Some say that the mark of a good film is the way it stays with you afterwards. By that standard the Coen Brothers' "Inside Llewyn Davis" is a very good film indeed. It certainly got inside of me.
For those of you who don't know, "Llewyn Davis" is the name bestowed by the Coens upon a self defeating folksinger who lives the blues during one wintry week in Greenwich Village circa 1961. Llewyn is a rolling stone whose love for songs with deep roots in tradition is in marked contrast with his rootless and disconnected existence as an unwelcome guest on other people's couches. Some of my dearest and most discerning friends were put off by Llewyn's darker character traits,. Why did the Coen's pick such an unlikeable protagonist, they wondered? I didn't mind. Just listen to the guy sing.
I was left with a different question after I saw the film last Saturday night. Why did the Coens pick the name Llewyn? Somewhere between 3 and 4 the next morning I think I figured it out. It's about Bob Dylan. You see, Dylan is a Welsh name. So is Llewyn. My follow up investigation revealed that "Dylan" means "son of the sea." Ironically, this is an appellation more fitting for Llewyn, the merchant mariner who sings songs of the sea to his ancient mariner father in one of the film's more poignant moments. Then again, with perfect symmetry, the name "Llewyn" means "shining leader" or something close to that- a moniker much more fitting for the golden boy who turns the music world upside down, and, in the process, becomes the inadvertent voice of his generation. Now, maybe all this speculation is completely off track, but it's fun for me to think about, like it was fun listening to "Mr. Tambourine Man" and trying to figure out what the lyrics meant, once upon a time.
Like the Coens, I'm a member of that baby boom generation, the one that mythologized the Greenwich Village folk scene as part of our "coming of age" back in 1961. I loved this movie because it reminded me of who I was at that time, including some aspects of me that I would rather not remember. These back pages include my near religious commitment to something I termed "authenticity," and my opposition to something I called "selling out" (anything to do with money and the need for it) Then there was my hostility to those I depended on, and my desire for a future that was "different,"as another character, Benjamin Braddock, put it not so many years later in "The Graduate."In other words, Llewyn's story woke up my dormant adolescent self. That self yearned for a means of expression, and the mysterious creative forces of the universe responded through an unlikely generational incarnation, in the the form of a slightly built young man from Hibbing, Minnesota who turned what I felt-including the darker stuff- into words and music.
Well here we are in 2014, we boomers, coming of a different age and trying to figure out how to leave the center stage we've occupied for so long. I watched a you-tube interview of a Dylan who says he doesn't know how he wrote the songs of his youth, and who knows he can't write them anymore. A new wave of creative forces are gathering to upend us all in ways that we'll never understand, and that are best left to the Coen Brothers grandchildren to depict. It's a good occasion to reflect on the value of the old and the value of what changes, on the traditions that hold generations together and the creative forces that generate the future. What songs should we be singing now? Llewyn offers a suggestion of a realm beyond these categories, that applies to the film itself :"If it was never new and it never gets old, it's a folk song." As the Coens show us, folk songs can be wondrous things.
Au revoir 2013 and Fare thee well!