THERE’S A STORY about Mike Dubue of the Hilotrons that goes something like the following:
Mike plays a gig in Ottawa. An ex-girlfriend is in the audience, and she loves the show. So she takes out a scrap of paper and writes WOW, hands it to Mike. When he reads it, it’s upside down: he thinks it says MOM. Well now Mike’s freaking out, because he’s got his ex-girlfriend pregnant and he has no idea what he’s going to do.
The story ends with laughter, the imagined scenario having been a case of simple miscommunication. But these things do happen, and if you’re Llewyn Davis – the principal character of the latest Coen brothers’ film Inside Llewyn Davis – they happen a lot.
Davis is a Greenwich Village folk singer, hoping to make a living on his solo music “career” in the wake of his bandmate’s suicide. Both the time and place correspond with Bob Dylan’s stage debut at the Gaslight, in 1961. As it happens, Davis plays the opening slot of this show. As the movie ends, Dylan is launching into an extraordinary career and Davis is telling everyone he’s making an exit.
But we know, or should know, that Llewyn Davis will never quit. Dave van Ronk, who recorded Inside Dave van Ronk – upon which the music of Llewyn Davis, but not the character, is based – wrote in his memoir that he would have quit if he could. Admired by many fellow musicians, including Dylan, van Ronk didn’t have the it that his soon famous contemporaries had. His arrangement of House of the Rising Sun was appropriated by Dylan, and then by The Animals. The copied versions were hits, but the van Ronk original sank into obscurity.
He had good reason to give it all up, but he continued to live and play in Greenwich Village up to his death at age 65, in 2002. Anyone who has spent time in an artistic environment knows it’s a disease. You have to do it. Never mind fame and fortune: getting by is the challenge. If you’re a writer or a musician or a painter, you know some folks who are a variant of Llewyn Davis. You may be, too. You and all your artist friends are forever scrounging the money to make the next record, or book, or exhibition. You’re hoping the last project will sell enough so that you can cover your costs, maybe pay some bills. You worry no one will come to the show or the book launch, and that the critics will trash your work. Or just ignore it entirely. You question the sanity of pounding your head on the same wall, decade upon decade, for the meagre paycheck that (if you’re lucky) only offsets your expenses.
But are the many Llewyn Davises of this world losers? The movie is both more melancholy and more compassionate than any other Coen movie I’ve seen. Llewyn Davis makes stupid choices and talks trash: music is how he pays the bills and puts food on the table, he says in a petulant fit, when the fact is he does neither. But I don’t know any musician who hasn’t made bad choices and talked trash. Davis isn’t a bad person, he’s a flawed person whose poor choices have been complemented and amplified by unrelenting bad fortune. He’s the opposite of Midas, as one character puts it. Everything he touches turns to shit.
The Coen brothers are, whether or not by design, scrutinizing the peculiarly American delusions that talent and hard work will always pay off handsomely in the end and that if you believe in yourself anything is possible. Not that Llewyn Davis is a model of the Protestant Work Ethic. But Dave van Ronk was. Unlike Llewyn Davis, van Ronk was charming and brilliant. He was also a few years older than Dylan, and this, coupled with his grounding in jazz and his erudition made him seem stiff and outdated to the slightly younger postwar ’60s generation. Dylan’s inferior technical skills and his chubby-faced youthfulness turned out to be great advantages over van Ronk’s greater experience and technical mastery of American folk traditions. It didn’t matter that van Ronk worked hard and had talent. Dylan had all the good fortune and the secret ingredient – the it – on his side, and so he took the spoils.
Around the time Mike Dubue had his pregnancy scare, he was couch surfing. The Hilotrons were a local novelty act. They could pack any Ottawa bar with their wacky, high-energy shows, but even this was little more than pocket cash. Eventually Dubue was diagnosed with a personality disorder, which for years he had been self-medicating. If you were around in the 60s, and part of the counter-cultural scene, you would have fallen into one of two camps, the Dylan camp or the Phil Ochs camp. Phil Ochs was the thinking man’s Dylan. He was well read and politically engaged and sophisticated. By the mid-seventies, however, bi-polar disorder was unravelling him, and in 1976 he committed suicide. Just another piece of bad luck.
The problem with a label like loser is that some of the losers have great luck and great material wealth. I know losers who are making a lot of money, and who have large followings. They are successful, and they are losers. Chris Brown, for example, strikes me as a loser. Inside Llewyn Davis is a comedy of errors, not a tragedy, and the point of the comedy of errors is both simple and universal: what can it mean to succeed in a world where things are never, ever going to work out the way you hope and plan, no matter what you do?
In Burn After Reading, the characters are delusional and are treated accordingly with contempt. In other movies (Raising Arizona) they are simpletons or spiritually empty (Barton Fink) or beyond their depth (No Country for Old Men). Inside Llewyn Davis is by contrast a film about someone who is self-aware, who is in his element, who is doing precisely the right things, but who will never realize even a fraction of his ambitions. It’s impossible, for me at least, to watch Inside Llewyn Davis and not be aware that all the while, as Davis goes nowhere in his absurd life, Bob Dylan is only at most blocks away, lurking in the film’s desaturated Lower Manhattan backdrop. In real life, Davis would be the one faded into the scenery.
The Dylan story is the one we all know, but the Davis story is the one that most of us are in some fashion living. Llewyn Davis will live his life. He’ll play the Gaslight a thousand more times “for the basket,” because it’s what he knows. Few outside the village will ever learn his name. When he’s gone he’ll leave no trace. The much hyped American narrative of living your dreams will be of no use to him. He’ll have to find some other formulation of success – a personal, private and real-world narrative. Inside Llewyn Davis is a tribute to this indispensible and messy human work, an acknowledgement that success and failure are ultimately inward, personal matters to be worked out as one’s life unfolds – hopefully with some luck. But there are no guarantees.