Thursday, March 6, 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis: The Next Great NYC Movie

Setting a movie in NYC has become so common that it's almost boring. Not that NYC is boring but, as a cinematic milieu, it has become so cliche that I roll my eyes whenever I see another movie set here. Even Woody Allen, the quintessential New York filmmaker, has started making his movies in other places, and it seems to have made his movies better. If you're gonna make a movie set in NYC these days, there needs to be a damn good reason.

Well, leave it to the Coen Brothers to find one.

Although based in NYC, these great filmmakers are originally from Minnesota, and they set their movies in a variety of locales (like Raising ArizonaFargo, the noiry Los Angeles of The Big Lebowski, just to name a very few). But their most recent film -- Inside Llewyn Davis, criminally overlooked at the recent Academy Awards -- is a total New York movie, and a great one at that. Here's what it takes to make a great NYC these days (according to the high rigorous standards of Mr NYC):

1. Time and Place. Inside Llewyn Davis takes place during the winter of 1961, mostly in Greenwich Village, the Upper West Side, and a little bit in Queens (there's also a subplot with a road trip to Chicago but that's almost a different movie). The Coens do an amazing job of showing how the streets, buildings, and storefronts of these neighborhoods, and, best of all, the subway in really looked in 1961. Back then, these neighborhoods were working class, bordering on poor, and were drab and run-down. The subway was even dirtier than it is now. You see the seeds of the decay that would later be exacerbated by the 1970s financial crises, before the city was "reborn" in the 1990s. This is not a nostalgic, romantic, paper-dollish look at working class NYC in 1961. Watching this movie, you feel like you've been transported back to a specific time and place in NYC, and it makes you see the city again for the first time.

2. Community: Inside Llewyn Davis is set in the folk music scene that sprouted in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s, then culminated in the 1960s with the explosion of Bob Dylan (this film is set roughly a week before Dylan first performed at the Greenwich Village club the Gaslight). Like the 1920s American ex-patriot writers in Paris, or Andy Warhol's Factory later in the 1960s, the downtown folk music scene of the late '50s, early '60s has now become legendary, almost mythical, with singer-songwriters like Dylan, Joni Mitchell, John Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary all getting their starts there. This film shows how hard making a career in folk music was and how, for many, fame and fortune eluded them. This film not only takes you back to NYC at a special time and place but also into a world who legacy continues to this day.

3. Characters: Llewyn Davis is based on the life of Dave Van Ronk, who was a popular Greenwich Village folk singer during this time. Van Ronk was an early influence and friend to Bob Dylan and, although he never achieved that level of fame, he left an amazing legacy and created some great music that is played throughout the movie (including the song "Hang me oh hang me" posted below). Van Ronk's real life was a little different from Llewyn Davis (he wasn't a couch surfer, he was married, and he didn't knock up his friends' wives, for example) but, when he died in 2002, he seemed fated for obscurity. However, the 2005 book about him, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, and now this film, have given Van Ronk, a great New York character, his due.

4. "No fakery": as I indicated before, Inside Llewyn Davis is not a nostalgic look at 1961 NYC or the folk music scene. It is, like many Coen Brothers flicks, totally unsentimental, almost brutal in its outlook. This is not a film that shouts "It was so much better then!" Instead, it aims to show you what the city and this community were like, warts and all. You get a feeling that you are watching real people living their day-to-day lives, and they are confronting problems that are recognizable to people today. While the movie is set in the past, it's the present for them. Most importantly, even though it's a period piece, there aren't lots of references to the fact that it's 1961 (except for one very funny scene where Llewyn Davis and two other singers croon a pop balled called "Please Mr Kennedy Don't Shoot Me Into Outer Space"). Instead, the film takes for granted that you know what we going on back then -- this a story about people, not a history lesson.

So that's my criteria for making a great NYC movie these day: a story rooted in a specific time,  place, and community in the city without either being self-conscience or displaying any cheap nostalgia. Inside Llewyn Davis does this beautifully, it's a great movie, and deserves to ranked with the great NYC movies of all time.

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