About fifteen years ago I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman from St. Paul, Minnesota I had met through the Internet. On one of my visits out to see her, I made the mistake of bringing up “Fargo”, a Coen brothers movie that I really liked at the time. She let me have it. “That movie makes us all look like fat and stupid yokels. You don’t know what it means to be caricatured in a film.”
After hearing her out, I never saw a Coen brother’s movie in the same light. Her point was driven home when I saw “A Serious Man” in 2009, another spitball directed at Twin Cities folk, this time the observant Jews like those who the Coens (and I) grew up with. This is a snippet from my review:
In some ways, “A Serious Man” demonstrates all the flaws of the Coens’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”, a reworking of Homer’s Odyssey. Without the grandeur of Homer’s characters, all you end up with is a kind of road movie that requires the talent of a Preston Sturges to pull off. Without a finely honed sense of comedy, the best that Coen brothers can come up with is characters that they can feel superior to while hoping that the audience can share the joke. In Preston Sturges’s Depression-era comedies, you cheer for the characters. Set in the same historical period, the characters of “O Brother, Where Art Thou” are involved with what film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum calls pop nihilism.
While I had concerns that “Inside Llewyn Davis” would incorporate the same kind of patronizing attitudes found to one degree or another in their entire body of work, I was shocked by the naked display of misanthropic joylessness that is qualitatively worse than anything they have done before. This is a dyspeptic hour and forty-five minutes of cringe-inducing “comedy” that makes you wonder why they bothered. When you take a period alive with musical innovations that were the first shoots of a spring thaw after a long McCarthyite winter and turn it into a desultory and venomous mockery of the period, you have to wonder what makes these characters tick.
In an interview the brothers did with Salon.com, Joel Coen lets slip what they think was happening in 1961:
There’s this whole scene in Union Square on 14th Street, where a guy that I know who was involved in that scene said you used to have guys like Ewan MacColl in the union halls, trying to teach the guys in the labor unions how to sing these labor songs and folk songs. What was actually happening at the time, of course, was that all the kids downstairs were listening to Elvis.
Well, actually “the kids downstairs” had stopped listening to Elvis for five years or so. By the time I got to Bard College in 1961, an epicenter of the folk music revival, we were all desperate for something more authentic than Tin Pan Alley. This meant listening to Ewan MacColl as well as Charlie Parker who had died only six years earlier. When I got to Bard, it was the first time I had ever heard people playing guitars and banjos, singing Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly songs. In my abortive memoir there’s a picture of me encountering the folkies on campus for the first time (that’s me in the suspenders):
The best way to describe “Inside Llewyn Davis” is as a rip-off of “The Mighty Wind”, a mockumentary on the reunion concert of folk musicians that satirizes “The Weavers: Wasn’t That a Time!” But instead of Christopher Guest’s gentle mocking, you get a steady procession of grotesque and unlikeable characters starting with the eponymous anti-hero. He is the proverbial “loser” who is being cheated by his agent, one Mel Novikoff—a grubby stand-in for the immortal Moses Asch—and soon to be cheated by Bud Grossman, an agent higher up on the food chain clearly intended to be Albert Grossman who represented Bob Dylan. These venal and obviously Jewish characters are as crudely drawn as any in “A Serious Man” and do not begin to do justice to the real-life counterparts.
The plot of “Inside Llewyn Davis” revolves around him trying to line up gigs, flopping on different sofas each night, and getting into one misadventure after another: losing an older patron’s cat, wrangling with a woman he has gotten pregnant over the terms of an abortion, driving to Chicago with a foul-mouthed and terminally obnoxious junky musician played by John Goodman, etc. But there is not a single instance of Davis having a serious conversation with other musicians or friends about the folk music revival and his place in it. All that matters to him is “making it”. After showing up for dinner at Mitch’s (his patron, who is a Columbia professor, folk music enthusiast, and stereotypical Jew), he is asked to join them for an impromptu hootenanny. This is something that any musician would be happy to do, especially one so reliant on the kindness of others. Thanks to the screenplay the publicists sent me with the screener, you can get a good idea of Llewyn Davis’s character and the generally downbeat and sadistic mood that prevails throughout:
MITCH (leaping in) Why don’t you give us a song, Llewyn?
LLEWYN You know, I’m not a trained poodle.
Mitch reenters with guitar case.
LILLIAN [Mitch’s wife] I thought singing was a joyous expression of the soul.
LLEWYN Boy. Nice instrument.
He takes it, runs a couple of licks. . . . This is, this one’s pretty early, Joe should like it. Receptive chuckles from the little audience. Llewyn starts playing, and singing, “Dink’s Song.” The small group listens, genuinely taken with the performance. As Llewyn begins the second verse, Lillian Gorfein eases in a high, sweet harmony. Llewyn stops playing.
LLEWYN (sharply) What are you doing?
The spell is broken. The little audience is puzzled. Lillian is lost.
LILLIAN . . What?
LLEWYN What is that? What’re you doing?
LILLIAN I —
LLEWYN Don’t do that.
LILLIAN . . . It’s . . . it’s Mike’s part . . .
LLEWYN I know what it is. Don’t do that. You know what? He is more and more testy as he opens the guitar case and lays the guitar inside. . . . 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.
