Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 6, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Filed under: Film,music — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

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):

bard_folk_music

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
Book Review

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

49 Comments »

  1. Just heard an NPR review of the film that echoed many of these same sentiments: saying the film was “thin” with a “sour worldview” that failed to capture any of the “progressive counterculture born of this era.”

    Thanks for the review Lou. Well done! The box office won’t be getting a dime from me on this one.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 6, 2013 @ 7:23 pm

  2. Bob Dylan “got by on sheer personality”?!!!!

    That my friend is silliness.

    Have you ever listened to a Bob Dylan interview? And more importantly, read a Dylan lyric, from say 1962-1976?

    Sometimes I thinks LP just hits the “publish” button before his internal editor even re-reads the statement.

    Comment by fonscx — December 7, 2013 @ 12:37 am

  3. I presume he was referring to Bob’s early years, before he started writing songs. Remember that his 1st album only had one original on it.

    Comment by godoggo — December 7, 2013 @ 3:11 am

  4. Really fonscx? You take one line from the last of 20 or so paragraphs to besmirch an author’s review?

    I believe you that Dylan’s “sheer personality” is debatable but millions wouldn’t, including Joan Baez who fell in love with him.

    It’s true that his fans are largely unaware that he was far more A-political in reality than the public imagines — but the same could be said for Jim Morrison.

    It’s also true that in interviews both were far less articulate than their lyrics would suggest.

    Nevertheless they both were for civil rights & anti-war, 2 huge movements that changed the world.

    True enough the public perceived those artists as far more left than they actually were but icons & heroes are always perceived by the masses as Gods rather than imperfect mortals with human peccadillos, as that’s the origin of Sociology.

    The fact is the folk music from that era grew as an alternative to the Beat Generation of the late 50’s & was ultimately inspired from Union Labor Solidarity songs from the 30’s & 40’s kept alive by cats like Pete Seeger & Woodie Guthrie (who Dylan took a keen interest in, going as far as being a complete stranger that sat at Guthrie’s bedside as an obsessive teenager in a lonely hospital until Woody’s death).

    Far more commercially successful than both Guthrie & Seeger combined — it’s no wonder how Dylan’s “being determined his consciousness” — to paraphrase Marx’s most famous axiom.

    The same “being determines consciousness” truism should be said about the Coen Brothers, who apparently don’t give a single iota of credit or awareness to the future of the era they depict, which was historically full of the the unique human condition of cooperation, social justice & altruism.

    Instead, contrary to most peoples’ memory of that time, the Coen’s go out of their way to reinforce bourgeois cynicism by shitting on an entire Generation’s face, reinforcing precisely the norms of the 1% today, namely, perpetual war for perpetual peace, pessimism, fear, greed, belligerence & the McCarthyite conformism of a semi-fascistic society rife with Jesuit-like NSA overlords making sure boys don’t shake their pricks more than 3 times at a urinal — all in a subtle propaganistic effort to undermine the possibilty of a Socialist future.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 7, 2013 @ 3:13 am

  5. This is the first time I have read someone who echoes my feeling about the Coens for years. I don’t know where they are from but they have always struck me as the kind of self satisfied sophisticates that don’t have a clue about what this country is really like for better or for worse. I particularly hated O Brother.. which had to contain some of the cheapest shots at the South ever written. Smart… Yes they are very smart. They exploited the great music of the South while playing to every hoaky prejudice of the people who created it. Where do they think this music came from. I neither want to romanticize nor demonize the South. It you want some insight about the South from cinema/theater you might start with Tennessee Williams.
    And while I am ranting, their movies are really boring.

    Comment by John Kaufmann — December 7, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

  6. I’ve read a number of reviews since seeing this film and I feel more and more that none of the reviewers actually saw it. People write about it as if it’s a quasi-documentary, but the Village folk scene setting is merely incidental. It’s an interior or dream narrative by/about a guy whose lover has just committed suicide. You just have to look at the structure: At the start we see him in the Gaslight, in bad shape for as yet unknown reasons. He heckles someone on the stage, the bar owner who clearly doesn’t like him tells him a “friend” is waiting to see him in the alley outside, he goes out and the guy beats him unconscious. All the film from then on to the very end, when the exact same scene is replayed (and he wakes up), is in his unconscious. By the end we know why he’s in such bad shape and why the guy in the alley has it in for him, given the mountain of clues left in the course of the film. When the scene is replayed, we see him, some time later that night, waking up dazed and hurting and stumbling out of the alley. Everything that happens in between happens in his head. INSIDE Llewyn Davis – even the title tells you this.

    Look at the dialogue you quote:

    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.

    “It’s Mike’s part.” Mike is his former singing partner and (we gather from various clues, if we’re listening) his lover. That’s why he gets angry – not because he’s an ungrateful jerk. Everything Davis does is inflected by grief for Mike. All the songs are songs of death and loss – in fact you could surmise that the Coens chose the setting for the story BECAUSE of the wealth of folksongs about death and loss that they could draw on. All the episodes in the film have to do with his newly solo (and not coincidentally homeless) status, and his inability to handle it. His singing is portrayed as convincing because it’s really felt – Fare thee well, o honey, fare thee well.

    Comment by Gardinerparis — December 7, 2013 @ 9:05 pm

  7. What a laborious analysis. It reminds me why I dropped out of the one film class I took at Columbia University.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 7, 2013 @ 9:14 pm

  8. Fair enough godoggo, point taken.

    Karl F., Every fucking pin prick in culture does not have a Marxist pivot.

    Your “marxist” tack on every tick in the universe is why the left is in retreat today. Get a sense of perspective.

    Comment by fonscx — December 8, 2013 @ 1:59 am

  9. Reading LP and the commentary here we learn that Bob Dylan and the Coen Brothers are the MN derivative intellectuals that mine the culture for cheap laughs and wholesale derision of entire swaths of US culture, in particular the upper Midwest and the South.

    Seriously? Are there any other writer/directors that present a more consistent insight into US culture today?

    There may be a few films here and there that more adroitly capture time and place/race/class….but taken as a whole the Coen Bros have more than any other film makers in the last 20 years captured what the US is about ethnographically. They, in a hilarious way, have dissected boomer culture, the upper Midwest, rural America, cynical lawyers, cops, Ayn Randian cartoons, beats, the frontier myth……

    I propose that they, a hell of a lot more than any blogger, or me, have contributed to a serious critique of the nature of our society than anyone else in film, and in a radical way. They have dissected plutocrats, their lackeys and almost every aspect of how we tick. Yes, they are only films, but for millions this is the only exposure to a critical view of the everyday.

    And on the Bob Dylan front… more than any songwriter? he has probably turned more people on to the idea of the injustice of racism, imperialism, the the prison system, the sorrow of toil than most radical polemicists of the 20th century.

    Get real you Marxists.

    Comment by fonscx — December 8, 2013 @ 3:00 am

  10. fonssx — Nice evasion of the most salient points in the critique raised by both the author & myself.

    So lets say we drop Proyect’s last paragraph and then the last 3 brief ones in my post – then what’s your point?

    It’s that the Unrepentant Marxist, who lived & breathed & cut his teeth in the folk revivalism of the early 60’s – is full of “silliness”.

    If that’s your best effort at cultural anthropology & the political analysis of the historic global forces that caused the “retreat of the left” then clearly, to use an old Jewish butcher’s expression, you don’t know shit from fat meat,

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 8, 2013 @ 3:31 am

  11. Seriously? Are there any other writer/directors that present a more consistent insight into US culture today?

    Not really. But if you turn the clock back, there’s Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges, Orson Welles, George Cukor, and Douglas Sirk. And that’s off the top of my head. Compared to them, the Coen brothers are third-rate. If you’ve been reading my film reviews, btw, you’d understand that I consider 99 percent of Hollywood films to be pure garbage today.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 8, 2013 @ 11:15 am

  12. #9 writes:

    “And on the Bob Dylan front… more than any songwriter? he has probably turned more people on to the idea of the injustice of racism, imperialism, the the prison system, the sorrow of toil than most radical polemicists of the 20th century.”

    That’s a great point. So why make a movie set in that era that avoids giving a hint of the progressive cultural explosion to come & instead devolves into a “thin” film seemingly made by “joyless” misanthropes?

    By the way. The “retreat of the left” is a product of class struggle and the relentless assault of bosses, bankers & landlords on the working class for the last 40 years and not unrepentant Marxists, even the sectarian & Manichean ones, who outside of the CP’s labor organizing of the 30’s, had very little influence on anybody.

    It’s no accident the biggest retreat of the left in history coincided precisely with the USSR being bankrupted by the arms race.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 8, 2013 @ 4:03 pm

  13. Thank you for writing this. I have always felt that the Coen Brothers movies are smug, self satisfied, and have a superior attitude towards their character (especially in Fargo and Brother). Despite my dislike for O Brother Where Art Thou, I adored the soundtrack. The Coens don’t have the humanistic touch of the folk songs they used in that movie, and they never will.

    Comment by Goblin GirlZappa — December 8, 2013 @ 8:19 pm

  14. I just ran that expression past my dad, whose family had a Jewish butcher shop in Donora PA. He never heard of it.

    Comment by godoggo — December 9, 2013 @ 2:00 am

  15. In post #9 fonsx says at the end, contemptuosly to be sure, “Get real you Marxists” as if he’s an omnipotent Buddahist or something worse.

    Fact is if you really want to come to grips with the way the world actually works, instead of the way you imagine it works, then Marxism is the most unifying theory of sociology & the field of Cultural Anthropology, which I’ve taught at the college level, is just a branch of sociology. In the last analysis human epochs are delineated by 2 things — Wars & Revolutions — both of which require the masses in motion.

    Sure skeptics, cynics & misanthropes argue that slave revolts are historically rare, seeing the glass half empty, but Marxists on the other hand are ultimately optimists, seeing the glass half full, with resistance, revolt, riot & insurrection far more common than bourgeois sociology concedes.

    If you think that “bourgeois sociology” is simply an invention of deluded Marxists than just know this: every Sociology text book ever published in the USA states as fact that there’s “zero statistical correlation between unemployment & crime.”

    Of course you’re right that “Every fucking pin prick in culture does not have a Marxist pivot” but to dismiss Marxism in both social & cultural studies is like a biologist dismissing Darwin.

    As far as films that dissect US culture in a way are are far more memorable artistically & politically than the Coen’s films over the last few decades let’s start with the 60’s in chronological order just so we can show how lackluster these Hollywood scmucks really are by comparison to thye greats.

    “Dr. Strangelove” which shows the strange & terrible connection between corporations, christianity & imperialist turpitude.

    “Bonnie & Clyde” — Go ahead & argue like bourgeois criminologists do that there’s “absolutely no statistical correlation between unemployment & crime.”

    “Cool Hand Luke” which proved the Japanese proverb that the “tallest nail always get hammered down” — very unique in it’s film noir allegory of the individual against the machine, the square peg that will never fit into the round hole.

    “Midnight Cowboy” which depicts how alienating, depraved, filthy & impoverished urban America really is viewed from the eyes of a typical rural proletarian whose become a fish out of water.

    “Easy Rider” which shows how cultural ignorence & intolerance is happy to murder longhairs in one decade then herald them as country pop stars in another, that is, capitalism will tolerate all forms of cultural concessions (civil rights, feminism, LGBT rights, etc.) “so long”, as Trotsky once remarked, “it doesn’t touch a hair on capitalism’s head.”

    “Catch 22” which documents not only the absurdity & hypocrisy of the USA’s organic militarism & how it’s tied to the profit motive of expanding business ventures but also was the first novel/film that proved Uncle Sam wasn’t the “good guy” depicted in popular culture mythology so eagerly absorbed by the dupes of propaganda.

    That’s just the 60’s, 5 films (and there’s plenty more) that reduce the cultural relevance of the Coen Brothers into insignificance by comparison.

    As for the 70’s….

    “The Last Detail” which portrays not only a vast swatch of the culture of Eastern seaboard in the early 70’s but also, more importantly, the disgusting hypocrisy & arbitrariness of the Navy, a branch of US Military, which is i reality the largest socialist entity the universe has ever known insofar as it provides millions with essentialy cradle to grave social security surviving only on the backs of the working class that get taxes deducted out of every paycheck to fund this obscenely bloated boondoggle.

