There’s an art of contempt—Alfred Jarry opening Ubu Roi with a bellowed expletive, Marcel Duchamp exhibiting a urinal as art, Johnny Rotten snarling “God save the Queen,” or the young Bob Dylan hurling accusations at “Mr. Jones” over a wailing wall of sound. And then there’s the artful contempt perfected by filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen.
An undeniably talented two-man band of brothers, the Coens take pleasure less in confronting their audience or authority in general, than in bullying the characters they invent for their own amusement. Theirs is a comic theater of cruelty populated by a battered cast of action figures and a worldview that might have been formulated not from a Buick 6, à la Dylan but the Olympian heights of a bunk bed in suburbia.
Beginning with their neo-noir Blood Simple, the brothers have delighted in ridiculing their hapless creations—the yokels in Raising Arizona or O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the garrulous gargoyles of The Man Who Wasn’t There, the idiot schemers who come to grief in The Ladykillers or Burn After Reading, the doomed victims of No Country for Old Men, even the likable police officer in Fargo. The urge to play capricious deity is occasionally suppressed, but it’s striking that with regard to A Serious Man, the movie they considered their most personal, Ethan Coen bragged or confessed that “the fun of the story for us was inventing new ways to torture” their Job-like anti-hero, Larry Gopnik.
While most Coen characters could be considered garden variety shmeggeges, Larry Gopnik is something more culturally specific: a schlemiel. A shmeggege is merely a nitwit. The luckless and self-deceiving, well-intentioned but ineffectual schlemiel, defined by the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia as one who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner” is an existential victim—or maybe the embodiment of an existential condition. It’s been suggested by Ruth Wisse in her published doctoral dissertation The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (a title sounding like a Woody Allen gag) that for writers like Sholem Aleichem the Jews were “a kind of schlemiel people” and that his American heirs, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud et al., perfected the schlemiel as literary type.
Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher. (A Serious Man, as outraged Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor wrote in a memorable rant, was “crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-toothed, know nothing rabbis.” They are, to say the least, uniformly unlovely.)
Although a robust disdain for their creatures is a given, it is when the Coens deploy explicitly Jewish characters that their glee turns hostile. The spectacle of the pathetic cringing Jew played by John Turturro on his knees and begging for his life in Miller’s Crossing was less antic than appalling. Turturro starred as another sort of Jew in Barton Fink, which, set in 1941, staged a virtual death match between two then potent stereotypes—the vulgar Hollywood mogul and the arty New York communist—without any hint that their minstrel show battle royale was occurring at the acme of worldwide anti-Semitism. That might have ruined the joke.
Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens’ almost-affectionate send-up of the early ’60s Greenwich Village folk scene, is certainly their warmest film in the 16 years since The Big Lebowski in part because, as in Lebowski, the lead actor—Oscar Isaac—inspires a sympathy beyond the constraints of his creators’ rote contempt.
Isaac’s folk-singing Llewyn Davis may be an arrogant loser and the butt of a cosmic joke but he’s something more than a cartoon. So is the movie, which is predicated on the Coens’ enthusiasm for its music that, particularly as sung by Isaac, is surprisingly affecting. Malice is tempered by fondness occasionally verging on admiration—still, this impeccably crafted assertion that there is no success like failure doesn’t exactly dispel the sense of an oeuvre rooted in a shared boyhood mythology of derision.
Inside Llewyn Davis opens at the Gaslight Café, a basement dive frequented by beatniks and folkies, most famously Bob Dylan, with Llewyn at the mic—just a man and his guitar and the plaintive ballad “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” in an arrangement associated with Dylan’s sometime mentor Dave Van Ronk. The Coens let Llewyn sing almost the entire song (hanging him out to dry, as it were) before they welcome the sucker to Coenville: Llewyn leaves the stage for a rendezvous out behind the Gaslight where he’s assaulted and stomped by a cowboy for no reason at all. Actually, there is a reason: In statements and interviews, the brothers have identified their inspiration as the “image of a folk singer getting beaten up in a back alley of a Village folk club.”
