Inside Llewyn Davis: The Three Branches of Film
I’ve always divided the appeal of film into 3 branches. The first category includes the story, the acting and the soundtrack: the things that sell tickets and are consciously perceived by its audience. The second category, my personal favorite, is the technicalities of film. These are often subconsciously perceived but are able to create a wide range of emotion. These come in the form of framing, camera movements, aspect ratios, lighting, camera angels, compositions, choice of lenses, and a myriad of others. The last branch would be the metaphysical side to film. Although this isn’t a tangible aspect of the film, I believe that it’s what has allowed for film to be on the same intellectual and meaningful level as literature. Films ability to transcend the silver screen and work its message and morals into our daily lives is something that has always enthralled me.
The three branches don’t necessarily have to all be present, but it becomes noticeable when one of the branches is seriously lacking. Plenty of films feature entertaining stories and riveting concepts, but the directorial execution is absent, rendering it as a forgotten film, appearing on late night television every other week at best (see Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon). But some films are able to successfully and artistically encompass these 3 branches to create something that can only be achieved in film. Now, there are a litany of films that have been able to achieve this, and I’m not trying to dilute any of their achievements, but there is one film that I would like to praise, not only for its cinematic value, but for the emotional significance it has on me. This would be the 2013 film Inside Llewyn Davis.
Directed by acclaimed directors Ethan and Joel Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles a chapter in the life of folk legend Dave Van Ronk, dubbed in this film as Llewyn Davis, as he struggles to produce in his music in the Greenwich Village folk scene, an area teaming with potential and success, seemingly for all except Llewyn. The film title itself is in reference of a Dave Van Ronk album that I highly recommend. Llewyn is a bad man. He had an affair with his friend’s wife, he is ungrateful for the favors he receives and he resents those who have, successfully, followed his same dreams. These vices held by Llewyn are met by appropriate consequences. Llewyn’s issues are constantly snowballing as he, despite best efforts, fails to grasp any satisfaction with the status of his life. He fears “just existing”, an adjective he uses to explain a career that is outside of the arts, but he is also barely existing as he drifts from home to home, wondering every day where he will be able to spend the night.
From a directorial perspective, Inside Llewyn Davis is a masterpiece. The Coen brothers are in their element as they utilize a spectrum of blues and grays, a feat previously used in Fargo, to chronicle the life of Llewyn; a life of blues and grays. The film itself pairs soft lighting with a blue and grey palette, forming a melancholic atmosphere that reciprocates the daily experiences of the titular character. Center point framing reminiscent of Kubrick push this imagery of isolation. At a cafe, the owner of the cafe critiques Llewyn’s inability to “connect” with people. To exemplify this, the Coen Brothers frequently frame Llewyn close to the camera, seldom allowing for other characters to appear in the frame. The few instances where Llewyn is placed in frame with another character are usually reserved for scenes with Jean, one of the few people he shares a connection with but, because of her romantic relationship with Llewyn’s friend, cannot pursue any relationship with her. The Coen Brothers touch upon a disheartening reality of life with this simple framing; sometimes we can be so close to someone or something that seems like the answer, but constantly deterred from them, all the while acknowledging how rare that person is to us. The Coen Brothers could have easily stated this in the film’s script, but through using the framing they are able to speak volumes of Llewyn’s character; a man hell-bent on creating meaningful art while simultaneously obscuring his enjoyment of the simplicities of life, whether it be meaningful relationships or a bed that is his own.
What this film is actually about deserves its own review. The underlying meanings found throughout this film cannot even be described in words, much less in this essay. We never hear of the people who chase their dreams and fail. But there are more of these people than those who make headlines. Even the most skillful artists like Van Gogh don’t receive the recognition they deserve much after their deaths. This film is their voice, or yet, their foreboding warning. It’s a comment on a struggle that nearly any performer suffers through: Should I produce substance with meaning or should I mass produce hollow art, enjoyed by the masses and curating amble amounts of wealth?
One of my favorite symbols in this film is the mysterious cat. Throughout the film, Llewyn embarks on his journey after losing the cat of the people who had recently allowed him to stay at their house. Now, the cat could have a myriad of meanings and I always fear placing people in a pigeon-hole when I give my own analysis of ambiguous aspects of film. Many of these interpretations are tainted by my own bias and I implore you to watch this film and develop your own opinion. Before you read this portion of the essay, I recommend you watch the movie so you can truly understand my opinions on this.
To me, Llewyn’s cat symbolizes his hopes of garnering validation and the emotional degradation that comes with it. The cat’s name, Ulysses, is the Latin form of Odysseus. Reminiscent of Homer’s epic, Ulysses serves as the perfect name for a companion on an expansive journey. Ulysses awakens Llewyn in the first instances of the film and sets him on his journey, displaying how his quest of affirmation are the reason why he wakes up every morning and drives himself. On a subway, we see two kids smile and nod to Llewyn while a middle aged man heading to work looks on in disgust. Many adults see a career in the arts as an ill-fated occupation, a pipe dream that is only pursued by people who are disillusioned of the realities of the real world. Teenagers, on the other hand, worship these artists and stand in awe of their determination and persistence. Near the middle of the film, Llewyn loses his cat, which, although rids him of the emotional baggage that is correlated with the music industry, displays that he is at a point of no return in his music career. As the film progresses, Llewyn sees the cat again and, relieved, chases after it. Later on in the film he realizes that this is not in fact the cat he was loooking for. Even the gender of it is incorrect. This switch up may represent how Llewyn has to constantly reconstruct his dreams based upon his surroundings and short comings. When Llewyn seems to reach his goal, he releases the cat, allowing it to run amok, free to form its own path without Llewyn. In following the pattern of Llewyn’s (Llewyn, which is Welsh for Lionlike, correlating with the feline imagery) life, what he thought would be the answer to his woes was anything but. Driving back from his disappointing trip, Llewyn hits what he fears to be his cat. The potential death of Llewyn’s cat reflects the damage that has just been done to Llewyn’s motivation. His dream is dead. But maybe he didn’t hit the cat. Maybe it was another animal. Maybe his dream, although under layers of self doubt and depreciation, still lives on. Although Llewyn is at the lowest point in his career, the sole existence of the dreams will be enough to propel Llewyn forward.