Of the many perils that await biopic films, perhaps the greatest are willful detours from the truth. The journey of every artist as he or she struggles for success becomes replete with indelible experiences, whose memories remain like barnacles on a ship’s hull, and these memories are often recorded in the poignant memoirs that mark an artistic life as well as that of an era. Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” is the quintessential account of an artistic sojourn of its age. A quest – or many – encased in a procession of places and people too real, banal, and uncaring to be romanticized beyond their immediate behavior. The life of an artist is thus constituted by the opposition — inexplicably evident to every era and equally unrecognized in its time — between (from the artist’s experience) the demands for sensitivity to a world that harks neither to the Muse nor to its messengers, and (from the world’s outlook) the intractable state of apathy and rejection that seem the inevitable interface with artists of all kinds.
And so consider Dave Van Ronk, who came to be termed “The Mayor of Macdougal Street” for his ubiquitous performances and larger-than-life personage holding court in Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the beatnik epoch. The brawny folk singer was a force of nature, a man of character and charisma by both his own account and that of his peers’ recollections. This man’s early professional life is the basis (his book was optioned) for the Coen Brothers’ film “Inside Llewyn Davis”, whose protagonist is in every way — except psychologically — a blueprint of Van Ronk. The film version of Van Ronk — Llewyn Davis — plays the Gaslight “for the 400th time”, is looking for musical deliverance through his manager and his dead-in-the-water (but brilliant) album, whose title the film carries. It was common in the late 1950’s and 1960’s — the heyday of folk’s second (and true) generation following the Guthrie line of musical portraiture that is the acoustic Americana of its anthem, “This Land is Your Land” — for many artists to perform and record — and yet still remain obscure. The recent Academy-award winning documentary, “Searching for Sugarman” is sober testament to how such genius (there, in the person of Rodriguez, unsung singer from the same era) could remain thoroughly ignored. You have to buy and delve into “Cold Fact” and “Coming from Reality” — Rodriguez’s only two albums, which went unheard, whose sales were nil, and whose recording contract was canceled, to understand the honesty of folk music in that key decade of the entire 1960’s from start to finish. Van Ronk, who eventually did cut over twenty albums, is in fairness to the film portrayed, only at the start of his career. But that is not license to mutilate the essential character of the real-life man to near-campy fictional depths in this unexpectedly tiresome Coen Brothers quasi-biopic.
While Van Ronk’s own recording career was many times longer than two albums, the fact of a real “Inside Dave Van Ronk” album title should make clear the filmmakers’ intention to portray the artist’s life closely, with high fidelity. That is unfortunate, because the Van Ronk version of this film, in the character of one “Llewyn Davis”, is almost an antimatter version of Van Ronk. The latter’s legendary garrulousness is transposed into a lifeless, anemic, and oddly terse woodcut who seems not at home but rather totally out of place in his own Greenwich Village hood. He seems to wander about, nearly surprised by his encounters with people, even the long acquaintances. The Coen Brothers deserve great praise for fashioning, in “Dr Who” style, a regenerated Barton Fink, and placing him back in the time of the beats. This Barton Fink/Llewyn Davis twin is as distinct from Van Ronk as the film story itself seems to be from the real singer’s important facets of experience. To wit, the two outlier episodes of the film — one because it’s the longest and the other because of the “cameo” of a reigning folk star from that era — are pointed distortions of actual experiences from Van Ronk’s life.
In the first of these, a road trip from New York out to Chicago and back, Davis hitchhikes back east after a quick and painful stop in the windy city. He is picked up by a fatigued driver on his way back to New Jersey, and offers the ride on the condition that Davis would do half the driving. But why this scene exists — along with the meaningless cameo of a pathologically patriarchal heroin addict played by John Goodman (that anchor of Coen films) — is utterly inexplicable. As fiction, it adds nothing to the action or outcome (there is no actual arc to any character throughout the film). As fact, is inadequate biographical allusion, for it is well known that Dave Van Ronk couldn’t drive.
