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If you can avoid the forces of NYU students as they walk too slow or too loud or just plain too commonly down the streets of Greenwich Village, you might catch a glimpse of the ghost of Llewyn Davis. Hard, I know, but try.
Davis — the titular character of Inside Llewyn Davis, the most depressing Coen brothers movie ever and also one of their best — is a never-was folk singer who scuffed the wooden stages of Greenwich Village coffeehouses like The Gaslight Cafe, Gerde's Folk City, Cafe Wha? and Cafe Reggio in the 1960's. He was a dime-a-dozen man, who may have had an album or two if he was lucky then soured into oblivion as they times they a-changed. Along with him went the coffeehouses of New York City.
Smoke-filled sanctuaries of Beats and bent souls, with their songs scuzzed up from the Delta by John and his boy Alan Lomax, their semi-fictive backstories, Huck Finn caps, vindictive backbiting and old Child ballads, these places simply don't exist anymore. Inside Llewyn Davis is the closest thing you'll ever get. If only for that reason, it's worth watching.
The movie begins and ends on the stage of the Gaslight Cafe, famous, of course, to anyone with a passing interest in Bob Dylan. [It's one of the venues where the young Dylan got his start back in '61.] In the film, Davis (played very Dave Von Ronk-like by Oscar Isaac who, holy shit, was King John in 2010's Robin Hood) plays to a rapt audience. They sit quietly, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, of both tobacco and grass.
What a far out scene, for they are not eating food nor are they drinking alcohol. It's hard to figure out how these places made their money. [That they're all gone suggests to me they didn't make much.] One theory — told from a man with enough life experience to perhaps know it first-hand — is that these places were taking a cut of the grass being sold. Another theory is that they were some of the only places in the 60's serving real espresso. But, besides Caffe Reggio, "home of the Original Cappuccino," it's hard to credence the management at these places gave two hoots about coffee.
But that was where life was lived, and the movie captures the life of this Bohemia tidily. They weren't foodies, and would no doubt look upon the current restaurant goo-goo-gahing as bourgeois indulgence. Alcohol, which had fueled the village ferment of the 1950's — for a great read on that, check out John Gruen's The Party's Over Now: Reminisces from the Fifties — had been replaced by grass. So bars weren't where it was at.
Careers were made or not made, flirtations were exchanged in the smoke-fog of dingy coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, over a bitter black brew. It was either that or the classic pre-war six dinner parties of Upper West Side intellectuals, which the movie also captures. It was all moussaka and other "ethnic dishes" served to square Columbia professors with their subscriptions to The Jewish Daily Forward and framed posters of Chagall. For the coffeehouse set, this was a fate worse than death and that Davis submits himself to the patronizing I CAN HAS FOLK MUZIKS petting of this set is one of the saddest parts of the movie.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a total bummer for a couple of reasons, both on the meta and street-levels. It is at its heart the story of a guy who is very talented but in whom myriad small flaws knit into a syndrome of failure. It's a bummer because it's not really dramatic at all. It's just kinda what life is like. Sometimes, you are good, great even, but for whatever reason — failure to compromise, eagerness to compromise, bad luck, bad posture, bad teeth, accidents of birth, inability to organize, failure to invoice — you just don't really make it. It's a story but a common one. New York City, they say in that old Jules Dassin flick, is a city of eight million stories. Not really making it is at least 7.5 million of them.
But it's a real bummer because, metonymically, Greenwich Village is Llewyn Davis. It was once a neighborhood with great potential and one with great vibrancy. It wasn't a group of buildings with people in them. It was a community.
But under the hugging come-ons of NYU President John Sexton, and the infuriatingly twinned rising tides of economic stratification and political apathy, the Village has been worn down, beat up and exhausted. Like Davis, it didn't make it. Now, where the Gaslight once was, there is a vacant property between a body piercing shop and a hookah bar. Cafe Wha? is still open, but a joke. Caffe Reggio, happily, is still serving coffee but in an age of self-important baristas and their no-bottom portafilters, it's only a matter of time before that too gives out like a weak heart in a rotten body.
The Village these days isn't even Potemkin. It's just disparate, airless, trash. As for what it was, that, like Davis, exists only in our imagination. As he sings from the stage of the Gaslight, through time and beyond whatever meager success might await him, "Fare thee well, my honey, fare thee well."
Rating: Five out of five heartbreaking stars