Crashing on couches, mooching meals, and obtusely refusing to “sell out,” poor Llewyn is one more hapless Coen protagonist. The folk singer is alternately sullen and pugnacious; having just put out an album titled Inside Llewyn Davis that no one seems interested in buying, he doggedly pursues an apparently hopeless career in a dead-end scene, amply stocked with colorful grotesques, not a few of them Jews. The Coens have characterized Inside Llewyn Davis as an exercise in futility, “an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.” The movie is in fact a prolonged flashback to the protagonist’s moment of triumph and the ignominious defeat that inevitably follows.
Llewyn is of indeterminate ethnicity but definitely gentile—if only because he is far too appealing to be a Jew in Coenville. (Had the Coens followed through on their plan to adapt Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, they would have been forced to solve the “problem” of attractive Jews.) That Llewyn’s father is shown to have been a maritime worker suggests that, like more than a few folkies, Llewyn might have been a red diaper baby. A scene in which he sings Ewan MacColl’s “The Shoals of Herring” for his catatonic dad in a dismal rest home for retired seamen affords a pathos that the Coens are pleased to despoil because, like Barton Fink or Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis is a schlemiel.
Every aspect of Llewyn’s life is absurd. He is the universe’s plaything. For much of the movie’s first half, the Coens contrive to have him in futile pursuit of a benefactor’s pet cat while at the same time fending off the escalating fury of a friend and fellow folksinger’s wife (Carey Mulligan) who claims that he’s made her pregnant. Later, Llewyn goes on the road to Chicago with a feline cat and a human one (John Goodman as a hideous jazz junkie hipster), hoping to land a gig at the Gate of Horn or at least get representation from the owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). A stand-in for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, this imposing figure is singularly unimpressed by Llewyn’s heartfelt and not unoriginal rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” crassly remarking only “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
The Village folk scene has been recently reanimated in several memoirs including Van Ronk’s posthumous The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Suze Rotolo’s Freewheelin’ Times, and Dylan’s own Chronicles, as well the various documentaries that have been drawn from them. It also figures prominently in Jonathan Lethem’s novel of Jewish leftists Dissident Gardens. One reason for this renewed interest may be that, in a world of monolithic commercialism, these naïve folk singers represent a quaint yet compelling instance of rebellion against the marketplace—and one that was mooted, if not rendered ridiculous, by the astounding, unique success of the movement’s exemplar.
All accounts of the Village folk scene are necessarily haunted by the specter of Bob Dylan, who is heard but not seen in Llewyn Davis’ closing moments—by which time any Dylanologist in the audience will have figured out that luckless Llewyn is destined to get his shot on the same night that the New York Times caught Dylan’s act.
Having grown-up Jewish in greater Minneapolis, the Coens might have an understandable fascination with the older Minnesota landsman who renamed himself after a Welsh poet while raising sarcastic disdain to cosmic heights. At the press conference that followed their movie’s screening at the New York Film Festival, the brothers admitted that although they were explicitly depicting the pre-Dylan scene, his aura nonetheless suffused the movie. They specifically wanted the wintry, overcast look of the intensely romantic Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan LP cover.
It cannot have been lost on the Coens that it was a Minnesota Jew like themselves who effectively schlemiel-ized an entire movement of earnest idealists. (Who could top the singer’s “Positively 4th Street” kiss-off: I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you.) Nor could the brothers have failed to see the joke. The magnitude of Dylan’s off-screen success magnifies Davis’ humiliation. Dylan is their movie’s structuring absence: That he is a Jew who is not a schlemiel means he can’t be shown at all.
J. Hoberman, the former, longtime Village Voice film critic, is a monthly film columnist for Tablet magazine. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books, including Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds and, with Jeffrey Shandler, Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting.