Above, Paula Patton is offered the world by Djimon Hounsou in the nearly-uniquely-atrocious Baggage Claim, which is the last motion pictured I reviewed for MSN Movies. The penultimate one is Don Jon, written, directed by, and starring Joseph Gordon Levitt, who I suppose now can be declared a "critic's darling" because his movie is getting very positive reviews while being pretty much no damn good. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the performer and his adventurousness, but this particular effort doesn't make it. And so.
Talking, quite a few years ago, about his high regard for horror movies, Martin Scorsese allowed that he "like[d] Mario Bava's films very much: hardly any story, just atmosphere, with all that fog and ladies walking down corridors." Now it would be inaccurate to characterize Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis as having "hardly any story;" in point of fact, it's got story coming and going, and I mean that literally. But the real story is told in implications and inferences; the lead character is mostly seen dealing with the consequences of irresponsible and/or out and out bad behavior (the one instance in which he's depicted acting inexcusable is, while inexcusable, at least understandable, and it doesn't occur until near the movie's end), and what we generally refer to as "plot" doesn't "function" in this movie. A little ironically, given its title, Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie in which atmosphere does almost all of the important work. And that atmosphere is chilly: bare trees, near-empty streets, cloudy breath, gray skies and grayer roadways. Everyone in the movie has a sallow complexion, except for Carey Mulligan's Jean, who's so milkily luminescent that she could in fact be a ghost.
The Coen's vision of the burgeoning folk scene in Manhattan of 1961 hasn't got a single hint of A Mighty Wind and not all that much of the redolence of the Coen's own O Brother Where Art Thou. Even when the title protagonist is depicted being roped into joining a trio cutting a folk-novelty stinker under the aegis of a Columbia record exec (Ian Jarvis) who's pretty plainly styled after John Hammond, the movie studiously avoids pastiche. The authenticity-in-art bugaboo was particularly pronounced, of course, during the real period depicted here, but the Coens never address it head on, and it's to the movie's credit that it contains no heated debates about "real" folk music. Instead, it depicts Llewyn, still too young to have earned the "journeyman" tag, scrupulously if not stubbornly hoeing his own roe row, which happens to be an old-school one, and learning in increments that he's never going to get anywhere by doing so.
At the press conference after the New York Film Festival screening, the directors were asked, not for the first time, why they make movies about "failures," and Joel Coen replied, not in a particularly sarcastic way, that "all the movies about successes have been done." The thing about Llewyn, who's played with spectacular understatement with Oscar Isaac, is that he's not depicted as particularly having it coming. He is hardly untalented. And he's not a pompous blowhard like the Coen's Barton Fink; when he makes a slight balk at the aforementioned novelty song (an anti-space-travel ditty called "Please Please Mr. Kennedy" that's all the more, um, humorous for protesting against rockets while Vietnam is just around the corner), he's not strictly wrong, and he does back off when he realizes that he's insulted the actual author of the tune. And, yes, he does get the wife of a friend pregnant, and yes, he's screwed up that way before. He's irresponsible, but not glibly so, and his adventures with a friend's cat that he feels obligated to look after because it slips out of a door he's held open provide a parable that's a terribly sad reflection of not just the character but of his circumstances.
This is a genuinely glum movie, for as many comic scenes as it contains (although when you get right down to it, it does not contain a huge number of them; most of the characters maintain an undertow of sardonicism via dialogue however). "As one day fades into another/as the past gets filled up with failure," goes a lyric by David Thomas' Pere Ubu; Llewyn's past is filled not just with failure but with genuine tragedy. He's grieving, and not just for his non-thriving career. And with every step he takes, he fails again. During a disastrous road trip to Chicago, he's bedeviled by a malevolent jazzbo (John Goodman) who threatens him with voodoo he learned from Chano Pozo (nice reference) after Llewyn has the temerity to bite back at the man mountain's litany of insults. Goodman's character is grotesquely revealed to have feet of clay, but this provides Llewyn with little satisfaction; and after he separates himself from the man, and his Beat-Generation-boy-toy "valet" (Garrett Hedlund), he promptly soaks his left foot in a snowy puddle. Sipping coffee at a diner counter, he keeps taking his foot out of his soaked shoe and pressing it against the footrest, trying to squeeze some of the cold cold water out of it. This shot struck me as a central image, a numinous one even, central to the movie's wintry poetry. Granted, given recent events in my own life, it's entirely possible that I'm unusually receptive to a movie in which the central character sits in a public toilet stall and is a little unpleasantly stunned to see this graffiti text carved into the paint on the wall that holds the toilet paper: "What Are You Doing."
And for all that, and despite the ever-so-slightly on-the-nose evocation of a world historical cultural phenomenon at the movie's end, Inside Llewyn Davis is an entirely exhilarating experience. I'm quite eager to see it again.
