abraham being in the film, is unfounded, however, we hear Lacrimosa in the first few minutes of the film, Mozart's piece featured in Amadeus and an intimate scene between Mozart and Salieri, and, we can further argue that Grossman listening to Davis' playing music is meant to invoke Abraham's role as Salieri (this was all done in Last Action Hero, when Abraham was marked by the little kid, "He killed Mozart!"). So, what's the point? Llewyn Davis, who fancies himself a professional musician, is not Mozart, but he wants to be treated like he is. Davis has not received any payment for his latest album (because they are not selling), and he seeks a new agent in Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) and Davis has traveled all the way from New York City to Chicago to try and pick up a new agent. In the trailer at the top, the scene takes place from 1:36 to the end; Davis plays The Death Of Queen Jane, and the song is in this video (just the song):
You have to admit, at 1:49 in the trailer at the top, Grossman is sitting in an odd position: across from another man with his legs spread wide apart; why? Grossman is an agent that only makes money by selling new albums and talent, so it's imperative for him to be signing new talent; the genitals are the area from whence new life springs, so we could say that Grossman sitting with his legs apart towards Davis reveals that Grossman is, literally, in the position to bring forth new life in the form of a huge career opportunity for Davis. When Davis finishes playing The Death of Queen Jane, Grossman says, "I don't see any money in this," and says that Davis isn't a good solo act, but immediately offers him a job with a trio he's putting together. Davis has been broke the entire film and doesn't have any options left for a career in music; most of us would humble ourselves and take the job and be grateful, but Davis refuses and leaves. Why has this scene happened, and what does it mean for Davis to respond the way he does?
Why does the cat (Ulysses) escape? The window is open, sure, but that's not why the cat escapes, that's how. The cat escapes because Davis has to ask Troy's name again; not caring about who he is introduced to, and being a snob (or maybe he does remember and he doesn't want to look like he remembers) Llwelyn Davis does in this scene what he does throughout the whole film: he makes a bad decision. Yes, forgetting the name of someone (and this is art so it's an absolute, not our day-to-day lives) is forgetting that person, and there is a regrettable stream of such situations in Llewlyn's life. The cat, then, escapes because that part of Llwelyn that could have been great and heroic like Ulysses, also escapes, and it's the little things in life that add up to the big ones. Davis could have been great, but in all the little things in his life that he has messed up, he has also messed up becoming what he was meant to become. That the cat escapes through the window, and finds his way back home through a window (on the fire escape) testifies to the "deeper" meaning of the scene: windows symbolize reflection; as Davis "reflects" the cat escapes because Llewlyn has lost within himself whatever the viewer decides the cat symbolizes.  
Davis wants all or nothing: he wants to be famous, not sharing in the glory with others, which leads us to Roland Turner (John Goodman) and his sidekick Johnny Five; what's their purpose? They re-iterate the thesis above, that some people think they are better than others, and Roland offers an extreme example of being better than everyone, which is why he is "crippled," he can't value anyone but himself. His heroine addiction symbolizes how he gets high from "injecting" himself with compliments and self-importance.  Davis' desire for "all or nothing" can be seen in another character tied to the theory of infant death: Loki from Thor the Dark World. Davis has two abortions tied to his character--the one that didn't happen, and the one Jean is supposed to get--and Odin (Anthony Hopkins) tells Loki he would have died as an infant if Odin hadn't saved him. Like Davis, Loki wants to rule others he feels he is superior to (Davis thinks he's superior to Troy, to the Gorfeins [he yells at the wife at dinner during the song], to the poor woman on stage he heckles and her husband beats him up, to Al Cody, and probably even to his dead partner Mike, not to mention his father and sister). Is there a segment in our society today who thinks they are superior to everyone else and wants to rule over all those they treat with contempt?
