The Coen brothers: Hollywood existentialists

From "Fargo" to "The Big Lebowski," their films' true mystery is invariably man's greater purpose on Earth

Published March 5, 2014 1:00PM (EST)

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen      (Reuters/David Mcnew)
Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (Reuters/David Mcnew)

This article originally appeared in Full Stop.

Full Stop Inside Llewyn Davis, like all other Coen Brothers movies, is the story of a man for whom everything goes wrong. In this case the modernday Job is an early ‘60s New York folksinger, playing for handouts at the Gaslight, suffering winter in an autumn coat, surfing between the couches of a contemptuous ex-lover and a preening Columbia professor of pre-Columbian civilizations. The movie begins with a scene of Llewyn (played by Oscar Isaac, who also performed and arranged some of the music) singing a song called “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” then getting beat up after the set by a man in a suit, for reasons neither Llewyn nor the audience understands. In so far as the movie has a plot, it consists of showing us the reason.

Llewyn is, as Hank Williams might have put it, just a lad, nearly twenty-two (perhaps a bit older), neither good nor bad, just a kid like all the other aspiring folk-singers. He’s tall and dark but not quite TV-handsome. He’s honest but unscrupulous. He’s a good singer, but he’ll never be a hit. It occurs to him to leave a nice note for Professor Gorfein and his wife (Ethan Phillips and a scene-stealing Robin Bartlett) once he’s done crashing at their place, but he’s not quite forward-thinking or agile enough to keep their cat from escaping into the hallway, just before the self-locking door slams shut. Nor is he smooth enough to convince the elevator man at the Gorfeins’ building to keep the cat till the tenants return, although he’s sufficiently conscientious to keep it tucked in his coat for the time being. Of course the cat then escapes out the window of his next stop-over, the Village apartment of Jean (Carey Mulligan), a pretty, polished, spoken for folk-singer he once had sex with.

When she tells him she’s pregnant, that she’s not sure whether the child is her boyfriend’s or Llewyn’s, that because she’s unsure she wants an abortion, and that he must pay for it, he solemnly agrees. And when she explains that, “if you ever do it again, which as a favor to women everywhere you should not . . . you should be wearing condom upon condom . . . you should just walk around always, inside a great big condom. Because you are shit,” Llewyn replies with a meek “okay.” But he’s not tactful enough to refrain from asking a favor a few moments later, wondering whether Jean could leave her window open to the cold in case the lost cat wants to come back. Through all this dark farce, Isaac perfectly captures in Llewyn the ideal, stubborn blankness of an artist who comes up just short of caring about the things everyone else does.

Llewyn finds the cat prowling Macdougal Street and returns it to the Gorfeins. Reluctantly, he agrees to sing a song at their dinner party. But when Mrs. Gorfein tries to harmonize with him, singing the part of Llewyn’s former partner, who has killed himself, Llewyn cuts the performance short and rages with all the fiery pride of a failure: “this is bullshit. I don’t do this. I do this for a living, you know? I’m a musician. I sing for a living. It’s not a parlor game.” The shocked hostess chokes up and tries to console him. Until, presumably looking for feline consolation, she makes a terrible discovery. “This is not our cat!” she shrieks, rushing back into the kitchen. “It’s not even male! Where’s its scrotum? Llewyn, where’s its scrotum?

He hitches a ride to Chicago, false cat still in coat, hoping to get signed by the producer and club-owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). The name is an unveiled reference to Albert Grossman, the man who created Peter, Paul and Mary; managed Bob Dylan; and turned Greenwich Village platinum. (The real-life Grossman’s money-grubbing machinations and smug smile have been immortalized in the Dylan documentary Don’t Look Back). Among the ridesharers, John Goodman reprises his role for the Coens as the most obnoxious person in the world, this time a jazz musician named Roland Turner. “Well shit, I don’t blame him,” he says when he hears about the suicide of Llewyn’s partner, “I don’t think I could take it either having to play Jimmie Crack Corn every night.” When Turner passes out with a needle in his arm, and their driver gets pulled over and handcuffed, Llewyn must find a new ride and go the rest of the way alone. The cat stares at him from the passenger seat, in that probing way that cats do. Llewyn leaves it. His fate is decided. “Let me hear something from Inside Llewyn Davis,” Grossman lisps once the singer finally arrives. A few songs are played. The expected news comes (“I don’t see a lot of money in it.”) Llewyn hitches back to New York. We see him for one scene, stopped on the highway, examining the bumper of the car. He looks around. A small animal, perhaps a cat, shuffles off lamely into the woods, leaving a trail of blood.

