The Beat(en) Generation: What Inside LIewyn Davis says about how we live now

You don’t have to be doing hard yards in some area of the creative arts to empathise with the lead character in the Coen brothers’ latest offering, Inside LIewyn Davis – but it doesn’t hurt. Like the brilliant 1991 film, Barton Fink, Davis is a Kafkaesque take on the financial, emotional and existential struggle to create, however you want to define it.

It is also the latest in a wave of recent films to showcase the enduring cultural power exercised by the generation of post-Second World War writers who came to prominence in the late fifties, known collectively as the Beats.

That Davis is major homage to the Beats is signposted in the film’s opening scene, with Llewyn doing his solo guitar act at the Gaslight Café, a famous real life coffee house located in Greenwich Village, New York, the epicentre of Beat culture in the late fifties and early sixties. The Gaslight was known as ‘a basket establishment’. Entertainers would pass around a basket at the end of their set hoping to be paid. Performers who appeared there at some stage included what was to be a who-is-who of the American folk scene.

It’s obvious from the look on Llewyn’s face he’s done gigs like this many times. Llewyn (played by Oscar Isaac) is not untalented, just massively uncommercial. As a potential manager tells him after seeing him play, ‘I don’t see a lot of money here.’ The manager advises him he’d be better off in a duo. But Llewyn had previously performed with a partner, whose suicide left him traumatised.

On top of his lack of commercial appeal, Llewyn has no interlocutor between mouth and brain. His acerbic tongue has alienated everyone around him. He has a shyster for an agent, no money, no home and Jean (Carey Mulligan), the girlfriend of one of Llewyn’s few remaining friends, thinks she may be pregnant to him.

Llewyn spends a large part of the film walking around the Village at the onset of a fierce New York winter, trying to drum up interest in his solo album. It’s a typical Coen brothers tale of lost connections, missed opportunities, non-sequiturs and strange characters, interactions that make no sense and lead to a mounting sense of frustration and alienation.

After nineteen films, one is so used to the Coens’ merciless dark humour, it’s hard to be surprised. For example, Llewyn does some session work on a song, written by for Jean’s unsuspecting boyfriend, a harmless ditty that Llewyn hates but does for the money regardless. Instead of royalties he opts for an instant cash payment to fund an abortion for Jean, a decision he’ll later rue because … well, I suspect you can guess why as easily as I could.

The homage to Beat culture is evidenced elsewhere in the film. Jean wears the female Beatnik’s uniform of a roll neck sweater, Capri pants and tennis sneakers. The music is a brilliant evocative folk score by T-Bone Burnett. There’s even a road trip of sorts, when Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with monosyllabic poet Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund, who played the drifter Dean Moriarty in the 2012 version of On the Road) and a sly junkie Roland Turner (John Goodman in what is, their differing physiques aside, an obvious allusion to William S. Burroughs).

In addition to On the Road, Howl (2010) dealt with the life of Allen Ginsberg. Kill Your Darlings (2013), delved into a murder committed by a member of Beat’s inner circle in the late forties. The Beats got an airing in the first series of Mad Men, when Don Draper shacked up with a Beatnik woman in the Village instead of going home to his wife. The books of Burroughs and Kerouac remain popular, with most of the former’s and all the latter’s work’s currently in print.

The fascination with the Beats is strange given the bizarre characters that birthed the so-called ‘Beat Generation’. Burroughs was a career junkie and hustler who thought he had the power of telepathy and shot his wife one night in a drunken game of William Tell. Kerouac was living with his mother when he died early the age of just 47 from internal bleeding due to long-term alcoholic abuse. Ginsberg, the most stable of them, peaked as a poet with the release of Kaddish in 1961, and after that put more effort into playing amateur agent for friends.

There is still fierce debate about whether the Beats were ever a movement. Kerouac reportedly appropriated the word ‘Beat’ from a street hustler called Herbert Huncke who got it from the black American term for ‘tired’ or ‘beaten’. Whatever the case, it has since become attached to a disparate collection of behaviours, drug use, sexual experimentation, and so on, that occurred in particular geographical areas (New York’s Greenwich Village, the Bay area of San Francisco), at a particular point in history.

While in no way romanticising certain aspects of the culture – its male dominance, drug use – I’d argue the continued interest in the Beats is nostalgia for a time when the counterculture was perceived to have real currency and social power, and the creation of literature was less mediated by commercial considerations. Writers didn’t go to classes to learn about every aspect and type of writing, they didn’t Tweet their word count every night or have to do their own publicity (the successful ones, anyway). The idea of a creative community was more attainable in a world where public space was less curtailed by capital, bureaucracy and risk aversion.

The Beats speak to our sense of wonder about the time when adventures, including cultural adventures, were more possible than they are now. This is best summed up by a recent article in Salon, ‘Move over Kerouac! “Grand Theft Auto” is the American Dream narrative now’ that argued that, in a world where real space feels confined, the digital road is limitless, maybe even life changing. When the latest version of Grand Theft Auto was launched last September it made a billion dollars in three days – not just a record for a video game but for all forms of entertainment, period.

We can argue about the world depicted in Inside LIewyn Davis, whether it was good or bad or maybe never even existed, but it is the way the film captures a sense of artistic adventure, warts and all, that makes it such engaging viewing.

Andrew Nette

Andrew Nette is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pulpcurry.

