In a terrific review of “Inside Llewyn Davis” that ran in today’s New York Times, A. O. Scott concludes by quoting on of Dylan’s most obtuse lines as he compares the Coen Brothers approach to making films to Dylan’s creative strategy.
One of the insights of “Inside Llewyn Davis” is that hard work and talent do not always triumph in the end. Like most of the Coens’ movies, this one sidesteps the political turmoil of its period, partly because it is a fable, not a work of history. (The public affairs of the time get a shout-out in the form of a goofy novelty song called “Please Mr. Kennedy,” a barely topical sendup of the space race and the New Frontier.) But there is nonetheless a strong, hidden current of social criticism in the brothers’ work, which casts a consistently skeptical eye on the American mythology of success.
Winners do not interest them. There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all. That observation was made by Bob Dylan, like Joel and Ethan Coen, a Jewish kid from Minnesota and, like them, possessed of a knack for conscripting the American popular art of the past for his own idiosyncratic genius. His art, like theirs, upends easy distinctions between sincerity and cynicism, between the authentic and the artificial, and both invites and resists interpretation.
So I won’t speculate further on what “Inside Llewyn Davis” might mean. But at least one of its lessons seems to me, after several viewings, as clear and bright as a G major chord. We are, as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding. But somehow, some of our attempts to take stock of this condition — our songs and stories and moving pictures, old and new — manage to be beautiful, even sublime.
For the entire review, which I hope you’ll read, head over to the Times.
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