A Brush with Evil


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The Coen Brothers are no help and never will be. Go ahead and ask them. Fresh Air’s Terry Gross recently tried. She asked them how they write their films. “It’s mostly napping,” Ethan Coen answered. The Coen Brothers have been evading answers for about 30 years now, since Blood Simple came out in 1984. Asked about The Big Lebowski a few years ago, Joel Coen said, “That movie has more of an enduring fascination for other people than it does for us.” This is a game, and the Coen Brothers play it well. Other artists have played the same game at even higher stakes. Thomas Pynchon has been in hiding for 40 years. J. D. Salinger hid for about 50, until his death a couple of years ago. The Coen Brothers simply hide in plain sight. They answer by not answering.

This is a good state of affairs. It is good because the Coen Brothers make many enjoyable films. And they are aware that people who make enjoyable films, like the aforementioned The Big Lebowski, should avoid discussing the serious and philosophical themes of their enjoyable films. That’s to say, the art of many Coen Brothers films is in the artlessness. For artless artists, there is nothing worse than too much talk, too much analysis. Artless artists have felt this way for a long time. The Roman poet Catullus had a special word for his artful artlessness. He called it “lepidus.” Lepidus is a hard word to translate. It means something like charming, witty, easy, sophisticated. More than anything, a poem that is lepidus should appear effortless, especially if it is not. Catullus worked very hard on his poetry. But he wanted his poems to read as if they’d been hardly worked upon. He wanted them to seem dashed off, cast out with a flick of the wrist on a summer’s day.

The main character of the Coen Brothers’ newest film Inside Llewyn Davis, is not possessed of lepidus. He has no charm or ease. He works hard at his art, though just what this art really is, is hard to say. Davis is a folksinger, hanging around New York City in the early 1960s, just before Bob Dylan got to town. These are the hard days of folksinging, when no one much cared about the old songs and the people singing them weren’t sure why they cared either. What does it matter, after all, that Llewyn Davis has a new rendition of an old song? This is especially true given that Llewyn Davis is not interested in singing the old folksongs in radical new ways. He is just singing them, more or less like they have always been sung. Llewyn Davis has some gut feeling that it is important he continue to sing the old songs. But his lack of success in doing so worries and confounds him. It makes him bitter and inarticulate and selfish and frequently self-defeating. He is relatively sure that he can sing the old songs well. But he is not sure, in his heart, about the worth of this talent. That is why the title of the film — which is also the title of Llewyn Davis’ one solo album — is funny. The only thing “inside” Llewyn Davis is a bunch of other people’s songs. It is not an album (or a movie) of self-expression but of self-deception.

Critics have decided that the central tension of the film revolves around bad behavior and artistic genius. Llewyn Davis is not a very nice guy. He does not treat people well. He sleeps with friends’ wives and bums around on couches and complains about his lot in life. But then, when he gets up on the stage, he sings beautiful music. This paradox supposedly drives the movie along.

But this reading misses the point, since Llewyn Davis behaves poorly as a human being because of his music, not in spite of it. Llewyn Davis is not a musical genius. He is a good folksinger trying, for reasons obscure even to himself, to continue a tradition of singing folksongs in urban New York City in the 1960s. It is like something the critic John Berger once wrote about Jean-François Millet’s desire to make paintings of peasants in mid-19th century France. Millet sensed, Berger wrote, “two things which, at the time, few others foresaw: that the poverty of the city and its suburbs; and that the market created by industrialization, to which the peasantry was being sacrificed, might one day entail the loss of all sense of history. This is why for Millet the peasant came to stand for man, and why he saw his paintings as having an historic function.”

What the peasant stood for in mid-19th century Europe, the folksinger stood for in mid-20th century America. The folksinger carries the old songs forward into the obliteration of modern life — relentlessly, sadly, maybe pointlessly. The possibility of the “loss of all sense of history” nips at the folksinger’s heels. The folksong that opens and closes the movie is “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” The refrain from the song is:

Hang me, oh hang me
I’ll be dead and gone
I wouldn’t mind the hangin’,
been layin’ in the grave so long
I’ve been all around the world

Isn’t that always the lament of the folksinger, the storyteller, the chronicler? Such a person is always slightly out of time, disjointed, “layin’ in the grave so long.” Experience has become empty and wearisome. In his essay “The Storyteller: Observations on the Works of Nikolai Leskov,” Walter Benjamin observed that:

One meets with fewer and fewer people who know how to tell a tale properly. More and more often, there is an embarrassment all around when the wish to hear a story is expressed. It is as if a capability that seemed inalienable to us, the securest amongst our possessions, has been taken from us: the ability to share experiences.

