All folked up

An Irishman’s Diary about the Coen Brothers’ latest film

Wed, Jan 29, 2014, 11:03

It pains to me say it, and thereby risk expulsion from one of my favourite cults. But even so, I have to suggest that the latest Coen Brothers film may have set a new record for the variance between a film’s rating by critics and its actual worth.

No doubt the shortcomings are all mine. No doubt the rave-reviewers will be vindicated in time, as Inside Llewyn Davis’s brilliance is gradually revealed even to imbeciles. Maybe I should have re-watched it at least once before embarrassing myself in public on the matter.

As it is, I’ll admit to being unnerved by how well the film’s share-price is holding up in the US, months after flotation. Nevertheless, I haven’t been so disappointed in a movie since hearing about plans for a Godfather part III. And at least I didn’t have to watch that to know it was a travesty.

Perhaps I should specify what I didn’t like about Inside Llewyn Davis, exactly. The problem is I’ve already forgotten most of it. I mainly recall spending an hour and a half waiting for the Coens to be funny, or enjoyably weird, as they usually are, and that it never happened.

Yes I understand the thing was meant to look drab, and that if I was a more refined person I would have found the quality of its drabness beautiful.

I’m also prepared to accept that New York in the winter of 1961 was every bit as charmless as this. But did the characters have to be devoid of all colour too? Was it really the Coens’ intention that the film’s only credible candidate for Best Supporting Actor would be a cat?

Then there was the music, which reminded me of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? but not in a good way. I seem to remember curmudgeonly critics of that film suggesting the Coens had picked the songs first and then constructed a movie around them. And if they did, it worked beautifully.

Whereas on Inside Llewyn Davis, the music appears to have been chosen to blend with the decor, which it does, to a fault. It blends so well that, apart from a certain Dublin prison ballad (the accents on which indeed deserve a jail sentence), I couldn’t remember any of the songs afterwards either.

In fact, the part of the film I most vividly recall, still, is the road-trip to Chicago. It seemed to go on at least as long as an actual trip to Chicago would, and eventually it felt like I was trapped in the car too. Never have I been so grateful for the intervention of a fascist traffic cop.

The best thing I can say about the Coens’ alleged masterpiece is that it has since made me go and read some of the memoir of Dave Van Ronk, on which the (lack of) action was (loosely) based. And it was no surprise to find that the man emerges from its pages as a much warmer and wittier human being than the film’s pallid protagonist.

Van Ronk was a curious mixture, being by his own account of “mostly Irish” background (another commentator put his Hibernian content, somewhat cryptically, at “three-fifths”), with a dollop of Dutch. And he did indeed have a paternal background in the New York shipyards, as Davis does.

But his key ancestor was a “Brooklyn Irish” grandmother, who lived in the past (her world-view had been frozen circa 1910, Van Ron suggests), was a brilliant storyteller, and sang constantly, stopping only to eat or talk. She wasn’t a great singer, he recalled, “but boy was she loud; she drove the neighbours nuts”.

Not only was this grandmother a walking treasury of folk songs, she also kept the old country’s language alive, after a fashion. In fact, Van Ronk suggests it had been centuries since his forebears spoke actual Irish. So what was handed down in song were strings of nonsense syllables like this: “Shonegga hanegga thamegga thu, baleshlecoghelee aushmedatheen” (interpretations on a postcard, please).

As for her English-language output, the grandmother bequeathed some of her repertoire to another performer whose singing was noted more for conviction than brilliance. Her grandson describes teaching one of her songs to Bob Dylan, who reworked it as Chimes of Freedom. As Van Ronk put it, drily: “Her version was better”.

Unlike Llewyn Davis, who was hoisting the white flag by the film’s end, Van Ronk never gave up on music. He was temporarily discouraged by his failure to become a star during what he called “the great Folk scare”. Then he accepted his fate and carried on doing his thing until he died in 2002. He seems to have been an interesting man. Somebody should make a film about him.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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