Inside Llewyn Davis and The Shoals of Herring

Inside-Llewyn-DavisWhy go to the cinema? Why make the physical effort to go somewhere else when it’s all available (eventually) at home? Why get hassled with winter weather, parking and queuing? Well, for most of us we go to be entertained. A word of warning here, I loved ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, but it’s not an easy, gentle type of entertainment. The Coen Bros are renowned for making films they want to make in the way they want to make them. Here, with ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’, they don’t attempt to soften the overall relentless, low-level dreariness of existence. They have chosen the early 1960s US folk scene as the medium for their commentary on the nature of a creative life. If you want to go to the movies to see a film pushing an optimistic, ‘we can all achieve our dreams’ theme, concluding with the obligatory Hollywood happy ending, then this movie is not for you. For me this film is a superb antidote to our contemporary celebrity obsessed culture.

Absolutely beautifully shot – worth seeing on a big screen just for the visuals. Sometimes I get annoyed with productions that are underlit and grey, but here the muted palette worked to enhance the bleakness. Also it contrasted well with harsh lighting of the night scene at the motorway services. The film draws you along Llewyn Davis’s (Oscar Isaac) life, not into his life, but closely observing his dwindling energy from the sidelines. There have been many films about creative people (fictional or biopics), individuals struggling for recognition, enduring setbacks, but ultimately ending with them standing in the spotlight of success. Parts of this film are funny, just how funny depends on your own appreciation of black humour, but overall it’s a film more about the nature of reality than the glories of fame.

Several professional reviewers have commented that it is not an accurate portrayal of the 1960s New York folk scene, but it isn’t a docudrama. Perhaps the Coen Bros chose that period as folk was having a resurgence in general and because folk songs are traditionally the songs of ordinary people. I am too young to remember the 1960s ‘folk scene’ at all. Folk has really passed me by, but this harsh yet melancholic film has been a revelatory introduction for me. Once again the globe contracted that little bit more as I heard mention of the Norfolk seaside town of Great Yarmouth when Llewyn Davis sang:

O, it was a fine and a pleasant day
Out of Yarmouth harbour I was faring
As a cabin boy on a sailing lugger
For to go and hunt the shoals of herring

This is the opening verse to Ewan MacColl’s folk song about the collapse of the herring fishing industry off the east coast of England (where I live). A song of everyday folk losing their livelihoods, not to mention the near annihilation of the herring.

herring boats
Herring boats at Great Yarmouth, Norfolk, UK
At one point in the early 20th century there were over 1000 boats out of Yarmouth.
Photo: Time & Tide Museum, Norfolk

I appreciate a film if it makes me stop and think and look again at my assumptions, particularly if the film is subtle and engaging. We all know that a movie is a fiction, and if you were to record even a couple of hours of real everyday life you might get a few minutes of compelling material, hopefully more interesting than watching paint dry. I think on one level this film has captured the futility present in most peoples’ lives. Through Llewyn Davis the Coen brothers have shown us a personification of the bitter pill. Not every film has to be plot driven, fast paced and packed with special effects – they have their place, but so does a film attempting to reflect how it is – grey.