Thursday, March 13, 2014

The key to Llewyn Davis

There are spoilers everywhere in this post. If you haven't seen it but plan to, stop reading right here. It's also long, long, long. And, as if this isn't long enough, I'll have another post about the role that jazz plays in the story next week.

                   … Come, my friends,
     'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
     Push off, and sitting well in order smite
     The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
     To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
     Of all the western stars, until I die.
     It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
     It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
     And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Dave Van Ronk was collaborating with Elijah Wald to write a book about Ronk's experiences in the heyday of the New York City folk scene. They were a team. Then Dave Van Ronk died and Wald ended up finishing the book. It started off being a book by Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald ended up being a book about Dave Van Ronk by Elijah Wald.

The Coen brothers bought the rights to make a movie based on the book and then made a movie, not about Dave Van Ronk, but about a fictional character named Llewyn Davis who has a lot of the same experiences Ronk had.

That is what this movie is about. I'm serious. That first paragraph I wrote above is not the background to the movie, it is the subject of the movie. The story is about a musician named Llewyn Davis who had a partner named Mike Timlin who has died. In one of the opening scenes, Davis is wandering around a friend's apartment and he finds a copy of a record he and Timlin made together. He flips the album sleeve over and looks at the back cover. He looks at a picture of Mike Timlin. Underneath that picture is a "fake bio" for Timlin. Only it's not fake. It reads:
His first professional gigs were with various traditional jazz bands around New York, of which he later observed: "We wanted to play traditional jazz in the worst way...and we did!" But the trad jazz revival had already passed its prime, and Van Ronk turned to performing blues he had stumbled across while shopping for jazz 78s, by artists like Furry Lewis and Mississippi John Hurt. Van Ronk was not the first white musician to perform African-American blues, but became noted for his interpretation of it in its original context.
I didn't transcribe that from the screen. You can't see it all on the screen. It's straight out of the Wikipedia page on Dave Van Ronk. Which isn't to say that it's original to Wikipedia. There is so much plagiarism in Wikipedia that I wouldn't be surprised to find that is lifted word for word for somewhere else.

But the parallel should be clear. Elijah Wald and Van Ronk were partners and Van Ronk died. Llewyn Davis and Mike Timlin were partners and Mike Timlin died. It's a movie about the ways we remember the past and how that influences our future.

The Coen brothers, it turns out, weren't nearly as interested by Dave Van Ronk as they were by Elijah Wald's historiography. I know, big word to be using so early in the day. It's this: historian's don't just tell us stories about the past, they also have theories about how these stories should be constructed and how a historian figures out what is history as opposed to the past.

Elijah Wald's historiography

Elijah Wald faces an interesting quandary. He doesn't just face it; he lives it.

The history of popular music, as he, correctly, argues in his book. How the Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll, tends to be written by losers. What he means by that is that pop music tends to have two kinds of fans. There are the people who treat it as background for their lives, mostly adolescent girls who like to dance or swoon to these songs. They are the people who make popular music popular. Meanwhile, there are a tiny number of socially unsuccessful boys who get absolutely obsessed with this music, sitting around for hours analyzing every detail and every nuance (including not a few nuances that exist only in their imaginations). It is the most obsessed guys from the second group who write histories of popular music.

These guys who obsess about popular music don't get the girls who make it popular. Don't "get" them in more than one sense of the word. They have every reason in the world not to get the story right. They'd prefer a version of history in which unsung heroes got the credit rather than the pop stars who did. They'll give you chapter and verse on why Little Willie John's (remember that name) version of "Fever" is better than Peggy Lee's and how you are racist if you, like 99 percent of the people on this planet (including 99 percent of the black people on this planet), insist on preferring the Peggy Lee version anyway.

