See that crow up in the sky? / He don’t walk, he just fly / He don’t walk, he don’t run / Keep on flapping to the sun
It was my first winter. Well, not if you consider a ten-degree seemingly lazy backdrop of Portugal to be a sizeable winter—I don’t. My very first snowy, vodka-drinking, limb-numbing, igloo-building winter. And while others soaked and moaned over the drying central heating, finding the right boots, or being the clichéd victims of the blues our exchange semester in Eastern Europe was forcefully inducing, I was elated.
I found joy in my walk home after spontaneous night film screenings, eating Thai food on street benches, or hanging out in the basement bars of Sofia until the wee hours of morning. But something changed when the International Film Festival came to town. A bit like the circus, it trapped all of one’s existence inside a room where fantasy is unleashed each night, but not easily captured. Immersed in the magic of film, beers were ordered, tickets cut, and as snowflakes were falling on the ceilings we took refuge under, tears fell across our cheeks as we reveled in the anti-heroes we saw on screen. Four years later, one still stands out from the crowd and serves as a vivid souvenir.
That night was different. I remember how crisp the air was, how I bumped into some menacing little specks of dust wirelessly hanging from the sky, promising yet another blizzard. My heart grew heavier with every step I took as I stepped further away from the theater and glimpses of the wintery watercolors of the Coen Brothers’ new cinematic proposal still flooded my foggy eyes. As I stared at the ground and headed forward towards the big avenue, the film’s music rattled in my covered ears, its kinetic energy forcing itself on me in a gradual continuous motion as I proceeded to turn the keys and open the front door.
If you missed the train I’m on / You will know that I am gone / You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles
From the moment Llewyn steps out into Mitch and Lillian Gorfein’s kitchen to make some eggs for breakfast up to his brutal beating outside of the Gaslight days later, he reincarnates the hero that folk music champions, but was often too close for comfort in the early sixties’ pre-singer-songwriter days. As he strums the D, to G, to D chords, the guitar lives as the hopeful extension of himself—the revolutionary, bare poet getting on stage every night to tell a story that “is never new and never gets old.”
In a particular scene in the film, sitting across from his lover, Jean, Llewyn affirms, “You’re trying to blueprint the future… if that’s what music if for you, a way to get to that place, then yeah, it’s a little careerist, and it’s a little square.” He is in pain and aware of it. Music exists as a shelter of comfort, as if it could actually save him from his heartache. And by pinpointing Jean’s idea of a happy future with a family and stability, he is denying himself of the same desire. Not that he does not wish he could aim as high, but in his core he does not want to. “I’m tired,” he tells her later on in the film. “I thought I just needed a night’s sleep, but it’s more than that.”
Llewyn doesn’t have a performance. He doesn’t even have a plan. He has a worn-out caramel corduroy jacket, a pair of flimsy black shoes and a box of leftover vinyl bootlegs that he and his ex-partner have put together. He doesn’t want a goatee, a flashy name, or a quirky wardrobe, and he has no interest in being a symbol in the Village. He wants a winter coat and a bed to sleep in. And as the small wrinkles hugging the rims of his brown eyes start closing in on him faster that he had predicted, he is asked to crawl into hopelessness when he believed to be digging through the scum in search of his lost, defiant self. But he is talented, and he is relentless. His voice grabs you and something quite haunting is promised for the duration of his solo act. Passionate and willing, he invites his existing audience—both onscreen and off—to live his proud misery, a little boy that has had his superhero cap taken away by someone he loves. His feet are cold, his voice is coarse, and he’s being puppeted around corner after corner of the city that betrays him and replaces his good soul for a version of a 1960s Buster Keaton, a comical bystander watching his life stumble upon the dirty sidewalks that yell failure from every possible angle.
Come wind, oh come winter gale. / Sweating or cold, growing up, growing old. / Or dying. / As we dream about the shoals of herring…
Over the years, I’ve never looked at the Coen Brothers in the same light as I did other artistic partnerships. Their indefinable creations, and their strength in clarifying how much these weren’t meant to be pinned down, have turned them into the 21st century vagabond artists of cult, basking in idiosyncrasies and subversive ideals every chance they get. Nevertheless, their cinema has always been about the silences in-between, the breathing of the image, and how much of that is transferred onto the fabric deeply woven in our lives. They’re painters who allow the brushes they use to take over. That is why Larry’s daughter in A Serious Man doesn’t do much but wash her hair (in her father’s eyes), The Dude in Big Lebowski uses his binge-drinking White Russians as an inside joke, or the heavily pregnant Sheriff Marge Gunderson gets away with her investigation by taking advantage of her weakened state in Fargo.
