Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

insidel2More often than not Llewyn Davis turns out to be a worthy character and I mean that in the sense that he is readily watchable. This probably isn’t the real folk scene of the 1960s, but it is the time and place seen through the Coen Brothers’ somber lens. Inspired by musician Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is his own unique entity entirely. The film itself has a dreary look of washed out tones mimicking the days that most of us now know from black and white imagery. There are folk tunes wall to wall, befitting such a melancholy film, adding layers of melody and ambiance to this austere world of isolation.

In fact, we first meet Llewyn in a low lit bar singing the ode “Hang me, Oh hang me.” He’s not some budding talent or has-been. He had a partner once, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. They had a record that came and went out almost as fast. The unsold copies sit in a warehouse somewhere rotting away with the rats. That’s really Llewyn’s life. He’s couch hopping his way through Greenwich Village, a pitiful wanderer with the cat he was entrusted with in one hand and his guitar in the other. In the frigid winter air, he doesn’t even have a real overcoat. He can barely afford it.

insidel4The film goes so many places only to return to where it was. So much goes on without anything happening and so on. Llewyn has it out with Jean, a transformed and caustic Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. How it could ever be Llewyn’s doesn’t make much sense, since she seems to despise his guts. Why would she sleep with him?

Llewyn alienates his sister with his misanthropic outlook and foul mouth. He loses and tries to recover the cat of his folk-loving friends the Gorffeins. How they ever became friends we’ll never know. A spur of the moment trip to Chicago comes up and with it, there’s the token John Goodman performance that feels like an absurd aside to the entire plot. Then again, the film’s only plot is the wanderings of Davis, so if meeting passengers while hitchhiker marks his journey it seems pertinent.  A trip to the Gate of Horn for an impromptu audition turns out to be unfruitful and it is the film’s most difficult scene. Davis lays all his heart and soul out there in a poignant performance and all he gets from the producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is that he should join a trio. He’s not solo material.

insidel5Llewyn returns to Greenwich dejected and things continue going poorly for him. So we end up leaving him about where we started. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez would come in time, but it’s the musicians like Davis that are a sadder tale. Those who faded away over the years. Who lay beat up in an alley for heckling a performance in a hole-in-the-wall bar. It’s the circle of life of a folk singer and you wonder if he would ever have it any other way. Undoubtedly this folk oasis was a more hopping, more welcoming place than the Coen’s painted it, but it does suggest something powerful.

Why would somebody subject themselves to this type of lifestyle? Unless they’re insane and like to suffer, it must be that they really believe in the music. They believe in bearing their heart and soul because the music makes them feel alive. Obviously, there is more to life than music, some would argue that point, but it is a brilliant starting point. We can respect someone who sticks by their convictions and their passions. Even if it means chasing through the streets of Greenwich Village looking for a cat. You would never see me doing that. Maybe if it were a dog. Maybe.

4/5 Stars

Amadeus (1984)

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A common film would content itself with developing a biopic on one of the greatest composers of all time reaching the heights of the musical field in the musical capital of the world in Vienna. A typical film might paint on a canvas paying homage to a legend who revolutionized music with his genius.

This story opens as the long-forgotten composer Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) attempts to kill himself. He gets laid up in a Psych ward where a man of the cloth visits him wishing to hear his story and so the old man obliges. It’s a story that makes light and lacks reverence thanks to its title character.

Salieri was a court composer of prestige and great admiration, but even he knew Mozart was the true master and the first day they met was forever ingrained in his mind. For being such a genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce) is a jerk, to put it bluntly. Spoiled, conceited, dirty-minded and armed with a cackling laugh, he is hardly the image of a musical mastermind. How could God bless this man with such talent? How could God taunt Salieri using such a man? He makes a mockery of art and yet he is the best there ever was. Salieri must have some kind of justice.

But all that lies under the surface. Mozart is brought on by his Majesty to develop a German libretto. Salieri’s tolerance for God is lost and he turns his back, beginning his passive attack. He shames Mozart’s wife (Elizabeth Beridge) and sends her off as he is looking to undermine his rival as discreetly as possible.

Mozart himself has little desire to take on pupils he deems a waste of time and instead busies himself with his most ambitious piece yet. His father comes to town and is not amused with his son’s conduct or his antics at a masquerade ball. He has none of the sensibilities of a man like Salieri, but what he does have are the talent and brilliance.

Always one to push the boundaries, Mozart’s latest piece is based on the Marriage of Figaro which was expressly forbidden by His Majesty. But due to his skill, Mozart is able to get by with bending the rules. Salieri acknowledges his genius. He knows brilliance when he sees it, but he becomes even more resolved to bring about the death of his nemesis.

After the death of his father, Mozart slowly spirals down into drunkenness and poverty. Salieri manipulates the situation even further to play on the man’s emotions and the desperate Mozart becomes mad composing a funeral requiem requested by a specter of a man. The mysterious figure is, of course, a moonlighting Salieri who no longer sees his actions as justice against Mozart but against God himself and he wants to win.

In a horrible condition, the bedridden Mozart constructs his last great piece with the help of an incredulous Salieri. But Constanze will have none of it and the manuscript remains unfinished because she distrusts Salieri. Just like that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart suddenly passes away. He’s dead and Salieri can have no satisfaction, no piece of Mozart’s brilliance. God would not give him the satisfaction, resigning him to be the so-called patron saint of mediocrity. God supposedly got the last laugh.

This is a film that makes me want to revise the noted statement to “only the great die young” as the mediocre slowly fade into oblivion. Salieri faced a cruel demise of his own as Mozart instantly became solidified as a legend. That is the irony of life that is made clear no matter how accurate the facts are. Because in Amadeus, the facts are not the most important. Milos Forman gives us a spectacle that is as grand as Mozart’s greatest masterpieces. But this is perhaps, more importantly, a film about human nature. Salieri is a man so ingrained with internal desires.

He wants to play God. He wants all things to play out as he sees fit. His malevolence is focused on others. It is even focused on God. But, in reality, it reflects the pain of his own heart. Humanity has a desire for excellence to be fully actualized. That is a lofty goal and an impossible target. Because ultimately there will always be a hole left within us. It was so with Salieri

Mozart was one of the greatest and most well-known composers of a generation if not ever. He was not a good man (few are), and he met with death early. Salieri seemed moral and yet he himself was undermined by deep-seated avarice and covetousness. Despite still having life, the world was essentially dead to him. He thought God was laughing at him. Neither man won.

4.5/5 Stars