Film Log #4: The Oscars Edition
Inside Llewyn Davis
The easiest compliment to give Inside Llewyn Davis is it’s most unlike all Coen brothers movies, more humane and small, with less derision for its characters or the audience than anything they’ve ever made. But this isn’t the whole story, because it doesn’t account for the subtle but wrenching emotional experience of watching it. The days after first seeing it were filled with longing, some intangible quality I felt softly weighing down on me. I was sullen and brooding and surprised by my emotions, but not in a way where I wallowed. I didn’t wallow. I felt more in tune to the rhythm of living. I felt introspective and eager to self-examine. I wanted to do better.
The Coens are usually callous filmmakers because they don’t care about their characters. I don’t know anything about them personally but I’d bet they are self-described “animal people.” Fargo is not about William H. Macy it is about Pride. The Big Lebowski is not about The Dude it is about Nothing. No Country for Old Men is not about a manhunt it is about Good and Evil. Conversely, Inside Llewyn Davis is not about subtweeting Dylan or lovingly exalting folk music or a sorry man’s rise to stardom or baby boomer nostalgia it is about Llewyn Davis, just like A Serious Man, my former favorite Coens movie, was about its titular character. Creating something about Something is boring and rings of someone who stopped growing intellectually around sophomore year of college, which is why when the Coens drop their schtick and focus on humans they manage to squeeze out something decent.
But I like this movie more than A Serious Man, which got a lot of mileage out of building its story around the Job archetype among many other cultural totems. “Greenwich Village in the ‘60s” is similarly archetypal but is hardly universal, and not Biblical, so the Coens are even further to the ground than they were five years ago. However, there is a similar tone of hopelessness, something that feels eternally bound 2 disappointment, futility, and resignation—the framing device of the movie is literally cyclical, with minor variations at the end to imply the changes Llewyn could make if he wised up. If this sounds stupidly grandiose, it kind of is, but the Coens want us to go there. Why else make a movie so solemn about a person who is neither tragically flawed or traditionally likable?
I don’t know, what’s the point of telling any story? In a dinner scene where Llewyn loses his cool he rants about what he does being a job, never mind the fact he is essentially homeless. If a movie was about a dentist we wouldn’t ask ourselves, “yes but is he the best dentist in the country?” Being a musician, or any creative person, is a vocation but strip away romantic ideas of it being a “calling” and it is a job like any other just with different hours. And I mean, only at its best, being an artist is a job: it’s a reliable way to make money and spend time and build a career. But for about 85% of the population of artists being one is just like being a top-seeded amateur in their field. Forever.
When does a person decide to quit on themselves? When do people make this decision? I once knew someone intimately who said they never felt smart but always just felt like a hard worker, which was ridiculous to me because I thought (and still think) they were in the top five smartest people I’ve ever known. Were they lying to themselves, or just being #honest, or humble, or oblivious? Or did they at some point—I knew them when they were like, 19-22, so they must have made this decision early—choose to “just” be a hard worker? The scenes where Llewyn visits his sister are explicitly about this. He whines to her their father just “existed,” and she argues it’s not a bad way to live, but to him, it’s the worst. (The movie wisely refuses judgment on his petulance but it quickly becomes obvious where the Coens [like any reasonable people] think how far his attitude goes.) To me it’s somewhat disappointing to think about. I respect the hustle but the dreamer in me hasn’t died yet, though it’s come perilously close. I don’t know when people make these decisions—some are just thrust into them, as I’m well aware this is a privilege not a lot of people have, but the point is not about specifics (how much money you’re making, where you’re living, who loves you) but greater ideas, like: am I living up to my potential? Do I still have a larger vision for how my life should be? Or is how I’m living currently enough? Am I working hard enough to enjoy life, or, barring that, just live through as little suffering as possible?
Inside Llewyn Davis understands this struggle so coherently and thoroughly these themes aren’t spelled out. It’s similar to Barton Fink but with less neuroses and more heart so I like it more. I don’t even care for folk music like that but in the long and patient musical interludes (well, with the exception of “Please Mr. Kennedy”) the Coens do a great job of highlighting the redemptive nature of so much traditional (in the oral- and anthropological sense) songwriting. You don’t have to like folk as much as these characters do but that’s okay, and it’s so hard to make a movie about anything that accomplishes that goal. Insofar as film critic types like to think of themselves as cultural gatekeepers the movie’s angle on folk music versus folk legend versus archetype versus how good T-Bone Burnett’s purposely sterile tastefulness is adds up to one of the Coen brothers’ many signature red herrings. This movie is about one person’s identity crisis on the cusp of an overblown cultural event, nothing more. (Its greatest misstep comes at the very end—playing that Dylan song over the credits would be fine enough, but they had to go hire a doppelganger to perform IMMEDIATELY AFTER Llewyn and it’s too obvious, just like the cat’s name being Ulysses is too obvious.)
For some people taking care of a cat is a Sisyphean task even if it’s of no greater purpose. Of course importance is relative—people I’ve known who’ve been in rehab talk about putting out small fires like making the bed and getting dressed in the morning as the most satisfying accomplishments in their life. Not every single individual action, and not every interaction with someone else can be so meaningful, but through a careful process enough good contact with people and experience adds up to a life worth living. (As Llewyn says at one point, “surely there is someone in the five boroughs who doesn’t hate me,” and it’s one the movie’s most sincerely optimistic moments.) This simple lesson is a more beautiful story than almost any other narrative possible.
There comes a point in every young buck’s life where he decides he wants to make a squishy project about love and encompass every emotional nook that lies therein. The problem with these types of passion projects—from Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, Charlie Kaufman’s Eternal Sunshine, Michel Gondry’s Science of Sleep, Linklater’s Before movies, even a hack like David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook—is illustrating “love” is just not that interesting. I think about this Jens Lekman quote a lot (“When people ask me about my production rate the last five years I sometimes say, ‘Well you can’t pour manure in an espresso machine and expect a cappuccino to come out.’ By which I mean that some things you just go through, you don’t write about them or make art out of them”). And the inverse of this is you can’t put flowers in an espresso machine and expect a cappuccino. You gotta put coffee grounds in an espresso machine to get a cappuccino and there is no coffee in these types of movies whose intended lasting impression is “wow he really nailed what being in love is like.”
From the get-go Her seems like the most egregious of these types of projects, from Joaquin Phoenix’s childlike mannerisms to the Anthropologie-meets-Apple-Store production design to an anonymous score from Arcade Fire. Admittedly some of it works on a gut level, like how flirty Scarlett Johansson’s voice sounds and the brief scene where Theodore Twombly (ugh, speaking of college-aged cultural references) is presented with a bound copy of every love letter he’s written in his life.
But Jonze is not a good writer. At so many parts of this I winced hard, from Amy Adams saying “love is a socially acceptable form of insanity” to Samantha’s “the past is just a story we tell ourselves” (this one cued my going to the bathroom) to someone saying “I just want to feel good in this life.” There is literally no theme or trope in this movie that doesn’t get an obvious handling. Rooney Mara has an utterly thankless role as the nearly mute ex-wife and between her cruel treatment by Jonze and Adams’s wide-eyed naivete (and being a cliched Interesting Woman type) and every cringe-inducing baby-talk sequence it becomes clear Jonze’s (or Theodore’s or whoever’s) idea of love is contingent on passivity and having a person in your life who merely coddles you like a child, not teaches you anything or challenges you to do better or guides you through difficult circumstances. It feels fundamentally shallow and immature, and this attitude inevitably affects every aspect of the movie.
This is why I always thought some of those mumblecore movies were really important, from Mutual Appreciation to Humpday to (of course) The Puffy Chair. They stripped a traditional narrative away from the foundation of movies and got at the heart of what makes interpersonal relationships (not just romantic ones) work. Ioeno if I have a favorite romantic movie anymore, movies are a visual medium and it’s impossible to simply visualize a feeling without there being more behind it. I wish all these guys would stop trying to do this thing where they say “hey I’m quirky and smart but I also FEEL A LOT too” and get on with it. Let’s stop now and recognize What’s Up Fatlip? will forever remain Spike Jonze’s greatest cinematic contribution.
The Wolf of Wall Street
Pick a word, any word, from the Scorsese word-association cloud: Catholic, 71, gangster, epic, mob, Leonardo, cocaine, et. al. You just wrote a review of The Wolf of Wall Street.
First of all I can’t even pretend to care some 18-year-old somewhere will put a poster of this on his dorm wall and talk about how cool Jordan Belfort is. White Men Behaving Badly is a genre every white male loves at some point in his life but Scorsese throws a curveball with this one I’ll get to in a second. Next, I can’t even pretend to care about the movie’s lack of focus on the victims of Belfort’s scam. I didn’t realize every time someone is victimized in a movie we needed to see their origin story. And last, I can’t even pretend to care what the real Belfort thinks about this movie. I’m sure 99% of people on the planet would love a movie about them on principle alone even if they are a despicable person. One can hope they feel remorse if a movie depicts their worst behaviour but idk human morality is complex. What’s more disturbing is this swindle-then-redemption complex even exists, where someone like Belfort can be paid for sharing his story at convention centers and in books, and let’s be real, this is an exploitation of that but Scorsese is gifted enough etc etc etc to redeem the content etc etc etc.
Scorsese does some interesting things other people would not with the material. The mere length of the movie and the depths it reaches in dramatizing the bacchanalia of the times recalls St. Augustine. Everyone knows his famous quote: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.” As Scorsese gets into his seventies there’s a natural tendency as an audience to take stock of his life, but instead of a standard weepy lump that’d deal with morality in a dumb obvious pandering way (see every movie made explicitly “about” Catholicism/redemption/sin) he takes the exact opposite approach. The movie is too long to be cool and too exhausting to be glamorous, even though it flirts with valorizing certain habits. But hey, if you think the Jerry Lewis-inspired body horror of Leo crawling around in a Quaalude-induced stupor is exciting or funny, more power to you. (The drugs-as-Popeye’s-spinach image is brilliant by the way.)
By letting the audience really be indoctrinated into the movie’s world of sex, drugs, violence, cronyism, etc, it removes some of the mystique surrounding those things. Snorting cocaine out of someone’s butt is really gross if you think about it and this movie visually proves that. With every orgy scene Scorcese is saying, Lord, grant me chastity—but not yet. And of course the life of Augustine is the great redemption narrative of Catholicism, and he’s one of the defining doctors of the Church, whose Confessions is something else. There’s no way to talk about redemption without mentioning from what one needs to be redeemed.
Scorsese nails the philosophical and moral anxiety that drives aspirational wealth in America. All the guys in the movie who start working for Belfort out of a garage are rough blue-collar types, and, yes their lifestyles were gross, greedy, inhumane, unsustainable, to say nothing of the lives they single-handedly ruined, but a scene late in the movie where a woman who works as a receptionist in the office desperately recalls how Belfort saved her life by loaning her $20,000 to pay off her mortgage left many in the audience in tears. We don’t need to be told the reality of the situation is horrible, but Scorsese includes a scene like that to get at the heart of what many people desire: wealth as the definitive measure of success, wealth as moral fortitude, wealth as spiritual enlightenment. (He often frames Leo inside his office like the pastor of a mega church preaching the prosperity gospel.) In America where success is measured by dollars, property, and possessions, there is something noble-seeming about trying to achieve at that level when you come from nothing, even if flaunting it is often seen as gauche. By dramatizing all aspects of the acquisition of wealth, power, and vice by an elite class, Scorsese damns as well as he lionizes and understands: Lord, grant me chastity, continence, humility, abstinence (of all types)—just not within the next three hours.