“We’ve consumed the romanticism of the artist, and now we’re busily consuming the history of that consumption.”
It’s an accomplishment to produce a period piece whose authenticity comes through the modernity of its character’s responses to a time out of place. The Village our desperate folksinger inhabits is not that Village. It’s a mixed neighborhood of turtlenecked intellectuals and midwestern kids pretending to be banjo-toting Texans. All are struggling in one way or another, but not to escape. Their depressions are born of a desire to break into something, to become a part of the mainstream, to not only sell records, but to be sold as an image, a personality, a star. The folk-revivalists may have experienced that exact same desire. But, if they did, they made it a point to disguise the fact behind a blue-eyed idealism epitomised in Dylan’s proclamation in Chronicles: Vol. 1 that folk music “makes a believer out of you.” And that kind of faith has always appealed to those who feel the need to escape from where they are, or think they are. Llewyn, his acquaintances, and the women he’s loved (and irresponsibly knocked up) aren’t burdened with the ’60s paradigm that you can’t go home again. Though neither are they propelled by it. Llewyn does more than once, at least to his sister’s quaint walk-up in Queens, and though it’s nothing like a happy home, it acts as, at the very least, a lifeline, a free bed when every other free-couch friend has been exhausted.
No one in the film is one of Dylan’s true believers, making the penultimate scene’s reference to the supposed messiah read like a pining after that old-time religion, rather than a representation of an in-the-moment epiphany. Llewyn is us, 2014, wondering where the magic has gone. Our struggling artist has lost the mysteriousness of the possible saint. Instead, he inhabits a world of timid academics, easy enough abortions, and washed up junkie jazzmen. It’s a precarious existence, but the difficulties are practical — rent, train fare, finding a winter coat — to be handled or bungled pragmatically.
Yes, these are the life-blood problems for the majority of people in every generation. But that’s the reason we idolized, and still do idolize, the folkies. In their assumption of alternative characters, like Dylan’s early Guthrie act or Dave Van Ronk’s MacDougal Street troubadour, those artists offered the possibility of transcendence, as the living breathing embodiments of that most sacred American belief: the individual’s right to strike out, to invent himself, and then re-invent himself, all in service to a personal dream we, as a public, might inhabit with them, at least in the music.
Inside Llewyn Davis is not an accurate portrayal of ’60s Greenwich Village, though the period details seem for the most part to be spot-on. Rather, it’s a portrait of what happens to the would-be artist in an era whose appetite for national muses has shifted from the next best, most countercultural thing to an ever-diminishing supply of sugared and pickled rarities now more than four decades old. What ultimately crushes Llewyn is the experience of a creative community with space at the top for maybe one or two great men. And when that space is occupied not by young blood but by hackneyed, theatricalized images out of the past, then the only logical response is to pack up and ship out.
Where the film falls short is that it never really questions this system built on a cynicism of failed belief. The Coens’ world is a one-way street of diminishing returns. We’ve consumed the romanticism of the artist, and now we’re busily consuming the history of that consumption. The audience is never presented with other avenues for self-expression and self-fulfilment. We’re here to lament the passing of great ages, which are already so far from us in time that we can no longer imagine them as they were. Their Village is our New York, and it’s us who populate it, not them, not the historical inhabitants or even the glorified spectres subsequent generations made out of them. It’s a city and a time emptied of the artist as dreamer. Like Llewyn’s senile father trapped in a room with the relics of a faintly recalled past, we’re an audience whose only response to an unadjusted expression of emotion — an old sailor’s song — is to inadvertently piss ourselves in vague recognition. To which the artist can only reply “Oh god” before signing his shipping papers and exiting the scene for good.