Would Llewyn Davis Ever “Kick Back”?

About two-thirds of the way through the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn returns to his sister Joy’s house, in Queens, to collect his Master Mates and Pilots License. He’s just been to visit his nearly catatonic father at Landfall, a sailor’s retirement home. He plans to give up folk music and ship out.

Llewyn discovers Joy in the kitchen with her son Danny, who’s eating a bowl of cereal.

“How is he?” asks Joy.

He’s great. Good to see what I have to look forward to.

What. Llewyn.

No I’m not kiddin. I’ve got it all figured out now.  Put in some hard years, yeah, but eventually ya get to kick back, get your food brought to ya, don’t even have to get up to shit.

Llewyn! Danny is sitting right here.

Joy may be appalled by Llewyn’s use of profanity in front of her six-year-old son, but she should also be thrown by his anachronistic use of “kick back.” I was, so much so that it took me a while to find my way back into the film, which up to that point had me in its spell.  I half expected Joy to ask her brother what “kick back” means, or is supposed to mean.

It’s 1961 when Llewyn walks into his sister’s kitchen in Queens. Merriam-Webster’s can find no instance of the expression “kick back” before 1972. (Even then, I’ll wager, it wasn’t in wide use.) The expression carries with it the breezy attitudes and hedonistic aspirations of 1970s California, not the earnest commitments of Gaslight folkies.

Is this just nitpicking? I’m of two minds on that question.

On the one hand, in a film of such obvious artistic merit, there ought to be someone combing through the dialogue for anachronisms and other false notes, so that audiences can stay with the picture.

The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane had even bigger problems suspending his disbelief: while he admires the “gleefully precise” ways in which production designer Jess Gonchor recreates 1961 Greenwich Village, he concludes that “something in the movie fails to grip”: Llewyn never looks “very down at the heel”; and the beauty of Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography “hazes over the shabby desperation that…should plague the struggling artist.” Even Al Cody’s apartment, which he describes as a “dump…looks pretty neat and clean.”

Terri Thal, the ex-wife of Dave Van Ronk, the West Village folk icon whose biography inspired the Coen Brothers’ film, also notes that “the apartments are remarkably clean: No one I knew could keep soot out of apartments.” She wanted to see “roaches” and “fallen plaster.” (The American movie industry never seems willing or able to go there.) On a more serious note, Thal also finds it beyond any measure of credibility that Llewyn can sit down with a “respectable” doctor and casually discuss an illegal abortion: the only woman Dave Van Ronk impregnated, she writes, “rode a bike down several flights of stairs to get rid of his fetus.” Her situation was that desperate.

On the other hand, holding Inside Llewyn Davis to strict standards of historical authenticity will only end up limiting our experience of the film, which is as much a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey as a hard-luck story from the early 1960s. Part of the film’s magic lies in the way it discovers one of the Western world’s most ancient and most persistent narratives in Llewyn’s lonesome wanderings. This gives the film a magical-realist grace that neo-realist grit could never provide.

llewynsubwayA cat named Ulysses guides Llewyn to an underworld and seems, at one point, to offer a real chance at redemption. But Llewyn doesn’t take it. There’s no direction home, and no chance our hero will ever have the leisure or the luxury of just kicking back.

David Bromberg, who played with Van Ronk, put it simply: you’ve got to suffer if you want to sing the blues.

5 thoughts on “Would Llewyn Davis Ever “Kick Back”?

  1. PK Read

    As much as I liked this movie, the swearing, overall, was what got to me. Swearing just wasn’t as commonplace and casual as it became in the late 60s and early 70s.

    I’m not sure why American filmmakers – even the Coen brothers – are so reluctant to show real shabbiness in the same way filmmakers of other nations are. Think of the 80s Withnail & I, which was set in the late 60s. You can practically smell the wet wool desperation, the fermenting dishes in the sink and cold coal fireplace in the rundown apartment.

    Finally, the nice doctor who performs illegal abortions didn’t throw me all that much – there were small clandestine networks of activists and doctors facilitating abortions in some areas of the Eastern seaboard and along the Mexican border in the early 60s. What isn’t entirely plausible is that someone like Llewyn would know them, or that he would be dealing with the doctor directly.


    1. lvgaldieri Post author

      I wondered about the swearing as well, especially during the scene where Carey Mulligan’s character is berating Llewyn in Washington Square Park. As for this other issue — why can’t or won’t the American movie industry depict poverty — I don’t have any good answers. There’s a neatness to the world in American movies; and nobody ever stays dirty. Corporate America wants to project that clean image everywhere, so why should Hollywood movies be an exception? It’s something that trips me up constantly: the character who is most down on her luck moves into a place that’s supposed to be a hovel but is actually a multimillion dollar loft space.


      1. Michael M.

        I wonder if poverty can’t be depicted because it conflicts with the aspirational character of American identity, as opposed to a corporate planning department wanting to impose order. Most American’s don’t want to see the grime and suffering, because it’s not who we are supposed to be.


  2. PK Read

    I would agree with the reluctance to portray ‘regular’ poverty in movies (with a few exceptions, like Winter’s Bone), as opposed to portraying extreme versions. If the characters are supposed to be sympathetic, not only are they tidy, but they don’t have paint peeling off the walls, cockroaches or dirty floors because all those aspects of poverty are not virtuous. While virtuous might equal poor, being virtuously poor cannot equal being too poor to be tidy and have a nicely decorated home.
    None of that is surprising.
    What surprises me is that we are having this conversation about a Coen movie.


  3. Pingback: Tarantino’s “Paranoid” | lvgaldieri

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