The folk-song army's attack on Inside Llewyn Davis



In the span of a single week the New York Times posted not one but two articles from irate folksingers bitching about the authenticity—or lack thereof—in Inside Llewyn Davis. They are companion pieces to a blog post that ran on the Village Voice's website last month.

The two singers, Christine Lavin and Suzanne Vega, knew Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir of his years in the Greenwich Village folk scene, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, provided a lot of the source material for Inside Llewyn Davis. Terri Thal, who wrote the blog post, knew Van Ronk very well; she was his ex-wife and ex-manager. The crux of their arguments is this:

Inside Llewyn Davis does not represent the Village folk scene the way they remember it. They remember the Village as a warm, supportive environment full of happy people singing happy songs while strumming their guitars. Llewyn Davis's Village is a lonely, wintry shithole. Dave Van Ronk, who has a few things in common with Llewyn Davis (outer-borough origins, time in the merchant marine, a piece of album cover art, a musical repertoire), was a nice guy. Llewyn Davis is kind of an asshole. Therefore, Inside Llewyn Davis is a shitty movie.

Here are a few representative complaints:

Lavin: "Am outraged that the Coens took such a colorful character and interpreted him as a doofus."

Vega: "I feel they took a vibrant, crackling, competitive, romantic, communal, crazy, drunken, brawling scene and crumpled it into a slow brown sad movie."

Thal: "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."

OK, here's the thing: the film is a fiction. It's not a documentary. It's not a docudrama. That's why it's called Inside Llewyn Davis instead of Inside Dave Van Ronk. Llewyn Davis was not a real person. He is a fictional character, invented by the Coen brothers. The film is not about how great it was to be young in Greenwich Village in 1961. The Village is just the backdrop. The film is about a moderately talented man who, over the course of a catastrophic week, realizes that he is never going to be a great success. Or, as J.R. Jones put it in his review, "A good artist must be in the right place at the right time to succeed, whereas a truly great one makes that time and place his own."

Thal is wrong: Llewyn does love music. He loves it so much, he can't bear the idea of a future where he can't make a living singing folk songs, one where he just "exists." (To which his sister responds, "Exist? Is that what we do outside of show business?") But that's what he's facing. The Village isn't a warm, hospitable place for him. Nobody gives a shit about his music. His singing partner has just committed suicide. He's alienated all his family and friends and has to hit up strangers to find a place to stay. The whole movie's told from his point of view, and there's nothing, even Pete Seeger leading a big old hootenanny in Washington Square Park, that's going to keep it from looking brown and sad, because that's what the world looks like when you're down in the depression hole.

I didn't know Dave Van Ronk. Before this movie came out, the only thing I knew about him was that he was the guy from whom Bob Dylan stole most of his early musical arrangements, but that he was very generous and gracious about the whole thing. I'll take Lavin and Vega and Thal's word for it that he wasn't like Llewyn Davis.

I also wasn't in Greenwich Village in the 60s. Obviously. Actually, I didn't spend my youth anywhere that's going to be remembered as an important part of our nation's social and artistic history. (Oh, wait, I sublet an apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, for a month in the summer of 1998. Then my roommates and I got priced out. Does that count?) Nobody is ever going to make a movie about the places I lived or write a book about the people I knew. So I don't know what it's like to feel possessive of a time and place. But I have seen it. Last fall I wrote an article about the migration of hipsters throughout Chicago's history and people, particularly people who lived in Wicker Park in the 90s, wrote in to castigate me about everything I had missed or had gotten wrong. Some of them were very angry. I had fucked with their memories of their youth, some of the memories they were most proud that they got to have. (I mean, what kind of cachet does having lived in Lincoln Park in the 90s have, aside from maybe memories of a nicer apartment?)

And that is the reason Lavin, Vega, and Thal hate Inside Llewyn Davis so much. It's not the movie they would have made. It's not about them or their memories. Their narcissism has kept them from watching the movie that was actually playing in front of them. (And if they could magically time travel back to their early days in the Village and live it all again, would they find the same folk-music paradise? Or would they realize that their memories had edited out all the bad parts, the Llewyn Davis-esque parts?)

Inside Llewyn Davis is a sad movie, but not because of its perceived inaccuracies. It's sad because it's about someone realizing he's reached the limits of his talent and it hasn't taken him nearly as far as he'd hoped to go. It's pretty much what happens to most of us. I saw Inside Llewyn Davis a couple of days after a screening of It's a Wonderful Life at the Patio and was struck by the similarity between the two. Both Llewyn and George Bailey have been trapped. Neither of them accepts his disappointment very graciously. (In the last segment before George meets Clarence, he may even surpass Llewyn in assholery.) Llewyn, however, doesn't get an understanding wife, a loyal band of friends, or an angel. He doesn't get a nice moment of catharsis, only defeat and the prospect of a life spent existing. Will it mean anything to him that he was once in Greenwich Village?

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