John Goodman plays Roland Turner, the highly condescending "backseat driver" who we the audience are supposed to "turn-over" and see as an extension of Llewyn Davis, i.e., Davis "turning" into "Turner" if Davis doesn't convert. Is that the "soul" purpose of Roland Turner? I don't think so. As we will see with the cat, the name "Roland" is ambiguous but full of meaning, just like the name of "Llewyn." Roland is not a typical name, so it possibly refers to French philosopher Roland Barthes, who didn't like the idea of the auteur theory, rather preferred what he called "the Author and the scriptor": the lone author slaving over a work isn't realistic because of all the influences we come into contact and are then incorporated into our lives and work; so rather than an author, Barthes proposed instead the "scriptor" who comes up with a work based on several other works encountered; this, along with other theories of Barthes', could refer to the Coens. On the other hand, it's highly possible that the character of Roland Turner actually refers to the Song Of Roland, a medieval French text about the soldier Roland who became overwhelmed by enemy forces and was too proud to call for help. Do we see that in Davis? For example, does he ever ask for help getting through the suicide of his partner Mike? He refuses the coat he original agent offers to give Davis, and we see how many times Davis was in need of a good winter coat. Does Davis ever ask for help thinking through his ex-girlfriend's non-abortion (his child he didn't know he has?)? Granted, we see Davis crashing on the couches of many, but does Llewyn Davis ever ask for help from anyone? To de-stabilize the name of Roland even more, we can observe that the name "Roland" sounds like the word "rollin" because Davis rolls from place to place without ever staying in one locale. What's the purpose of exploring all these different meanings? We'll touch on that below in discussion on the cat.
Bashing Llewyn's lack of talent might be a little harsh of me, so let us consider one further example: Llewyn's dad. The first we hear that Llewyn's dad is still alive is when he mentions to his sister that he doesn't want to end up "just existing" like their father. Given Davis' ties to abortion, his rejection of the dignity of the elderly is completely in-line with his liberal views. A liberal would probably argue, but his father defecates all over himself, I wouldn't want to live like that, so Llewyn is right; what happened before Mr. Davis defecated over himself though? His son sang a song, and we all know how parents tend to take excessive pride in their children, but even Mr. Davis knows his son is "crap."
We will get to the cat in a moment, however, let's know talk about what "Llewyn" means, after all, Roland brings it up and it's a detail worthy of investigation. In Welsh, "Llewyn" means "lion-like." As far as I can remember, there is no lion, only the domesticated cat that belongs to the Gorfeins (Davis holds in this image and looks pretty upset). Davis is destined to become a lion, but right now, he's at the level of a house cat, and even that he loses. Why? Because of the bad moral decisions he makes constantly, like sleeping with a married woman (Jean), not valuing life--either of the child he has in Akron, the possible child he might have with Jean, or his aged father--not having a strong work ethic (turning down the job Grossman offers him), not bearing with people (Mrs. Gorfein when she starts singing with him), etc. Instead of growing into a lion, Llewlyn Davis shrinks smaller than a house cat, because compared to Llwelyn, the cat is a lion and he's a mouse. 
Now, let's move onto what, for many, is the obvious highlight of the film: the song Please, Mr. Kennedy (it was not written for the film, nor by Justin Timberlake, who portrays Jim, but by Mickey Wood, who wrote it, about not being sent to the war in Vietnam, NOT about being sent into outer space. In this scene, Davis, out of money and needing to pay for Jean's abortion, gets a message that Jim needs a backup guitarist to record his new song, which Davis is happy to oblige, so they practice the song (the third guy is Al Cody who plays a small part in the film). Like all music in films by the Coen Brothers, this song speaks volumes:
We could spend a lot of time analyzing in great detail, but let's just take some of the "surface" features. First, what role does Al Cody play in this song? We could say that he acts as a "sub-text," emphasizing certain parts of the song with his back-up vocal, even creating a marginal text leading us to ask, "Why would the Coen Brothers focus on going into outer space instead of the Vietnam War?" We should all ready know the answer to that. Gravity, starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, is an anti-space travel film, the whole purpose of the movie is to get back to the "safety" of earth (please see Gravity: Buddha & Da Vinci for more). In undermining the winning stroke of the Cold War when America won the space race, Gravity centers itself against films such as Men In Black 3, Star Trek Into Darkness and the upcoming Interstellar (Christopher Nolan). Even though Kennedy was a Democrat, the film makers illustrate how "turn-coat" (pun on Roland Turner's name) the liberals are (like Timberlake) who don't want America to succeed and be a world power, rather, want America to be weak and socialist. Again, before they start recording, and Davis leans over and asks, "Who wrote this?" Davis exhibits his self-proclaimed superiority (the film acknowledges that the song is a big hit, unlike any of Davis' work).
