[Marxism] A comment on "Inside Llewyn Davis"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Dec 25 13:00:47 MST 2013

On 12/25/13 2:55 PM, michael yates wrote:
> Still, though, I wonder how the reviewer can have such a different reaction than Louis and others.

Really, the best thing is Dave Van Ronk's ex-wife's take in the Village 
Voice. I am sending along the entire article so to make sure everybody 
reads it.

Dave Van Ronk's Ex-Wife Takes Us Inside Inside Llewyn Davis
By Terri Thal
Published Fri., Dec. 13 2013 at 10:15 AM

[Spoiler alert: This feature contains many details about the film Inside 
Llewyn Davis.]

I was married to and managed Dave Van Ronk, the folksinger whose memoir 
spurred the Coen brothers' new movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. David and I 
were together from fall 1957 to fall 1968 and had been married for seven 
of those years when we separated amicably and regretfully. We remained 
good friends until he died. No one ever contacted me about the movie; 
Oscar Isaacs tried to, but I didn't get his message. We met once while 
it was being filmed. So I don't know much more about its creation than 
anyone else.

I knew the movie portrayed someone who eluded success -- or whom success 
eluded. I knew it wasn't supposed to be about David but used some of his 
memoir as background and his music as a theme. But I didn't expect it to 
be almost unrecognizable as the folk-music world of the early 1960s.

The mockup of MacDougal Street isn't exactly what it was in 1961, but 
it's more or less correct. The flights of stairs to top-floor apartments 
remind me of our first place, a fifth-floor walkup, and of those of 
friends, although the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew 
could keep soot out of apartments with roaches, pipes, and ceilings 
decorated by patterns created by fallen plaster. The Gaslight looks 
wider than it was, but the movie shows a shiny bar, which wasn't in the 
club -- there was no bar and nothing in the coffeehouse was shiny -- and 
the wonderful Tiffany (or Tiffany-style) lamps have been replaced with 
clear glass light fixtures. The back alley didn't exist, but the Coens 
need it for their story.

None of that bothers me. What bothers me is that the movie doesn't show 
those days, those people, that world.

In the movie, Llewyn Davis is a not-very smart, somewhat selfish, 
confused young man for whom music is a way to make a living. It's not a 
calling, as it was for David and for some others. No one in the film 
seems to love music. The character who represents Tom Paxton has a 
pasted-on smile and is a smug person who doesn't at all resemble the 
smart, funny, witty Tom Paxton who was our best man when we married.

In the film, the Jim and Jean characters, Llewyn Davis's close friends, 
are at least as well-known as Davis. Davis sometimes sleeps on their 
couch and has impregnated Jean, who is a bitchy woman. In real life, 
David and I considered Jim and Jean's music "white bread," one of the 
terms we used about folk singers who bounced up and down and smiled and 
sang "sweet" songs. We didn't socialize. However, Jean certainly was not 
a bitchy person.

The owner of the Gaslight tells Davis he has "fucked" Jean. He says 
that's a standard part of how a woman gets hired. That's crap. No matter 
how much of a creep a club owner might have been, that was not part of 
the process anywhere.

The sequence that bothers me the most is when Llewyn Davis arranges an 
abortion for the Jean character. He goes to the office of a doctor he'd 
paid $200 two years before for an abortion for another woman. He learns 
she never had the abortion and that apparently he has a two-year-old 
kid. OK, the Coens can create all the babies they want. But Davis and 
this respectable doctor sit and talk pleasantly about two women's 
abortions. In 1961 abortion still was illegal. It was difficult to find 
a doctor to do one. No one walked into a doctor's office and said, 
"Abortion, please." Mostly, abortions were arranged by telephone with 
practitioners whose names were hard to get. One good friend of ours had 
to go way uptown late at night for a procedure done in a place that 
barely resembled a medical office, and she paid $400 in 1960. This was 
the era of using coat hangers to try to abort. In fact, a few years 
before David and I met, the only woman he ever knew that he impregnated 
(she was about 16 at the time and David was 19) rode a bike down several 
flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus. Nor did men arrange abortions 
for women. The treatment of abortion in the movie as a casual, easily 
accessible procedure is cavalier, and I think it's insulting to all the 
women who had one before Roe v. Wade.

In the movie, no one is nice. There are hints of friendliness in the Tom 
Paxton character and in Jim, who gets Davis some studio backup work 
(which didn't exist for folk musicians at that time). Everyone is 
somewhat dumb and somewhat mean. There's no suggestion that these people 
love the music they play, none that they play music for fun or have jam 
sessions, not a smidgen of the collegiality that marked that period.

Musicians supported each other. David and I had hordes of people in our 
apartment several times a week, many of them folksingers, many of them 
uninvited drop-ins who always were welcomed. I cooked; we talked 
politics; the musicians played. They introduced new songs and 
arrangements and often jammed. We had fun. If a new club opened, 
folksingers told each other about it and recommended one another to the 
club owner. When a new coffeehouse in Pennsylvania stiffed David, Tom 
Paxton refused to play there until David was paid. (He wasn't and Tom 
didn't.) When I received a series of obscene phone calls and the police 
said they couldn't do anything, Gaslight performers "babysat" while I 
stayed home to study for graduate exams. Noel Stookey, Tom Paxton, Hugh 
Romney (later known as Wavy Gravy), Len Chandler, and others came over 
between their sets and hung out while I worked.

In the 1950s and '60s, there were other folk-music scenes. The old-timey 
musicians; the bluegrass people; the people around Alan Block's sandal 
shop; the people the real Jim and Jean hung out with. There was some 
interaction, but even if the people in those groups didn't see each 
other daily or weekly, there was goodwill. No one would know that from 
Inside Llewyn Davis.

I'm not detailing the ways in which Llewyn Davis differs from David. 
There are so few similarities, it would be easier to focus on them. The 
Coens say the movie isn't about Dave, and they are correct. Two 
wonderful scenes do relate specifically to David, though. In one, Llewyn 
Davis asks Mel, the owner of the record company that released his first 
album, for royalties, telling the man he doesn't even own an overcoat. 
Mel says, "Here, take my overcoat." When Davis finally takes it, Mel 
grabs it back and gives Davis $40. Mel is Moe Asch, owner of Folkways 
Records, and yes, that happened. In another scene, Davis says (perhaps 
sarcastically) to someone in the seaman's union, "You won't give me my 
papers because I'm a communist?" The man mutters, "Shachtmanite." That's 
a political reference that almost no one in the world will get -- but to 
me, who hung around but didn't join a small socialist sect known as the 
Shachtmanites, it's very, very funny.

And I was taken with the Oceanic art Andrea Vuocolo, Dave's widow, 
loaned the movie for use in the apartment of an unknown, invented older 
uptown couple. One piece is the best Oceanic one David and I had, which 
he took when we separated (I got our books and wonderful record 
collection, along with other art; he had record-borrowing privileges), 
and another on the wall that he got later is stunning.

There are other pluses. Most of the acting is very good. Oscar Isaac is 
excellent -- he's real, and he brings pathos and anger to Llewyn Davis. 
His performances of David's songs are good, although I don't know why he 
gets an arranger's credit for "Dink's Song"; Andrea should collect 
royalties for David's arrangement of that. Carey Mulligan carries off 
being both bitchy and a good singer. John Goodman is wonderful as a 
sarcastic prick who sounds as though he comes out of the jazz world of 
several years earlier; he derives from Doc Pomus, who sang blues in the 
1940s and later became a songwriter. F. Murray Abraham doesn't look like 
Albert Grossman, who had a full head of hair, but he has perfected 
Albert's blank stare.

The photography is excellent. The setting is winter, and a lot of the 
movie is filtered through snow and fog. The lighting is stunning.

The music? It's done well, but the movie never shows how it comes about. 
The inept Llewyn Davis arranged some of those songs? Sang them as well 
as Oscar Isaacs does? I don't believe it. That schmuck couldn't make 
that music. The Coens say they hope to create a revival of the music 
through the movie. A revival of traditional music is already under way. 
But I can't see the depressing world shown in this movie attracting 
people to it. I hope it at least attracts them to David's music and 
helps sell a lot of his CDs.

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