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.
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