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.