But there is another kink in the loser's worldview and it is that sometimes one of the losers becomes a "winner". He doesn't get girls in high school so he spends hour after hour practicing guitar instead and then, magically, he becomes a huge star and thousands of girls dream of getting him. That's the theory anyway. It's also called narcissism because the loser sitting in his basement obsessing about music lore has this fantasy in which he is the star and everyone else is a bit player and that is why he imagines this fantasy.

The interesting thing about Wald is that while he is one of the losers, he recognizes that the winners, the girls, are the ones who really drive history. At the same time, he knows full well that adolescent girls do not buy books about the history of popular music. They'd rather pour over an interview in which Selena Gomez talks about how she is completely over Justin Bieber now and she is ready to face life bravely and the proof of this is that she has had a daring new makeover. Meanwhile, guys like Wald research and write histories of pop music for other guys like them. There aren't enough of these guys to make anyone rich but there are enough to make a living, especially if you tried and failed to make it as a musician yourself first.

And the degree of Wald's own loserdom is important here. He is a guy who pores over music lore. He even tried to live the life, hitchhiking all over the world with his guitar, trying to make his living playing traditional music. Then he actually succeeded at making a living by writing about it.

Which is also Dave Van Ronk's story, by the way. The folk music that actually became popular passed him by. He ended up being a keeper of the mythology. This story features layers upon layers of losers.

Losers aren't really losers

Here is another twist. None of these losers had to be losers. I was careful to say that the losers are the guys who didn't get the girls. If you got them drunk asked them, they would insist that they were the guys who couldn't get the girls. Their entire life is driven by the fear that there is something deeply wrong with them and that they need to hide this thing from everyone because everyone would hate them if they knew.

And here is another secret: the loser did get at a girl. And then he lost her. That was also true of the winners. Pretty much everyone got and then lost a dream girl once upon a time. Most people then proceeded to move on and forget about it.
Forgetting trouble is the way to cure it. (Letter 94, Moral Letters to Lucilius by Seneca)
The difference between the winner and the loser is not that one faced defeats that the others didn't but that the loser is still analyzing their defeats and humiliations decades after they happened, imagining that these things only happened to them (they happen to absolutely everyone) and that they hold the clue to everything that has happened to them since.

Think about the name I told you to remember for a moment. Think about all the implications of "Little Willie John". I'll wait. ... Have you spotted it yet? That's the way losers think about their own loserdom. They imagine there is some hidden quality, over which they have no control, which really makes the difference. They imagine that had the guy actually been Big-willie John, his version of Fever would have succeeded and that is just the (unfair) way the world is.

And the theory isn't completely crazy. There are Big-willie Johns ... and Daves and Franks and Micks and Gregs and Miltons out there and women do care about these things, even the ones who say they don't (although it is only one factor among many). It makes it worse that they lie about it. They tell you it doesn't matter but, if you pay attention, they will give themselves away. But here is the thing: do you sometimes wish your girlfriend had a better body? Do you tell her that it doesn't matter to you that she doesn't do certain things while secretly wishing that she would? Do you sometimes think of an ex-girlfriend whom you ultimately decided wasn't for you but boy did that girl know how to ... ? You love your girlfriend, so you keep these things a secret from her. (It actually makes things worse for her, just as her doing the same does for you, but you both tell one another that you are doing this out of a genuine concern for the other—unaware that the message you are actually but unconsciously sending is that they should be scared and that is why you are keeping a secret.)

I saw an interview with Madonna once where she was talking about her then-ongoing relationship with Warren Beatty. Beatty was famous for having had sex with more than 900 women. The thing that jumps out at you when you read that interview is how insecure Madonna was. She thought, you could tell that she really believed it, that she might lose Beatty because he would think she didn't stack up compared the hundreds of beautiful and famous women, many of whom were more deservedly famous than Madonna, whom he'd had before her. What his having had had more than 900 women ought to have told her was that he doesn't hold the women he has sex with to particularly high standards.