The second moment of note in the film is reserved for the final few minutes, as Llewyn, back in his old haunts, exits the Gaslight as he looks askance — warily, distantly, and suspiciously — at a young singer who has just taken the stage — and by the hair, by the neck harness for his harmonica, and by the flattened voice, the performer, it is clear, is Bob Dylan. There is no recognition by this Dylan of the protagonist, whose threatened expression is a clairvoyant nod to the film audience that old Beethoven has met young Mozart and has seen that the lad will make a big noise in the world. The film save this cameo-of-a-cameo for the very end, as if to prod us to remember the larger history that all the musicians from this time came to write — and presumably one that, because of Dylan’s penumbra, came to eclipse that of Dave Van Ronk/Llewyn Davis. But this is falsehood by implication. Bob Dylan was Van Ronk’s biggest fan, and the film could at least have treated us to a bit of the appreciation the artist truly enjoyed among his peers. Van Ronk was the life of a party that he didn’t outlive, whereas the feckless sod of Llewyn Davis was a pitiful weakling, ignored, despised, and insignificant to one and all, save an upper west side academic couple. The film hits Van Ronk and leaves his memory limping at the the side of the road, like the fictional Llewyn Davis does when he drives back to New York, in a scene that was as pointless and unnecessary as this painfully slow celluloid dirge. Seeming to aim more for Kafka without the anger, the language, or the moral depth than Van Ronk himself, perhaps we might better have titled the film “Inside Joseph K”, except that Kafka moves us by filling us with a world of both dread and strange reason. As this film rather opts to project an Unheimlich of dread, the real ruddy-cheeked coffeehouse Hemingway will remain largely undiscovered for a time longer. I do wish they didn’t replace the vitality of New York’s 1960’s beat life with lifeless dialogue that goes nowhere in long scenes, with actors who lack New York mannerisms and accents.
I do like the work of Coen Brothers, who hail from Minnesota, and their encounter with the social distance that prevails there is an understandable inspiration for dark comedy. And while I loved “Fargo”, I too am a creature of boundaries, and didn’t need to see that surreal film reborn and grafted onto the Greenwich Village I knew. I recently sat with my producer at same table at the Caffé Reggia where, as a teenager, I tried to sort out my life — I was doing what everyone else in the Village was doing. It is the same table, in the same café, where the protagonist is being insulted by his friend’s pregnant girlfriend. Her tone came the closest to the frankness of the New Yorker of that day… except that she evinced decidedly suburban mannerisms. Why is it so difficult for non-New Yorkers to create decent portrayals of that city in any period? Perhaps because the people who were there when I was growing up, are not the people who are there today. The Village of my day — the 1970’s and 80’s — was still a vibrant place, full of the authentic existential angst that needs creative production as its vital outlet. The search of angst is now the search of tourism; it still shocks one to see how much of the city has disappeared to the kitsch of merchants. In terms of character and notoriety, there is no Village, SoHo, Bowery, Little Italy, or Chinatown of three decades ago. They have been bleached clean like the Five Points section of a century earlier, and the only part of lower Manhattan that remains as grey as ever is Wall Street. And it is impossible not to imagine that this character and notoriety was fuel for the folk singer. Perhaps the Coen Brothers should have gone back in time to gather up a spirit of what Van Ronk’s boots shook off, for even back when Dickens visited New York, the character that is now missing was all there, and I recall, even a hundred plus years later, some of this image:
Let us go on again; and passing this wilderness of an hotel with stores about its base, like some Continental theatre, or the London Opera House shorn of its colonnade, plunge into the Five Points. But it is needful, first, that we take as our escort these two heads of the police, whom you would know for sharp and well-trained officers if you met them in the Great Desert. So true it is, that certain pursuits, wherever carried on, will stamp men with the same character. These two might have been begotten, born, and bred, in Bow Street.
We have seen no beggars in the streets by night or day; but of other kinds of strollers, plenty. Poverty, wretchedness, and vice, are rife enough where we are going now.
This is the place: these narrow ways, diverging to the right and left, and reeking everywhere with dirt and filth. Such lives as are led here, bear the same fruits here as elsewhere… Debauchery has made the very houses prematurely old. See how the rotten beams are tumbling down, and how the patched and broken windows seem to scowl dimly, like eyes that have been hurt in drunken frays…What place is this, to which the squalid street conducts us? A kind of square of leprous houses, some of which are attainable only by crazy wooden stairs without. What lies beyond this tottering flight of steps, that creak beneath our tread?—a miserable room, lighted by one dim candle, and destitute of all comfort, save that which may be hidden in a wretched bed. Beside it, sits a man: his elbows on his knees: his forehead hidden in his hands. ‘What ails that man?? asks the foremost officer. ‘Fever,? he sullenly replies, without looking up. Conceive the fancies of a feverish brain, in such a place as this!1
1American Notes for General Circulation, Charles Dickens. Transcribed from the 1913 Chapman & Hall, Ltd. edition by David Price. Online at http://www.gutenberg.org/files/675/675-h/675-h.htm