Film Stephen Applebaum meets the Coen brothers
The Coen brothers pay tribute to the 60s American folk music revival with a melancholy comedy, writes Stephen Applebaum
ALMOST a decade ago, Joel and Ethan Coen were sitting in their office when the image of a folk singer being roughed up outside a club in New York’s West Village popped into Joel’s head.
The thought of a folkie, of all people, being attacked tickled the brothers, but they didn’t know what to do with it.
‘‘ We get a lot of ideas,’’ says Ethan, 56, the younger of the filmmaking siblings by three years, when I meet the pair in a seafront hotel during the Cannes film festival. ‘‘ You talk about something in the office and sometimes it goes somewhere and sometimes it doesn’t.’’
This time, the above-mentioned image wouldn’t go away. Perhaps it was the dissonance they enjoyed? Joel isn’t sure. ‘‘ It just kept amusing us,’’ he says. ‘‘ Maybe it was a bad joke or something. But we did remember it and at some point we thought, ‘ Well, does it really go anywhere? What would be the story that would follow from that?’ ’’
The answer is in Inside Llewyn Davis, a surprisingly warm, elegantly crafted and melancholy comedy, set mostly in and around Greenwich Village in 1961, during the American folk music revival. Llewyn — a folk singer, sensitively played by Oscar Isaac, who has been forced to go solo after his partner jumped off the George Washington Bridge — is trying to scrape a living with soulful performances of traditional songs. Like other Coen brothers protagonists before him, in films such as
Barton Fink, The Man Who wasn’t There and A Serious Man, however, he cannot seem to get a break in life — at least not on his own terms.
It doesn’t help that he can be abrasive and haughtily contemptuous of his musician peers, or that he often unwittingly colludes in causing his own misery. Yet his passion, dreams, desperate need for acknowledgment as an artist (not as a commodity) and as an individual, and genuine talent, not to mention that he appears to be in the grip of grief and depression, make you root for him to succeed. You might not like Llewyn (I do), but by the film’s downbeat denouement you will understand and, possibly, sympathise with him.
‘‘ The ambition was that at the end of the movie you were invested in him and it’s not a happy ending,’’ says Joel. Adds Ethan: ‘‘ Sometimes you do a sad song and it feels good to do a sad song. It’s a weird, perverse thing, but sad isn’t bad sometimes.’’
Significantly, 1961 was the year that Robert Zimmerman turned up in the Village, adopted the name Bob Dylan, and in a short space of time changed the course of American music. The film isn’t about him per se, but he hangs over Llewyn like a sword of Damocles.
It is worth noting that Zimmerman, like the Coens, was a Jew who uprooted to New York from Minnesota and made a big impact on the cultural landscape. Where he did it with music, notably his second album, The Freewheelin’ Bob
Dylan (the cover art of which informed Bruno Delbonnel’s wintry cinematography for Inside
Llewyn Davis), the brothers did it with their fiercely precocious 1984 debut feature Blood
Simple, a game-changing Texas noir that took the already thriving independent cinema in a thrilling new direction.
The siblings are perhaps hinting at their own success story, albeit obliquely, in the film. Such narrative arcs aren’t their thing creatively, though. Far more interesting to them than a Dylan-type protagonist was a man frustrated by the fact, despite his demonstrable talent, he is treading water, creating a fraught relationship with his art.
Dave Van Ronk — a brilliant Brooklyn-born folk singer-songwriter who mentored Dylan but didn’t achieve a fraction of his fame — and his posthumous memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, provided inspiration. Even so, Joel points out, his musical repertoire notwithstanding, Llewyn is not Van Ronk.
‘‘ People somehow have the idea that this grew directly out of this book and has something to do with Dave Van Ronk, when not really,’’ he says, evidently tired of batting away questions about the connections between Inside Llewyn Davis and the singer who died in 2002. ‘‘ The book was certainly informative to us but in a way that we’ve done other movies where books have been very instrumental and informative to the material we’ve ended up with.’’
They were drawn to the period by folk musicians’ passion for authenticity — and the irony that many of them came from New York, assumed fake identities and sang about borrowed experiences and places they’d never seen — and their own affection for folk. (‘‘We were little kids then, so we weren’t buying records. We couldn’t even reach the turntable,’’ says Joel. ‘‘ But I do have vague recollections of hearing music around there and just afterwards.’’) The period immediately before Dylan’s arrival, moreover, played a role in forging the future of American popular music, yet has been largely forgotten.
Van Ronk’s book ‘‘ was probably one of the better and most evocative about that time’’, Joel says, ‘‘ and sort of got us going and thinking this would be an interesting place to make a movie’’. But it is merely tangential to Inside Llewyn Davis, he insists.
Ethan emits a short, cheerless laugh. ‘‘ It’s funny. We did a movie, Miller’s Crossing, that is kind of a rip-off of The Glass Key, a Dashiell Hammett novel, and Red Harvest, a melding of
the two, and nobody’’ ... ‘‘ said anything’’, says Joel, finishing his brother’s sentence.
Ethan again: ‘‘ We wanted to talk to journalists about Dashiell Hammett and nobody was interested. Here is something that doesn’t have very much to do with Dave Van Ronk but everyone wants to talk about him.’’
Llewyn, like the most hardcore and earnest musicians of the folk revival, won’t compromise his image or the authenticity of the music he plays. While this frequently leads to disappointment in his case, the Coens appear to have walked to the beat of their own drum throughout their 30-year career without significantly diluting their voice. The films haven’t all done equally well critically or financially, but this doesn’t seem to have stopped them doing what they want. Do they respect Llewyn’s refusal to change?
‘‘ Maybe if someone offered him enough money he would compromise. Which, actually, is similar to our situation,’’ says Ethan, laughing. ‘‘ Certainly when we started out, if somebody had offered us enough money to sell out, I’m sure we would have been happy to.’’
Joel: ‘‘ You never know exactly where the horizon is or should be in terms of those issues. It’s part of what the movie’s about, I guess.’’
The only major disappointment of their career was the collapse of an adaptation of James Dickey’s novel To the White Sea, which would have starred Brad Pitt as an airman shot down in Japan during World War II. He witnesses the Tokyo fire-bombing, then tries to make his way home to Alaska. They were all geared up to begin shooting in Japan when I spoke to them about The Man Who wasn’t
There in Cannes in 2001, but ultimately there wasn’t enough money.
‘‘ It’s disappointing when you spend months on something and it doesn’t happen,’’ Ethan reflects. ‘‘ But we can’t complain about it because it’s only happened to us that once. Most people have careers that are just disappointment after disappointment, and then they get a movie made. And then several more disappointments, and then another movie made.’’
The brothers’ upbringing may explain part of their success. Their father, Edward Coen, was an economist at the University of Minnesota, their mother, Rena, an art historian at St Cloud State University — the perfect combination, one imagines, for siblings going on to navigate the fine line between art and commerce that is the film business.
‘‘ We’ve stayed pretty conscientious about gearing the budget of each movie into some reasonable relationship with its commercial potential,’’ says Ethan. ‘‘ I think it’s that, more than anything, that has let us walk this walk.’’
Compared with Inside Llewyn Davis, their previous film, True Grit, was expensive. But even then, offers Joel, ‘‘ it was quite a small amount of money compared to the average studio — certainly the average Paramount — movie, and also relatively small for the ambitions of the movie. So the studio was not risking. This was not World War Z. This was what they would almost call a rounding error on the studio’s bottom line.’’
In a self-described ‘‘ rant’’ about the state of cinema last year, Steven Soderbergh, who announced his retirement from filmmaking (‘‘What’s he going to do? Go to Florida and play golf?’’ sneers Joel), said: ‘‘ I could tell you a really good story of how I got pushed off a movie because of the way the numbers ran, but if I did, I’d probably get shot in the street, and I really like my cats.’’ You’re unlikely to hear anything similar coming from the Coens, who through the years have cultivated relationships with people willing to finance their films. ‘‘ We’ve built a firewall,’’ Joel says, giggling. He doesn’t share Soderbergh’s gloomy view of the industry. But Ethan admits that when it comes to ‘‘ the kind of overall pressures and trends in the industry, they’re things we’re kind of oddly oblivious to’’.
The brothers were in the right place at the right time when they made Blood Simple. ‘‘ We were very lucky to have come on the scene when we were able to surf . . . the fat years of the independent moviemaking,’’ Joel says.
‘‘ That redounded to our benefit in the sense that we were able to do things and establish a reputation which has now enabled us to still be fairly self-sufficient, even in the face of what might be reduced opportunities in certain kinds of filmmaking.
‘‘ So it’s really unfair for us to say, ‘ Ah, it’s fine’,’’ he concedes, ‘‘ because if you were just starting out right now, it’s very possible someone could make a good argument and say, ‘ You guys don’t know what you’re talking about because it’s a lot harder for us than it was for you when you came on the scene.’ And that might be true. But we’re not really in a position to speak to it because we’re speaking from a privileged position.’’
Inside Llewyn Davis will only consolidate that position. Already hailed as one of the best films of their career, it looks set to make a star of Isaac, who recorded his songs live on set, and could add one or more Oscars to the four they have already won. What would another win mean to them? ‘‘ It’d actually be a good promotional thing,’’ says Ethan. ‘‘ The movie doesn’t have movie stars in it so that kind of thing — reviews, awards — is more important than it would be for, say, Gravity.’’
Pragmatic to the last.
Oscar Isaac and Justin Timberlake in
Inside Llewyn Davis, above; Joel and Ethan Coen on the film set, left; facing page, Isaac flanked by the Coen brothers, top, and below in scenes from the movie