    “Mean Streets” which depicts how easily joblessness & urban decay compell urban young men into the hoodlum life.

    “The Deer Hunter” — which the younger Proyect stormed out of the theater in righteous disgust, proved by the INVERSE how misreably hypocritical & putrid the bootlickers of Uncle Sam could be by portraying the victims of imperialist atrocities insofaras the real aggressors in the totally bullshit scenes of Russian Roulette (which were in fact the tactics of CIA torturers) were abominations of human dignity the Vietnamese never dreamed of. I’d add only this. Asshole scumbags like John McCain are only alive today thanks to the sheer humanity of the Vietnamese people because if they were to ever have the capacity to bomb like “Rolling Thunder” the USA and should some hapless prepper gringo manage to shoot down one of those planes and the pilot came floating down in a parachute they would unquestionably land on a pitchfork or bayonet & be killed instantly, yet the Vietnamese didn’t do that, They kept rotten bastards like McCain alive feeding them with their meager food stores which American’s wouldn’t consider. Today Gitmo represents the kinder & gentler side of American humanism.

    “A Clockwork Orange” — True it’s not a depiction of American culture per se but when I first saw it at the Playboy theater in Chicago with my dad as a latch key only child juvenile delinquent kid who learned most of his vocabulary from smokey roomfulls of shouting SWP radicals — as the credits rolled at the end, I said: “Hey pops. How about we watch this one again?” He replied: “Sure son. Let’s take a leak & get some more popcorn.” It was then & there that I knew my dad was the coolest dad ever because unbeknownst to him in my mind: I WAS ALEX, that is, an unrepentant street hoodlum living large on modest but ill gotten gains.

    “Deliverance” — I won’t say more than it was a movie that moved me more than anything the Coen’s ever dreamed of, nevermind I learned to fish, canoe & portage with my Grandpa in Wisconsin who died suddenly of liver cancer in the 80’s, plus, since I lived in the Gay district of Broadway in Chicago as a good looking athletic kid all my youth, my GayDar was as keen as anything the Air Force ever built.

    “Chinatown” — Sure it wasn’t a contemporary setting but what the Christ? Name a better movie shot in the 70’s? Moreover, let somebody argue that Coen’s ever made a film as brilliant as Pulanski’s because it won’t withstand criticism.

    “One Flew Over The Cukoos Nest” — Just the title of the film shuts up any critic that’s actually watched it, especially when they try & compare it to the cultural commentary the Coen’s hope to invoke.

    “All the Presidents Men” — I’ll refrain from saying much about the hubris of the US goverment documented in this film since even Hunter S. Thompson proved that “Nixon was so crooked that he required 3 aids to screw his pants on every norning.”

    “Taxi Driver” — since the lone “postal” nut driver has become such an ubiquitous part of US culture — starting really with Oswald in ’63 and then Whitman from the Texas tower 3 years later, this flick is far more salient to American culture than anything the Coen Bros ever broduced and that’s a shame since they’ve had plenty of opportunity to dwell on shit other than their navels.

    “Annie Hall” – Have the Coen’s, who pride themselves on their sense of humor, ever put together a film depicting urban life with a sense of its political life than this?

    Now for the 80’s whcih is coming up next post…………..

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 9, 2013 @ 3:41 am

  16. PS: Godoggo. Obviously your old man didn’t grow up where 80% of the USA’s meat was processed back in the day, that is, the stinking slaughterhouses of Chicago, where I grew up, and all the Jewish butchers would say: “Hey kid. You don’t know shit from fat meat.” Your ignorence is nobody’s bliss.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 9, 2013 @ 3:49 am

  17. grrr

    Comment by godoggo — December 9, 2013 @ 6:08 pm

  18. Interesting take. When a movie is getting such good reviews I like to see who didn’t like it and why, and usually it comes down to someone trying to be really clever like this guy.

    I’ll start by saying there are people that don’t get the Coens and then their are pretentious people that don’t want to get them. You are the latter.

    To anyone that actually thinks marge gunderson was being mocked or that Minnesota Jews were being mocked just don’t get it. The tragic part is your trying to call the Coens out for putting these characters down but your the one that is putting them down and are a condescending prick.

    Marge was not and never intended to be mocked and neither were the Jewish characters in A serious man, you can’t see that because your an elitist, pretentious, condescending, ignorant, foolish person.

    You dislike them because you can’t relate to regular people, people who don’t look at things in pure political terms, then you call the Coens out because you lack the capacity to appreciate the simple decency of someone like Marge. She is dealing with a reprehensible crime but she doesn’t allow the nihilism to corrupt her, she isn’t cynical or nihilistic and even points out the childishness of it all at the end. How you don’t get that is troubling, such stupidity isn’t natural it needs hard work to maintain.

    I know people that don’t like the Coens, they are usually people who like uncomplicated movies, i tease those people but I get it and even respect them to an extent, your reasoning for not liking them isn’t worthy of respect, but condemnation.

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 10, 2013 @ 12:35 am

  19. Karl you just proved my point, of course you teach Marxism at a university such credos can’t exist in the real world for long, it takes a lot of education to create a buffer from reality so such thoughts can’t get dislodged and you’ve done a wonderful job of it.

    I love all the movies you mentioned btw but not for your joyless political snobbery reasoning. To like or dislike a movie for political reasons makes you look weak and childish, it’s saying I can’t like x story or y character because they don’t fit into my reality, your mind is so narrow that things that violate your politics lack all value to the point you can’t appreciate those people or stories that don’t conform. Oddly it’s usually those that claim to keep open minds and listen to NPR that seem to have these problems.

    If I ever hear some right winger say that they can’t appreciate a movie because of its politics and nihilism I rip them. I’ve heard people say they can’t watch Sean penn because of his politics, I call them out because he can be a great actor given the right material and his personal politics shouldn’t matter.

    Here’s to knowing you won’t grow up and realize that you can have political opinions and still respect those that don’t agree with you. “Say what you will about the tenants of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos”.

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 10, 2013 @ 12:55 am

  20. Eh, I tend not to care too much about the politics of artists of their works, within limits, so I find myself enjoying lots of stuff that Louis doesn’t, but his reviews always bring in some interesting information about historical background and the like, and he most often brings deserving attention to work that’s far removed from Hollywood blockbusters. Nothing to get bent out of shape about.