Ultimately, Beatty dumped Madonna for Annette Benning who was not nearly as famous as Madonna but who gave up her career and got pregnant and had babies for him. He was really looking for a woman who was willing to be a wife and mother and Madonna failed because she thought he was looking for a sex goddess.

The truth is that even Madonna can't be a convincing sex goddess unless the man she is with is willing to see her that way. So where does that leave the rest of us? (It's important to remember that the vast majority of Madonna fans are other women here. Women have complementary but different insecurities when dealing with men.)

This is a song about Alice Jean ...

Oh yeah, the movie itself. The most important thing to grasp about the story is that Jean loves Llewyn. All the time she is calling him a loser and an asshole who has screwed up her life by screwing her and getting her pregnant she is secretly hoping that he will tell her he loves her and wants to marry her. Jean tells Llewyn that she wants to abort her baby because she can't be sure whether he or her husband Jim is the father. She wants Llewyn to answer by saying that he doesn't care whose baby it is because he really loves her and that he is willing to do whatever it takes to build a life with her.

Okay, maybe they're both crazy and no sane person would have proposed to her.

But here is a question: Have you ever dreamed about having a girl like Jean? Maybe you've even pursued her, and like Llewyn, even actually gotten her because girls like Jean are never as hard to get as you imagine. (Been there, done her.) She is a girl who is morally and emotionally unstable. Perhaps she is that in a normal way—call me a sexist jerk if you want but most women are somewhat like that. Then again, she may be completely wrong not just for you but for anyone who wants to live a happy and stable life but she is pretty hot and you thought it would change something about you if you could, just once in your life, have sex with a pretty hot girl. Then you wouldn't have to think of yourself as the sort of loser who never gets the hot girls.

Never mind that celebrities with huge dicks who get hundreds of girls don't seem to be exactly over-brimming with happiness. Never mind that if the sex is underwhelming, especially if she doesn't seem happy with it and you, you're going to leave this experience worse off than you started. Never mind that (worse) she may fall in love with you and might even use a pregnancy to try to get you to declare your love for her because it turns out that pretty hot girls have a hard time finding happiness too. Even aside from all that, how is getting her going to make you happy given that you secretly think you're a loser and nothing is ever going to change until you stop thinking of yourself that way?

The key conversation in the movie takes place between Jean and Llewyn in a bistro called the Café Reggio, She asks him if he ever thinks about the future and he says, "The future? You mean like flying cars?" That's the way lonely nerds think. The future is always a mythological concept for them and they are either the hero (in their fantasies) or the loser (in their fears).

Llewyn consistently treats people who see music as a way of making money as careerists who are "a little square, and a little sad," missing that he is a little square and a lot sad.

Jean gets mad and says,
"You're the one who isn't getting anywhere. You don't want to get anywhere, me and Jim try."
Llewyn protests ineffectually. Jean comes back with,
"You know, you don't want to go anywhere. And that is why the same shit keeps happening to you—because you want it to."
And she's right. But she also loves Llewyn and she wants him to succeed and she even does insane, self-destructive things like having sex with the owner of the Gaslight Club so he can get another gig there. Llewyn is surrounded by people who want to help him but, because he sees himself as a loser, feels guilty about exploiting them while, simultaneously, treating them badly.

A descent into the underworld

At the very beginning of the movie, Llewyn gets beaten. And then we follow his story. We don't know why he got beaten but we stop worrying about it after a while because Llewyn has lots of bad things happen to him and the beating starts to feel like just one more example of the seemingly random and unfair things that happen to this poor guy.

Not long after the conversation with Jean, there is a moment where the screen suddenly goes black. We hear a rhythmic thudding sound. Then the screen lights up and we realize that we're in a  car. Llewyn gets into the car and rides to Chicago where he auditions at a club called "The Gate of Horn". He is rejected. Then he gets in another car and rides back to New York. This whole sequence ends with the screen going black and when it lights up, Llewyn is on a subway sleeping and finally he wakes up in his nephew's bed at his sisters house.

