Monday, July 27, 2015

The George Washington Bridge: "Inside Llewyn Davis," James Baldwin, and Portraits of Grief

I looked forward to watching Inside Llewyn Davis for a long time before it came out. I grew up on folk music and some of these songs will probably be the last thing I remember when I've forgotten my own name. 

I wasn't disappointed, but a lot of people were. Critics and friends alike - and my folk-loving parents - all focused on the how "unlikeable" Davis was - like David Edelstein, they found him/the movie "sour" or "snotty." 

I was intrigued by this reaction. As anyone whose read a single think piece about the "Golden Age of Television" knows, we're living in the age of anti-heroes: the more anti the better. So what had Llewyn done that soured the deal when unrepentant murderers, meth dealers, and racists were compellingly "complex"? 

The brilliant Eileen Jones writes persuasively in her piece at Jacobin that viewer's contempt has to do with the American valorization of success - the film doesn't give its hero a narrative of upward mobility, of movement towards success, and we're not open to stories of failure, so much so that "If Inside Llewyn Davis weren't so funny, none of us could stand it."

I think she's undeniably right about all of that. But after watching the movie again recently, I was struck by the extent to which it is also a movie about grief. It strikes me that Davis' problem isn't that he's not talented or successful enough, it's that his friend and former singing partner died in a terrible way, and he doesn't pretend not to be wrecked by that. 

I think I missed this the first time because Davis doesn't talk a lot about his grief - and that's the point. Like unrequited love, grief in a happiness-obessed and death-denying culture is the love that dare not speak its name. This time, when, midway through the film, we learn through a conversation with John Goodman's unsympathetic jazz musician that his friend jumped off the George Washington Bridge, I thought of another portrait of New York Bohemia from around the same time, James Baldwin's Another Country. Here we have another suicide by another young musician from the same bridge. Unlike in Inside, Baldwin takes us right to the scene: 
Then he stood on the bridge, looking over, looking down. Now the lights of the cars on the highway seemed to be writing an endless message, writing with awful speed in a fine, unreadable script. There were muted lights on the Jersey shore and here and there a neon flame advertising something somebody had for sale. He began to walk slowly to the center of the bridge, observing that, from this height, the city which had been so dark as he walked through it seemed to be on fire. 
This scene comes on page 78 of a 365 page novel. The rest of the book deals with the fallout among his group of bohemian friends. Straight and gay, black and white, talented and otherwise, they are truly marginal in a way recent hipster culture would make us forget. They are wrecked will various kinds of guilt and anger they take out on each other without recognizing it as such. It's an incredibly portrayal of grief and what artistic expression can and can't do with it. 

I played this audio of Baldwin reading from this scene in a fiction class about a year ago. I didn't have a particularly good reason except we were reading a Baldwin story and I'd just come across these and wanted them to hear his voice. There was an awful tension in the room when it was done. Turns out when you play audio of a suicide scene people's first reaction isn't "those sentences!" I had violated some rule by putting something like that out there and just letting it hang. I imagine that's how people in deep grief feel - like they are stinking up the party wherever they go. 

In her piece Jones taIks about  the key scene when Davis has a chance to play for the powerful agent Bud Grossman and he picks the resolutely bleak "The Death of Queen Jane" to which Grossman replies "I don't see a lot of money here." The first time I saw this, what struck me was Davis's acceptance: he doesn't, as the heroes of countless art versus commerce movies might do, tell Grossman where to stick it or that he will rue the day or some such. I wonder if people would have found him more "sympathetic" if he had. 

But what I noticed this time was the other part of the exchange. Grossman, trying to be helpful, doesn't reject Davis out of hand. He tells him he's a musician, not a star. His advice is to get a partner, to which Davis replies, "that's good advice." 

There's something deep going on in this film about music and catharsis as there is in Baldwin's novel. The one Baldwin story that's in all the anthologies, "Sonny's Blues," is also all about this. We need music because it's where we're allowed to be sad, irrational, but we want even the people who make this for us to shut up about it the rest of the time. And so it seems we don't forgive Davis not because he's not successful or because of some of his genuinely dickish moves during the movie but because of his sadness. We forgive so much, but not sadness, and that makes me sad.

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