These are never the promising heroes we expected to cheer from the start, and yet we see ourselves doing so anyway. By choosing to sport a type of mask, literal or otherwise, these characters pave a way through to their desires. But Llewyn never does. He knows nothing but how to be himself. He’s the hero who was almost there, who almost made it, and never quite had what his infamous successor, Dylan, did. But then again, folk music is the hymn of the people, about and for them. The only tangible thing acceptable in its intermediary’s actions should prevail in the vibrancy of the chords his or her stiff fingers prolong. That’s where the beauty of the dissented tragicomedy of life should lie—hoping for laughter, yet always aware of its smothering effects.
The concept of human consciousness subjected to the existence of free will, to the notion that Llewyn actually has control over the miserable course of his actions. But does he? More importantly, does he want to? Even if he did have the wings he lost to fly away from his life as it is, wouldn’t he just reject them? After all, Damiel (from Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire) did fall and lose his and he didn’t seem to regret it, now did he? He got a cup of coffee, had a puff of a cigarette, and rubbed his hands against each other. Berlin’s piercing winter was alive in his body. He could see and smile and breathe and smell and kiss. He existed, and the world danced with him.
“Oh no,” cried King Henry, “That’s a thing that I can never do / If I lose the flower of England, I shall lose the branch too / I shall lose the branch too”
The tale of the self-made man is as much a myth as that of a cat having nine lives. We’re encouraged to believe in it, while the real warranties of progress are left aside as we contemplate the trenches of stardom. Nothing can confirm that which is yet to be decided. And nothing can guarantee the unchanging path of that which already has been. Only death can uphold or help confront both.
When Llewyn clumsily aids Ulysses, Gorfeins’s ginger cat, in escaping the apartment to which he’s been confined, ushered into the juicy slices of outside human existence, he becomes a storytelling recipient tagging along on Llewyn’s journey. He gives Llewyn a reason to keep moving. He gives him guidance and becomes his companion. He’s the best part of the nightmare that Llewyn’s life turns quickly to be. Seeing that his lover (and his friend’s girlfriend) is about to abort his unborn child, that his agent is an inept crook, and that winter in New York is anything but forgiving, he walks around with no coat and the faulty awareness of having absolutely nothing to write next. He is much like the sad folk songs he covers, and his existence is translated into the succession of incidents that neither allow him to get a gig at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, run and hide away at the Merchant Marines, or become the Folk Icon discovered at Gaslight that night and whose name would be splashed all across the New York Times a few weeks later.
Either the world doesn’t want him to exist in the bubble he sustains, or there’s a reason why he shouldn’t. The absence of Mike, his old partner in “crime,” turns out to be the clearest reason. Mike sang and shared with him the passion he carries and for which he bleeds. Maybe, as Roland tells Lwelyn, nobody throws himself off the George Washington Bridge anymore. But Mike did. And much like the sense of relief that comes from waking up from a horrid nightmare, Llewyn is not expecting his greatest one to come to pass. Or rather, because it already has, he is politely, almost gallantly, confronted with a world he doesn’t know, that therefore mystically interrupts his everyday tragedy, which bounces with his music from comical to ridiculous as harshly as a well-thrown tennis ball.
But he’s no cartoon, he’s no bohemian jester; he’s merely been reincarnated into someone’s idea of a eulogy in conjunction with a naive house cat—“a slob without a name,” as put in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Or better, a slob whose feline doppelganger’s referential name is never once thought of by him as a reminder. Sliding through doors, climbing up walls, hiding in street gutters, Ulysses soon becomes Llewyn’s responsibility. Just as young kids run to the ice-cream truck or flee their parents once they see a candy shop or a video game temple, Ulysses has equally been shown a kindness in being taken into contact with reality, far from the corners of commodity and neediness of the luxury downtown apartment he well knew. When he finally manages to slip through Jim’s and Jean’s window that Llewyn has just stupidly opened, go down the fire escape, and go live an adventure, it isn’t quite clear how well he’ll adapt. But as he finds his way home a few days later, we learn the answer. Upon learning the cat’s name, Llewyn sees himself reflected in Ulysses’s soft-hued green gaze. He knew he had once been as hungry for life as well—but when such had been taken away from him, no shelter had been offered, no nest had been woven for his comfort. Ulysses had learned. And winter will thereafter come crawling back every time one is too tired to survive one’s own life.