Oh yeah, the guy who drives the car to Chicago says hardly anything almost like he was the boatman taking you across the river Styx. Because that is who he is. And who is Llewyn in this scenario? The temptation is to say that he is Ulysses going to the underworld to see brave Achilles, whom he knew. Well, that's what he wants to believe. It turns out Ulysses is a cat. (I can't spoil every single detail, you'll have to watch it yourself to figure the bit about the cat out.)

Once upon a time, when every school boy actually had something vaguely resembling an education, every schoolboy knew the significance of "the gate of the Horn". Nowadays, a particularly geeky schoolboy might know that it was the name of a famous folk club in Chicago managed by Albert Grossman. Long before that, however, it was one of two gates in Greek mythology that come up first in, wait for it, The Odyssey, which is to say the story of Odysseus aka Ulysses.

The two gates distinguish dreams that are false and, therefore, not worth pursuing from dreams that are true and therefore worth pursuing. The gate of the Horn signifies truth. The gate of ivory signifies falsity. There really was a club called "The Gate of the Horn". I suspect Ethan Coen nearly fell off his seat laughing when he saw the name and realized what a gift he had been handed.

In a scene in which Albert Grossman, the owner of the club and, ultimately, the manager of Bob Dylan is clearly set up as Satan, Llewyn fails because Grossman doesn't see much money in his act. The real function of this sort of mythology is that Llewyn gets to preserve his imagined purity. He thinks it was Satan who rejected him! It's the same story as his conversation in the Café Reggio only with a more clear-cut morality, so clear-cut as to be, well, mythological, and, therefore, serves Llewyn's narcissistic purposes.

Now, we might reasonably ask ourselves if this trip to Chicago is a dream sequence. It's not. It's a myth. It comes out of his past. so it's real enough; it's the way the story is told that makes it mythology. It's Llewyn's/Van Ronk's mythological re-telling of the history of folk music—a myth in which they both think they deserve to have been the major player they missed being in real life. That Llewyn fails to pass through the gate of Horn tells us that he is actually a bit player in that story.

And the conversation with Jean (along with some revelations about a previous girl he got pregnant)  tells us is that he was a non-participant in the story that he should have been a part of.

Then he goes back to New York and plays one more night at the Gaslight, which gig Jean got him by putting out for the owner because she loves Llewyn.

A digression, Llewyn sees a sequence of other acts at the Gaslight. The most telling is the first one. Troy Nelson, a guy Llewyn has only met the night before. At the end of his set, he announces that there is someone special there that he wants to invite up. Llewyn immediately assumes it is him and is genuinely taken aback when it turns out to be Jim, husband of Jean.

But it gets worse. When a trio made up of Troy, Jim and Jean sing 500 Miles (later a huge hit for Peter, Paul and Mary) the entire club joins in the chorus. Llewyn is shocked that anyone could like this. And he keeps making this sort of mistake. When the act who are clearly meant to suggest The Clancy Brothers appear at the Gaslight, Llewyn can only make a snide comment about their cable-knit sweaters. This is Wald's theory about pop music history being written by losers in action. Ninety bazillion girls bought Peter, Paul and Mary's version of "500 Miles". Nine bazillion of them (fewer but still a lot more than ever bought Dave Van Ronk's music) bought guitars and learned to sing the song themselves. Guys like Llewyn just can't see why anyone would like this stuff.

And then a woman playing an autoharp gets up and sings. Now, if Llewyn is really the guy he wants to believe he is, he would recognize this woman as a a genuine folk artist playing and singing much like Mabel Carter. He can't see that though. All he can see is his own narcissistic fantasies and she becomes the victim of his ineffectual rage.

The next night he plays again. With a jolt, we realize that we are back at the beginning. This is the gig where he goes out back and gets beaten up. The difference is that now we know why it happens. More than that, we know why he deserves the beating he is about to get. As Jean says: "the same shit keeps happening to you—because you want it to."

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