I wanted to cry when I watched this film. About a folk singer. A man whose career is going nowhere. A singer who was one half of a musical duo. Until the other half threw himself off the George Washington Bridge. Now he’s all alone in Greenwich Village in 1961. He sleeps on a different couch every night. He never has any money. He seems to play in only one place. Called the Gaslight Cafe. He is paid only what is placed in the hat every during every performance.
This film spoke to me more deeply than any other film ever has. That’s a superlative statement. But it’s true. There are so many scenes in this film that resonated. It amazes me that so many reviewers missed them. But then perhaps that was because they never felt a deep yearning somewhere in the depths of their soul. A yearning that simultaneously told them that they had to chase their dream with every fiber of their being and prevented them from catching it. A burning in the dark depths of their soul. A burning that didn’t count for talent but simply prevented them from doing anything else. Apart from chasing their dream.
I left my job to sit down and finish my book. A book I have now been writing (or not writing) for a third of my life. But I can’t kid myself. I wasn’t doing anything in that job. In the film there’s a scene where Llewyn’s sister encourages him to quit singing and return to the Merchant Navy. He replies, what just “exist”?
It’s this feeling of frustration that arrests me in my life. The feeling of merely existing. It’s both the reason I was paralyzed in the office and the reason I am paralyzed outside of it. I couldn’t get past the feeling that I was merely existing in order to pay money towards my future self. When my current self was doing nothing to create the future self that I am dying to be. If a machine is capable only of maintaining itself but of nothing else. Does that machine have any value?
But this film is also about a man so wrapped up in his own need to “make it” that he can’t see the opportunities around him. A woman who loves him. A song he records that could make him rich from royalties that he gives up for an instant payment. An offer to be a member of a trio by a powerful man in the music business. Llewyn is so set on making it that he isn’t making it. In another film he might have been rewarded for his obstinacy. But not in this one.
I was speaking to a friend who found this film boring. “There’s no arc to the character” he decried. And he’s right. This isn’t the story of one man’s journey from one place to another. It’s far more ballsy than that. This is a story of real life. Where wanting something with a passion isn’t enough. Where naked talent doesn’t mean anything. There’s a scene in the film where Llewyn actually goes and pays his dues. He has decided to give up on music and go back to sea. He literally pays his dues to the union so he can go back to sea. Then they ask him for more money. He doesn’t have any more. Since he isn’t going to sea anymore he asks for his dues back. The man laughs at him.
“You don’t get your dues back” he says.
In one of the final scenes of the film Davis walks out of the Gaslight cafe as Bob Dylan starts to sing. It made me think that all those successful people really never knew what it was to pay their dues. Only to have to ask for them back.
Watching this film reminded me of all the shitty editors out there. The ones who never bothered to reply to my emails or calls. The ones who published my stuff without even telling me. The ones who told me that my writing was awful and I should stop. The ones who spoke to me as if publishing words I wrote, for free, was something I should be eternally grateful for. It reminded me of wandering around Tel Aviv with a suitcase, nowhere to go and a fever. Reminds me of sitting in an office wondering why I’m alive. Reminds me of a half written book that I can’t find the strength to finish. Of a life I dream of but can’t find the energy to seize.