In the "Cat Trailer," just below, at 0:34, we see Jean talking about Llewyn sleeping on the floor with the cat while handing him a note that says, "IM PREGNANT." Later, Jean and Llewyn have a talk: it's possible the baby is Jim's, but Jean has no way of knowing, so she wants Llewyn to pay for the abortion. Llewyn doesn't have the money, so he was going to borrow it from Jim, who says he is happy to lend money to Llweyn (not realizing what it is for) but has to let Jean know, so Llweyn says never mind; then, Llewyn gets a call from Jim that there is this gig. Given how Jean writes the note, "IM" with no apostrophe between the "I" and the "M," we might deduce that she knows the baby is Jim's, but her and Jim want an abortion, but decide to have Llewyn pay for it since, as it is discovered, he knows an abortionist because of setting up an abortion for a past girlfriend. It's possible, though not necessarily certain, that Jim gives the Please, Mr. Kennedy gig so that Llewyn has money to pay for his wife's abortion. This seems to be easily supported when Pappi--the owner of The Gaslight--discloses that he, too, has slept with Jean, so no telling how many affairs she has had but Jim probably has some idea and doesn't want the kid, either.
Let's discuss the cat.
We don't get the name of the cat until near the end of the film, when it's revealed the cat is named "Ulysses." There are, like the name "Roland," at least three potential references for what we are meant to understand by "Ulysses." Please watch this short trailer which highlights some of the scenes the cat is in:
Most viewers will think of the Trojan War and the Greek war hero Odysseus (Ulysses was his Roman name) and, like Odysseus, the cat in the film certainly has a journey getting back home like Ulysses. There is a second possibility: Ulysses the novel by James Joyce. Someone could say, but Joyce's novel is based upon the original myth, so they are basically the same thing; however, the "madness" and the underlying orderliness of the madness makes Joyce's novel perhaps an even better reference point for the Coen Brothers themselves inserting "enigmas" into the film (such as the ambiguous animal Davis hits with the car). There is a third possibility as well: Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general and 18th president of the US. Why would he be possible? Think of how divided America is today over the communism in the White House, and how divided we were during the Civil War. Now on to the next big question the film presents us,....
Llewlyn sees this poster after being informed that Ulysses made it home on his own; the problem is, the film takes place in 1961 and The Incredible Journey wasn't released until November 20, 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy, whom the film discusses in the song, Please, Mr. Kennedy. Such a "historical blunder" is certainly no blunder, but an intentional commentary; how? Well, it's ambiguous, it rather depends upon what you think the rest of the film means, but one possible reading is that, if Kennedy had not have died while in office, perhaps the Democratic party would have turned out to be very different from the American Communist Party we have today.
As Davis drives, past Ohio, the car hits an animal as he doses off to sleep and he awakes with a jolt; when he gets out, he sees some smallish animal, but can't make out what it is. What animals does Llewyn Davis hit with the car? It's ambiguous. Ambiguity is a technical, artistic tool, and this is a perfect example of how well it can be employed. It has been suggested that Davis hits--or at least thinks he hits--the cat he left in the back seat of the car with Roland Turner (and this scene has ties to Roland, like when Roland Turner overdoses and passes out, Davis nearly "passes out" into sleep when driving back through Ohio). The point of ambiguity is to put more of the audience into the scene than the characters. For example, depending on how well you have been watching the film, you know that's not really the Gorfeins' cat, it's female that looks like a male; there is also the point that Davis seems to take better care of the cat than his own family members and friends. On the other hand, it could be a completely wild animal, we don't know, but we do know--and this reveals a lot about me, which is what the scene is meant to do--before it happens, Davis has driven past Akron, OH, where his old girlfriend went to have Davis' baby that he had paid for her to abort but she didn't. Driving, Davis debated getting off the exit to Akron, but he doesn't, he let's it pass him by, and maybe a part of Davis was that animal that got hit and will probably die, just like Davis.