    Comment by godoggo — December 10, 2013 @ 5:02 am

  21. To anyone that actually thinks marge gunderson was being mocked

    Actually, she and her husband were the only two that came off looking good. Every other Twin Cities resident was a complete doofus, especially the minor characters. But all in all, “Fargo” was a lot more generous than “A Serious Man”, about which Village Voice critic Ella Taylor wrote:

    http://www.villagevoice.com/2009-09-29/film/for-serious-man-coen-brothers-aim-trademark-contempt-at-themselves/

    Set in 1967, in a Midwestern Jewish neighborhood with a strong resemblance to the one the Coens grew up in, A Serious Man is crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-teethed, know-nothing rabbis. At their center is the beleaguered academic Larry Gopnik (played by the excellent stage actor Michael Stuhlbarg), a decent geek clinging desperately to his rapidly shredding status quo. Larry’s wife, Judith (Sari Lennick), a stout matron with all her discontent lodged in her curled lip, announces that she’s leaving him for Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), a stuffed-shirt widower given to inflicting mandatory hugs on those he screws over. Larry’s daughter (Jessica McManus) is filching money from Dad’s wallet to pay for a nose job (now there’s a novel gag); his son (Aaron Wolff) is strung out on television, Jefferson Airplane, and God knows what else while nominally preparing for his bar mitzvah; and Larry’s chronically unemployed brother, Arthur (Richard Kind), sleeps on his couch. Meanwhile, just so you know that the Coens are equal-opportunity practitioners of the ethnic slur, Larry, who is up for tenure, is being set up by a Korean graduate student who talks funny and is unhappy with his failing grade. To cap it all, Larry’s pneumatic pothead of a neighbor (Amy Landecker), the sole looker in sight and therefore probably a shiksa, provokes the only pro-active behavior timid Larry is ever likely to take—in his dreams.

    By way of plot, Larry suffers buckets of abuse from this crew, then seeks spiritual guidance where none is forthcoming until, either by accident or grand design, his life seems to get better all by itself.

    If this were it, the movie would be no more than another dreary exercise in Coen Brothers sadism. But the visual impact of all these warty, unappetizing Jews (even the movie’s obligatory anti-Semite looks handsome by comparison) carries A Serious Man into the realm of the truly vicious. The production notes are larded with the Coen Brothers’ disclaiming protestations of affection for their hapless characters, but make no mistake: We’re being invited to share in their disgust.

    And God help the rube who can’t take the joke.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 10, 2013 @ 1:35 pm

  22. Oxycontin: I don’t “teach Marxim” at a University because nobody does. Such myths are kept alive typically by people addicted to Fox News. Sure there may be one senior level course offerred at Berkeley or the New School in NYC but it would undoubtedly depict Marx as some kind of reformist who would have voted for Obama.

    I was referring to a course I taught as a T.A. 20 years ago where the most Left in the entire faculty cheered with glee when Clinton got elected.

    I happen to only appreciate Realism in art, be it novels or films. If I were a biologist and the critics consdered, say, the latest blockbuster called “Noah’s Ark” the best picture ever made, I wouldn’t watch it no matter how aesthetically beautiful it was thought to be.

    Only a twisted fuck from the post-Occupy era of today could write a scene where a folk artist in the Village in 1961 complains about strumming a song for his hosts without compensation. Talk about unrealism. WTF?

    I also happen to consider Marx’s critique of Capital the most unifying theory of political economy — with class struggle being the primary motor of history. So if a film goes out of its way to depict the 2nd most politically progressive era in the 20th century without giving even a hint of the social upheaval to come then I find it “thin”.

    True enough more than most leftists I tend to view things in Black & White but that’s probably because I grew up in a union household during the Vietnam War when there were lots of labor strikes & anti-war marches. The manning of barricades does lend to a certain narrow mindedness.

    Fact is for all those who want to talk about “nuance” and “gray areas” you won’t find much of that on picket lines or peace marches. It’s either victory for the strikers or Peace Now for the marchers — so call me Manichean if you wish but I suspect the maximum extent of your social activism has been to “rip” right wingers who “dis” Sean Penn.

    Class antagonisms are irreconcilable. A worker’s objective interest with any employer is to get the most amount of wages for the least amount of work. The employer desires the most amount of work for the least amount of wages. This fundamental antagonism at the basis of society is an overarching reality that’s consciously ignored or sublimated by bourgeois culture.

    I just can’t stand it when talented filmmakers appear to be tools of that culture.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 10, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

  23. Louisproyect:

    I’m glad you referenced that article from Village Voice because it was reading that that brought me to respond to your review. I came across that review a while ago, but long after A Serious Man came out and I was so fascinated by it that it stuck in my craw about how clueless the author was, there is Alicia Silverstone Clueless, and then there is anyone who could write such abject rubbish, the authors supposed insight makes the piece something grand in the train wreck department. She seems to perhaps be a secular Jew or someone who is familiar with Jews as well, because she mentions the rise of anti-semitism that has been happening and she seems genuine.

    If Ella is Jewish she’s thoroughly secularized to the point she doesn’t understand her own people, which I don’t scorn I pitty, and if she’s not she’s is only passively knowledgeable about such things. I’m no Jewish scholar, my main conduit to reading about Jewishness is via Commentary Magazine (also the penultimate neo-con magazine, so to all that hate such things they have built in excuses), which is the premier defender of Jewishness out there, and after watching A Serious Man I of course had to see how Commentary spoke about it because I know I’d miss things that they could point out (among other sources).

    So you have Ella Taylor in your corner, critic extraordinaire of the Village Voice movie section, and I’m going to have to use Rush Wisse as my ideological benefactor, the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard and frequent writer for Commentary (you’d have to subscribe to the magazine or pay for the article if you want it but i’ll post a couple paragraphs).

    http://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/a-serious-film/

    “As this summary suggests, the film is, especially for secular Jews like Joel and Ethan Coen, astonishingly literate when it comes to its portrayal of Judaism. A Gentile student told me that in order to better understand the movie, she went to see it with a Jewish roommate who gave her a running explanation of its Jewish allusions. A middle-aged alumna of Hebrew school was dazzled by the authenticity of the desks and the grammar lesson she remembered from childhood….

