The great Karl Pilkington once said, "Your dreams should never be better than real life because otherwise, what's the point? ... Unless you're a sloth. 'Cause they sleep a lot don't they?" And you probably shouldn't be taking life advice from this bald, bumbling and perpetually bullied Karl, but there's always some wisdom in his awkward philosophies. We are raised with the American notion that dreams are the roots of everything, that to keep on living is to keep on dreaming. We are told not to be afraid of being optimistic, of looking forward to a better life, a better world, a better version of ourselves, a better everything; a Utopia. And never has there been an establishment so relentless in feeding that very notion to the public as Hollywood. That slow-mo victory scene of the everyman man smiling from ear to ear while thrusting his fist to the air, that typical nerd driving through the sunset with the woman he lusts after, and that Nobody who stumbles his way to success, Hollywood had identified our predilection for this little thing called Hope and exploited it over and over again with one "inspiring" story after another. Yet every so often a maverick creeps into the scene and quietly plays itself as a reminder that for every Bronte sister, there is a young aspiring Romantic poet who lies dead at 14 with only a scrapbook of her hilariously bad, somber poems and macabre pictures, as was the figure of Emmeline Grangerford in Mark Twain's novel. For every Bob Dylan that emerges out of booze-clouded obscurity, too, there is a bearded, grumpy, and sad-looking guy with a guitar and a cat that isn't his, roaming around the city looking for a place to crash in, while desperately trying to make it in the folk music scene.
So in the spirit of Maverick Hollywood, Inside Llewyn Davis came into my life, and hopefully your life too, and illustrated the less victorious side of the Bohemian Greenwhich Village on the verge of a folk-music revolution, in the eyes of said grumpy guy with a guitar and a cat that isn't his.
Never from the very start of the movie did we think that things were going to look up for our pitiful protagonist. With its hazy filter and dreamy greenish hue it projects the dark and decaying world of Llewyn Davis, for whom nothing is ever new, nor does it ever get old. We follow his life in the course of a week, within which period of time we see repeated occurrences of him wandering alone in the city, getting beaten up in a dark alleyway, engaging in half-hearted yet tensed conversations with his quasi-friends and acquaintances, walking through claustrophobic hallways and chasing after a cat whose name he doesn't even know. His world seems unbearably small, and him even smaller. The camera lingers over things like his feet getting soaked in the snow, and his bewildered, exhausted faces throughout the film, just to emphasize how pitiful he is. In this one scene he is riding with two strangers, one of them a douchey jazz musician, the other a young taciturn driver. It opens with a shot of the empty road ahead as the car cruises smoothly down, set to a gentle acoustic guitar riff. In any other film that I traditionally watch this would be the beginning of a heartwarming scene where the travel companions collectively sway to the music, smiling and singing along. And it would end with Penny Lane enigmatically whispering "you are home" to the adolescent boy. In this Coen Brothers' movie, however, we are feasted instead with the fat snoring face of the jazz musician, buried deep within his layers of flesh, and the stone-cold apathy of the driver, as Llewyn croons to 'Green Green Rocky Road'. It's a short scene but it left a lasting impression on me.
In another scene we intrude upon a private audition between him and a famous music manager, where he again beautifully croons to 'The Death of Queen Jane', and what felt like a sentimental moment was (SPOILER!) cut short by the manager's frank comment "I don't see any money in this". He then proceeded to advice him to get a partner or a group, for he is not a solo kinda guy. Well, he did have a partner, but (SPOILER!) he jumped off the George Washington Bridge (not the infamous Brooklyn Bridge, to the dismay of previously mentioned jazz musician) not too long ago, so that one is over and done with. This kind of bathos keeps repeating over and over again, sometimes bowing to the audience, (prime example is his sick father, whose smile has become known to us as to not signify his enjoyment of the music, but his bowel movement) or to himself. There is such a painful discordance between The Dream, you know, that of a folk musician in the midst of a musical revolution, and what we come to see in these repeated occurrences that have become known as his reality. And to think that among all these hopeful little voices in the Bohemia, there is probably only one Bob Dylan and a lot more Llewyn Davises, and then we have a few others in between who either sold out or simply got lucky.
Inside Llewyn Davis isn't the only one of its kind, of course. I have seen a slew of others celebrating, or rather, simply presenting the failures of the world.
Killing Bono, for example, is adapted from a true story of two Irish brothers who had a band, and sadly, were schoolmates of U2's very own Bono. It follows their road to almost-success, and eventually epic failure, all while watching Bono as he propelled to stardom with ease (or what looked like an ease anyway). Its main "protagonist" is a complete asshole, and the movie doesn't shy away from portraying him as that. The final scene shows the brothers desperately and dramatically running towards a train that would lead them to an enormously important gig alongside U2, only to freeze halfway, with an overlaying text informing us that they never made it to that gig, and then listing their other failures. The main protagonist went on to become a music critic, and hey, not too bad; he had a movie made about him. A movie that is still named after his arch nemesis that is, but a movie about him nonetheless.
Tim Burton's little gem Ed Wood is another classic example. This is one of my favorite films ever. It is genuinely really funny and clever, yet it never goes too far in its mockery of the man who was awarded the title Worst Director of All Time. In fact, it never seems to mock him at all. While it gathers laughs from Ed Wood's eccentricities, it seems to fully respect his undying passion and love for every frame, every shot and every scene of his ludicrous films. Perhaps he is delusional, ok, he is very delusional. However, there is an unquestionable beauty in that footage he shot of the burnt out actor Bela Lugosi as he walks out of his house, taking his time to smell the flowers. His vision of a Bela Lugosi lookalike rising from his deathbed in one of his movies, shot soon after the real Bela Lugosi's death is absolutely morbid. Yet his movies are so bad that they are almost good in the strangest sense of the word. As Roger Ebert put it; "It takes a special weird genius to be voted the Worst Director of All Time", and Tim Burton seemed to have recognized that. Here's a movie about a failure of a film director, and kind of like Llewyn Davis, it respects its subject, however unlike Llewyn Davis, it never seems to mourn it.
There are many others that go along the theme, but I have neither the time nor energy to talk about them now. You can check them out below.
So why make these movies? Why even bother following the seemingly dull life of a seemingly dull folk musician such as Llewyn Davis, in the course of one week? A few weeks ago on this blog I wrote about the special connection between an artist and his/her audience. For Llewyn Davis, however, this kind of connection doesn't come as a perk of being a folk musician. Rather, it is a far off dream, one that is repeatedly being ripped away from him. Ed Wood's first big premiere ended in a blood bath. I passionately write on this blog, and I don't even know if anyone's reading and connecting with me. So what happens to these unlucky ones? Do they just slowly fade away and eventually abandon The Dream? Is it even worth it to have dreams at all? I still like to believe that it is. The cat that Llewyn Davis lost is found in the very end of the movie. Its name is revealed to be Ulysses. Those who have read the book gasped and let out a soft "I get it now...". So I'm reading the James Joyce book now, hoping to find some kind of an answer. Problem: it's super thick and difficult to read so it'd probably take years for me to find the answer. See you then.