The Weather is Against Me: Bob Dylan and the Coen Brothers

The Gaslight Cafe, 1961.

A young man begins strumming the opening chords of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a song that, like most folk songs, is listed as “traditional.”

This man Llewyn Davis, the main character in, to this moment, the most recent Coen Brothers film, is based in appearance and musical ability (but not temperament) on Dave Van Ronk, the fabled “Mayor of MacDougal Street.” One of the most important figures in the Greenwich Village folk movement of the early 60s, it was Van Ronk’s arrangement of “House of the Rising Sun” that was eventually covered by the Animals, helping launch the revitalization of folk music nationwide.

Based as he is on Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis is not meant to represent him. He is targeted on bigger shadows, a shadow that has been haunting the oeuvre of the Coen Brothers for decades now. For now, our biggest question about Llewyn is whether or not he is authentic. The real deal. What does this merchant marine from Queens know about the grime and the strife and dirt of the man in Arkansas? What does he know of suffering? Does he deserve to sing this song? While this is definitively answered by the end of Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens handily answered this for us a long time before, in every film they’ve ever made.

If there is a singular theme throughout their work (there isn’t, more on that later), it is of the lower class or “common” man attempting to raise himself above his station, usually with a satchel full of money and a pile of bodies in his wake. Through this, we begin to develop a pattern: that commonality is not inherently good, and that class, while powerful, is only as powerful as we make it. In this way, the Coens most readily align themselves with the shadow they’ve been chasing, and the protagonist of Inside Llewyn Davis is the culmination of that chase. Llewyn Davis is Bob Dylan, and Bob Dylan is the Coens.

Starting with 1984’s Blood Simple and 1987s Raising Arizona, the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, quickly established themselves as two of the most exciting and talented moviemakers in the world. I use that term — “moviemakers” — deliberately, because the Coens, unlike most directors, write, cast and edit their own finished films. They are a uniquely autonomous force, which has resulted in their signature style being easily identifiable despite it appearing in projects as seemingly disparate as a 1920s Prohibition gangster film, a 1950s screwball comedy, and a 1990s stoner film.

Similarly, Bob Dylan is one of music’s great chameleons, changing his persona nearly as often as David Bowie (just with much less fanfare). While he’s probably not as autonomous, and he certainly didn’t write every song he’s ever sung, every song he’s ever sung has been unmistakably a Bob Dylan song. There’s a sense of authenticity without earnestness to both, an authenticity that can sometimes be misconstrued as mere nihilism (say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude).

Blood SimpleRaising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing
We never did too much talkin’ anyway.

In the Coens’ first two films, there’s an interesting concept to be found, and it relates to authenticity. Both the Coens and Bob Dylan are native Minnesotans, i.e. Midwesterners, who found their early success by aping the mannerisms and charm of southerners and westerners (Bob’s old-timey folk persona dispensing earthy wisdom through colloquialism; the idiosyncratic language of Raising Arizona). The clash between high and low class begins here, best personified by Beethoven’s Ode to Joy recited on a banjo. It seems ridiculous, but in this instance is almost gloriously dumb and playful. It’s fascinating to watch as both entities move forward.

With 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, the Coens abruptly shifted gears, weaving a complicated, interlocking narrative out of the refuse of a thousand gangster movie cliches. The end result is a noir with a touch so light that it “seems to float on the breeze like a fedora,” to paraphrase Richard Corliss. There aren’t a lot of direct Dylan comparisons to make here, aside from his own obvious interest in star-crossed lovers and death and murder so prevalent in songs like “Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts,” but the Dylan song with the most obvious connections “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” Taken from the perspective of Gabriel Byrne’s Tom Reagan, our protagonist, one can imagine his stoic, Dylanesque inscrutability wishing his forlorn love Verna (or Leo?) goodbye for good, despite all the murdering and conning and double-crossing he did to save her. It’s a gorgeous, complex film that is positively overflowing with memorable dialogue and side characters, but it belongs to Gabriel Byrne. One can easily imagine Dylan writing songs about a man like Tom Reagan. It’s the Coens at their most blatantly Romantic mixed with Bob at his most nakedly so.

Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy
Desolation Row

With 1991’s Barton Fink*, famously written during a lull in the process of writing Miller’s Crossing, the Coens begin to show their true selves. In true Coen fashion, they did so by making their most confusing, coy and pretentious film to date or since. They hide behind their masks. Succintly put, Barton Fink is the story of Barton, the screenwriter of the title, who after putting on a successful Broadway Play, is hired by a film studio to pump out scripts in 1941 Hollywood. He struggles with his new task, trying his hardest to continue to represent “the common man,” despite knowing nothing about said man. His neighbor at his suspiciously hellish motel is Charlie (John Goodman), an amiable insurance salesman eventually revealed to be a murderous psychopath.