I wouldn’t mind the hanging, / But the layin’ in a grave so long, poor boy, / I been all around this world.
Get on the subway, get off the subway, hitch a ride, walk two miles across twenty inches of snow, hitch another ride, walk to the bus station, get on the bus, get off the bus, run against the menacing snowstorm, get on the subway, get off the subway… Just before Llewyn loses all hope of actually making it, he spontaneously decides to accept a trip from New York to Chicago, where he’d ask Bud Grossman for an opportunity to play at the Gate of Horn, the club that officially knighted folk music in the early sixties. With only the road stretched out in the front of them, the car breathes alongside the classic American landscape, and Llewyn fights off the vile attempts at conversation with an alienated chain-smoking poet and an antagonizing old jazz musician ready to sink his teeth into Llewyn’s Welsh background and choice of musical expression. Eventually, what had been a harmonized road trip turns into a pilgrimage of sorts, with Llewyn carrying his last hope on his hefty shoulders. The delusional hero lives in the passageways of the shadows, stuck in the circular temporal loop of his own mind. He moves violently, never reaching a destination. Grief darkens his heart and takes him to the Gate of Horn, to an alternative dream as vivid as the dark seas he sings about.
Two gates the silent house of Sleep adorn;
Of polish’d ivory this, that of transparent horn:
True visions thro’ transparent horn arise;
Thro’ polish’d ivory pass deluding lies.
The louder you sing, the louder he’ll listen. But the trains keep coming by, and by, and by, drowning the notion of endlessness by which Llewyn inevitably feels persecuted. He believes he’s walked miles from home, oblivious to the sharp, invisible chain keeping him tightly fixed to the ground. He now wants to know why he can’t be accepted back into the world; he’s aware of how dark the alleys are, how ingrained and pale his hands look. What to do without Mike? Is there a possible detour without him? What would Joel Coen do without his brother Ethan or Ethan without Joel?
If I had wings like Noah’s dove / I’d fly up the river to the one I love / Oh, fare thee well, oh honey, fare thee well
A bright low light illuminates a portion of space on the ground. A man, blinded by such potency, with a guitar in hand, fills it up with his body. Scrunched down, with his fingers placed on top of the nylon strings, he pushes his body forward, approaches his mouth to the mic and closes his eyes. An odyssey is about to start. Light and shadow. Evocation and immersion. Cigarette ashes fall on people’s shoes, cups of coffee freeze up and the clocks don’t feel like ticking away the time. The moon glows luminously over his round head in attendance. And his fingers, though gentle, scratch string after string in search of what could’ve been a past reality, a beam of light which once shone and is now the culmination of his being, of himself, of his loved one who has gone away. After that night, no longer will he be there submitting us to his sounding ballad. Goodbye, he’s saying. Goodbye to folk music, goodbye to Mike, goodbye to you who have listened. There is no longer a place for me.
His low raspy voice enthralls all those present. A basement, stopped in time, breathing in all the oxygen being produced and thrown from the stage, is a cage of enlightenment, of moral conjuration. Everyone’s hearts drop down to their sleeves. Smoke-indulgent and soul-thirsty, they bow before the words coming out of Llewyn’s mouth as he comes full circle. It is the hope for stardom and its self-rejection, now that grief has evacuated the purpose of music, the purpose of life. Not to exist, never to exist. His fingers touch the last combination of strings, his music echoes for eternity.
See that crow up in the sky? / He don’t walk, he just fly / He don’t walk, he don’t run / Keep on flapping to the sun
It was my first winter.
Many have come and gone after that. I’ve been stranded in airports for days due to snow. I’ve built snowmen with friends and lied on the ground watching the snow disperse onto my face and the fibers of my clothes. And now four years later and on the cusp of my twenties, I go back to Llewyn while living in a strange big city where human communication is faltered and anonymity is a given, and I am unwilling to comprehend the concept of just existing, even though the world out there appears to want me to do just that. Exist. Resign to that which is attainable. Say yes to all that is rational. Erase all vulnerability and one’s attunement to sentiment far greater than oneself.
If Sofia was the first dialogue I had with winter, then London is now the wintery conversation I have to live everyday. Because I know Llewyn is still out there, just as the man upon whom the character is based, Mr. Dave Van Ronk, surviving the darkest of winters. His mourning is the evidence of life in the same way his perished career as a musician is the dream of acceptance. Inside Llewyn Davis is a skewed manifesto for passion in a world devoid of feeling.
Photographs provided courtesy of author.