Lindsay Cooper with Henry Cow in the '70s. From the foreground, clockwise: John Greaves, Cooper, Tim Hodgkinson, Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, roadie/sound engineer Maggie Thomas
Last night, after taking the stage with a large band at Brooklyn's Roulette, Fred Frith, about to play the entirety of his wonderful 1980 album Gravity, told the audience, "I know some of you have already heard that my dear friend and colleague Lindsay Cooper passed away yeaterday. This is for her." Frith's voice cracked as he made the announcement and it was clear his hear was broken. Mine broke a little bit too. The opening band last night was a horns-and-reeds-led combo led by Aaron Novik, who was also in Frith's band. They were pretty wonderful, but I also thought as I listened that they did their thing very well, and their thing was one of about ten things that Henry Cow did amazingly well. Which led me to think of Lindsay Cooper, the multi-instrumentalist (although she was most proficient on bassoon and oboe) and composer whose work I first heard in the context of that great British progressive (in every sense of the word) band. Cooper, I knew, had been ill with multiple sclerosis for several years, and was in an ever-increasingly debilitated state. She was being looked after by several friends, including the director Sally Potter, to whom I inquired about Cooper's condition when Potter visited the New York Film Festival last year. I sensed it was a painful conversation for Potter to have, but she also seemed glad someone asked after Cooper. When Novik's group was playing, I wondered how she was doing. Frith, sadly, answered my question. Here's a short news item from a music website.
I'd like to be able to put on my critic's hat and discuss how she redefined the place of the oboe in rock music (ar ar ar), or her significance as a feminist in the avant-garde (an area in which much of what's termed feminist criticism is loath to tread for reasons that continuously elude me) but... It's odd to live in a culture where the conditions are such that you kind of have to pre-explain why an artist who worked in the kind of relative obscurity in which Cooper did is/was great. If I feel a personal sense of loss at the passing of someone I only ever met once, and briefly (I believe it was at a show at Maxwell's where she performed with drummer Chris Cutler, backing David Thomas), it's because the music she made was/is such a strong part of my life and my sensibility.
Cooper's connection with Potter, incidentally, was very strong. Potter wrote lyrics and librettos for Cooper, and was a founding member with Cooper of the collective Feminist Improvising Group. Cooper in fact co-wrote the screenplay for Potter's still-provocative 1983 film The Gold Diggers, starring Julie Christie, who also co-produced. I wrote about that film here.
UPDATE: Sarah Maude, who helped administrate Lindsay Cooper's care during her illness, e-mailed the musician's fans and friends this morning, September 23. Here is the text of the note:
Dear wonderful friends, admirers and fans of Lindsay,
I am sorry to have to let you know that Lindsay died on 18th September – it was as she wished, peacefully at home, surrounded by her special friends – her courageous battle against MS was helped by the wonderful support she was given by her care workers, medical professionals and her loving group of friends
Although many of you are not in the UK, we would like you to know that her funeral will be held in the West Chapel of Golders Green Crematorium at 5.00pm on Wednesday 25th September, so that you can offer up prayers, think loving thoughts, chant, hold her in the light or do whatever you would like to do in memory of her – Lindsay was a wonderfully talented person who will be remembered with affection and admiration – a Memorial Service is planned at some stage in the future: if you would like to be kept up to date on those plans, please go to email@example.com
I want to send a special thank you to you all, for your support of Lindsay over the years, your emails, your gifts, your thoughts – it was an enormous comfort to her to know that there were people in so many countries who admired her talent and appreciated her music – please know that you were an important part of her life.
With best wishes,
Here are some examples of Cooper's work, which deserve to be heard in better formats than YouTube. I encourage you to seek them out.
From the final Henry Cow recording, a section of a suite composed by Cooper. With Frith, Cutler, Tim Hodgkinson on alto sax/clarinet/organ, Anne-Marie Roelofs on violin/trombone, and Irene Schweizer on piano.
While the band Art Bears (the word "bears" in its name is a verb, apparently, which I admit I was rather disappointed to learn) was formed after a disagreement within Henry Cow as to whether it was meant to be a song-based band, the personnel on its amazing debut album Hopes and Fears is that of Cow minus John Greaves, who had decamped to National Health. This tune, which Frith played as part of his encore last night, doesn't feature Cooper and Hodgkinson until a couple of minutes in, but is a wonderfully characteristic one.
News From Babel was a group for which Cooper composed the music; Cutler wrote texts and drummed; Zeena Parkins played harp and accordian, and the great Dagmar Krause sang. The closing words to this song are: "I rage/I feel my love/Trapped/In a world/Of stillness/Like a wasting illness."
