What Makes It Tick?
Inside Llewyn Davis: The Perfect Aristotelian Structure
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Thursday, March 6th, 2014
When I first saw the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, I came home, went upstairs, threw myself on my bed and wept. It was December 25th and I had a house full of friends who I’d invited to the movies with the promise of a big dinner after. They busied themselves below, putting things in the oven and such, while my partner Ed hovered over me and I cried it all out. It was my perfect Christmas.
Only once in a great while does a film so thoroughly bust open my protective shell and reach down to touch that underlying place of pure human connection. In fact, my entire movie-going life, all those hours enduring the vapidly superficial, the annoyingly self-indulgent, the moderately engaging, and the almost-great, is really just a long, long wish for something transporting to happen. I live for the day when a film overrides all my rational, critical faculties and pulls me apart at the seams against my will.
Maybe this is at the core of my compulsion to analyze filmed stories. I want to uncover the components that have helped create this effect and then instruct others in how they can aspire to do the same. All to serve the cause of nudging artists towards making more penetrating works that can bust us open and pull us apart at the seams. Okay, I realize this may not be what everyone wants. So I’ll rephrase it: All to serve the cause of helping more films get made that reach a deep place of human connection. I do believe that is something everyone wants.
(Note: This essay assumes you’ve seen the film. If you have not yet, do so now.)
One problem with assigning myself the task of articulating why this film made me weep is in the limitation of words. They don’t seem able to capture that deeper reality the way images do. Nonetheless, here’s my attempt: Folksinger Llewyn Davis delivers a thing of beauty when he pours his raw feeling into a song. But the sensitivity and sadness that calls out from his music is lost on the deaf ears of those closest to him. In life he must suffer the same insults as the rest of us, and he is not above committing his own. No matter how masterful his music, he is still an imperfect being. No matter how much solace his music may give others, he cannot escape his own pain. I guess, by being given a look inside him, I was led to feel it with him.
It has occurred to me that maybe my response was something like what Aristotle was getting at 2300 years ago when he, rather matter-of-factly, referred to “catharsis” as the ideal effect of tragedy. Going back to The Poetics,1 I was interested to find references to “tragic pleasure” in Chapters 13 and 14. There was, indeed, an element of pleasure in throwing myself on my bed and letting it rip. When the emotion was spent, dare I say, I felt purged, even cleansed, in keeping with the classic definition.
According to Aristotle, the cleansing pleasure of catharsis is possible when feelings are evoked that are traditionally translated as “pity and fear,” but which I prefer to think of as compassion and dread. Compassion is your feeling of connection to the character. Dread is your fear on that character’s behalf of the terrible things you are watching him undergo. In today’s terms, these are called sympathetic attachment and dramatic tension, both of which are at work in Inside Llewyn Davis.
We become attached to Llewyn in the opening sequence when we hear him perform a mournful song and then see him get beaten up outside the club. But our attachment is generic and therefore superficial. We don’t much like the idea of being beaten up ourselves so our sympathy has more to do with us than with who he is and what his experience has been.
Then we find out he is not getting any money from sales of his latest record and must rely on friends to house him. This builds dramatic tension since it evokes our own fear of being broke and homeless. But, again, it’s a generic fear. We would feel fear on behalf of anyone in this circumstance. By itself, it is not enough to create catharsis in the viewer.
But Aristotle goes on to advise that the character should be neither eminently good nor innately wicked. Rather, they should be one who is somewhere in between but has a fault or commits an error. Indeed, Llewyn is far from noble or heroic. He loses his hosts’ cat and then disrupts their dinner party, he derides his friend’s musical composition who just got him a job, he tries to borrow money for an abortion from the friend whose wife he’s had the affair with and he thinks he is about to be called to the stage to perform when it’s actually the person next to him. However, while not exactly saintly acts, none of these can be counted as wickedness. They are simply human flaws. In an odd paradox, showing these personal vulnerabilities takes us beyond generic sympathy and into a deeper level of identification. As the old saying goes: The more personal a thing is, the more universal it becomes.
Another dictate from the ancient Greek is that to evoke tragic pleasure the conflict should be between characters who are near and dear to each other, rather than those sharing mutual hate or indifference. This is where we experience a deeper level of fear on behalf of the character we have come to sympathize with. It’s one thing to be in conflict with those we don’t like or don’t care about. No love lost, as they say. But the idea of becoming alienated from those we depend on for love, company, comfort and general sustenance . . . this can be terrifying.
