Why ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ ?
Last night we saw Inside Llewyn Davis. I’m not really a fan of the Coen Brothers in spite of the fact we do go to see their films: Fargo, of course; Brother, Where Art Thou with George Clooney; Barton Fink ; and No Country for Old Men. Something about Llewyn Davis reminded me of Raging Bull, maybe the misty and gloominess of the atmosphere. I recalled thinking, if they got rid of the word “fuck” in this movie there would be no dialogue whatsoever. Interesting in the years that have passed, even the million times refrain of “fuck” in Wolf of Wall Street has become like wallpaper, maybe noticeable, but pretty lah-de-dah, as Diane Keaton might have murmured to Woody.
When I worked at Northern, my colleagues and I liked to pepper our private conversations with swear words, colourful exclamations, a kind of rebellion against the notion that all English teachers are prim and proper and only the prose of Shakespeare fell from our parted rosy lips. My friend Joe, a former actor was particularly prolific and wonderful in his range and rage of spicy language, continually punctuating conversations with swear words which tickled us and transformed our dowdy office into a hall of warm laughter.
But eventually as all pursuits become the pap of the public, even brilliantly coloured words lose their appeal with their rise in popularity of the masses. Soon everyone was swearing all over the place and I realized that it was impossible to insult anything or anyone once those so nasty darts became as eponymous as daisies. How to press a point dramatically or actually reveal disgust or displeasure at a person or an act?
Years previously I had to demonstrate proficiency in three languages along with my pursuit of my Masters in Art History. My friend and I would read Italian together and translate passages from a novel so that I could pass the exam set by the university. Over tea in her sunlit front room, we would chat about a multitude of topics. She was a very wise woman (she even had a grey bun!) and reflected that this was the first time in history that people actually dressed down, wanting to emulate the poor, rather than striving to imitate the cultured dress, speech and deportment of an aristocratic or upper class.
Theoretically, one might think speaking “bad” might herald democracy at work, equalizing the populations to prevent the most expensively clothed from receiving the perks afforded by the attention to appearances alone of fancy clothes or elevated speech patterns. Well, lad- de- dah again, because breaking down barriers that may appear at first glance to be positive may also metaphorically suggest other breakdowns: in traditions that just might be worth preserving ( are you asking yourself, what side is she on?). One might even proclaim, although I cannot concur, marriage or religion. Ironically my desire to curse which I suppose was once considered shocking to the most cultured of society is still frowned upon by some as if we should all still know better : our language powerful enough to overturn the flower pots of societal mores.
Much like full sleeves of tattoos or saying “like” before, in the middle and at the end of every word, bad language is still seen as a lower expression in polite circles. Hypocritically that all the lusty men might scream out in “Wolf” was somehow sanctioned as the conversation of rutting successful business men, and “fuck” was neutralized, acceptable in some circles even by the rich who sneered at the lower, badly dressed classes who dared dirty their presence by befouling the language. Perhaps in Raging Bull, one just expects fighters to charge and fling out into the air grunts, expletives and bloody insults.
Yet in the films, books and even in the news, those words are presently considered de rigeur, causing rhetoricians to wonder: Acceptable or not? Where and if? Who and why? Tasteless or appropriate to context?
Ironically the jeans with the holes and tears go for big bucks, perhaps only the intact labels connoting the cost. But along with the clothes also went deportment. And that meant even bad language. I choose to believe ethics are an entirely different matter.
Using computers and emails has destroyed actual letter writing wherein cursive calligraphy writing ( no longer taught) and creamy papers used to exist. Nothing was so nice as unfolding a handwritten note from your Aunt Suzie that promised a special trip or a holiday visit. Now, I shudder to think of museums without letters or missives, or even handwritten books ! Imagine those Celtic monks laboriously drawing out the microscopic scenes and details in the curlicues of the first letter of Bibles, their time better spent weeding the medicinal herbs in the back plot. Alas!
