No Oscar: Inside Llewyn Davis
By Wai Chee DimockFebruary 24, 2014
WHY ONLY TWO nominations for Inside Llewyn Davis, and for two categories some would consider minor? By now, the film has been consigned, with some surprise but not too much outrage, to the company of “Oscar snubs.” USA Today quips that “Oscar Issac’s Llewyn Davis was left out in the cold with his cat.” It’s a cruel thing to say, but not untrue in one sense. Inside Llewyn Davis is about the phenomenon of cold — meteorological as well as other varieties — just as its predecessor and foil, the red hot musical hit that was O Brother, Where Art Thou? was about the opposite. The Coen brothers have always basked in the warmth of Hollywood acceptance; the latest arctic blast from the Academy is interesting for just that reason.
And, on that count, USA Today has actually gotten a couple of details wrong. Yes, Llewyn Davis, the film’s aspiring folk singer-songwriter, is left out in the cold, like the cold-shouldered movie, but there’s no cat with him at that point. All three cats that he’s come into contact with have peeled off. The luckiest, as we learn at the end of the movie, is back again in a warm home. This escape from the cold is revealed to us — along with the animal’s name — when Llewyn goes back to crash at the apartment of its owners, the Gorfeins, a second time. The cat that he’d let out of the house inadvertently and carried perilously around turns out to have made its way back from Greenwich Village to the Upper West Side. And its name? Of course it’s Ulysses — Homer’s guy, brought down a notch or two by Dante and James Joyce, but rebounding at the end, reclaiming his epic birthright: coming home.
The Coen brothers have told that story once before, a low epic featuring such regional specialties as the Ku Klux Klan and the Cyclops as a Bible salesman, not to mention a Penelope engaged to be married to someone else but coming around in time to make her husband’s return a still iffy, but on the whole, acceptable happy ending. O Brother, Where Art Thou? didn’t stray too far from Homer, but that was back in 2000. This time, homecoming is strictly a feline privilege, a minor development on the side. The film gestures in that direction for its human protagonist, but we already know his case is hopeless. The main story, his story, isn’t going to be heartwarming. Academy judges can’t warm to it.
To make things worse, not all of the movie’s cats share Ulysses’ luck. The other two, without names, are also without homes. One probably did have a home not so long ago, but is now abandoned in the car with a total stranger, the perennially cranky and now unconscious jazz musician, Roland Turner (John Goodman). The other, hit by the car temporarily driven by the hitchhiking Llewyn, probably hasn’t had a home for a while and will never have one now. These three disparate stories interestingly reproduce the three-cat cast behind the seemingly singular orange tabby on the screen. Apparently, the production team started out with five rescue cats; two were let go before the actual filming. Of the remaining three, Tigger, a female, was the “holding” cat, the one Llewyn carries around everywhere; Jerry was the “action” cat because he could be counted on to do certain things; Daryl was the laid-back dude who could be put in trying situations, like subway scenes with big crowds and loud noise. Not all cats are alike, it seems.
If only one of the three cats gets the nod from Homer, what kind of story is left for the human actor without the power of that epic recall? Non-Homeric names are actually not without potential; throughout the movie the name Llewyn is as conspicuously discussed as the cat’s name is conspicuously withheld. It’s an unusual name; not everyone gets it right away. On the Chicago road trip it’s an object of ridicule for Roland Turner. The name is Welsh, meaning "leonine" (the Welsh word for lion is "llew"), an association reinforced when the Welsh prince, Llywelyn the Great, adopted a coat of arms featuring four lions. Not a common tabby, then, but the king of the jungle. But if this half of the name suggests something grand and special, the second half seems just the opposite. Nothing can be more ordinary than Davis. It’s a family name in more senses than one, linking Llewyn to his unglamorous father and sister, and to countless masses of people. Ironically, it is this unglamorous half that gives him any name recognition at all. When he says his full name to Bud Grossman (F. Abraham Murray), the Chicago impresario, it makes absolutely no impression; the only time he gets a faint stir of interest from anyone is when the two merchant marine officers processing his reenlistment application notice his last name, their old buddy’s. Llewyn goes to see his father after this, but the silent, blankly staring man with Alzheimer’s only moves his bowels when his son sings him a seafaring song, “The Shoals of Herring.” Apparently the Oscar judges disliked the movie for its cynicism, its chilling irony. This must be one of those scenes.
And yet the film deliberately stages the drama of homecoming for both Llewyn and the cat, stages it as a stylishly repeated visual sequence, a déjà vu for both. Once again, the man wakes up when the cat walks over him; once again he paddles down the long hallway in his underwear. This time, though, when he heads out he manages to keep the cat in — it’s already had its adventure, unchronicled but probably thrilling; and now it’s back for good, back where it belongs. Where the cat belongs is where Llewyn doesn’t. For him, it’s always just a couple of nights, and then back again at the intercom of another building asking to be let in, surely the most repeated scene in the movie.
Llewyn is not defined solely by his homelessness, although he comes close to that when he cringes at the “Address” line in the form he’s filling out, or when he’s prodded awake by the police while taking a nap in the Chicago train station. Homelessness as an existential condition — an optics through which one sees the world — does seem to account for the film’s visual composition more than anything else. From the attentive but entirely unenvious gaze distributed evenly across the Gorfeins’s Upper West Side apartment (including some version of dinner guests as a fixture), to the same attentive but entirely unenvious gaze gliding over the record collection in the Greenwich Village hangout of the musical couple, Jim and Jean, the camera’s observing eye is home-conscious but not home-desiring. Inside Llewyn Davis is very much about apartments — other people’s apartments — but it has almost nothing in common with a more obvious instance of the genre such as Nicole Holofcener’s Please Give (2010). In this case there is no scheming involved, no thought of ever taking over the space now occupied by someone else. Instead, Llewyn goes from day to day trying to find some place to put himself and his portable belongings, a matter of expediency rather than any deep need for protective habitat, for a shell, personal and personalized, standing between oneself and the world. New York is freezing, Chicago is snow-covered, and Llewyn doesn’t have so much as a winter coat.
Maybe that’s why the only thing his solo album can offer is his own interior, Inside Llewyn Davis. This is the only space that is fully his, lived in at every point. Nothing else is inhabited in the same way: not the Gorfeins’ apartment, not a music venue like the Gaslight, not the merchant marine, and not even that next-to-the-skin shelter that is a warm jacket. Llewyn is his own home in quite a literal sense. The film, named after the album, promises a look at that interior, and yet it doesn’t seem invasive in any way, driven by any attempt to probe, excavate, bring to light a story psychologized through the reading of signs and symptoms. The impulse here is not to posit a repressed interior the better to expose it, but simply to describe a mode of being, plain for all to see. It is meant to be a surface portrait. And so there’s almost no story to tell here, no hidden dimension generating its narrative and revelatory arc.
“The film doesn’t really have a plot,” Joel Coen said at the Cannes Film Festival. “That concerned us at one point; that’s why we threw the cat in.” That might not do it, as the Oscar results show. The movie is in fact without a “story” as many of us define that term. Rather than probing with a laser beam, Inside Llewyn Davis is driven, if anything, by externalizations: the outsourcing of the Homeric plot to Ulysses, and, we might also add, the outsourcing of inchoate emotional states to highly composed visual surfaces. This film is usually assumed to be sound-dependent like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, thriving on the strength of its musical following. But whereas the soundtrack in O Brother is a hit both in the film and in actual runaway sales figures, Llewyn’s album doesn’t sell at all. When he gets to Chicago and sings his heart out for Bud Grossman, all he gets is this: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” That judgment might turn out to be prophetic for the film’s own musical fortunes. According to The New York Times, as of January 3, 2014, the soundtrack, released in November by Nonesuch, has sold only about 50,000 copies, against the 8,000,000 copies eventually sold for O Brother. The Oscars made no mention of any of the songs, produced by T. Bone Burnett. Rather than focusing on sound, visualization offers a better entry point to the film. Cinematography, after all, is one of the only two categories in which it received a nomination.
The Coens have a new cameraman for this film, not Roger Deakins but the French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel (Amélie, Big Eyes, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince). It’s a visual style at once detached and engaged, naturalistic and stylized, capturing the coldness and loneliness of Llewyn through a pervasive dark gray, thick to the point of saturation, with so little color that at times it looks almost like black-and-white photography. “Daylight comes and dies very fast,” Delbonnel says. Sometimes there’s no light to begin with, which is the case with the opening scene in the smoke-filled Gaslight Café. Llewyn sings “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The audience listens but is not bowled over. As with the later session with Bud Grossman, it is always some other guy — Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s musical partner who committed suicide, or Troy Nelson, the soldier/singer from Fort Dix — whose talents people remember. After this non-opening comes an encounter in the alleyway. We see a man in deep shadows, his cigarette light flickering, saying in a raspy voice, "Had to open your big mouth, huh, funny boy?” before punching Llewyn twice in the face and kicking him while he’s down. In an almost too stylized wrap-around, this opening sequence is also the closing sequence, a doubling back far more dramatic than the second walk down the Gorfeins’s long hallway. This second déjà vu is, of course, a second return, a second homecoming, now ironized beyond words. It speaks to a world in which endless repetitions do not add up to a resting place, in which what one does best happens not to be what the world notices.
And there’s a slight variation in this doubling back. This time, as Llewyn heads out to the alleyway, another singer with an unmistakable voice takes the stage. It’s 1961. Someone with a made-up Welsh name has just come to New York City from Minnesota, and is now singing at the Gaslight. He’s still at the beginning of his career, but we know he’s destined for a home run. The career of the Coen brothers has been like this guy’s up to this point. Their unfamiliar setback now is a vital new beginning. What would they do next, after Inside Llewyn Davis, without Academy backing, is left homeless in the world? No matter. They’ve already explored that condition better than anything that the Oscars can do to them.
Wai Chee Dimock is William Lampson Professor of English and American Studies at Yale University. She has published widely on American literature of every period, and is best known for Through Other Continents: American Literature Across Deep Time (2007). Editor of PMLA, her essays have also appeared in Critical Inquiry, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New Yorker, and The New York Times. Her team-edited American Literature in the World: An Anthology from Anne Bradstreet to Octavia Butler (2017) was published by Columbia University Press in January.
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