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Month: January, 2014

Fare Thee Well

Film #16: Inside Llewyn Davis
(Writers & Directors: Joel and Ethen Coen)

One of the most common complaints against the Coen brothers is that they seem to look down on their characters, gleefully playing God as they move them from one terrible situation to the next. I’ve never quite agreed with this assessment, as there’s just too much love put into these characters, even the dupes, to believe the Coens are condescending. But aside from Marge Gunderson, I’m hard pressed to think of a Coen brothers’ character I’d be comfortable calling three-dimensional. While memorable, the Harry Pfarrers, Jeffrey Lebowskis, and Ed Cranes of the world are singular and superficial (and this isn’t a criticism). There’s no real attempt to parse them out as real, living, feeling human beings. In that way, Inside Llewyn Davis is a radical departure for the Coens. While Llewyn has been lumped in with the lovable dummies of Coen films of old, there’s a depth and richness to him that pierces through the brothers’ familiar tropes.
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Llewyn is not an easy character to like. He’s impulsive, grating, mean, and entitled. He wanders from couch to couch, causing trouble wherever he goes. Were it not for Oscar Isaac’s amazing performance, this film could have gone off the rails. He gives Llewyn a vulnerability, a knowingness, that, while not excusing his actions, at least lets us understand them. And I don’t agree with the critics (and my wife) who think that Llewyn is another dumb Coen’s oaf. Yes, he makes bad decisions that cost him financially and personally, but each of those decisions is understandable, and perhaps even defendable. Were Llewyn to be told the outcome of his actions in advance, I still feel like he would make the same choices. While this seems to be the definition of insanity, I think what I admire so much about Llewyn is the rock-like core that drives his music and life. There’s a refusal to compromise in his heart that both makes him destined to fail and a genius. He knows the consequences, and while he wishes things could be different, he isn’t willing to change his values to do so. [And I think this stubbornness actually makes the film’s final scene an incredibly hopeful one, although I’m not sure many people have read it that way.]

The natural connection in the Coens’ filmography to Inside Llewyn Davis is Barton Fink. Like Barton, Llewyn is an artist struggling to sell his voice in a world that doesn’t want to listen, and like Barton, he’s forced to endure a nearly endless string of bad beats. But the differences are crucial and really mark Llewyn as unique in their work. First, unlike Barton, Llewyn’s inner turmoil is not manifested figuratively. Barton’s disintegration is visualized in the peeling walls of his hotel and John Goodman’s murderous devil (Barton has sold his soul to the Devil of Hollywood), whereas Llewyn’s turmoil is shown through his own actions and personal relationships. They don’t turn to metaphor here (maybe the cat, although it’s much more subtle), and instead, they let his actions speak for themselves. Second, whereas Barton Fink is really about Barton’s struggle with actually producing art, especially for money, we never see Llewyn creating. His performances are already perfectly realized, but he struggles to find a proper audience to appreciate them. Or rather, Llewyn struggles to find an audience who appreciates them in the right ways. Each performance resonates differently depending on his audience, and never quite in the way that Llewyn wants, even if they enjoyed it. Maybe this is a comment on the Coen brothers’ own career trajectory. Or maybe not. Finally, the plot is almost entirely driven by Llewyn and his own actions. In Barton Fink, Barton is constantly trying to stay afloat as things happen to him (this isn’t unique to Barton Fink for the Coens. A Serious Man is probably the perfect representation of this filmmakers-as-vengeful-Gods tendency), but Llewyn makes his own bed and is forced to lie in it. There is a direct cause-and-effect relationship to Llewyn’s actions that is unparalleled in the Coens’ work. [Maybe I’m overlooking some of their stuff here: Fargo and Burn After Reading seem to complicate this argument, but while both of those stories are driven by bad choices, their effects are radically altered by characters and events completely out of the instigators’ control]

Naturally, the Coens have littered Llewyn’s world with an amazing cast of characters. They write these characters so specifically that someone like Al Cody (a failed singer-songwriter much like Llewyn) or Troy Nelson (a pristine Army boy who sings beautiful folk songs while on leave) are able to make a lasting impact with 5 minutes on screen. And of course, John Goodman is given a fantastic supporting role as jazzman Roland Turner that he just destroys. Like so many of their films, this is the joy of watching the Coen brothers work. You are just anxious to see who Llewyn is going to run into next and how he reacts to them.
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Ultimately, a film like Inside Llewyn Davis, for all its great character work, really hinges on the music. While it isn’t a musical, we are presented with probably five or six songs performed in their entirety by the actors themselves. To their credit, the Coens go all in from the jump. The movie opens with Llewyn on stage, singing the hauntingly beautiful “Hang Me” at The Gaslight in Greenwhich Village. I was hooked instantly. Oscar Isaac’s performance, and the song itself, set the stage for the rest of the movie. If this sequence doesn’t grab you, don’t bother hanging around.