We’re now, chronologically, back to the night before Llewyn’s beating. He’s drunk at the Gaslight. A woman comes on the stage with an autoharp. She’s exactly the sort of fubsy well-meaning dilettante a professional like Llewyn despises, and he heckles her mercilessly. Llewyn has decided to quit folk music and join the merchant marines, but he needs to play one more show to make the money for union dues. Jean sets it up for him and tells him, with hopeless optimism, that a reporter from the Times will be there. The songs Llewyn sings are the ones we’ve heard at the beginning of the movie. The scene of the beating outside the club replays, but goes a bit further. The man in the suit explains: “Yellin yer crap while my wife is up there tryin to sang! . . . I took her home cryin!” The camera cuts back to the stage. It’s Bob Dylan performing. The set, we are to presume, is the one that will bring him fame. He sings “Farewell,” an “original” song in many ways similar to the one Llewyn has just played. Part of its chorus runs:

It’s not the leavin’ that’s a-grievin’ me,

But my true love who’s bound to stay behind.

* * *

Musicians and artists are common enough characters in the movies. But on the big screen they almost always succeed; and not only that, everything their mania has destroyed tends to thread itself back together once the thirty-minute second act of turmoil is over. Even documentaries about real-life stragglers (The Devil and Daniel Johnston and Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt come to mind) can be edited in such a way as to make music appear to be the all-redeeming force that it evidently wasn’t. A large part of what makes Inside Llewyn Davis so satisfying is that it shows a poet maudit who really is accursed — for the perfectly sound reason that he’s forsaken the world for his work.

The artist, it turns out, in this movie as in Barton Fink, is precisely the right sort of submissive to suffer the Coens’ lashes. A complaint has sometimes been made against the brothers that their movies are cold and unsympathetic. Whether or not this is the case, it is true that their heroes’ plights can sometimes feel unsatisfyingly divorced, thematically, from the rest of the movie. To take just two examples and one counterexample: In The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ed Crane’s barbershop is nice to look at in black and white, and the lighting through the Venetian blinds is a noir nerd’s dream, but none of this seems to have much to do with the tangled murder plot, except that there were many noir movies made in the fifties. (And perhaps there is a film-buffy reason for Crane’s profession, but it doesn’t come off to the uninitiated). And in Burn After Reading, it may be amusing enough to see a peppy health-nut Brad Pitt shot in the head for no reason at all, but the arbitrariness of the plot seems contrived — that is, constructed almost as a polemic for the idea that there is no meaning or order in the world.

As for the counterexample, there’s a long tradition, still familiar at least to philosophy students and supplicants, of stories about people who are harassed because they are honest and good. And it may be a peculiarly American tradition to show a character who lives outside society for those same reasons. I’d like to suggest, with only a slight fear of sounding silly, that it is mostly The Dude’s perfect fulfillment of this tradition — and not the White Russians or profanity or John Turturro’s tongue — that has made The Big Lebowski both a cult classic and one of the Coens’ masterpieces.

Llewyn’s plight comes off as natural as can be: he only gets what he asks for: and all he asks for is to spend his time singing folk songs, winter coat and the future be damned. And when we stop to think about it, nothing very bad even happens to him, apart from the fact that he doesn’t make it as an artist. People are never very nice to him, and the movie’s cinematography is ominous enough, but no disaster descends. He doesn’t freeze to death in a snowbank. Jean doesn’t castrate him, but instead gets him a final gig. The Gorfeins even find their real cat. It’s a pain for Llewyn to get in tow with the merchant marines, but presumably, after the film ends, he’ll set sail soon. All he has to do is give up the one thing that matters to him, and everything will turn out alright.

Many of the details in Inside Llewyn Davis have been taken from the life of Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir The Mayor of Macdougal Street came out posthumously in 2005. It’s easy to see why Van Ronk’s voice might have appealed to the Coens: his life story is full of wrong turns, humor and malice. (Within the first five pages of the book we find that when Dave’s childhood friend accidentally sat on his guitar, the adolescent strummer “went calmly insane, picked the guitar up by the neck, and broke the bottom over his head — one of the most satisfying things I have ever done.” And his disappointed quip after he arrives for the first time in Greenwich Village from the outer boroughs could have come out of a Coen script: “‘Jesus Christ,’ I muttered, ‘it looks just like fucking Brooklyn.’”)