Woe to us when computers go down or a virus eats up all of our personal and professional histories accumulated over time- not to mention the passwords, addresses and irreplaceable lists generated over a lifetime. And oh yes’ I know they are safely flowing over an iCloud, somewhere deeply hidden from our frantic fingers’ attempt to resurrect them. And what of the paperless society that was imagined by the progenitors of technology when now just to be sure, we print ( and if like me, LOSE) the facsimile that represents the original communication?
The breakdown in language ran rampant even when I taught students peppering their essays with “wouldof” or “ couldof”, thinking their spelling translated their speech accurately, and who then were surprised that my red pen had identified an error. Still Amazon’s on line book service has grown and with the demise of Britnells and so many wonderful independent book shops, huge warehouses of books have managed to endure. One hopes there are people who still cherish the word, be it hot purple or dull gray. Perhaps the Indigos and Barnes and Nobles do own a greater purpose than just as a place to do homework or check out whether the local hottie has wandered in for a lifestyle product.
Just last week a friend told me she was reading Shlomo Aseh in Yiddish with a group of Yiddish readers. I asked her how was that possible as the writer who was not exactly the Philip Roth of his day has been long dead for generations. She explained that she had gotten hold of a translation on the computer so she could follow along. Amazing. As in an earlier blog, I must reassert that all is a ( if you read my blog) “ a pair of ducks/paradox.”
So why did I begin this ramble with Llewyn Davis?
The film recreated in part my life as a university student :the smoky coffee shops in Yorkville, the concerts at university where freedom fighters were championed by folksingers, lunches with friends at the now defunct Coffee Mill, thinking deep thoughts as people of that age profess to do, or at least used to do. Those grey, sheltered closeted spaces where we sat hunched, chatting and listening and poring over Descartes and dancing angels on the heads of a pins and the future, feeling very philosophical and righteous, word play. loud and varied, late into the night
Llewyn Davis is the symbol of those days. Yet he’s not much of a talker. With those dark rueful eyes of a poet, he looks very depressed, caught in his own demon thoughts. Yah. He’s a musician and has accumulated friends, or at least places where he can sleep for a night, but he hardly strikes one as a very nice person, except if you consider chasing down someone’s lost cat is an act of kindness. The “Inside” part of the movie title is bogus because you don’t get inside Llewyn at all. We have no back story except a bitchy sister and a demented dad: but otherwise, most of the film is atmosphere.
Still, the film sticks with you. It is haunting ( maybe it’s the eyes). And, that although I didn’t lead the life, I knew the life: that it represented the times within which I grew up. I never really liked folk music but it was the backdrop that surrounded my comings and goings. The slowness of the people, the repressed thoughts and hidden looks, the relationships and conversations between people were what I remembered from my days as a girl with love beads and braids who sat in the Refectory at U of T, looking mournful, but interesting. I knew those guys who answered in one word answers and who might burst into poetry as Johnnie 5 in the film. Although those types appeared to be without pretense or façade ( or so I wrongly imagined as an ingénue) untouched by television’s gloss or marketers’ false fronts., I wanted to hang with them but never really imagined an enduring relationship with someone so deeply intellectual or wise ( or so I thought these fellows to be- note: where were the women?)
Llewyn’s world is sad and tragic and as he is warned by the Carey Mulligan figure, who assumes no responsibility for her own fate, that his life will persist in repeating itself and that sucks. Even when he might succeed with his Mr. Kennedy song, life has derailed him, yet again. Even with baby steps, he cannot get beyond the grasp of his behavior and yes again- bad things happen, whether you yourself are good or not!
Maybe it is due to the fact that I recognize Davis’ beat world and although do not pine for slow songs or miserable guys, even ones who managed to evolve like Bob Dylan, this milieu and its people with turtle necks and Irish sweaters are recognizable to me, a part of my life, leaving it behind as a stone to overturn, hold in my cupped palm, write a blog about, but move on to more adult pursuits and behaviours. What works at 18 recedes quickly at 28 or 30 or 35.
Sometimes things such as the breakdown of societal mores such as restrictive women’s rights, race barriers and folk music are good things and lead us on towards a better life, yet I wish swear words had been left in tact.