Does anyone remember that old post about memories making us what we are?
Yeah. Neither do I.
Thursday was an awful day for that. Mrs Stroke Bloke and I sat in the movie theatre, chatting before the show started. In discussing the events of that day and the previous day, there were large chunks I couldn’t remember.With the help of the calendar on my phone, I was able to say where I’d been, and when. But if you’d asked me to describe any of those places? No idea. In recent weeks, I’ve been gently increasing the amount of “stuff” I do. And I can hardly believe how quickly I’ve maxed out into exhaustion, forgetfulness and clumsiness. Grim stuff. In the crying jag days, this could have turned very ugly. But, you know, I’m kinded fucked. It is what it is.
I haven’t dropped my phone on my face yet — one of Mrs Stroke Bloke’s favourite laughs, and it is hilarious — but I have noticed that I’ve regressed into awful iPhone typing. Feels like a symptom of the fatigue.
On the upside, I got to make a good new memory that evening. We were watching the latest Coen brothers’ movie, Inside Llewyn Davis. I’ve been a fan of the Coens since seeing Barton Fink in my 1967. That is, 1991. Since then, I’ve worked back and forward to see twelve of their movies, notwithstanding a period of neglect on my part between 2008-12. The Big Lebowski is one of Mrs Stroke Bloke’s favourite films. We were tickled the other day to find out about a bar — Lebowski’s — in Edinburgh that does a range of themed White Russians in tribute to the Dude and his favourite tipple. (They do 25 (!) different varieties — Research Bloke.)
It’s interesting (to me) that Fink was the film that kicked off my Coen fandom. It tends to be one that people I’ve spoken to can’t be doing with. I guess they’d align with Ryan Gilbey’s New Statesman review of Llewyn. As soon as Gilbey reveals his conceit of lumping Coen movies into clearly defined “good” and “bad” camps, I know he’s going to throw Llewyn into the bad box with Barton and No Country Old Men.
I probably saw Barton Fink at just the right impressionable age when seeing John Turturro and Steve Buscemi doing their thing (and John Goodman doing not Dan Connor) for the first time could pack a real punch. Hence The Big Man thundering down the corridor in a recent post. Maybe What Culture is right, and it’s the Coens’ best film.
Llewyn Davis is similar to Barton Fink in a number of ways. Corridors are a recurring motif, as in many of the Brothers’ movies. You know, I’d never properly mulled the meaning of the corridors. I assumed, watching Llewyn, that someone must have written about this, and searching coen brothers corridors would open my eyes. No joy, oddly. Maybe corridors just make for interesting composition. In Llewyn, the hallways had something to do with journeys. Transitions. I think. But, you know, whatevs. And as usual, the Coens wring great perfomances from their cast. It’s a relief to see one from
Sally Sparrow Carey Mulligan, who had kind of lost me after one ditzy interview too many.
Llewyn revisits Turturro’s nebbish, too, in that it contemplates the process of creation, the production of art and entertainment, distinctions (or not) between high and low culture, conditions of labour in creative industries, and how (self-identified) supérieurs relate to “the common man”. And although, looks-wise, he could have walked straight outta 21st century Billyburg, Llewyn — like Barton — is evocative of Malamud’s collection of shlemiels and shlimazels — “dudes… at the mercy of other people, a hostile universe and their own stupidity.” (Bernie was born and raised in the best borough, after all.)
But it’s not all laughs.
In his New York Times Review, A.O. Scott follows the Coen Brothers’ diktat. He declines to speculate too far on what one of their more hallucinatory, dream-like films might mean, and enjoys rambling down the corridors with Llewyn. But not until after identifying him as another Coen character who illustrates that “hard work and talent do not always triumph in the end” and another movie “which casts a… skeptical eye on the American mythology of success.”
And that’s the thing. Gibley — unintentionally ironically, I think — is pleased to congratulate himself for citing Adam Mars-Jones knowing, clever-clever remark:
The Coen brothers are very knowing, but what is it that they know?
Aye, there’s the rub. To criticise Joel and Ethan for placing technique above story and thereby raise O Brother and Hudsucker above Barton and Llewyn is, it seems to me, to miss the point. The film-makers know something very important. At bottom, each of these four movies — the same movie — illustrates not the brothers’ cleverness, but their willingness to confront a discomfiting truth. To examine that truth from all angles, like Rubens lying under an antique statue with his sketch book, refining an approach.
Take it from this narrative-forcer: that hard work and talent do not always prosper, that the American Dream is a myth — these are symptoms of a greater, bleaker truth. Our lives have not plot. They are to be enjoyed or dis-savored in the moment.
These are hard lessons. And not ones to tell our kids, probably. But maybe ones, which learned, can be an important, limping step along the flaming corridor….