But Llewyn is neither as curmudgeonly nor as charming as his real life model, and it’s worth noting what the brothers have lifted from his book and what they’ve left behind. The story of hitching to Chicago to see Grossman is taken directly, as is the bleakness of the trip. Van Ronk’s seaman’s papers got lost, just as Llewyn’s did. And like Llewyn, Dave finds himself at one point “half loaded and half hungover, coming down off speed in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere,” with no real plan or prospects. But this is only the 59th page of 250 or so in Van Ronk’s book. He does join the merchant marines, but he disembarks in San Francisco to get high and drunk and play his music and live his life. Back in New York, he finds himself among the leaders of a crowd that includes many like-minded radicals and musicians. Everyone from original blues gurus to Dylan to Joni Mitchell adored his singing.

It’s true that when folk music went pop, Van Ronk got left behind. But from the book we don’t quite get the impression that this was the fault of the fates. Despite his politics, he was conservative in his artistic tastes even when he was young; we can hear versions of his voice today in those teenage connoisseurs who despise hip-hop and electronic music, and yearn for the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll, as though it hadn’t been despised once upon a time with the same recalcitrance. And when Van Ronk writes about Dylan’s mid-60s lyrics, we find the sort of shackles-up literal-mindedness that prevents so many people from enjoying poetry at all — to say nothing of writing the kind that might have, with the help of a few chords on the guitar, gotten a whole nation’s attention.

None of this is present in Inside Llewyn Davis. His failures are not accidental but necessary, and his enemy is not the music business but the world. The Coen brothers have taken just what they needed from Van Ronk to make for an artist who is ideally stymied, ideally vulnerable, and rolling ideally down earth’s lost highway. There is one more detail from Van Ronk’s book that I don’t think could have escaped their attention. The now-famous album Inside Dave van Ronk was recorded, despite its title, not as a means of self-expression, and not even for the pleasure of making music. Rather, the singer cut it as part of a business deal with the unprestigious Prestige Records, so that they would let him re-record one of his old tracks for the big-time label Mercury. The stuff on the inside was corrupt from the start.

* * *

When the late Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian came to visit a dying Herman Melville, most of the old man’s conversation consisted of softly muttered nonsense. The century’s greatest American writer was alone, confused and depressed. His main occupation was the weather: he’d fashioned a long hooked stick with which to continually open and close the window without leaving his favorite chair. But at one point Melville suddenly perked up and made a lucid claim: according to Julian, Melville “was convinced Hawthorne [père] had all his life concealed some great secret, which would, if known, explain all the mysteries of his career.”

It’s a good anecdote because in Hawthorne’s writing we certainly do feel that there is some mystery that needs to be explained. And the same can be said for the Coen Brothers. To watch all their movies consecutively creates a desire to know the one terrible fact they’ve been hiding from us — the death that scarred them as children, the ominous and obscure god they pray to — that is, whatever is to be found in Barton Fink’s suitcase. Of course there’s no such secret, or if there were it wouldn’t matter. But that tantalizing feeling is a wonderful impression for any artist to leave, and if some dogged investigator (hopefully to be played by Jon Polito) does try to turn up the irreducible qualities of art, he may find that some version of this impression is hidden on every score, every reel, page and painting.

In the Coen brothers’ movies, the real mystery is never the explicit one (who really cares, for instance, what happened to Bunny Lebowski? And in Fargo, we see so little of Jerry Lundegaard’s wife, that the question of whether she returns home hardly seems relevant). The plot only complements the atmosphere. All the murders and kidnappings are MacGuffins. The fact becomes clear in A Serious Man and Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens’ two plotless movies. Their films are all attempts to dramatize what most would call a condition of psychological morbidity, but what some old-fashioned people might still refer to as an ontological question, or the mystery of man’s purpose on earth.

There is a term for this manner of dramatizing the internal: allegory. And although the word has become taboo, or at least synonymous with “bad allegory,” it’s a technique peculiarly suited to the movies. Whatever depths of character the written word may dig up, the voiceover monologue only scrapes at with a rusty spade. Whatever complexities of thought it may convey, the actor can only mimic with a furrowed brow. But no described image can share the immediacy and indelibility of one that appears on the screen. Not matter how much we read, it’s the movies that always manage to get into our dreams.

And in Inside Llewyn Davis, the images — of the endless highway at night, of the dusty auditorium where Llewyn shows his soul for the benefit of no one, of the cat stealing out the window just when everything felt safe — are what comprise the real story. No twists of plot or fate are necessary. Each scene is the round of a fight, with the soul of a man facing off against an evil world, and losing. There is a reason that the the title of the film tells us exactly where, with regard to Llewyn Davis, we’re meant to look.