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  1. Thank you for this. It brought back a lot of memories about my attachment to Beat lit. I imagine that like many college students, I had an affection for the Beats–less for their works and more for their lifestyle, which perfectly (perhaps self-consciously by them) fit into the cliche of the tragic poet’s fighting against the armies of the status quo only to meet some lonely doom (Shelley drowning in the Gulf of Spezzia in Italy, Plath in the oven), which in turn appeals to the adolescent’s inner Me against the World struggle. Why so many Beat films are out now could possibly be Hollywood endless copycatting, but certainly it speaks to the life of the artist now–fueled more by a need to be an American Idol or an Amazon 5-starrer than for artistic integrity. So in our banal, meta meta culture, we have washed away the varnish of romance that was caked on the artist, busted the rose-colored sunglasses of illusion, and yet films like Llewyn Davis (written and directed by Baby Boomers) are a romantic longing for, as you suggest, a romance that never existed (but that they want to think did).

  2. Nice read, with some reservations. I don’t know that the film is specifically about the beat generation (for example, the Gaslight was a gay club in beat times when being gay was more than socially problematic), or that it tells us anything about today about the cat (desire – in this case the pursuit of a profitable career in the music industry) always being out of the bag. As Dave van Ronk of Inside Dave van Ronk album (now) fame, a far more generous real life person than his Coen Brothers filmic model, Davis, puts it in Scorcese’s No Direction Home, after Dylan signed with Columbia a lot of other traditional folk interpreters like himself were forced to take a good look at their own repressed commercial desires. The film ends with Dylan singing a reworking of The Leaving of Liverpool, the Beatles explosion about to begin, and before the late Pete Seeger, a communist and traditional folk exponent who became a 99 percenter and ended dangerously close to being a 1 percenter, threatening to pull the plug on Dylan at Newport, and so electrocute the crass dollar seeking sixties generation. The end result? Today we have that billionaire, The Boss, masquerading as working class here too, and being loved for it in most quarters. Contradiction always has abounded, both within and without changing art scenes, throwing up misfits like Davis, who is not all that dissimilar in his alienation to that misfit of a main character in Her (reviewed recently on OL), which likewise tells us squat all that we don’t know or is worth knowing about our times.

  3. Odd to say that Ginsberg “peaked in 1961” given his amazing life-long creative output. His award winning books came out in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, not that the Beats were about awards (though they do boost sales).

    My personal favourite to hear at Ginsberg’s readings was “Jaweh and Allah Battle” from Mind Breaths (1978) which he performed with the fervor of an Old Testament prophet.

    Otherwise, thanks for an excellent, well thought-out piece. The film was beautifully crafted, deeply moving, tragic, and, ultimately, starkly realistic.

  4. The ‘nature’ of the world, and art, is still what you make it. I studied poetics (on his invitation) with (former) Beat poet Gary Snyder in my twenties, and for more than a decade have lived on a happy pittance through years in Europe, India and Asia, writing all the way and regularly published in multiple genres. ‘You do what you do, and you do it well.’ To hell with the assumed world, and its bogus truisms and these foregone conclusions. Real art is real art, however obscure it is. I didn’t see the film, it looks like yet another cosy faux-ironic gloss right from centre-state East USA on ‘the passing of (its own) age of authenticity.’ Who cares? Who needs another assumed projected impotence brought to them on another passive-consumerist platter? Like, open the windows, take a long trip, see the bigness that is out there. Any mainstream artform is already (symbolically or literally) co-opted by the kind of hegemonic politics that does just the same thing. Boycott, Resist, Recreate. Make the world as you see it, make it yours. Neither the Beat Generation, the Coen Brothers, or tired US-centric nostalgist sentiment is required for sanction. What’s really at stake is the full meaning of personal and artistic other integrity, and maybe its no surprise this article doesn’t even consider the word.

    1. “I didn’t see the film”

      Of course you didn’t.
      But aren’t you the cat that just said –

      “To hell with the assumed world, and its bogus truisms and these foregone conclusions”?

      What of your assumed world, with it’s bogus truisms and foregone conclusions about a film you didn’t even see!
      The word wowser leaps to mind.

      “it looks like yet another cosy faux-ironic gloss right from centre-state East USA on ‘the passing of (its own) age of authenticity.’

      “Centre-state East USA” said nobody ever.
      What you are fumbling for, broadly, would be the tri-state area which really means “The City”, radiating
      out some 20 miles in every direction regardless of artificial state boundaries on the ground.
      Today’s Hoboken has more of the traditional music scene than Greenwich Village does but they are both an extension of the other.

      You object to “yet another” take on the Beat/Folk era centered around NYC?
      Where was it supposed to take place, Kings Cross?
      I must have missed that episode of Skippy where Ranger Matt rushes to a Beat joint in the Cross to stop Sonny and Skip from performing one of their protest songs.

  5. Hi Andrew,
    I enjoyed your article. However I take issue with
    “Ginsberg, the most stable of them”.
    Ginsburg was a founding member of NAMBLA and as Hunter
    S. Thompson said,
    “Ginsburg was born wrong and he knew it”.
    Ginsburg wanted the right to come to your home, pick
    up your 5 year old for a date and go off with him.
    I don’t care how great his work is, or the school of
    thought that says
    ‘Ode to a Grecian urn is worth any number of little
    old ladies’,
    he was one sick puppy and is best forgotten.
    Heck, the NJ Hall of Fame refused him entrance though
    he is likely the greatest literary figure from the
    Garden State after Whitman. F him.

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