So, as you may have heard, Inside Llewyn Davis was almost totally shut out of the Oscars race. It got nods for cinematography and sound mixing, but none of the big awards came its way: no best picture, best director, best actor, etc. Not even a token, pandering special award for the cat. All the tweets from Times critic A.O. Scott, even the one which Scott Rudin somewhat underhandedly turned into a full-page ad, were for naught.
As a person who believes that Inside Llewyn Davis was simply the best film of 2013, bar none, I should probably be angry about this. Instead, I think it’s kind of great. It fits! It validates everything Inside Llewyn Davis has to say about the nature of art in an age when every measure of merit is defined by how “commercial” a film is. And Inside Llewyn Davis wasn’t commercial, not at all. So maybe, sure, by the sad standards of the Academy and its adjacent hype machine, it didn’t “deserve” an Oscar.
Nothing about Llewyn Davis, after all, suggested a wide mainstream appeal. It had very few recognizable names on its the marquee. Yes, there are supporting roles played by Justin Timberlake, Carey Mulligan, and John Goodman, but they’re brief. It was the kind of film where the only real celebrity brand associated it was (weirdly enough) the directors’ own, and the Coen brothers enjoy rather uneven fame and acclaim in the general population.
Worse than its lack of easy marketing hooks, the film doesn’t even have a plot which announces itself as such. For most of the movie Davis is wandering. Inside his head, as the title suggests, he’s mostly doing the same; it would be wrong to have a clear sort of quest. So he spends the movie going from couch to couch, from under-appreciated gig to bad dinner party. There is something utterly unplanned and alinear about the whole affair, and that’s bound to annoy the kind of moviegoer who complains of “dullness.”
(That alinearity is what tends to scare people away from trying for a real creative life, I might add. There are enormous amounts of fear and loathing for people who don’t “grow up,” get a job and a proper shave and a mortgage. And I can’t help but think that doesn’t help Inside Llewyn Davis‘ appeal. But that’s a whole other piece.)
Even where the film gives its protagonist a clearer quest, it screws around with convention. Llewyn’s journey to the film’s Oracle of Delphi, a nightclub owner in Chicago, is something less than what movie audiences expect from a filmic road trip. There’s no real catharsis in it, just long, dreamlike speeches. And on the way back, there is one particular exit Llewyn could take to another sort of life, the life a regular movie would expect him to choose after so goddamn much bitter disappointment, but he drives right on by. Forgive the extrapolation, but it is hard to see the way Llewyn opts out of that expected turn as anything other than a giant middle finger by the Coens to the filmmaking conventions of the day.
It is not really any surprise to me that Academy audiences did not respond to this.
There is a part of me that must believe the Coens aren’t surprised, either. We’re talking about a film whose (arguable) climax comes when F. Murray Abraham’s nightclub owner looks Llewyn Davis up and down and says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” He says this in response to Llewyn’s performance of a ballad about the death of one of Henry the VIII’s wives, something which even as performed does not scream “hit single. It’s surpassingly beautiful, much like the film it’s in. But it isn’t enough, it’s never enough.
The central question for our stubborn troubadour throughout is whether worldly success matters more than artistic integrity. As Glenn Kenny described in his review at RogerEbert.com, this is clear much earlier in the film when Llewyn is eyeing his onetime colleagues with disdain:
After his own song, Troy invites Jean and Jim up to sing with him, and they do a nice version of “Five Hundred Miles.” Llewyn does his level best to enjoy them, but soon the audience starts singing along, and Llewyn furrows his brow a little and looks behind him with wordless incredulity. The place he thought he understood, the place he thought he was part of, is becoming alien to him. And he doesn’t understand why.
Ultimately Llewyn seems to decide against any degree of selling out. I think the movie is clear on that being a snob’s choice, and one which probably dooms Llewyn himself to the Merchant Marine. It is also clear that Llewyn’s lack of wide appeal has little bearing on his “talent,” considered alone. Just listen to Oscar Isaac’s solo rendition of “Fare Thee Well” from the soundtrack, and regardless of personal taste, c’mon, it absolutely displays talent:
If I could sing and play like that, even just alone in my house, I might think it was worth preserving too, whatever the “public” thought. Or whether I won an Academy Award for it, I’m saying.
After all: much ink is spilled every year in re: what a terrible, morally and intellectually bankrupt spectacle the Oscars are. They tend to be a night about celebrity rather than about what’s really vital or beautiful in art. Just look at a list of recent Best Picture winners and ask yourself if that’s what you think people are going to remember, movie-wise, from the last 20 years. But the truth is, it ever was and will be thus. It is the most infuriating paradox there is, in creative life, this total lack of relationship between what the world loves and what is actually good and worthwhile in art. The Oscars is just its loudest embodiment.
So when a film like Llewyn Davis gets snubbed, it’s not really an insult in the ordinary sense of the word. If it had won a ton of Oscars, if it had simply ascended to the podium as the obvious frontrunner for Best Picture, an unqualified triumph, that would have somehow felt wrong. Like the movie managed, through sheer craftmanship, to be something that Llewyn himself never could: a truly popular piece of art. If it was that easy to pull off such a maneuver, there would never have been an Inside Llewyn Davis in the first place.