That is the central problem of the storyteller and of the folksinger. They are trying to share common experiences that aren’t necessarily held in common anymore. In one scene of the movie Llewyn Davis sings “The Death of Queen Jane” to a club promoter. The song goes back to the 16th century, when Jane Seymour died from complications of giving birth to the boy who became Edward VI. The song touches on the terrible human anguish around the decision of whether to kill a mother in the attempt to save a baby. The promoter listens to the song, but he has no context in which to hear it. The experience being conveyed means nothing to him. He says to Llewyn, “I don’t see a lot of money here.”

The Coen Brothers twist in Inside Llewyn Davis is to make their folksinger an asshole. He is an asshole because he has nowhere to be. Much of the plot of Inside Llewyn Davis revolves around Davis trying to find someone who will let him crash at his or her house for the night.

The problem of having nowhere to be is actually the problem of evil. That sounds extreme, but it is something the Coen Brothers have always understood. The plot structure of Inside Llewyn Davis is the structure of an endless loop. Davis sings “Oh Hang Me” in the first scene of the movie. He is back singing the same song in the same place at the end of the movie. The same thing happens to him each time. His life is repeating itself. It is not hard to understand why. Llewyn Davis is trying to connect space and time in ways that don’t fit. He is trying to fit old wine into new wineskins. There is no traction. And so his life spins on its own axis. He’s trapped in a form of no man’s land from which it is difficult to emerge. In the middle of the movie, Davis takes a trip to Chicago with a beat poet and a jazz musician played by John Goodman. The trip takes them through a bleak and grey winter scene. It is a hellscape. The poet is a psychopath and the jazz musician is a junkie. It is on this trip that Llewyn Davis comes closest to the darkness.

The theologian Stanley Hauerwas once wrote about Augustine and the problem of evil. Hauerwas wrote that, in his Confessions:

Augustine finally came to understand, paradoxical though it may sound, that evil does not exist because “existence” names all that is created and everything created is good. He observes that there are separate parts of God’s creation, which we think of as evil because they are at variance with other things.

The idea is that evil is not a force in and of itself, but a side effect of disconnection, of things being put together in a way that doesn’t fit. Evil isn’t some thing that opposes another thing: the good. Evil is when good things are rubbed up against one another in such a way that they produce nothing. Evil is reduction for the sake of reduction, nothing for the sake of nothing. It is thus hard to get your arms around evil, to understand it or even to see it for what it is. It is an empty circle that obliterates its own tail (and its own tale?).

The Coen Brothers have always been fascinated with this paradoxical sense of evil, evil as something that doesn’t exist because it is contrary to existence. The evil of Fargo is just such an evil. No one in the movie ever chooses, or even wants, the death and destruction that ensues. It simply emerges out of the process of empty lives going nowhere. At the end of Fargo, Marge Gunderson, the policewoman played by Francis McDormand, speaks to the surviving killer (who has been nearly mute throughout the film). She says:

So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there.
And I guess that was your accomplice in the… woodchipper.
And those three people in Brainerd.
And for what? For a little bit of money.
There’s more to life than a little bit of money, you know.
Don’t you know that?
And here you are; and it’s a beautiful day.
Well, I just don’t understand it.

It cannot be understood. Because it is a beautiful day. And the murders didn’t come out of anything. They came out of nothing, for nothing. The same incomprehensibility, the same emptiness emerges in an even more terrifying way in the character of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men. Chigurh is barely even a person, more like a shadow, a kind of blank space that has the power to erase. Chigurh would be less terrifying if he had a clear purpose. But he does not. He cannot.

Inside Llewyn Davis is not No Country for Old Men, or even Fargo in its confrontation with evil. Inside Llewyn Davis is more like a light brush with evil, a stroll through the outermost circle of hell. In the last scene of the movie, which is a repetition of the first, we are shown a way out. As Davis leaves the bar after singing “Oh Hang Me” again, we see that a very young Bob Dylan is on the stage. The folksingers are going to find traction in contemporary life again after all. The empty loop of experience is going to be broken. The created things of the world do find themselves at variance with one another sometimes. But they can be put right again, too. • 24 January, 2014