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An Imaginary Conversation with J Hoberman about Inside Lleywn Davis and the universe of the schlemiel

(quotations from Mr Hoberman are from his “Tablet” magazine review of the film).

JH: A scene in which [Lleywn] 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 (_A Serious Man_), Llewyn Davis is a schlemiel.
JG: Llewyn is certainly a schlemiel (but not solely that). He has maybe gotten a colleague at the Gaslight pregnant who, it turns out, really cares for him. But he does not pursue it. He almost drives to Akron to see a girl friend who had his child, instead of using the money he freely gave her to get an abortion. But he doesn’t make it. He insults well-meaning people. He loses his merchant marine papers through thoughtlessness. He loses out on royalties on a gag song he jointly sung (sure fire) , because he gave up any royalties in favor a few hundred bucks he needed (to pay for the folk singer’s abortion).
JH: . 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. A stand-in for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, this imposing figure is singularly unimpressed. “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

JG: “Poor boy,” as the refrain in “Hang Me” does. That song is about an odyssey. The cat Davis let escape from his apartment is named Odysseus. Davis later mistakes the runaway for a look-alike, then has to abandon it. It seems he saw it later, limping. Poor cat. Llewyn is just such a cat. Does he deserve sympathy? He dedicated himself to solo appearances after the suicide of his partner. The suffering he feels may doom him to occasional schlemiel-hood, but it also is a tribute to a beloved friend, and a secret pact he made to himself that he will NOT betray .

JH: The Coens have characterized _Inside Llewyn Davis_ as an exercise in futility, “an odyssey in which the main character doesn’t go anywhere.”

JG:And at the end, he shares not just a mike, but the contribution basket, with Dylan. Dylan, a double and opposite of Llewyn, haunts this film.It’s the night the Times reviewer heard Dylan, praised him, and sent him on his way to fame. Lleywn is sent on his way also, brutally. You see that twice, the first time a moment before the title. The last scene in the film repeats it, but you understand it better. The film circles around like a moth to a flame, sort of like Kafka’s characters, except that its hero is not immolated, he just goes on.

JH: Larry Gopnik (protagonist in _A Serious Man_) could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. _A Serious Man_, outraged Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor: “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.”
JG: This kind of censorious moral indignation could be spit out, by any advocate for “decency” and “respect,” at some of I B Singer’s, Samuel Ornitz’s, Philip Roth’s, and Steve Stern’s stories, and was. Now, these writers have stature (and I doubt they would want it), so they are immune. Taylor’s screed could be aimed at many of the people in Malamud’s _Magic Barrel_, as well. In _A Serious Man_, one character, herself suffering from lameness, tells Larry that what Jews have is their stories.

That refers not only to Yiddish and American narratives, but to the bible itself. It has plenty of deceptive Sauls, fearful Jonahs, terrorist Joshuas, and drunken Noahs, not to mention its greatest king, David, who appropriates Bathsheba and orders her husband’s death. Each of these sinners has a “still small voice” inside, schlemiel or no. And so does Llewyn Davis, who never thinks he cannot go on. He just goes on.

JH: [Davis] doggedly pursues an apparently hopeless career in a dead-end scene, amply stocked with colorful grotesques, not a few of them Jews.
JG: A great critic of Yiddish lit, Dan Miron, wrote of Bashevitz Singer’s stories “chaos reigns everywhere, and is contemplated with terror and curiosity. The conscious man knows he cannot control his lusts and desires.” Miron goes on to say that the man with a mature sense of what he must do is often passive, detached, and unresponsive to others. He or she is also often spiteful, as protagonists in Singer, Lamed Shapiro, Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick often are. That is only human as their stubborn resolve breaks against the hard shell of careless, custom-bound people.
JH: [The Coen’s] malice is [toward their hero] 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 [the Coen's] rooted in a shared boyhood mythology of derision.
JG: Lleywn is still alive, still going to sing his songs, and not going to give up and go back to laboring on a cargo boat, because he lost his papers. Sneer if you want. That is what the grotesques in this film (they remind me of demons in the old folk tales ) do. The Hasidic masters said that a man cannot refuse to begin his odyssey, but God does not require him to finish. There is no sign of God, except that malicious, crazy God that rules until we make the world safe enough for a messiah. [B/c we're the good guys here (as the Enron Bushites pointed out), so we have to control the weapons of mass destruction.]

JH: There’s an art of contempt—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.
JG: You get all the best lines. Maybe the film makers accord the protags of _A Serious Man_ and _Inside Lleywn Davis_ just the kind of soul-testing contempt that Fate doles out to his chosen people (no, not Jews; Davis is Welsh-Italian parentage, and apparently his home was a Catholic one).

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