I can’t wait until this movie hits Blu-Ray. I’m anxious to watch it again (and again). There’s so much more to sink into (how funny, beautifully shot, and depressing the film is), but I think this is a nice opening salvo.

Black & White

2013 Film #14: Computer Chess
(Writer & Director: Andrew Bujalski)

Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess starts as a mockumentary about a humanless chess tournament held between rival programmers, but quickly devolves into something entirely weirder. The film is set in the early 80s as teams from MIT, Berkeley, and some private companies pit their computers and operating systems against each other in chess. The champion gets to face off against the tournament runner and resident Master Pat Henderson (an actual human). In the early stages, as we are introduced to the concept, tournament, and principal characters, the film is centered on the possibilities of computer programming and artificial intelligence. But then, the defending champion computer starts acting weird, and the film goes with it.
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Shot on black and white tube video cameras and set in the 80s, the film feels unlike anything else I’ve seen. And structurally, Bujalski doesn’t have a single narrative through line; he’s content to go everywhere and each major character gets his own arc or theme: Peter is intent on figuring out what’s wrong with his group’s programming, Nick Papageorge is constantly wandering the halls trying to find somewhere to sleep (much like Cookie and Gerry Fleck in Best in Show, he couldn’t get a room), and there’s a territorial battle over the conference room between the tournament players and a weird, new-age couples therapy group that seems to have rented it out in the mornings. Each of these plotlines gets its own feel, which makes Computer Chess a hard film to nail down: it has elements of comedy, satire, surrealism, political espionage, and science-fiction. Some of them work better than others, and given the shoe-string budget, some performances are better than others. But the mixture feels just right, and despite the schizophrenic styles, there is a singularity of vision here that coalesces everything together.

I was initially thrown off because there isn’t a coherent visual logic to the film. It begins under the pretense of a documentary (we hear Pat Henderson scolding the camera operator as he shoots towards the sun because he might blow the tube on the camera), but Bujalski isn’t consistent with it. Sometimes we are clearly in the documentary style, in others we are in a conventional shot/reverse-shot style, while in others he is almost Lynchian in his camerawork. After I sort of gave in to the fact that the film was going to shift and break rules, I was able to settle in to the stories and have a good time. Although it isn’t wholly successful (I wish it was more funny), Bujalski’s scope and vision is worth the trip.

Film #15: Frances Ha
(Writers: Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig; Director: Noah Baumbach)
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I’m just not sure a likable film (or TV show) can be made about disaffected, self-obsessed, white New York hipsters. Whether its the self-conscious honesty of Lena Dunham’s Girls or the sardonic, dark critique of The Comedy, nothing can stop the fact that these kinds of people are painful to spend time with. Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha is the most bearable look into this milieu, but it is only saved by its title character and the great performance of Greta Gerwig. While everyone around her works to push you away, Frances keeps pulling you back in.

For the first 30 minutes of Frances Ha, I wanted to shoot almost everyone on screen. I hit pause, took the dog for a walk, and when I came back, I was better able to sink in. This is partly because Frances begins to take shape as a character who holds the weight of the film, but it also became a little more clear what Baumbach was trying to do.

As much as they try, it is incredibly difficult to take the Williamsburgh generation seriously. Although they couch themselves in irony, they are still clueless, walking stereotypes. Obviously, Baumbach sees them this way, as its nearly impossible to think that he isn’t making fun of his characters when Benji claims he is making real headway on his Gremlins 3 spec-script or Lev…dresses like Lev. But what’s the point? How easy and pointless is it to make fun of these people? What kind of critique of narcissism and technological vapidity isn’t already self-evident in their very existence? I was loaded with these thoughts as we were introduced to each new character in the film’s opening act.

But the film is called Frances Ha, and in Frances lies the film’s heart. She is a genuine person desperate for friendship, and her uniqueness stands in stark contrast to the people around her. There isn’t an ounce of irony in her, and although she likes all the things the people around her profess to like, there’s an earnestness to her, even when she’s lying, that they aren’t quite able to handle (Benji constantly calls her undateable). This manifests itself in the best sequences of the film: Frances attempting to stage a fake fight with a friend in the park, dancing joyously through the New York streets, or working at her old college even though she’s way too old.

But she’s also a very sad person who lies to herself and others, and clings to people that show the slightest interest in her. For the first 2/3 of the film, she’s desperately trying to match the interests and personalities of the people around her, even when it’s clear she can’t. So the film hinges on her realizing that she only really needs herself, and when she does that, she can become genuinely happy.

Baumbach shows a love for Frances that is infectious and that’s also unique to his filmography. Maybe his real-life relationship with Gerwig is softening him. Although he can’t quite escape his more biting roots, Frances Ha is ultimately a funny, enjoyable film. (Oh, it’s also in black and white).

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