A good season for the stay-at-home arts
March is my least-favorite month.
The light, softly sifting snowflakes – bringing to the mind images of Christmas carols and a blazing fireplace inside a welcoming home, which make December often a happy time – give way, in March, to the icy needles, which seem to come parallel to the ground, rather than down from the clouds, and withering winds which make even the warmest coat seem pointless.
What better time to turn our attention to what we like to call “the stay-at-home arts.” These are books and films, which we can enjoy at home, while casting our imagination into places we’ve always dreamed of going. This week, let’s talk about a good film and a very good book.
One of the more intriguing films which I’ve seen recently was “Inside Llewyn Davis.” That film was made by the famed Coen Brothers – Ethan and Joel – and was released in December 2013.
In preparing to write this column, I’ve read review after review, and feature story after story, and the most overwhelming impression which I’ve brought away from all that reading, is how much of what is written for publication, is dead-out wrong.
The title character of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” is a young man in his mid-20s. He is portrayed in the film by Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac. The film has Davis give his name many times, and each time, the person writing it down jots it easily and correctly, as though he or she has met five to 10 Llewyns per day. One reviewer of the film even wrote the name, spelled “Lewellyn,” which is a more familiar name, but if reviewers with reference information spell it wrong, why would a room clerk or a hiring agent find it so easy?
The one character who questions the man’s name is told – correctly – that it is Welsh in origin. Latin-born Isaac quickly explains away his utter lack of resemblance to his character’s origins by chiming in, “My mother was Italian.”
As is so often the case in a Coen Brothers film, this one isn’t really about anything. It is the story of a young singer, in 1961, when jazz was fading as the principal musical voice of our country, and rock ‘n’ roll hadn’t really won over the masses, as yet. Llewyn is a folk singer, who performs solo, accompanying himself on his guitar. He considers himself an authentic musician, and most of the other musicians in the film to be artificial – as a hint, the film shows them all dressed in short-sleeved dress shirts, as the Kingston Trio used to do.
Some reviewers believed – incorrectly – that Llewyn was supposed to represent Bob Dylan. In fact, Dylan makes an appearance in the film, when he is introduced as the next act to perform at one of Llewyn’s performances.
We follow Llewyn for a few days, as he goes about his daily life. At the end of the film, he hasn’t died, he hasn’t had a hit recording which will make him a national treasure, he hasn’t met the love of his life. Basically, he just lives for a few days, and we get to watch and listen.
Why are these days in his life worth our time? Because of the music, of course. Isaac sings and performs his own guitar, we’re told. One time, he is hired to play on a recording of a friend’s song. He often attends “pass the basket” night at small clubs, where a donation basket is passed among members of the audience, and those who have been performing that evening get to divide up any money which gets dropped into the basket. The music paints a picture of our country and especially of New York City in 1961, which is very real and accurate.
Many reviews which I read say that the film isn’t true to that scene, but their explanations show that they’re thinking of the period of the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary, which came later than the setting of the film. I was only 13 in 1961, but I’m reasonably sure that they have it correct.
Llewyn lives from hand to mouth. He can’t afford membership in the musician’s union, so he never gets his name on a recording label, and never collects residuals on recordings. He’s just paid a single fee.
We first see the singer when he wakes up on the living room sofa of a roomy and attractive apartment of a Columbia University professor and his wife. The couple are music lovers and willing to have musicians such as Llewyn drop in for a night or two. As he leaves this couple’s apartment, their yellow cat dashes through the door to the outside, just moments before it slams shut behind him, meaning he can’t get back in to return the cat to its home, so he takes it with him. He leaves a note for his hosts, that he has their cat and will return it.
He carries the cat on the subway – hardly an enviable task, especially because it wriggles out of his arms – as we watch stop after stop flash by the window behind him. Finally, he gets off the train in Greenwich Village, approximately 90 blocks south of the cat’s home. He manages, by climbing up their fire escape, to get into the apartment of a married couple of young musicians. The couple is portrayed by Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan. They also are frequent donors of the use of their sofa, but this particular night, they have invited another singer to use it. Llewyn is repeatedly shut out in the cold, in a New York City’s winter, and he doesn’t even own a coat warmer than the corduroy sport coat which he wears everywhere.
We learn from his encounters that Llewyn was part of a singing partnership, but his partner has committed suicide. His first solo album is titled “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but he learns that his agent, an elderly man in an office which could be a feature in the television series “Hoarders,” just hasn’t bothered sending copies of his record to club owners or journalists.
He decides to try to sell his own act, when he learns that an aging, drug-addicted jazz musician is driving to Chicago, and is willing to take him along, if he pays half the gasoline. When he gets to Chicago, he manages to convince a club owner – played by F. Murray Abraham – to listen to an audition, but the owner doesn’t think he has enough personality to hold the stage by himself. He offers to hook him up with a man and a woman who are looking to start a trio, and some research shows that that trio was, in fact, Peter, Paul, and Mary. He looks success in the face and decides against it.
Gradually, as the film progresses, we begin to notice that Llewyn is doing things he has already done in the past, and it turns into a giant circle. It results in an understanding of how hard such a man would need to work to even attempt a career, and how every time he makes the tiniest slip and allows his personal feelings to be expressed, he suffers for it horribly. It teaches us how a performer’s skill in performing is usually completely overshadowed by his ability to win over the audience. We’ll support a mediocre artist who makes us like him, far more enthusiastically than a much more talented one who makes us feel alienated.
It shows how such a singer must have constant faith in himself, even when the whole world seems to be telling him he isn’t talented. Eventually, he even manages to get that cat back to its owners, which is one of the rare demonstrations of responsibility he gives us, although the lapses in responsibility when the cat escapes several times cannot be denied. The only non-circular event is that when he leaves the professor’s apartment this time, he keeps the cat from escaping.
The story is loosely based on the autobiography of folksinger Dave Van Ronk, although the Coen Brothers insist that they have only used some Van Ronk music, and a small number of incidents, and that the rest of the film is new and original.
A great many negative things happen to the central character, and well more than half are his own fault, but he believes in himself and who he is and what he does, so he continues doing it. The repeating scenes which close the circle merely serve to teach us that these events are typical of an on-going situation for him, and not a unique situation.
Remarkable performances from actors such as John Goodman as the heroin-addicted jazz musician who offers Llewyn a ride to Chicago, bring a rare richness to the feeling of the film.
Each of us is defined – at least to some degree – by the music which we chose to hear, or happened to hear, during our formative years. If folk music isn’t part of your make-up, you can ignore the film, or you can use a watching to seek out an understanding of those of us who were coming into ourselves in 1961. If you have a hammer, you can build a house or you can tear down a house. It isn’t the hammer’s fault, it’s yours. I hope you’ll choose wisely.
MUST YOU GO
In October 1968, best-selling historian Lady Antonia Fraser attended a party, at which she was introduced to playwright Harold Pinter.
The two writers fell almost immediately in love, and they stayed so until Pinter’s death, on Christmas Eve 2008, at age 78. They grew closer and closer, according to the diarist, first living together, then marrying at City Hall, when both had obtained divorces, and then marrying in her church, which doesn’t accept divorce, when both of their previous spouses had died. Romantics will make the case that they are still in love.
As many writers do, Fraser keeps a diary, and in 2010, she published selected entries from it, which spell out the relationship between the two. The book is called “Must Your Go?: My Life with Harold Pinter.” Frasier was Roman Catholic, the daughter of an Earl, the mother of six children, and was married to Sir Hugh Fraser, a prominent politician in Britain’s Conservative Party. She had been trained from early childhood to observe the world and to greet it with cool detachment and sophistication, and to interact with others with politeness and calm.
Pinter was Jewish. He was liberal in his politics, and had a bad habit of rushing into controversies before learning all the ins and outs of the conflict. He was often loud and could be described as “pushy.” He was married to successful actress Vivien Merchant. The couple’s backgrounds make the Montagues and the Capulets look like bridge partners.
It is astonishing how personal the writing is. Obviously she has left out a great deal, but she hasn’t omitted things which were yelled at the couple by their disapproving public, for example. She includes both positive and negative reviews of both their writings, and she doesn’t just use the book as a platform to defend herself against those who don’t agree with her.
Not surprisingly, Pinter comes off very positively. He makes errors, some of them significant, but he means what he says, and he does things for good reasons, even when his actions turn out to be harmful.
She writes clearly. It’s easy to read, from a technical point of view, although not so easy in the content, from time to time. Occasionally, she has added a short passage in Italics which indicates that later events have influenced the couple’s actions, as described in the diary. She says Pinter was always encouraged to read her diaries, and that sometimes he added a note, explaining the incidents she was describing, or explaining that he had re-considered the actions described in the diary, and at least some of his additions are included.
There are times when one wonders how much of the book is window dressing. It certainly may be true, but one wonders if the Frasers’ six children were really so positive and encouraging of their mother’s leaving their father and taking up with another man. One wonders if the Roman Catholic Church and the British aristocracy were as patiently positive as they are portrayed here, either.
The Pinters met and interacted with some of the great minds and doers of deeds, of the 20th century. Lady Antonia tosses off references about how they would nip off to Paris for a weekend, and stay in a suite in a hotel so expensive, most of us could never afford to walk into the lobby. Still, she has a point of view of the people with whom they interacted, and I did finish the book believing I actually had a reasonable picture of the realities of those people and places.
Pinter’s diagnosis of cancer of the esophagus and the near decade of decline, marked by humiliating medical treatments, inability to walk to the platform to receive a reward, periods of intense loneliness, envy of those not suffering physical decline, and similar situations are believably and frankly portrayed, yet she left me feeling that even under the stresses of his final illness, I have missed a great deal by never having known Pinter.
“Must You Go,” was published in 2010 by Doubleday Publishers. It has 328 pages, in hard bound version, and – surprising for writings of a historian – no index. It is marked for sale at $28.95 in the U.S., and it can be found with ISBN number 978-0-358-53250-1.