“At times I’m an artist, at most other times, I’m nothing – Charles Bukowski
“You don’t necessarily have to write to be a poet. Some people work in gas stations and they’re poets.” – Bob Dylan
Two of my favourite modern films both deal with a week in the life of a creative person who is not shown to be a success in terms of acclaim or financial success but who are nonetheless living the life of an artist. Both films show this life in an unusual way, most often a film about an artist or creative person is biopic of a famous person or a fictional version thereof. This means films about artists see them striving for recognition and monetary gain more often than not. In Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson we have someone content with their ‘ordinary’ life and whose art is shown as a very important part of that life but not some all consuming obsession and in the Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis we have a character on the cusp of success who unlike Paterson is trying to make his living with his art and for various reasons to be discussed cannot attain it.
There is often a lacking in cinematic distinction in portraying the act of creativity – the end product is what is exciting not watching someone write or paint at a desk. It was easier for the Coen’s to present the creativity of Llewyn since his art was performance based, faced with a harder challenge Jarmusch presents in Paterson the best depiction of the creative process of writing that I have seen on film.
The film shows that for Paterson when it comes to writing his poems it is not the few minutes it takes – the actual action of writing (which is what most films try to dramatise) but the preoccupation that led to the writing, the hours, days, weeks spent thinking about it or feeling a certain way before the writing has started and then continuing the thought process once you have started the poem/song/whatever until when it comes to sitting down to writing the words can’t help but pour out of you in a way that seems magical but is more likely the invisible whirring of the subconscious.
I found Paterson incredibly moving because I recognised the characters relationship with his own creativity to be similar to my own. He gains such a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment from the process of writing that the end product – while not irrelevant is certainly not as important as the journey of creative action that takes place internally. Perhaps for an outsider the end product is the most important thing, that recognition or a personal standard of quality is necessary for the act to be worth the time and effort. For Paterson and I though, we are happy to take part in creative endeavours and build a simple and pleasant life around it rather than trying to be completely defined by it or driven by some kind of end goal when the act in of itself is already its own reward.
Creativity is inherently seen as a grandiose act and describing yourself as a Poet or writer or musician a bold statement that can be taken as a signifier or pretentiousness, ego, delusion or vanity but it needn’t be. Perhaps Paterson is reluctant to call himself a poet because of these potential negative connotations, I think the film also makes clear that being a bus driver and a poet are not mutually exclusive concepts and that no-one is completely defined by one thing they do. With the famous artists we admire it is natural we only think of them as artists since we do not know them personally, because of this we have come to think of the creative process as an absolute and that little else matters to the artist – Paterson with its focus on the routine of the character’s daily routine shows that regular life is just as important and beautiful.
Paterson’s girlfriend is eager for him to attempt to get his work published but his reluctance to even make copies of his hand written poems to me backs up what I have suggested. Being unable to monetize or to share his work could easily be seen as failure or as a sign of wasted potential but to the creative person, the work and process is exempt from these kind of judgements. This is not the case with Inside Llewyn Davis as the character clearly announces himself as a professional artist and his lack of commercial success and recognition leads him to hate what he does.
Inside Llewyn Davis is very unusual in that it is not about someone who is considered remarkable, most films about musicians present talent as an ethereal and God given and therefore the rise to fame is presented as destiny written in the stars. Davis is ostensibly a failure and at times not even a likeable one, this led many to be turned off by the film – by the coldness of this, but Llewyn Davis is a far more interesting character for not achieving success and in fact his inability to do so is fundamentally in character.
The Coen’s had trouble casting the part of Llewyn. They needed a great actor and an equally great musician to convincingly play the part. The actors they tried did not have the musical capability (listen to Casey Affleck’s hilarious story of trying to bluff his way to the part) https://youtu.be/ZGzTSnlVI68?t=1468) so they tried musicians but Conor Oberst, Jack White, Scott Avett all failed to impress with their acting. They finally found the remarkably talented Oscar Isaac, now Llewyn was handsome and had a lovely singing voice but he is not destined for fame and fortune. The casting problems show to me that the Coen’s intended it to be clear that it was not his talent that holds Llewyn back and if my top played tracks from last year are anything to go by it is very pleasing to hear Llewyn’s music.
The film was partially inspired by the life of Dave Van Ronk who was widely respected in the cafes and clubs of Greenwich village and in fact considered to be among the best if not the best guitar players, performers and arrangers, but despite this he never achieved crossover success and it was Bob Dylan who emerged from this scene to international fame and glory although if you had listened to Dylan and Van Ronk on the same night in the winter of 1961 you may have been baffled that the assured, seasoned and boomingly powerful voice and guitar of Van Ronk would be usurped by the green Robert Zimmerman.
The Coen’s find reasons for that failure through the fictional Llewyn. Other than his often abrasive attitude, I find there are two main reasons for his lack of success – his inability to make his art/performance truly personal and the strive for authenticity within the realm of folk music. What set the young Bob Dylan apart (whose silhouette at the end of the film is loaded with significance) was writing his own songs – this was not necessarily welcomed by the serious folk musician, changing a line or adding a verse was ok but to abandon the cause of preserving the tradition of this ‘passed down’ and sacred music was unacceptable. Folk musicians at the time could certainly be accused of taking themselves very seriously, as we see with nearly all musical genres they had a preoccupation with defining what was real folk music and what wasn’t – how adding extra instruments to this song or singing that song that way either was or wasn’t ‘real folk music.’
The fact was thought that most of these musicians were middle class and white and they had not learned the songs in the way songs had been learned decades before passed down the generations through osmosis and tradition but in books and on records – both means of recording meaning they would live forever so to speak whereas before they only existed if they were performed. Their playing and singing of this music was not simply entertainment – they were guards of cultural heritage doing important work. Of course most people want entertainment, this is why when Llewyn plays for manager Bud Grossman he chooses an earnest English ballad – The Death Of Queen Jane and while he plays it beautifully as Grossman says “I don’t see any money here.” We also saw him mock the song he plays guitar on ‘Please, Mr Kennedy” and give up what would become vast royalties for a paltry sum no doubt due to his lack of respect for this original composition.
Grossman then offers Llewyn a spot in what would become Peter, Paul & Mary a manufactured group that would turn folk music into pop hits and would launch Bob Dylan when they covered his ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’ (this is taken from the life of Van Ronk) but Llewyn does not consider this to be authentic and does not accept (he has earlier chastised Carey Mulligan’s character for being careerist despite clearly wanting success.)
This scene is also key for me in that he chooses a song that does not have personal relevance to him. Despite the title and despite Grossman’s request for him to play something from “Inside Llewyn Davis” we really do not get to see inside, his performances are polished and practiced but they do not reveal vulnerability or his internal life. We get close to this when at the end he once again sings ‘Dink’s Song’ but without his dead partner, but perhaps Llewyn would need to write his own songs as Bob Dylan did – instead he is stuck in purgatory which the time bending cyclical narrative seems to suggest. In contrast Paterson’s week is a mini-utopia, Davis does not gain the satisfaction from his creativity that Paterson does, in the two films we see a beautiful depiction of art for art’s sake and the happiness and contentment this can bring and we see the potential hollowness in trying to monetize one’s art and the existential despair this brings.