SPOILERS ALL OVER THIS. STOP READING IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM (AND IMMEDIATELY GO SEE THE DAMN FILM).
“I don’t see a lot of money in this, kid.”
Llewyn Davis has just played his heart out. This after a hellacious cross-country road trip with an asshole junkie musician and a beat poet who may or may not be an asshole. You can never quite tell. As the last a capella notes of ‘The Death of Queen Jane” fade away, and after an excruciating pause, Chicago nightclub owner Bud Grossman delivers a casual, off-the-cuff shattering of all of his hopes and dreams.
This moment resonated with me more than any other I witnessed in any movie in 2013, maybe ever.
Inside Llewyn Davis is a story about a folk singer in 1960s Greenwich Village. It’s a gorgeous period piece made by guys who specialize in that sort of thing. The Coen Brothers and their trademark cinematography really immerse you in that era’s New York City. But really this is a story that could take place any time, anywhere.
It’s about trying to forge your way in a creative realm while being really, really good, but not great. Which, for anybody in the nascent stages of their own creative journey, is the most nauseating fear on earth.
The basic way that creative fields work – from the perspective of a 25-year-old dude just entering his – is that you, as a creative person, are defined entirely by what you create. Obviously there’s a lot of work involved. The creative process is frequently arduous. But unlike many other pursuits, the means are really only justified by the ends. There are few small victories or incremental achievements or positive reinforcements along the way. At least in the eyes of those that truly matter. Either something great happens, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, then what was really the point of putting in all that work in the first place?
Llewyn can fine-tune and perfect his folk covers all he wants. And it seems he does (or has, since we never really see him practicing). But if his ceiling is that of a session musician for the real stars that makes him pretty much a complete failure. People don’t get into creative industries to make quiet contributions at a steady salary. They do it to create something that people will remember them by.
Creative talent is nurtured, yes, but at the memory-making level it’s largely intangible. And seeing the limit of your intangible talent is a truly, abjectly, terrifying thing. Llewyn, after a lifetime of guitar playing and a record deal and the gushingly positive reinforcements of his Upper West Side professor friends, hasn’t seen it. He travels to Chicago for an opportunity not just to play Grossman’s legendary club but also to find out where he stands. Because he can’t stand not knowing anymore.
And in the brief moment of silence after his voice fades away, before Grossman delivers that soul sucking money line, it’s clear that Llewyn has no clue what he is going to say. He has no idea whether he’s very, very good, or great. Neither did I.
Neither do I.
And that’s the scariest thing.
Featured image courtesy of The Blemish