MITCH Llewyn, please — that’s unfair to Lillian —
LLEWYN This is bullshit. I don’t ask you over for dinner and then suggest you give us a lecture on the peoples of Meso-America or whatever your pre-Columbian shit is. This is my job. This is how I pay the fucking rent. Lillian rises. She is choking up.
If you want to spend anywhere from 12 to 15 dollars to watch people being abused or abusing others, be my guest. If I had written a screenplay about the folk music revival, I would have had the professor explaining some of that “pre-Columbian shit” to Llewyn. The Coen brothers read Dave Van Ronk’s memoir “The Mayor of MacDougald Street” to soak up some atmosphere used for their miserable film but had little interest in creating a character like Van Ronk who certainly would have been happy to take out his guitar and sing with the people there grateful for his company. Additionally, an autodidact until his death, Van Ronk would have been eager to hear what the professor had to say about his specialty. But you can be sure that the Coens would have been incapable of dramatizing such a happening even if their life depended on it. The only thing that that they are capable of is human misery exploited for the “sick joke” sensibility of a movie audience that has been conned into believing that they are watching clever comic invention.
Back in 2006, I reviewed some books about the folk music revival for Swans. As an antidote to the noxious fumes of “Inside Llewyn Davis”, they cannot be recommended highly enough:
A Second Look At The Folk Music Revival
by Louis Proyect
Dave Van Ronk and Elijah Wald: The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Da Capo Press, Cambridge, MA., 2005, ISBN 0-306-81407-2, 246 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
David Hajdu: Positively 4th Street, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001, ISBN 0-374-28199-8, 328 pages, $26.00 (hardcover)
(Swans – June 19, 2006) The publication of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles: Volume One invites further explorations into the folk revival. In preparing a review of Dylan’s luminous memoir for Swans (http://www.swans.com/library/art11/lproy29.html), I read two other books to understand the backdrop. They will now be reviewed here as a follow-up.
One is Elijah Wald’s The Mayor of MacDougal Street, an ‘as told to’ memoir by Dave Van Ronk, a pioneer of the folk music revival who was dying of cancer while the memoir was being written. Despite approaching mortality, Van Ronk’s good humor and vitality suffuses the entire book. A life-long socialist, Van Ronk nearly never wrote or sang topical songs. But his memoir reveals him to be an astute surveyor both of American society and of his own modest but important role in catalyzing social change through folk music.
The other is David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, a study of the relationships between Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and between Richard Fariña and Mimi Baez Fariña, Joan’s younger sister. Fariña died in a motorcycle accident in 1966 and his wife died of cancer in 2001. Hajdu’s first book, a biography of Billy Strayhorn, demonstrated an uncommon ability to place a musician into his or her cultural and social context. While all the portraits drawn by Hajdu are compelling, I will focus on that of Richard Fariña, who is an interesting contrast to Dave Van Ronk.
Although Hajdu’s Dylan is the sneering, hostile figure made familiar in the Pennebaker Cinéma vérité “Don’t Look Back,” the Chronicles reflects a mellower and wiser figure generous to a fault to everybody who he encountered on the way up, most especially Van Ronk:
Dave Van Ronk, he was the one performer I burned to learn particulars from. He was great on records, but in person he was greater. Van Ronk was from Brooklyn, had seaman’s papers, a wide walrus mustache, long brown straight hair which flew down covering half his face. He turned every folk song into a surreal melodrama, a theatrical piece — suspenseful, down to the last minute. Dave got to the bottom of things. It was like he had an endless supply of poison and I wanted some . . . couldn’t do without it. Van Ronk seemed ancient, battle tested. Every night I felt like I was sitting at the feet of a timeworn monument. Dave sang folk songs, jazz standards, Dixieland stuff and blues ballads, not in any particular order and not a superfluous nuance in his entire repertoire. Songs that were delicate, expansive, personal, historical, or ethereal, you name it. He put everything into a hat and — presto — put a new thing out in the sun. I was greatly influence by Dave. Later, when I would record my first album, half the cuts on it were renditions of songs that Van Ronk did. It’s not like I planned it, it just happened. Unconsciously I trusted his stuff more than I did mine.
Van Ronk was born in 1936, an age that gave him some proximity to the tumultuous changes wrought by the Great Depression, including a labor movement that remained restive until the late 1940s. His initial musical affinities, however, were not with the social protest music of a Woody Guthrie or a Josh White but with traditional or Dixieland jazz. Despite lacking a golden throat, his first gigs were as a singer. It was sheer volume that opened up doors, especially in low-rent clubs lacking a sound system. As some wit put it, to quote Van Ronk, “When Van Ronk takes a vocal, the hogs are restless for miles around.”
Of course, the folk revival was in itself an attempt to redefine what was beautiful. For every singer with an angelic voice like Joan Baez’s, there were others who got by on sheer personality, like Bob Dylan. For a generation that had become jaded by white rock-and-rollers like Pat Boone, having a raspy but genuine instrument was more than adequate. Although there are very few sound tracks on the Internet (other than the 20-second clips at amazon.com) that capture Van Ronk in performance, author Elijah Wald does include Take A Whiff on Me, (http://www.elijahwald.com/whiff.ram) which he describes as a “taste of how Dave sounded in his formative years, around the time he was recording his first Folkways album.” It is essential Van Ronk, combining superior guitar technique, unabashed enthusiasm and a keen sense of phrasing — essential for any vocalist.
Read in full http://www.swans.com/library/art12/lproy38.html