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Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist living in Brighton


 Inside Llewyn Davis


Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen (2013)

Let's start with Abba. Their bitter-sweet final album The Visitors includes the astonishing, enigmatic track The Day Before You Came, which takes to a metaphysical level that ties such a tight hermeneutic knot that it makes it hard to say anything about it. But I'll have a go.

The song is the itinerary of a dull, routine day in the life of someone who has since found love, the music slow and dragging to reflect the ennui, a swirling sound that draws you down like unplugged dishwater into this dismal history.

It's a clever idea, inverting the love song convention of finding happiness by dwelling on the sadness felt before falling (interesting that we 'fall' in love) for a special someone.

Yet it is profoundly paradoxical. For the old unloved self is apparently quite content with her lot, ignorant of the, literally untold, excitements to come. The new self, looking back, projects a despair onto her old self that seems unreasonable, or at least perverse. Why is she doing this to herself?

She was happy when she was 'unhappy', and now she's 'happy', she's unhappy. You work it out.

Anyway, I woke up to these troubling thoughts at three o'clock in the morning after having come out of Inside Llewyn Davis a few hours earlier. I'd enjoyed the experience. It was a funny, sad, engaging slice of life with its odd characters, lost cats and one brilliant joke that, in a full cinema, I laughed out loud at alone. (“Shachtmanite?”)

But what else? My epiphany was that it is, in fact, a 'day before you came', except that it's not love that's changed the game but, erm, Bob Dylan.

The film tells the story of a day (or two) in the life of struggling sofa-surfing folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), returning at the end to its beginning, plus a subtle twist, giving you the sense that Llewyn is stuck for good in his fameless, penniless state.

The subtle twist is that as he's leaving his local folk club to get beaten up (again) in the alley outside, he pauses for a beat to glance with a hint of appreciation at the curly-haired chap with the whining, yet somehow affecting, voice who's just taken the stage. Guess who.

For this is New York in 1961. The folk scene, as Dylan himself describes in his Chronicles Volume 1 (I've given up waiting for Volume 2), is vibrant and creative but largely steeped its own closed, smugly idealistic world of neatly-trimmed beards and Arran knitwear.

Llewyn craves something more, and he's heard that in Chicago there's an impresario called Bud Grossman (F Murray Abraham) who could give him his big break. After a nightmarish car journey being beaten about the ears by John Goodman, he arrives and actually gets to play for Grossman, one-to-one.

Like the rest of us, he thinks Llewyn is quite talented, but “I don't see a lot of money here”. In modern terms, he doesn't have the X-Factor, the X standing for saleability.

Llewyn's tragedy is that while he won't compromise and commodify his folk purity, neither does he want to settle down and treat his music as no more than a nice hobby to entertain his friends.

But capitalism won't allow that so Llewyn is condemned to being the outsider, restlessly wandering from couch to couch relying on the fickle kindness of others. You have to worry about how he'll end up.

And for every thousand, or perhaps million, Llewyns there is only one Dylan, someone with for want of a better word, the genius to take folk out of the basement clubs.

The Coen brothers could have told that story, the tale of one man's triumph, but through Llewyn Davis they have instead told the  tragi-comic story of the forgotten. The story of the day before he came.

February 9, 2014

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