UC Observer logo
UCObserver on SoundCloud UCObserver on YouTube UCObserver on Facebook UCObserver on Twitter UCObserver's RSS Feeds
Oscar Isaac plays a struggling folk musician in the Coen brothers film "Inside Llewyn Davis." Photo courtesy of Alison Rosa, Long Strange Trip LLC

Genuine Coen

In their latest movie, filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen get real about authenticity

By David Wilson


The jury at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival awarded the Palme d’Or to Paris, Texas, a brooding film about loss and alienation by German director Wim Wenders. But it was another film set in Texas that quickened the pulse of festival-goers. Called Blood Simple, the revenge story was written and directed by two young brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, and produced on a shoestring. It was so popular that festival organizers had to add extra screenings. I was at Cannes courtesy of my job with a small film-distribution company. I managed to squeeze into the last screening, at midnight on the final day of the festival.

After 30 years, I’m still not sure I get the plot. For that reason, I have never been a great fan of the film. But for those who are, the appeal is not the storytelling. Rather, it’s the feel. The Coens, the sons of university professors in Minneapolis, shot the movie in ghoulish pastels, splattering the palette with buckets of gore. Their characters can’t seem to think straight, as if they had been broiling too long in the pitiless Texas sun. The main character, a private detective named Visser (M. Emmet Walsh), is the sum of all our Texas fears — a fleshy psychopath in a straw hat and sweat-stained yellow suit who drives an old Volkswagen bug and possesses the moral sense of, well, an insect. By the time the film concludes in a drawn-out bloodbath, the message is clear: this is Texas, so expect the worst.

Blood Simple
launched the Coen brothers’ career and established a motif that has shaped almost every one of their movies since. Beyond irony and caricature, Coen brothers films are ultimately about the places in which they’re set. Their opus is like one long, picaresque road trip. You can almost imagine them huddled over a map, figuring out which destination to send up next. They’ve returned to the southwest a couple of times, in the loopy Raising Arizona and the wildly amoral No Country for Old Men. In Barton Fink, they parody 1940s Hollywood; in The Big Lebowski, L.A.’s contemporary dude culture. They’ve gone home to Minnesota twice (Fargo, A Serious Man), to the Deep South during the Depression (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and to Beltway Washington (Burn After Reading).

Until now, whether their movies are authentic expressions of time and place seemed of little concern to the Coen brothers. Authenticity, they would argue with a smirk, is in the eye of the beholder. But times are changing. Authenticity has become a big deal. Tired of too much Walmart, too much sameness, we insist on authentic food, authentic travel, authentic relationships, authentic spiritual experiences, authentic selves. Even the Coen brothers, now well into their 50s, seem to be turning a corner toward earnestness. Their latest movie is about authenticity, and they bend over backwards to be as authentic as they can in the telling of it.

Make no mistake, Inside Llewyn Davis is still a Coen brothers creation. The setting is nine-tenths of the movie — this time it’s New York City in 1961, at the tail end of the folk music revival that flourished in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village. There isn’t much of a story to speak of: a struggling folksinger named Llewyn Davis loses a patron’s cat, hitches a ride to Chicago and begins to crumble under the burden of self-inflicted personal problems and shattered ideals. The headstrong, occasionally cruel Davis is mostly unlikable, and the movie could have easily dissolved into caricature.

Instead, it goes to great lengths to capture the feel of the Village folk scene evoked so memorably by folk icon Dave Van Ronk in his 2005 memoir, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, on which the movie is very loosely based. The film’s muted colours give it the look of a faded record jacket (some of the shots mimic real album covers of the era), and its painstaking attention to period detail transports audiences into the scruffy alleyways and dank basement clubs that are Llewyn Davis’s world. Moreover, the story draws us into the push-and-pull of the folk movement itself.

A battle raged during the folk revival over who had the right to call themselves folksingers. Purists insisted folk music was genuine only if it wore a blue collar; performing it was an act of solidarity. In the purist scheme of things, well-scrubbed acts like the Kingston Trio, Joan Baez and Peter, Paul and Mary were poseurs, more interested in selling records than raising up the music of the common people. Llewyn Davis, the son of a merchant mariner and a sometime sailor himself, makes it clear which camp he belongs to; he has the empty pockets to prove it. Yet a sense of foreboding builds as the film unfolds: the more he strives for authenticity in art and life, the less he gets ahead. His lowest moment comes when he can’t even tell what’s real anymore.

In a marvellously directed scene, a drunken Davis heckles a grandmotherly performer for being too visibly folksy. “Where’s your hay bale?” he catcalls. The incident makes you cringe because it’s clear to everybody but Davis that he’s heckling himself. As the film draws to a close, his sea shanties and farewell ballads are being drowned out by the brash, raspy sound of a young Jewish singer from the north who cared little for the conventions of folk music, but who would ultimately change the course of popular music.

Unlike most Coen brothers movies, which tend to prize style over substance, this one seems to have a message. Partly it’s a cautionary tale about the limits of self-conscious authenticity: maybe there’s no such thing as the real thing. This dictum, perhaps, goes for moviemakers too. Critics who often find the Coens self-indulgent are delighted the brothers have finally gotten serious about something. But the very movie that marks a shift in tone asks, “What’s the point?” I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the siblings soon go back to being their Blood Simple selves — to creating authentic Coen brothers movies again.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
Readers’ advisory: The discussion below is moderated by The UC Observer and facilitated by Intense Debate (ID), an online commentary system. The Observer reserves the right to edit or reject any comment it deems to be inappropriate. Approved comments may be further edited for length, clarity and accuracy, and published in the print edition of the magazine. Please note: readers do not need to sign up with ID to post their comments on ucobserver.org. We require only your user name and e-mail address. Your comments will be posted from Monday to Friday between 9:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Join the discussion today!
Promotional Image

Editorials

David Wilson%

Observations

by David Wilson

If statues could talk

Promotional Image

Video

ObserverDocs: Stolen Mother

by Observer Staff

The daughter and adoptive mother of one of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women share their story

Promotional Image

Society

July 2017

From far and wide

by Various Writers

Meet 11 immigrants who are putting down new roots

World

June 2017

A suitcase for Cuba

by Christopher Levan

You’ll find more than giveaway toiletries and hand-me-downs in the writer's luggage. Each carefully chosen gift offers a glimpse into the lives of Cubans today.

Justice

June 2017

Undocumented

by Kristy Woudstra

Up to half a million people are living in Canada without official status. The ‘sanctuary city’ movement is growing, but the fear of deportation persists.

World

June 2017

Resisting genocide

by Sally Armstrong

In August 2014, ISIS attacked Iraq’s Yazidis, slaughtering thousands and forcing women and girls into sexual slavery. Today, the survivors are fighting for their ancient way of life.

Society

April 2017

Dear Grandkids

by Various Writers

Six acclaimed Canadian authors write letters from the heart

Society

March 2017

Called to resist

by Paul Wilson

Liberal Christians in the United States test their faith against a demagogue

Promotional Image