Thus, it is not Llewyn’s insolvency and homelessness that brings on the kind of dread that can be cathartic. It is witnessing the everyday tragedies of human disconnection. First, we see Llewyn failing to be of any comfort to Jean in her pregnancy predicament, then dismissing his sister Joy’s thoughtful gesture in saving his childhood effects and then blowing up at Lillian Gorfein for joining his song in the part of his former partner, Mike. Meanwhile, however, we are also gradually realizing that Mike is not just gone from the duo. He is gone altogether. Then we learn that not only has Llewyn gotten a woman pregnant before this, but she had so little trust in him she chose not to involve him as a father to their child. Then, in a stunning revelation, we learn that the way Mike died was by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. These lapses and losses among the near and dear create a level of dramatic tension far more unsettling then that which can be achieved by generic circumstance or conflict among strangers. While its possible to evoke fear with pure spectacle, says Aristotle, and provide a superficial thrill, genuine tragic pleasure is achieved when the sense of dread comes from unadorned incidents.
Aristotle also urges that the character’s change of fortune should be from good to bad, rather than from bad to good. This may seem self-evident when talking about tragedy. But it’s an important point to look at in this film since this is not a tragedy in the classical, everyone-dies-in-the-end sense. Rather it has the meandering, haphazard quality of a slice-of-life structure that privileges character over plot (which, of course, is where the film diverges from Aristotelian dictates since the old Greek famously prioritized plot over character).
Nonetheless, Llewyn’s fortunes do describe a decidedly downward trajectory in the barely a week that the film covers. At the beginning of the story, Llewyn has moved on from Mike’s death enough to have already put out a solo album. But he is having little success with it. Not able to get any money out of his record producer, he decides to go see Bud Grossman, an impresario in Chicago, in the hope of getting his solo career off the ground. Grossman agrees to audition him and Llewyn gives a soul-stirring performance, which Grossman dismisses with a killer line of dialogue: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He then rubs salt in the wound with the suggestion that Llewyn would be better off performing with a partner. Llewyn returns to NY resolved to give up music as a profession and return to his former employment in the merchant marines. This is about the extent of what we’re given where plot is concerned, but it’s enough to provide the decline in fortune required by Aristotle for the evocation of compassion and dread that will lead to catharsis.
These are the requirements outlined by Aristotle. But the Coen brothers add a few twists of their own. As concerns the tragedy of conflict among the near and dear, there is human disconnection and then there is disconnection from art. Bud Grossman can only see Llewyn’s music in dollar signs. The Gaslight club owner, Pappi, while watching Jean perform her most heartfelt verse, says to Llewyn, “I’d like to fuck Jean.” After Llewyn serenades his catatonic father and we think we see stirrings of recognition, we hear Llewyn tell the orderly, “My father needs to be cleaned.” The beauty of human existence – music, creativity, artistry – is placed right up against the ugliness – exploitation, selfishness and bodily functions.
The brothers also come up with their own brand of tragic irony. Having been brutally insulted in his audition with Bud Grossman, Llewyn turns around and insults another artist in performance. Country singer Elizabeth Hobby has several immediately recognizable vulnerabilities – she’s female, she’s not conventionally attractive, she’s out of step with city manners and fashions, she’s playing an autoharp. Llewyn exploits her weaknesses to satisfy his own need to blow off steam, but gets his comeuppance when her long, tall, cowboy husband confronts him in a back alley. The beating as much as says, “What the hell’s wrong with you?! Abusing one of your own?!” This is the Coen brothers version of the Greek tragedy convention in which characters are always unknowingly killing, or almost killing, members of their own family.
Finally, while the plot of this film may be about the demise of Llewyn’s career, the story is about the emotional wreckage Mike’s death leaves behind in Llewyn. I must have spent hours stewing over this film, staring at my notes, reading the script on line, going to see it two more times, all in an endeavor to detach from my emotional response and engage in an analytical process. Thinking. Thinking. Thinking. Then, suddenly, a new thought popped up: Creative partnership! That’s what the film is about! OMG! The Coen brothers! It’s a personal film! That’s what got under my skin. Inside Llewyn Davis, at its core, is nothing less than a big imagining on the part of the Coen brothers of how terrible their life would be without the other. The underlying element of personal meaning on the part of the creators is the last piece necessary to evoke my compassion and dread. Just contemplating it again as I write this brings the tears to the edge of my eyes.2
1 Happily, I’ve been brushing up on The Poetics the last few months in an online weekly forum hosted by Scott Myers at Go Into The Story. Thank you, Scott!
2 The Poetics, Chapter 14, S.H. Butcher translation: “Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates the superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.”