Among the myriad metaphors at work here is the one we’re looking for, namely Barton’s interactions with a “common man” he in no way understands. Eventually, Barton’s idol,  W.P. Mayhew (loosely modeled on William Faulkner), and to an extent Barton himself, are revealed to be frauds, Charlie, the common man, kills potentially several people before screaming at Barton that the latter “DOES NOT LISTEN,” and bellowing that he will show Barton and the detectives that come to apprehend him “the life of the mind” before destroying the Hotel Earle in raging flame. He sees through their masks.

To put this simply: Barton is a fake. He is not authentic. Charlie is authentic, and he is insane, so despite Barton’s pretentions to the contrary, Charlie’s life of the mind (the mind of the common man) is just as powerful as Barton’s, if not more so. “I’m an artist! I create!” Barton bellows at a bellicose sailor he runs into at a local dance, and he is pummeled for his trouble. After completing his script and escaping from Charlie, Barton is told by his studio head, the deliciously Golden Age Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), that his art is trash and that, as punishment, “everything that comes out of his head” belongs to Lipnick. The artist has been defeated by the forces of commerce, who don’t care for “fruity pictures about suffering.” It’s important that Barton doesn’t have to be a *good* artist for this to apply.

Despite these heavy themes, Barton Fink is closer to a dark postmodern comedy than a Great Drama. Barton is a shallow, pretentious, obnoxious fool of a man, thinking he knows better than everyone, then asking everyone to finish his script for him. Many of the metaphors and references on display here, including an extended one about the ethics of World War II, seem to have been included merely for their own sake, as a way of confusing or perplexing the critically minded. Like John Lennon back-masking silly phrases into hit records, the Coens are mocking the idea of Great Meaning. They’re just filmmakers. Bob Dylan is just a poet.

Of course, the film swept Cannes. The joke missed its mark. Not quite Dylan going electric, but not quite not.

While 1994’s The Hudsucker Proxy is a gorgeous, well-wrought comedy with a sharp satirical edge, for the sake of brevity I’ll skip it here. Suffice to say that Tim Robbins’s Norville Barnes is himself a fake, as is everyone and everything at Hudsucker Industries. For our purposes, it’s quite important that the Gaslight Cafe shows up here too, as a last refuge for quirks and weirdos where a Beatnik Steve Buscemi tends bar. Chronologically, it’s only three years before Llewyn Davis takes the stage, but the New York of Hudsucker is not the true New York. Another fake.

*From here on out, just write “Carter Burwell and/or T Bone Burnett” into any time I mention the Coens’ choice of music.

Fargo
Girl From the North Country

Where the Coens’ films to now have made a point of mocking the powerful, 1996’s Fargo was the first to start mocking everyone. Openly misanthropic, the film is a marvel of pacing, tone and balls-out insanity. All five of the film’s central characters, with the exception of Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) are idiots to varying degrees. Bullheaded, obstinate, greedy and selfish quite literally to their graves, it’s a wonder that they still know how to breathe. Taking place in the Coens’ and Dylan’s home state of Minnesota, Fargo is infamous for its less-than-charitable portrayal of “Minnesota Nice,” the passive-aggressive, ultra-Midwestern mode of speaking and communicating that obsfuscates true meaning behind platitude and petty compliment. One would have to assume that, as delightfully musical as the Coens make it in this film, it’s not something any party is particularly fond of.

This film marks a sort of shift, where some of the brothers’ early tropes give way to some of their later ones. Namely, the divide between Talkers and Non-Talkers. The more a character speaks, the less likely anything they say is to be taken seriously (“I saw ten thousand talkers, whose tongues were all broken”), and the more dangerous their inevitably more capable silent partner becomes. In Fargo, this trope is represented by Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Steve Buscemi), both in rare form. They, along with Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy), form a criminal triumvirate of biblical ineptitude, first conspiring to kidnap Jerry’s wife Jean for a paltry ransom, which ends up leaving Jean, her father Carl, a State Patrolman and several bystanders dead in the cold snow. Only Marge and her husband Norm (John Carroll Lynch) remain unstained, content with their position in the capitalist machine (best represented in Fargo by the enroaching ice, which creeps up poor Jerry’s windshield just as it gnaws at the edges of the cabin Carl and Gaear share) and happy. They are folksy types, wise and true. The type of person the Coens seem to think no longer exists. That the caper is only solved through a few lucky breaks and an even luckier tip (“take what you may gather from coincidence,” Dylan croons), adds to the growing, unstemmable tide of magical realism the Coens are starting to unleash.

