WARNING: The below divulges substantial plot components of both Joel and Ethan Coen's Inside Llewyn Davis and Ernest Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." You will like me better, and have a better life experience overall, if you refrain from reading this post before familiarizing yourself with these works. Thanks.
When I was in college I spent a couple of sessions of an American Short Story course going over Hemingway's "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber." I haven't read much Hemingway criticism so I can't say for sure whether the professor was on the level or just baiting the students, but he informed us that there was or had been a good deal of controversy as to whether Francis Macomber was deliberately killed by his unhappy wife, or whether his death by gunfire at her hands, while the man was being charged by a buffalo, was accidental. The professor let us kick this around for a while, and then one particularly sharp student proclaimed, "It was an accident," and pointed to the precise sentence which proved this: "Macomber had stood solid and shot for the nose, shooting a touch high each time and hitting the heavy horns, splintering and chipping them like hitting a slate roof, and Mrs. Macomber, in the car, had shot at the buffalo with the 6.5 Mannlicher as it seemed about to gore Macomber and had hit her husband about two inches up and a little to one side of the base of his skull."
She "had shot at the buffalo." That was it. She did not believe that she had shot at the buffalo, she didn't tell herself she was shooting at the buffalo while actually aiming the gun at her husband; she shot at the buffalo, missed, and hit her husband. What this all meant was still up for grabs, but as one pieced together what it all meant, one would be prohibited from asserting that Mrs. Macomber had performed Action Y when the story precisely states that she performed Action X.
So. Last week a friend and I were talking about Inside Llewyn Davis, and he mentioned that another friend had read something in an early review: that Mitch and Lillian Gorfein, the Upper West Side academics who sometimes provide a couch for the freewheeling folkie Llewyn to crash on, were the parents of Mike or "Mikey," Llewyn's former singing partner who, the viewer learns over the course of the film, had taken his own life some time before the movie's action begins. Enough time for Llewyn to have recorded a solo LP, and it's worth remembering that back in the early '60s it was just as likely for artists to issue records every six months as every year or two years. In fact, shorter was the norm.
For our friend, the idea that the Gorfeins were Mike Timlin's parents was bolstered by a line of dialogue said by an upset Lillian Gorfein after she's excoriated by Llewyn for singing "Mikey's part" of a song that Llewyn is very reluctantly (or maybe not) performing for the Gorfeins and some of their dinner guests. Our friend heard Lillian say, "We let you sleep in his room." I've seen the movie three times and I never heard the line that way; I always heard it as "I don't want to be in this room." I don't usually consult scripts in matters such as these, but in this case I made an exception because I was gifted with the paperback book edition of the script. And the line as written is, yes, "I don't want to be in this room." Which Lillian then leaves, after which she makes a trauma-increasing discovery concerning the cat that Llewyn has brought to their apartment.
So there's that line. There's also the fact that the Gorfein's don't "let" Llewyn sleep in anyone's room, or anyone's bedroom, at least. As at Jim and Jean Berkey's place, when Llewyn sleeps at the Gorfeins, he sleeps on a couch, and the couch is in a den or a study of some sort. Again, from the screenplay: "The walls in this den are decorated with masks and totems and other naive early-civilization art." In the hallway, the living room, the foyer, there are framed photos of musicians and art exhibition posters, one original piece of proto-Op-Art. The Gorfeins' milieu, and the way the couple relate to each other, strongly denote something very specific: a childless, perhaps now even sexless, married couple that enjoys the company of other academics, artists, and aesthetes. Llewyn, and Mike or "Mikey" before the movie's now, fit comfortably in their "lifestyle" as, in Mitch's words, "folk singer friends."
And yet. Yesterday on Twitter, a critic proclaimed: "Mike was a Gorfein. That's not opinion. That's plot," and later added, "Bench scene with Carey. Train platform phone call. Disruptive dinner. It's text." "It's text," what a charmingly grad-student thing to say. Except "it's" not "text." There is precisely nothing in the scenes cited that give any indication that Mike Timlin of Timlin and Davis (and for all we know, Mike Timlin could actually be his real name, just as Llewyn Davis is the real name of the character for whom the movie is titled) is the Gorfein's son. Carey Mulligan's Jean character sadly blurts "I miss Mike" during a fraught conversation with Llewyn. She does not say "How are the Gorfein's coping with his loss?" when their name comes up, or express any kind of concern for them whatsoever. In the train platform phone call—well, there are actually two, concerning the Gorfeins and the cat situation, but anyway—there's one call in which the dialogue shows that the Gorfeins took a call from Jim for Llewyn at their place. Proving nothing except that Jim knows that the Gorfeins' place is one which will take messages for them. And the disruptive dinner is what it is.
Why does this matter? Because if Mike or "Mikey" WAS the Gorfein's kid, then Llewyn's behavior toward the Gorfeins pushes his character from "wounded and prickly" to "unforgivable asshole." Well, maybe he is an unforgivable asshole, some might counter. This is, after all, a Coen brothers movie, and those Coens, hoo boy, they sure are mean, etc., etc. Granted. (I bet they're really sorry they put that ambiguous ending in No Country For Old Men now.)
Only wait: there's more! If "Mikey" was the Gorfein's kid, then the Gorfeins themselves are horrible monsters for goading Llewyn into performing for their dinner guests. If they know Llewyn at all, if they knew Mikey at all, if they were in fact grieving parents, the request would be an almost ghoulishly insensitive one. I don't believe that this emotional temperature is what the movie is going after.
But in any event, that's not the case, because, and I don't know if I can put this more strongly, THE GORFEINS ARE NOT MIKE'S PARENTS. Most of us are old enough now to know some real-life parents who have lost their children when their children were adults; some of us know parents who have lost children who have taken their own lives. These parents usually will have pictures of that child prominently available in their living spaces. It's normal. Again: the only token of Mike Timlin in the Gorfein's apartment is the Timlin and Davis album If We Had Wings.
I'll write about the meaning of "Dink's Song" in the context of Llewyn Davis' narrative when I've calmed down a bit.