It truly adds a depressing note, that the cat is capable of finding his way back home, but Llewlyn isn't, Llewlyn can't seem to find his way anywhere. What about Mike, the partner who committed suicide? We know his name is Mike, short for Michael, which means, "Who compares to God?" Further, we know Mike jumped off the George Washington Bridge, not--as Roland Turner points out--the Brooklyn Bridge, which is where people go to jump to their death, but the George Washington Bridge. When Davis goes to stay at the house of Al Cody--the third guy in the Please, Mr. Kennedy song--there is a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge over the couch where Davis sleeps that night (but, like Davis, hauling around a box of his albums that haven't sold, Davis finds a box of unsold Al Cody records under the end table). At this point in the film, we don't know that Mike jumped off a bridge, but the photograph suggests one of three possibilities: first, since Davis sleeps underneath the picture, Davis' own fate will be to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge; two, since Cody has it hanging up in his apartment, and isn't succeeding either, Cody might jump from the bridge, or, thirdly, both of them will end up jumping off the bridge (at different times, not together). But if Mike was Davis' partner, he was--artistically speaking--half of Llwelyn Davis, just as Roland Turner is a part of Llwelyn Davis, and the cat, and the two little aborted children, and the poor old, silent father in the nursing home, etc., so we could say that Mike symbolizes Davis' religion--"Who compares to God?"--and Davis' sense of patriotism (the George Washington bridge and the Founding Fathers, as opposed to the communists Davis claims he is). In this case, artistically speaking still, it's not so much that Mike threw himself over the bridge, as Llewlyn Davis threw Mike--and all he symbolizes--over the bridge, thinking he could do better without him, then realizing he was wrong.
There is another, ambiguous aspect to the film, at both the start and end: who is the "friend" in the alleyway? We see the "friend" two times: first, at the start of the film. Given that he is all blacked out, and has such a deep voice, he almost seems a "satanic" figure. By the end of the film, however, when we see the reason why the "friend" has beat up Davis (because his wife had tried to perform at The Gaslight the night before and Davis heckled her terribly) we realize, yea, this guy is beating Davis to a pulp, but Davis deserves it so this guy is his friend. Rather like conservatives, who seem satanic to the liberals--if the liberals believed in satan--a service is truly being done in not allowing someone to be so anti-social and disrespectful of people. Davis, who obviously has not respect for women (not that any of them have given him a reason to) will hopefully not make the mistake again and will be humbled by the beating.
Carey Mulligan portrays Jean, who is actually an interesting character. When she, Troy and Jim sing 500 Miles, the camera frames her in such a way as to present her "angelically," with her very attractive face and a kind of innocence about her, even as you are discovering what a little whore she is, and that's the intention: depicting her as an angel who should be an angel but isn't because she behaves so immorally,... like a feminist (promiscuous sex, abortions, a foul mouth). Just as Llewlyn is called to "be a lion" but doesn't even measure out as a house cat, so Jean is called to be an angel but hardly even passes for a human being with as hard-hearted as she is. To validate this point, Jean and Davis have coffee in a café to set up the abortion and Jean is going off on what a lousy person Davis is, who will keep making the same mistakes over and over because he wants the same things to keep happening to him. Davis thinks he sees the Gorfeins' cat out the window and runs after the cat, picking it up and taking it inside with him; we later discover that this isn't the Gorfeins' cat because it doesn't have Ulysses' scrotum. In other words, the moment Jean tells Davis what a generally lousy person he is (as she's the one getting ready to kill a baby inside of her, and is so promiscuous she doesn't even know whose baby it is) Davis mistakes a female cat for a male cat, or, Davis' own sexual/masculine identity has been perverted, not only because he doesn't stand up to Jean, but because he has "lost his own scrotum" in not caring about his offspring Jean is supposedly carrying.
As usual, we have barely scraped the surface of the film, but I hope this at least gives you some ideas as to how complex the Coen Brothers' latest film is. To close, this is the last number performed in the film, Fare Thee Well, which was the best song Mike and Llewlyn performed, and Llewlyn hadn't performed it since Mike's death, but was able to this night, and is definitely his best performance; in performing the song, it's almost like, instead of "fare thee well," Llewlyn Davis is saying, "welcome back home," and let's try not to let this happen again:
Eat Your Art Out,
The Fine Art Diner
P.S.--Here is the original Please, Mr. Kennedy, by Mickey Wood, which was actually about not wanting to be sent to the Vietnam War; it's an interesting song, especially given how it was changed up for the film: