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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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