A historian of literature has written of allegory that “It is not enough to see that the dreamer gazing into the fountain signifies the love first looking into the lady’s eyes. We must feel that the scene by the fountain side is an imaginative likeness of the lover’s experience.” That is, an allegory is to be enjoyed “. . . by keeping steadily before you both the literal and the allegorical sense and not treating the one as a mere means to the other but as its imaginative interpretation; by testing yourself how far the concept really informs the image and how far the image really lends poetic life to the concept.” The use of allegory may be easy to recognize in the cases of a David Lynch or Harmony Korine, but it seems to go mostly unnoticed with the Coens, perhaps because the “literal sense” of their stories is always so carefully determined. This may also account for the way, despite the Coens’ acclaim and success, many viewers and even some professional movie critics are still stymied by them.

In the New Yorker, for instance, Anthony Lane writes that Llewyn is “such a grouch and an ingrate, and so allergic to human sympathy, that, like his friends, we can’t always be bothered to extend it.” Why it is good or necessary that an audience should extend a character sympathy is, as always, left unexplained. Moreover, Lane’s complaint strikes me as strange in an age whose most popular TV heroes are gang leaders, serial killers and meth manufacturers. What I suppose it means is that we are supposed to witness in Llewyn some ready-made moment of compassion, showing that beneath a hard exterior, he possesses the humanity that lies within us all,which is perhaps what most directors would’ve done. But more telling is his implication that the movie fails because Llewyn is not “dramatic” enough. In the New York Review of Books Blog, Luc Sante finishes Lane’s thought when he writes, after the requisite complaint that the 60s were not really like that,* as follows: “the story is no more than a rambling anecdote, Llewyn’s character undergoes no change for all that he experiences and endures, and to the extent that the picture has a structure at all, it is a half-hearted and inexplicable loop.”

I can’t help but believe that when critics demand “sympathetic” characters, what they mean is that they want characters who, however unsympathetic, are formulaic. That is: they show us some good moments, they show us some bad moments, and they are forced artificially to choose between the “good” and the “bad” in themselves (in a Scorsese flick this will be achieved by a fight with the neglected wife), and will either make amends (happy movie) or self-destruct further (sad movie). The reason that Hollywood movies so often seem superficial is that the medium is ill-suited to carry on this essentially novelistic formula: it can give us too little of any character’s interiority. Unless, that is, the whole movie, all of its images and actions, are to be understood as the character’s interior.

I believe that this is the case with Inside Llewyn Davis. Llewyn cannot change any more than humankind can suddenly sprout wings and morph into earthly cherubim. Evil will stay evil, the way around or through it will stay mysterious. This is true for all the Coens’ work, and it may be why their movies always seem linked up with the Fates: because, unlike most of Hollywood movies, they are about life on earth. Before I began this article I tried to find some good critical writing on the brothers’ body of work, but came out mostly empty-headed. One amusing book, however, did try to establish a Gospel according to the Coens, and even ended with a series of Commandments (14, I think) derived from the lessons to be learned from them. This is going a bit too far. But if the brothers do keep on making movies about the world itself and the strange fact of our existence in it, this may be enough to redeem the rest of Hollywood’s mannerist, unmeaning malarkey.

* Llewyn Davis, Sante writes, “is a creature of the here and now, not of 1961. He has none of the communitarian goodwill, the erudite passion, or the optimistic idealism that marked the period.” Sante was born in 1954. He has apparently not read Van Ronk’s memoir, in which “optimistic idealism” plasy about as much of a role as it does in 120 Days of Sodom, and in which the most erudite nuggets of passion shine through in lines like “. . . we hated them all — the Zionists, the LYLers, and the bluegrassers — every last, dead one of them. Of course, we hated a lot of people in those days . . .” Sante’s comments couldn’t help but remind me of a review from another historicist, unfortunately marring the luminous, thrilling first issue of that exemplary publication for which he blogs. In that 1963 issue, we find a critic deriding one of the most exquisite pieces of prose fiction ever written in English, for the reason that it takes place within the walls of a middle class family home, “as if for three hundred years the literature of Western culture had not, so to speak, conducted a campaign to demonstrate that the middle class family is about as close as we have come to achieving hell on earth.” One wonders where heaven on earth is. The same private investigator on the trail of art appreciation’s elementary particles may want be inclined to wonder about the correspondence between insensibility to art and utopianism.

By Noah Kumin

MORE FROM Noah Kumin

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Folk Music Full Stop Inside Llewyn Davis The Big Lebowski The Coen Brothers