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Ben Nyce | Via Latina

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In “Inside Llewyn Davis” the Coen brothers take an unromantic look at the counter culture of the 1960s. Far from the euphoric freedom experienced in the aftermath of the supposedly claustrophobic 50s, the footloose 60s is here presented as a slough of failure. Davis is a folksinger trying to get established in the small clubs springing up in New York. As played by Oscar Isaac who does the singing, he’s got a good soulful voice and a downbeat repertoire of songs about the hardness of life on the margin. He lives this marginalized life and Isaac gives the songs full feeling. He also has an agent who cheats him, a former girlfriend who is pregnant by him and needs an abortion, no money and a need to find friends’ couches to sleep on. We see him move from one improvisation to another, on a downward trajectory. The film was shot in the bleak urban landscape of winter in tones of grey, black and brown. Typical of the Coens’ handling of folk music (see “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) Davis’ songs are given in their entirety. It’s a kind of road movie and contains a long sequence in which Davis cadges a ride to Chicago, accompanied in the back seat by the massive bulk of Roland Turner, played by John Goodman in his familiar Coen role of a succubus or malign spirit (see “Barton Fink,” “O Brother…”) There’s too much attention both to Goodman and to a lost cat. Nevertheless “Inside Llewyn Davis” is a masterful depiction of failure. For every Dylan there were hundreds who tried but didn’t make it.

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Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street” depicts the wretched excess of the US financial markets in the 1980s. It is also itself an example of wretched excess. For an interminable three hours we see the spectacle of a penny stock trader who makes millions and wallows in his acquisitions, whores, cocaine, trophy wife, yacht, penthouse, etc., etc. Scorsese has always been our chronicler of the folkways of American aggression: small time hoods (“Mean Streets”), the boxing ring (“Raging Bull”), the mafia (“Goodfellas”), Las Vegas (“Casino”), New York gangs around 1870 (“Gangs of New York”). He bought the rights to the book by the former penny stock trader Jordan Belfort and hired Terence Winter to give him a script. The trouble is that he didn’t edit or shape the script. The film is thus a recounting of one event after another of the trader’s splashy progress to indictment and jail. No single event is presented as defining or revealing. We see Leonardo DiCaprio as the huckster, snorting cocaine from a woman’s butt crease, screwing a variety of expensive ladies, jazzing up his troops as they prepare to cold-call potential buyers. There is no character development to speak of. Jordan Belfort believes he can sell anything and he develops a sales script which he demands that his troops use. His narcissism is all consuming – unabated even at the end. Such narcissism could have been exploited (mirrors, reflective surfaces, preening, posing) but Scorsese seems mainly interested in the spectacle itself. The coldness, loneliness and rage which lie behind such behavior are not examined. If you have an appetite for extended depiction of wretched excess, go see it.

Nyce taught literature and film at USD. He authored “Satyajit Ray” and “Scorsese Up Close.” “Museum Hours” featured in an earlier column is available at the Del Mar Library. Check availability at 755-1666.



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