    A Serious Man often slips into caricature, but one can make allowances for a comedy whose soundtrack includes one of the most haunting songs in the modern Yiddish repertoire. Composed by Mark Warshawski, one of the most popular Yiddish songwriters in Russia, “A Miller’s Tears” conveys the fears of an aging Jew who is being expelled from his land and wonders what will become of him and his hounded people. Though Larry is substantially better off than his ancestor, he seems burdened by the miller’s fears, as the singer Sidor Belarsky conveys them, one stanza at a time. The song hints at the way the Jewish past continues to haunt its American progeny—a mystery as potent as the unjust fate of good men.”

    So you tell me after reading Ruth’s take on the film, her pedigree, and true defender of Jewishness in the pages of Commentary for many years (and it’s not possible to find a greater defender of Jews and Jewishness than Commentary as far as I know), or Ella Taylor critic of the Village Voice? The only way someone can find the Coens film vicious is if they have no true understanding of the meaning of Jewishness, and is so divorced from it that they take homage to be denigration. Reading Ruth’s article next to Ella’s just makes me shake my head.

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 13, 2013 @ 9:58 pm

  24. So you have Ella Taylor in your corner, critic extraordinaire of the Village Voice movie section, and I’m going to have to use Rush Wisse as my ideological benefactor, the Martin Peretz professor of Yiddish and professor of comparative literature at Harvard and frequent writer for Commentary (you’d have to subscribe to the magazine or pay for the article if you want it but i’ll post a couple paragraphs).

    I’d rather eat a dead dog’s penis than subscribe to Commentary magazine. In terms of a Martin Peretz endowed chair, here’s what Harvard students think of him.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 13, 2013 @ 10:15 pm

  25. Karl:

    Apologies for saying you were a marxist prof, your response to that was very true, but I did take a genuine Marxian Economics class in college from a true Marixist, so they don’t just exist at those you named.

    Again I find your reality limited, sorry to say. You find “thin” a movie that happens during a time period that predates a new epoch, or “social upheaval” as you say. That’s a very political and limited understanding of the 60’s, most people that lived during the 60’s didn’t protest and go to woodstock, and get high and have sex with everyone they knew, so by the definition many say about the 60’s “if you can remember it you weren’t there” they weren’t apparently there (I wasn’t there btw), but that is statistics for you.

    To me your saying any movie that exists in this time period, regardless of if they are talking about politics or not, you want something about the social upheaval to come. I haven’t seen Llewyn but I can say that from reading the crtics it’s got nothing to do with the 60’s per say, it’s about artists, but that is what I have read about it, not my own take. (the movie hasn’t shown anywhere near where I am currently, which i’m not happy about).

    Glad you agree that extremism leads to narrow mindedness, but it’s a little much to try to depict the protests of the 60’s as some Les Miserable manning the barricades. You are Manichean, and your right I don’t participate in “social activism” because I frankly find it rather infantile, I see protestors in the US as kids throwing a temper tantrum, or protesting to their parents that they don’t want to eat their peas, largely indulgent. Protestors in other countries however aren’t like the western world, if you protest in Russia, Iran, China etc that isn’t the same thing.

    With that said I see your point of view, I just don’t share it..

    Class antagonisms… I hate to tell you this but they are reconcilable, I am a worker and there is a certain base logic to what you say but fortunately most people don’t see it as such. I have as much value as someone is willing to pay me, if I were worth more than I would get paid more, sometimes by having to move to another firm that truly saw the value I brought. The more scarce the skills I have and more valuable they are the more I get.

    Good luck with fighting the “bourgeois culture”.

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 13, 2013 @ 10:27 pm

  26. That is a perfect response, no reflection, no thoughts, not even an argument, it’s pure invective. Also Ruth was the writer, Martin Peretz was the chair she has, and to actually hold an opinion on some infantile students dislike of something is telling, the day I follow the students of the world in their latest fad will be a cold day in hell, you can find them protesting one thing or another at any given time (btw the best movie about University studends is probably PCU…)

    I knew you wouldn’t have read commentary, but I thought you might at least agree that the magazine is pretty difficult to call anti-Semitic? Which was the whole premise of the article you cited, that the Coen’s movie was a viscous anti-Semitic stereotype (much as their depiction of Minnesotans was viscous). So what if you think Ruth likes to kill babies and use their blood for Passover, can you not even acknowledge that she is more pro Jewish, intellectually Jewish, than Ella?

    Even if Ruth is now an evil, fascist, zionist, oppressor of Palestinians scum of the earth, dare you still say that Ella is more an authority on Jews than Ruth? If you do still think that who’s the anti-semite?

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 13, 2013 @ 10:41 pm

  27. I don’t care what Commentary says. Don’t you understand that I think for myself? I don’t give a rat’s ass if “Inside Llewyn Davis” or “Gravity” get 99 percent “fresh” ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. If I think the movie is “rotten”, I will say so. To tell you the truth, I am somewhat surprised that Commentary did not trash the film given its rancid identification with the Jewish elites, but that makes little difference to me. I grew up around observant Jews and the characters in “A Serious Man” are grotesque caricatures especially the rabbi and I say that as someone who hates most rabbis.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 13, 2013 @ 10:47 pm

  28. Oxy sounds like he just got turned onto Platypus?

    A fan of “Commentary”.

    An aversion to social activism.

    A disdain for those whose bodies in the streets compelled Johnson to push through the Civiil Rights Act of 1965 and the marches that so demoralized the troops it they effectively ended Vietnam War.

    No real sense of the progressive forces unleashed by organized labor.

    A misunderstanding of how relatively little Marxists cared about the “Hippie” & “Free Love/Woodstock” aspects of the 60’s when compared to civil rights, black & latino nationalism along with the feminist movement.

    The implication that the Occupy movement was about snivelers & whiners.

    A not so secret love of bourgeois culture & all the holes in it.

    Like Alvy Singer said in Annie Hall:

    Alvy: I’m so tired of spending evenings making fake insights with people who work for Dysentery.

    Robin: Commentary.

    Alvy: Oh, really? I heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 13, 2013 @ 11:30 pm

  29. Loius your whole review premise was to pimp Ella’s point of view, and your whole point of view about the Coens in General was about your “friend” in Minnesota that took offense to them. You say your opinion is your own but your words say differently. If you hate the movie because of its Jewish stereotypes, because you grew up around them, then why would you site Ella to point out the supposed anti-semitism? Why not point it out yourself?

    Your the anti-Semite, perhaps the self hating Jew if your bs of growing up amongst observant Jews is true, but still no one in their right mind would accuse Commentary of hating Jews…. Might as well accuse Edward Said of hating Arabs.

    Thank you!

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 14, 2013 @ 9:08 am

  30. Karl:

    I love you. Seriously I do. It takes a special person to think that the bourgeoisie culture is weak and defeatable…. Also have to give any Johnson reference kudos.

    I won’t debate with you, I’ll only wish you good luck.

    Comment by Oxyartes — December 14, 2013 @ 9:16 am

  31. Oxyartes: You are my hero. Thank you for knocking these pretentious pricks off their high horses. Louis Proyect is like the Marxist Armond White, an insufferable little troll with asinine arguments and an ego as large as an objectivist.

    Comment by Hellisotherpersons — December 24, 2013 @ 2:33 am

  32. P.S. For Louis Proyect: Your positive review of Sex and the City 2 was the most laughable piece of “Film Criticism” that I have ever had the displeasure of reading.

    Comment by joeschmo77 — December 24, 2013 @ 2:58 am

  33. My Dear Deep Greek Platypus Sockpuppets. It’s obvious you’ve never read a single paragraph about how Marxists viewed art. Here’s an example in the Trotskyisy vein:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/trotsky_art.htm

    Trotsky on revolutionary art: by L. Proyect

    There is a dialectical tension in Trotsky’s writings on art and revolution that ultimately are rooted in some of the most fundamental questions of our epoch. Rather than addressing peripheral matters of “style,” they really are about the possibilities for cultural as well as material progress in the epoch of imperialism. Time after time, on email discussion lists and in print journals, I am confronted by a version of Marxism that holds out the somewhat ahistorical possibility that capitalism can continue to have the sort of progressive tendencies described so breathlessly in some passages of the Communist Manifesto.

    Against this position, I find convincing evidence all around me that no such tendencies exist today. The evidence is not just contained in the deepening ecological crisis, but in the state of culture both high and low. Christopher Caudwell wrote “Studies in a Dying Culture” in the 1930s. If he had not been cut down in his prime by fascist bullets in Spain, we can be sure that he would have followed up with “Studies in a Dead Culture” in the 1940s or 50s.

    In many ways, Trotsky approached the question of art and culture in a classic Marxist manner, which is to say that he viewed socialism as being linked to previous stages in civilization, especially the period of bourgeois hegemony. This view came to the fore during the NEP in his debate with the “prolekult” tendency, which called for a pure working-class art untainted by bourgeois culture. In keeping with the hard-headed realism of the NEP, Trotsky replied that “our epoch is not yet an epoch of new culture, but only the entrance to it. We must, first of all, take possess on, politically, of the most important elements of the old culture, to such an extent, at least, as to be able to pave the way for a new future.” He calls for imparting “to the backward masses… the essential elements of the culture which already exists.” “What the worker will take from Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin, or Dostoyevsky will be a more complex idea of human personality, of its passions and feelings, a deeper and profounder understanding of its psychic forces and of the role of the subconscious, etc. In the final analysis, the worker will become richer.”

    Appreciation for bourgeois culture was not limited to its “civilizing” role in the infant Soviet republic. In 1905, Trotsky wrote a passionate appreciation of Tolstoy on the 80th birthday of the great novelist, whose world revolved around wealthy agrarian aristocrats and who rejected socialist modernity. It amounts to a defense of the right to create great art, regardless of the ideological content.

    Trotsky’s defense of high art appealed to intellectuals in the west, who were repelled by the excesses of socialist realism, Stalin’s own version of “prolekult.” While most of the artists in this milieu had opted for the avant-garde rather than the sort of formalism T.S. Eliot represented, there certainly was agreement between anti-Stalinist and many anti-Communists about the need to defend bourgeois culture against bureaucratic attacks. When Hitler or Stalin went on the attack against “decadent art,” these intellectuals signed petitions and wrote letters of protest.

    After Abstract Expressionism was co-opted by the American State Department, the lines of demarcation between Trotskyist-influenced artists and critics, and T.S. Eliot-influenced reactionaries began to blur. The Partisan Review, which had been a stronghold of Trotskyist politics and aesthetics, took up the cause of the New Critics and the reactionary agrarian poets of the American south, who had been influenced by Eliot.

    Trotsky’s thinking, as should be the case for all serious Marxists, was filled with contradictory impulses. This is because objective reality is complex and the human mind must be able to grapple with dynamic processes in bourgeois society whose ultimate direction can not be fully known in advance. In terms of culture and art, Trotsky was becoming deeply pessimistic in the late 1930s about the “civilizing” role of high art as fascism marched forward. In a manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art,” addressed to a project begun by surrealist Andre Breton and muralist Diego Rivera, Trotsky worried over the total demise of civilization:

    “We can say without exaggeration that never has civilization been menaced so seriously as today. The Vandals, with instruments which were barbarous, and so comparatively ineffective, blotted out the culture of antiquity in one corner of Europe. But today we see world civilization, united in its historic destiny, reeling under the blows of reactionary forces armed with the entire arsenal of modern technology. We are by no means thinking only of the world war that draws near. Even in times of ‘peace’ the position of art and science has become absolutely intolerable.

    “In the contemporary world we must recognize the ever more widespread destruction of those conditions under which intellectual creation is possible. From this follows of necessity an increasingly manifest degradation not only of the work of art but also of the especially artistic ‘personality.’ The regime of Hitler, now that it has rid Germany of all those artists whose work expressed the slightest sympathy for liberty, however superficial, has reduced those who still consent to take up pen or brush to the status of domestic servants of the regime, whose task it is to glorify it on order, according to the worst possible aesthetic conventions.”

    Despite their stylistic differences, what united Ben Shahn and the Abstract Expressionists was a belief that their art and the war aims of US imperialism were both in defense of “civilization” against what Trotsky called the Vandals. The United Nations symbolized the hopes of the WWII generation. Not only would Hitlerite barbarism be staved off, agencies like UNESCO would help to create the infrastructure for new artistic initiatives.

