Monday, December 23, 2013

Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis
seen @ Kew Gardens Cinemas, Kew Gardens, Queens, NY

When I was in high school, I had this mild aspiration to be a musician. Part of it was my sister's influence. She's a singer, who performs in a band with her husband. They're good, too - they play semi-frequently around the New York area, playing R&B and pop cover songs. When I was in high school, she went with me to Sam Ash to help pick out a keyboard for me. I had taken lessons on the organ when I was younger and whaddya know, it took - for a little while, anyway. The songs I wrote were much closer to 80s cheese than anything else, and none of it was worth a great deal, but I was making music.

This was during the period where I had discovered classic rock for the first time and got deeply into not just the music, but the history and the culture behind it as well. I was dating a girl who was also into classic rock, and was learning how to play guitar. She had friends who were the same. We all thought the 60s were the coolest time to be a musician and couldn't get enough of that music.

One day I was coming from a summer art class in Greenwich Village and wandering around the neighborhood, which was still quite new to me, when I encountered a street musician. Her name was Ann Marie. I'd say she was in her mid-to-late 30s when I met her. She played outside the Christopher Street subway station, less than a block away. I wouldn't call her a folkie - her music was closer to Melissa Etheridge than Suzanne Vega - but personality-wise, she came across kinda like a former hippie. She was very friendly and more than willing to indulge this starstruck black kid who she didn't know from Adam. Looking back on it now, I feel grateful for that.

I couldn't tell you for certain what exactly it was about her that made me decide to talk to her and get to know her (in a non-romantic way; I wasn't in love with her), as opposed to simply listening to and enjoying her music. If anything, I think it may have had something to do with the... mystique, or lore, of what it meant to be a musician in general and to be a musician in the Village in particular. At the time, my head was filled with romantic notions of the 60s and the "purity" of rock music: playing your own instruments, writing meaningful songs that touched people's hearts as well as their libidos, basically music as capital-A Art... and I suppose in Ann Marie I saw some aspect of that ideal. 

Not that I could've told you that at the time. I just acted on impulse, without thinking too much about it. It never occurred to me to not try to reach out to her and get to know her, because being a musician and living some sort of Bohemian lifestyle associated with that appealed to me at the time, even though I had absolutely no idea how far off the mark about it I was.

Which brings us to Inside Llewyn Davis, a Coen Brothers movie about the reality behind that Bohemian fantasy of being a 60s musician. Folk music never thrilled me as much as rock, though of course, I learned about Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary and the Mamas and the Papas at the same time as I learned about the Beatles and the Stones, and I liked them as much. My girlfriend in particular had a jones for songs like "Like a Rolling Stone" and tried playing them on her guitar all the time. (She even had a harmonica, which she cherished like a lucky charm.)

I saw Llewyn with Vija, and I knew I wanted to see it with her because she had lived through the 60s, even if only as a Midwestern teenager somewhat removed from the extremes of the culture, as embodied in places like New York and San Francisco. As a result, she liked the movie more than I did. We both agreed the music was very good, though not quite on the same level as that of O Brother Where Art Thou (which she loves), but I thought it was just mining familiar Coen Brother territory again: let's laugh at the Jewish sad-sack guy who can't catch a break in life. I did appreciate how the location shots were done up to match the era - subway stations, street signs, etc. And Oscar Isaac was very good as Llewyn.

Over dinner afterwards, Vija told me a little more about the 60s from her perspective, like the first times she went to New York and San Francisco. She said that growing up in the Midwest made it harder for her to get the full cultural experience of the times, but she still knew a lot of characters like those in Llewyn

She was never a musician, but she did catch what stood out as musical allusions in the plot which would've flown over my head. For example, there's a scene where Llewyn gets offered the chance to join the group which we know now as Peter, Paul & Mary, but he turns it down because he didn't like harmonizing in his music. The reference is an indirect one, but she recognized it right away and I didn't.

This was the first time I had seen a movie with Vija at the Kew Gardens. I had to provide instructions to get there from the subway, because it's not exactly a direct distance, but she found it on her own - in fact, she actually snuck up on me as I was sitting on a bench reading some Internet article on my cellphone. I totally didn't see her coming! 

It was unusually warm on Sunday, but she was worried that it would get colder by the time the movie let out, so she wanted to find a clothing shop where she could find a little something to wear. We ended up going into a tiny boutique owned by some Japanese dude where she tried on a few coats (I thought she just wanted a shawl). Vija's smallish; for the longest time, I used to have this mental image of her as being taller and skinnier than she actually is. She's not tiny, though, nor is she fat; I'd say she's between 5'4" and 5'6". 

Point is, none of the coats in the store fit her, and the guy said it was because they were originally made for Asian women! She got a good laugh out of that. (Apparently they were okay for the Orthodox Jewish women in the neighborhood as well, hence his being in Kew Gardens in the first place.) As it turned out, the weather was comfortably cool by the time the film let out and she didn't need anything heavier than what she had on, a long wooly sweater.

It was nice to see a big crowd at the Kew Gardens - I'm used to going in the late afternoons during the week - though the bigger crowd meant bigger distractions. At the beginning of the movie there were some cellphone users who had to have them on, but they subsided after the first ten minutes or so. More annoying was a woman a couple of rows in front of us who was eating something while crinkling what sounded like cellophane. Repeatedly. This lasted longer, and while I wanted to say something, I didn't want to embarrass Vija by saying or doing something I'd regret, so I put up with it. She stopped as well, eventually, so it worked out fine.

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