R: Legs, listen to me, he said that anything that makes you laugh, anything that's funny, indicates an emotion that's died. Every time you laugh that's a serious emotion that doesn't exist with you anymore...and that's why I think you and everything else is so funny.
L: Yeah, I do too, but that's not funny.
R: That's 'cause you don't have any emotions. (Hysterical laughter)
—Richard Hell interviewed by Leg McNeil, Punk, Issue #3, March 1976, reprinted in Punk: The Best Of Punk Magazine, !T/Harper Collins, 2012
[...] I had become a manic-depressive. I was hopeless. I could only laugh at someone else's expense and I thrived on negativity. I can see now how it was only natural that I would gravitate towards Tommy, Joey, and Johnny Ramone. They were the obvious creeps of the neighborhood. All their friends had to be creeps. No one would have ever pegged any of us for any kind of success in life. But that's how it goes.
—Dee Dee Ramone, Lobotomy: Surviving The Ramones, Thunder's Mouth Press, 2000
I always liked seeing Dee Dee, and to my mind he was the best example of a certain rock and roll essence that punk sought to embody. He was a street kid who was purely talented—he wrote most of the great Ramones songs—and who radiated lovable innocence, even though he'd worked, for lack of a better way to earn a living, as a gay hustler on the street. Or maybe that's where he'd learned the innocence. Like Jerry Nolan, he'd been a hairdresser for a while, too. He had a strongly defined personality—that funny dizzy dumb style—that he had to have developed as a defense. He was like a toddler, stumbling and misunderstanding what just happened, but who recovers instantly to plow ahead grinning proudly, endearingly, hilariously. With him the comedy was deliberate, if so deeply habitual that it became who he was. The other side of his childlike goofiness was his tantrums. But he was so funny, usually about himself. My favorite example is something he said for a piece I did about the Ramones for Hit Parader in 1976. (It was the first time I'd done any journalism and the first article about the Ramones in a national publication.)
The band had gathered at Arturo Vega's loft for the interview. Arturo was the Ramones' art director and best friend and main booster. I turned on the tape recorder and started asking questions. In a minute Dee Dee was explaining the group's songs and he said the first one they'd written was "I Don't Wanna Walk Around With You," and the next one was "I Don't Wanna Get Involved With You," and then "I Don't Wanna Go Down to the Basement." I don't wanna this and I don't wanna that. Finally he offered, "We didn't write a positive song until 'Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue.'" Someone who was actually dumb would never be able to think of that, which of course makes it even funnier.
—Richard Hell, I Dreamed I Was A Very Clean Tramp, Ecco/Harper Collins, 2013
I bring all this up because it's kind of staggering the way, to judge by the trailer, the upcoming CBGB movie bollixes the droll anecdote Mr. Hell relates.
I am proud that a woman and writer as great as Farran Smith Nehme, the Self-Styled Siren, is a friend. At her blog she just posted a brilliant rebuttal to the new and it would appear highly dubious book The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact With Hitler. My friend Tom Carson, also a great writer and a great man, says it's "the best piece of criticism in any genre I've read all year." Yes. As to why her piece isn't in The New Republic, and some dumb wannabe "takedown" of Jonathan Franzen IS, well, that's a big part of The Problem in a nutshell. Anyway, the pleasure of Farran's reasoning, the beauty of her prose, the acuity of her insight: pure pleasure, especially in view of the values they're all standing for in the piece. Please do read it here.
As you might know if you follow me on Twitter, or follow other film writers on Twitter, myself and a whole bunch of other freelance writers for the MSN website were informed today that soon there was no longer going to be any work for us at the site. (Here is an odd news item concerning something like this thing.) I send condolences to colleagues Kim Morgan, James Rocchi, Kate Erbland, Don Kaye...and there are others I'm not sure I can mention. I thank all the people who've been kind on Twitter and via e-mail and in comments on this blog. I am, as they say, "confident" that I will "land on my feet" and all that, but the immediate experience of this condition, unfortunately, feels rather akin to having received a sharp kick in the middle of the forehead. And I had wanted to get so much more work done on my second novel this evening. Have I mentioned that I'm trying to be a novelist now? I'll keep you posted, promise. In the meantime enjoy this mordant bit of musical entertainment from a fellow whose current state reminds us all that, yes, it could be worse. And incidentally, I SHALL be contributing reviews (and even a listicle thingie) to MSN through the end of September. Thanks and stay tuned.
There are some out there who will tell you that Riddick is good. Like the man said, I dare you to pay money to find out which of us is right. Also bad: Salinger.
I wrote up Brian De Palma's Passion when I first saw it at the New York Film Festival in 2012, and again to commemorate its wider release for MSN Movies. I link to both notices to demonstrate my eccentric commitment to avoid self-plagiarism.