    Now that we are fifty years past the defeat of Hitler and on the eve of a new millenium, it is time for a detached and cool reassessment of the “civilizing” possibilities of US imperialism. This week the NY Times revealed that over 200,000 Mayan villagers in Guatemala were slaughtered during the 1980s with the assistance of the CIA. Guatemala has only 12 million souls. Imagine a bloodbath in the United States that would have left one out of sixty people dead. When Ward Churchill spoke at the Brecht Forum a few months ago, he said that from an Indian’s standpoint, the present government of the United States appears as if the Nazis would had they been victors in WWII.

    Isn’t it about time that we began to view the capitalist system in the United States with the kind of fundamental hatred and determination to get rid of it that united artists and intellectuals of the 1930s against fascism?

    Furthermore, it is in the arena of culture that this latest version of Vandalism seems most vulnerable. The illusions that the Abstract Expressionists had in the civilizing beneficence of American society seem quaint nowadays. The signs are all around us of a culture whose ruling class has lost all ability to either support or inspire high or popular art. Some examples drawn at random:

    –The NY Times runs article after article about the crisis in classical music, while its FM station plays nothing but short dribs and drabs of the most banal war-horses, with ads for Volvos and vacations in the Bahamas taking up at least ten percent of every hour of air-time.

    –The Whitney Museum’s biennials of current art have become the laughing stock of the critical community and for good reasons. As clients of the ruling class who fund them, these artists lack inspiration and technique, thusly mirroring the barbarism of their benefactors. Their half-hearted attempts at radical criticism embody the postmodernist sensibility and naturally defy any attempt by ordinary people to identify with their messages buried in irony and kitsch.

    –Hollywood is at the end of its tether. The golden age of cinema is finished, as the post-WWII generation has either died or retired. Films today are the product of the accountant’s spreadsheet and are based entirely on demographics. Screenwriters are drawn from the world of television and demonstrate all of the vapidity of the medium.

    The decline of culture is tied up with the decline of capitalist civilization. Attempts to reform art are doomed to futility, just as attempts to make the media more accountable are doomed. There are structural impediments that are insurmountable.

    A radical critique of bourgeois society can not be limited to problems of unemployment and war, as serious as these matters are. The loss of beauty and spirituality (yes, I chose that word specifically) are also oppressive. If the ecological crisis can cause the disappearance of blue-fin tunas or the orangutan, two of the most sublime animals in the world, we must take up arms against that crisis. A world devoid of all species except homo sapiens, his household pets, crows, and rats hardly seems worth living in.

    By the same token, the inability of this culture to foster the environment necessary for what Trotsky called the “artistic personality” condemns it. What Trotsky did not spell out is that the “artistic personality” includes each and every one of us. To enjoy art as well as to create it requires a total transformation of the way society is organized.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 24, 2013 @ 3:18 am

  34. Was that in reference to my post? Because I don’t see how that pertains to what I said.

    Comment by joeschmo77 — December 24, 2013 @ 3:36 am

  35. In the end Joe, your input is is irrelevant as what counts is the allegory of cats like Ward Churchill who’ve culturally shown the role of “little Eichmans” in today’s society and more and more that’s where lines are drawn.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 24, 2013 @ 3:49 am

  36. I secretly thought I might like this film more than Louis did but I was wrong.

    I want that hour and 45 minutes back!

    What was the point of this film anyway?

    Oh, that’s right. “Joyless Misanthropy.” 2 better words couldn’t have been chosen by any reviewer.

    When Davis gets his ass kicked in the alley at the end I thought “right on!” because I would have done the same thing to him after all that disrespect he dished out the night before.

    Then when the screen goes black at the end for almost 30 seconds until the credits begin to roll I thought the DVD or Player deck went on the fritz because surely that couldn’t be the end? But it was.

    Fucking pathetic excuse for a movie.

    While I haven’t seen all the Coen Bros films this was the worst.

    I also detected their pattern of overly grotesque Jewish people which Louis mentioned in their other films but not this one.

    Some of the music was touching but otherwise I hated this flick.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 25, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

  37. Excuse me but who are you to decide if my input is irrelevant or not? Also why does marxism have to play a role in film criticism? I’m sorry but I didn’t see how that post pertained to my opinion at all. In the end it just seems that you are an elitist and pretentious prick. This is like arguing with a brick wall.

    Comment by joeschmo77 — December 26, 2013 @ 2:45 am

  38. If you go to see this film expecting it to be about “the ’60’s” you will be disappointed. If one generalizes about the protest movement and music of the 1960’s from this film, they will be making a ridiculous mistake. I don’t know if the Coen Bros. were making a comment about the 1960’s. It is possible that they were actually making more of a Kafkaesque comment about alienation, confusion, demoralization and they set it in the 1960’s because they had to set it somewhere. Like Dylan’s song: “It’s All Right, Ma, I’m Only Bleeding” — it wasn’t a protest song about explicit politics but it did express fear and alienation. Can a work of art express “aspects” of “communistic-egalitarian-communitarian” (in the philosophical senses of the terms) and still have value, even if the overall work is riddled with pro-capitalist ideas as well? I don’t know that it is a compromise to try to extract some useful aspects of a mixed work, as long as one also critiques the other aspects of the work? (Phil Ochs, by the way, arguably among the most explicitly political song writers of the era, did commit suicide. Reality is a mixture.) Can one extract a useful illustration of how fascism exists happily with the seeming opposites of cultural conservatives and decadent street gangsters from the film “A Clockwork Orange” even though the film makes some of the decadence seem attractive? It’s not an easy answer.

    “Matewan” has its weaknesses and even the magnificent “Burn” and powerful “Escape from Sobibor” can be critiqued. Of course, some films are so overwhelmingly reactionary that to acknowledge even their tiny positive aspects could lead a reader to believe that the work isn’t so bad — “Mississippi Burning”, for example. So was “Inside LLewyn Davis” a reactionary tome about the 1960’s, as “Mississippi Burning” or more like “Catcher in the Rye” expressing a confused alienation from which one can extract some useful ideas?

    Having said that, these comments from Oxyartes: “I don’t participate in “social activism” because I frankly find it rather infantile, I see protestors in the US as kids throwing a temper tantrum, or protesting to their parents that they don’t want to eat their peas, largely indulgent” — that comment wonderfully displays the kind of really vicious arrogance more typical of Republican suburbanites. Sure, there are some infantile protesters who revel in wearing their “V” masks and trying to act cool. But there are many, many people who knock on doors, protest police brutality, oppose the destruction of public education, organize against polluting industries, oppose wars that have spent trillions and killed millions.

    Anyone who equates protesting the killings by police in Oakland and New York and Chicago as being equivalent to “kids …protesting to their parents that they don’t want to eat their peas”?” does such a perfect job of exposing his/her pathetic, privileged arrogance that nothing anyone else can say can make that point any more powerfully. Thanks, Oxyartes, for revealing the core of your perspective.

    Comment by Afflict the Comfortable — December 31, 2013 @ 1:00 am

  39. It is possible that they were actually making more of a Kafkaesque comment about alienation, confusion, demoralization and they set it in the 1960′s because they had to set it somewhere.

    That’s what so fucked up about this movie. It takes a period in which the alienation, confusion, and demoralization of the 1950s is finally in retreat through the impact of folk musicians, late-arrival beatniks like me, the relaxation of censorship that made works like “Tropic of Cancer” available, and other early signs of springtime and turns it into a nightmare. It amazes me that so many film critics believe it is about the 60s. Like this guy:

    Like 1998’s “The Big Lebowski,” 2000’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and 2010’s “True Grit,” “Davis” is a period piece that captures its time, place and tone so well some viewers may feel they’ve stepped into a time machine.

    full: http://www.utsandiego.com/news/2013/dec/19/film-review-inside-llewyn-davis/

    Yeah, someone stepped into a time machine and accidentally set it for 1952 rather than 1962.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 31, 2013 @ 1:36 am

  40. JoeSchmo asks: “why does marxism have to play a role in film criticism?”

    Like the famous beer commercial says: “Why ask why?”

    Why does the soul have a right to breathe?

    Once you’ve read a tract like “Literature & Revolution” http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/lit_revo/
    one cannot help it — as it’s like asking why would somebody who studies biology have to view it through the priszm of Darwin?

    The real question for Joe is why does somebody who hates pizza walk into a pizza parlor?

    As far as the taste of the author who wrote [“Davis” is a period piece that captures its time, place and tone so well some viewers may feel they’ve stepped into a time machine.] — all I can say is that my penis has more taste.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — December 31, 2013 @ 6:51 am

  41. Van Ronk was a Marxist, but a Trotskyite Marxist, which means a dissident Marxist. These Marxists had a grudge against Roosevelt and the Popular Front, and anyone connected with them, including folk musicians such as Pete Seeger. Many, though not all (such as Archie Green) of them hated folk music.

    They basically were quarrelsome and found fault with everyone and everything. Some of them had opposed our entry into World War 2 because it meant cooperating with the Soviet Union. Van Ronk was a bit more mellow than many. But I wonder why anyone would base their portrait of the folk revival on his peculiar perspective.

    Comment by John Culpepper — January 4, 2014 @ 7:12 pm

  42. But I wonder why anyone would base their portrait of the folk revival on his peculiar perspective.

    Don’t worry about that. Llewyn Davis has about as much to do with Dave Van Ronk as I do with Adam Sandler.

    Comment by louisproyect — January 4, 2014 @ 7:21 pm

  43. Alright Karl, now you are pissing me off. Film is not inherently Marxist and if you believe that then you are really full of yourself. Marxism or any political belief is somewhat subjective and thus comparing it to Darwinism and Biology is unfair as they are objectively true together dependent from opinion. Also please stop talking in shallow and esoteric aphorisms they are not concealing what your notions truly are, which are meandering nothings.

    Comment by JoeSchmo77 — January 4, 2014 @ 8:36 pm

  44. the coens fit the time: they are techno nerds in an age without content. the davis film is just awful, a joyless rendering, as you point out, of a time vital, alive and fascinating. the coens reduce all this to what they know best, a careerist cynicism which reveals their central figure to a whining, bitter cipher. they’ve done this elsewhere. two film school grads in search of content? its a sad pass we’ve come to lads. and the boys have marketed a doc. “the music of …. davis” or some such- which contains a great deal of music- which never appears in the film.. marvelous marketing ploy and creates yet another venue for the feature film already marketed product. the films gotten more attention that the kennedy killing- but its a bomb. dave von ronk? would that they had tried to do the memoir….

    Comment by warren leming — January 19, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

  45. […] Coen brothers dish up a steaming pot of misanthropic joylessness about a great time to be alive. Supposedly they made this movie because they liked the folk music revival. God only knows what they would do with a subject they hated. Full review: https://louisproyect.org/2013/12/06/inside-llewyn-davis/. […]

    Pingback by The Best and Worst Films of 2013 | Toscographics — February 1, 2014 @ 10:30 am

  46. Someone should make a thorough cinematic takedown on THE NINETIES…

    Comment by CC — February 20, 2014 @ 5:34 pm

  47. the coens just don’t like people.. in fact they are not self hating, perhaps self loathing… ? they do cartoons using live actors. fargo- fabulous caricature? millers crossing…. comic book logic and cut out characters? but they will tell you where things have gone…… and now davis….. a wretched wretched script, and they do manage to trash a sweet time. someone find them someone who can write a screenplay, and let them use all that stuff they got in film school.

    Comment by warren leming — February 20, 2014 @ 8:24 pm

  48. From comment 11: “If you’ve been reading my film reviews, btw, you’d understand that I consider 99 percent of Hollywood films to be pure garbage today.” – LP

    So, Louis, you sit down to watch movies thinking that there’s a 9 in 10 chance you’ll hate it? Not a good attitude for any film critic to have. Also, this was a movie about a fictional character, not a documentary about Dave Von Ronk, whose bio just provided ideas for the screenplay. It seems every negative review of this film cannot separate this fact.

    @Karl Friedrich: Does the sun ever shine in your world? It’s strange that you’re criticizing the “joyless misanthropy” of this film when you offer the same.

    Comment by JCRH — February 23, 2014 @ 8:26 am

  49. JCRH – Nothing you’ve just written denies that this film really sucked.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 23, 2014 @ 1:32 pm


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: