Hello & welcome to a new series of 808 film reviews. The reviews will cover new, old and classic films – indeed anything that has been watched in the 808 media cube or in the local drive-in. We’ll try and make them a little different to the plethora of reviews out there in the electronic ether – with a focus on the things that make the films beautiful (or not) whether via the cinematography, the story, acting or design. First up, it’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” written and directed by Joel & Ethan Coen.
As I walked out of the theatre, blinking in the harsh winter sunshine, with a gut full of bad-for-me sweets and a stiff neck, I wasn’t actually sure whether I had enjoyed the film, or indeed whether it was a ‘film’ in the usual sense. In fact, it’s more like a cinematic version of a piece of creative, descriptive writing that is placed to served the plot in context as opposed to being the plot itself. That feeling stayed with me for the first half hour as I tried to explain the film to myself and understand just what it was that I had actually seen & what it was about. Interestingly, inside the theatre – which had a capacity of around 500, there were only around 15 other people watching the movie. There was silence as we all exited.
An hour later, I was still thinking about the film but now I felt an emotional tug to the sheer gorgeousness of the cinematography, the naturalness of the acting and a meandering story that is simply a week in the life of a struggling folk musician in the early sixties. Two months later, I’m now convinced it is one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen in many years. So, what is it about the film that has this effect?
Well, first of all it does look absolutely beautiful. The cinematography, the lighting and the sheer evocation of time and place is stunning. Whether it’s the freezing streets of NYC, the interior of the bars & cafe’s or depictions of dustbowl gas stations – every single frame of the film is a fabulous still shot in it’s own right. The music to be honest is difficult for me to comment on as it’s not a genre I would normally be drawn to, but it is perfect and presumably exceedingly authentic. T-Bone Burnett is the man.
OK, so it looks and sounds nice. Plot? Character? Llewyn Davis is not a particularly nice guy. He gets the partner of his friend pregnant, loses a cat, heckles other musicians and throws a bit of a strop when asked to perform at a dinner party. The plot doesn’t follow any kind of usual story arc, it’s more like a soap opera slice of a slightly mundane life. And it’s that for me, which makes it a compelling movie – as you, the viewer are completely immersed in some else’s existence – but this is a life where no-one is a hero, where nothing extraordinary happens (not withstanding John Goodman’s turn as a satanic old jazz-man) but one where we believe it & the realisation of the world completely. In a way it’s as though the Coen Brothers have created a time machine, found Lleywn and tagged him with an omnipresent web-cam that captures his every move and particle of his life.
What does this tell us though? It tells us that musicians are not necessarily hero’s and shouldn’t be treated as such – it tells us they can be angsty, egotistical and somewhat venal – but also, that there is something which drives them to get their music heard. Perhaps it’s the lure of dollars, perhaps it’s the need of any talented craftsmen to have their work recognised – perhaps it’s the sense they have been given what we would normally call a ‘gift’ but which they feel is more like a burden. Imagine having a talent for something that no-one else is interested in. That’s a head-mess right there. We like our movies to empower us, to allow us to feel enriched about the human condition – this isn’t one of them. What it is though, is one that holds up a fragment of a mirror to ourselves, that examines our own motivations and how we might seem to other people. In our own minds everything we do and how we act is perfectly explainable, we, ourselves can always justify it. This film is an example of being inside someone else’s head and seeing that our actions, moods and behaviours are actually rather inexplicable to anyone but ourselves. One of the key scenes is where Llewyn is asked to play a song by his middle-class academic hosts. He flies into a rage & insults his hosts, not wanting to perform. Initially it’s easy to think “what an arse”, but actually what are they asking him? Round a dinner table, he’s enjoying the conversation and food and is asked to sing a song he used to perform with his dead singing partner. A singing partner he still grieves for and who he also resents (unfairly) for stalling his career. Llewyn, despite his faults is not a man of shallow emotions, so of course he would get angry. Thing is though, we viewers want to see him sing a lovely song and not be witness to his grief and insecurity. Uncomfortable viewing? Absolutely.
There is a lot that could be written about the film. I feel that in one viewing I actually only saw about a tenth of what it had to offer. I want to see it again, to close my eyes and see the slush-covered streets of NYC or moonlit snow at the side of the freeway. I want to experience that time and place again, even if Lleywn Davis it not someone I would ever want to be a friend of. It’s an eminently believable, truthful and immersive film. And to copy the cyclical nature of the film itself, when I came out of the theatre blinking into the sunshine, I blinked not because of the light, but because I expected to be elsewhere and not Edinburgh in 2014.
Summary: A thoughtful & immersive movie. Fabulous production values, acting and sound design. Absence of the usual story arc, could be seen as a little dull. See it in winter, not in the summer. Needs the big screen. Absence of strong emotion provoking scenes or narrative, but rather it is gently elegiac – similar to a warm pint at the end of a maiden over, or to quote Roy Harper “when the last cricketer leaves the crease, well you never know whether he’s gone”. In essence – it embodies the queer beauty of not much particularly happening.