“Inside Llewyn Davis,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s new film, is the fictional story of one week in the life of a folksinger in Greenwich Village in 1961. The title character, played with total conviction by Oscar Isaac and supplied with credible material by the maven of American music, T-Bone Burnett, is acknowledged to have been inspired, in part – at least as a jumping off point -- by the late folkie Dave Van Ronk. Ethan Coen describes Llwyn as “not a sellout, but he’s conflicted.” Among the other characters is Al Cody (played by Adam Driver), a cowboy-hat-wearing vocalist whose real name turns out to be Arthur Milgram (much as Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, was born Eliott Charles Adnopoz to Jewish parents); while John Goodman plays a junkie musical maestro who bears more than a passing resemblance to the late Doc Pomus (born Jerome Solon Felder).
Llewyn performs traditional songs of a morose nature (“Hangman, Hangman” being a prime example), sleeps on friends’ couches until he quickly wears out his welcome, discovers he may have impregnated a friend’s wife and arranges for her abortion even as he discovers that another woman he’d gotten pregnant two years before had his child but never told him. He makes one bad choice after another, refusing royalties on a novelty song that takes off, traveling to Chicago to audition for an impresario who rejects him, almost visiting his child, who lives in Akron, Ohio, but doesn’t.
Llewyn disdains the inauthentic, the square world, the sellouts, but he still longs for success. He even lacks enough funds to rejoin the Merchant Marine to ship off when he decides to quit the music scene. When he drinks, he becomes belligerent and insults a singer, earning himself a beating from her husband – meanwhile, another folksinger takes the stage at the their favorite stage, the Gaslight, for a performance that will make his career.
In other words: it’s a typical Coen Brothers movie about missed opportunities, bad luck and losers who can’t help themselves.
Recently, when I sat down with the Brothers Coen in Beverly Hills amidst the “Llewyn Davis,” to ask why they’d chosen to tell Lewyn’s story rather than, say, a Dylan-like figure, i.e., a first-rate artist surrounded by lesser talents. Both Coens seemed genuinely surprised by the question – “It would just never occur to us,” Ethan said.
Joel added that it was not something they had ever, even remotely considered. Never having thought about it before, Joel surmised that “it might have something to do with [the fact that] there’s no drama that’s interesting to us in triumph over adversity, or emerging success –unless, of course, it’s followed by horrible failure. Unless it’s the prelude to something else, it seems so un-dramatic and uninteresting.”
Their work is the evidence. From the comic in “Fargo” and “Raising Arizona,” to the glorious in “The Big Lebowski,” the manic in “Barton Fink,” and the splendid in “O Brother, Where art thou?,” to “The Hudsucker Proxy”, “The Man who Wasn’t There,” and “A Serious Man,” all offer an inventory of failed ambitions and of lives filled with waiting for a stroke of luck that never comes. It would be hard to cite other filmmakers whose protagonists fail so often – or so well -- over the course of almost two dozen films.
All of which made me think: Are we not all Llewyn Davis? Who among us is not in some way a failure? None of us cheat death. None of us entirely avoid disappointment, illness, loss. Even for the most successful, there is a cost to family or self. In the end, are we not all the sum of our bad choices and mistakes?
So I asked the Coens whether they see the world as a collection of failures, or themselves as such, and whether they harbor reservations about their own successful film careers.
The answer: They do not. “We’ve been very lucky,” Ethan said, “We’ve never had to think about it.”
As for what set the Coens on lucky path, let me digress to the anecdote with which I began my conversation with the Coens.
“Let me set the scene,” I said somewhat theatrically, “It’s 1984. The Deauville American Film Festival, in France. The first time “Blood Simple” (the Coen Brothers’ first film) was screened. It was in the afternoon – and the movie still had no American distributor…”
“I was there as a young journalist for Interview Magazine, basically, my editor said that if I got there on my own dime, I could cover it. I was there with my friend, Larry “Doc” Karman, the cameraman, who’s still shooting and doing steadicam on films – we were travelling on what I called “The Depressed Men’s Tour of Europe.”
Joel recalled that “no one paid for us to go over there [either]. We had to get a charter flight to Amsterdam and get on a train. All they paid for was our hotel room at the Normandie.” Ethan added, “And I had to share my room, platonically, with a friend of ours.”
“That was true for us as well,” I said. “The festival paid for one room, which Larry and I had to split. And after the screening, where the film was well received, Larry and I started talking to you,, and that night we all went out to dinner along with Frances [McDormand, now Joel’s wife]. We had dinner at a restaurant in a bistro on the waterfront of Trouville. And at the end of dinner, Larry and I picked up the check saying, “If the film is successful, then the next one’s on you.”
“I do vaguely recollect [that],” Joel said.
Ethan’s memory was more fuzzy, but he concluded, “You are entitled to collect.”
So when Ethan said, “We’ve been lucky,” I countered with: “So you see, one free meal and that set you on your way.”
In a very Coen-like fashion, it was a chance encounter at a turning point. The Coens wanted to make movies, and they’ve been lucky enough to be able do so. Their films’ protagonists, Llewyn Davis among them, may be frustrated and challenged, but the Coen brothers, even after 30 years, seemed remarkably unchanged – a bit weathered, but still as open, guileless and thoughtful as they were so long ago over dinner.
For my part, at the time I felt I had some stories to share, as well as some insight into film and literature, as well as artists, writers and directors. And I’ve been fortunate to get to share those. But then again, I’m still waiting for that free meal...