The Big Lebowski
He doesn’t want to turn into some machine.

If the Dylan comparisons so far seem stretched and imparsable, fear not, for this is the point in the Coen canon where they start to directly name check the man himself. After Sam Elliott’s Stranger (himself a relic from the same bygone America folk singers like Dylan tried so hard to resurrect), who is the first voice you hear in 1998’s The Big Lebowski? Of course it’s Bob Dylan.

The conflict in the sprawling, Chandlerian Gordion Knot that is Lebowski is nothing so portentious as World War II or murder or Prohibition: it’s simply a man who wants recompense for his rug. Yet, on the margins of this fantastic film, there are other, more magisterial wars being fought: young and old, conservative and liberal (this is one of the most nuanced political satires ever written), and most importantly for us: American music versus American music. The Dude loves Creedence. He hates the fuckin’ Eagles, man. We don’t get any real insight into whether he even understands the Kraftwerk-inspired Autobahn, fronted by tertiary antagonist Uli Kunkel and his band of nihilists. Nevertheless, he must abide. Perhaps the truest and most authentic protagonist in the brothers’ stable, Jeff Bridges’s Dude is such a straight shooter that not even the fact that the 60s ended 20 years earlier can dissuade him from his radical past (“ever hear of the Seattle Seven? That was me…and six other guys.”) For The Dude (and Jeff Dowd, longtime Coen champion and inspiration for the character), the protest songs Bob Dylan started out with were the real deal, the one true authentic thing to rally your ideals behind, even if all those ideals get you now is a destroyed car and a pissed-on rug.

O Brother, Where Art Thou?
Tangled Up in Blue

The strongest emergent theme on the road to Llewyn Davis is that of musical conflict. It pops up most prominently in 2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou? a mismash of Preston Sturges, the Odyssey (which the Coens admit they’d never read. Fakers.) and 1930s bluegrass, O Brother is almost riotously jubilant and, aside from Raising Arizona, the brothers’ most light-hearted fare. Even then, Arizona had an id monster possibly summoned from H.I. McDunnough’s subconscious and O Brother has a Sheriff who might be Satan hunting the protagonists. So you take what you can get.

In many ways, the America presented in this film is a warped, sepia-toned version of the America everyone always seems to want to get back to. The simpler America that fueled the folk movement. These are essentially the same songs the hipsters in New York would be singing roughly 30 years later. Of course, the America on display here is full of crooked politicians, murderous Bible salesmen, rampant Klansman, trigger-happy bank robbers, and flash floods. In other words, the America everyone yearned for in the 60’s, on the verge of radical social upheaval and political assasination, never really happened at all. There is no Golden Age. It’s the fetishization of an America that never truly existed.

What this means for our discussion of authenticity isn’t fully illuminated until we get to Llewyn Davis and his folk songs. Simply put: the great joke linking these two films is that in O Brother, a group of liars and thieves and charlatans use what would later be called “folk music” as a crutch to acquire cash (Everett McGill) or to acquire power (Pappy O’Daniel). The look on George Clooney’s face during the Soggy Bottom Boys’ initial recording of “Man of Constant Sorrow” is one my favorite acting choices in Coen-dom. He looks like a man who is sure he is about to be caught and arrested for daring to try a con as brazen as singing for money. So what we have, on the whole, is a bunch of fake people making a living singing “real” music (that is, the actual music sung by “folks”). In Llewyn Davis, that paradigm is completely inverted, where we have “real” people like Llewyn, too pre-occupied with the pursuit of his art to make a living singing “fake” music.

It’s a great cosmic joke, but it’s not the greatest the Coens have up their sleeves, nor is it the last.

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereIntolerable Cruelty, and The Ladykillers
But power and greed and corruptible seed / Seem to be all that there is

There’s a lot about Ed Crane (Billy Bob Thornton), the protagonist of 2001’s The Man Who Wasn’t There, that makes him the most nakedly transparent of all Coen heroes. Despite his actions (the actions of a man desperately trying to raise his station in life), causing at least four deaths, including his own, it’s hard to view him as a bad man. An angry and sinister one, for sure, but not a bad one. He’s just a barber. Some of the most plaintive and wrenching scenes in all of the Coens’ catalog happen in this film, again despite Billy Bob’s collective dialogue perhaps approaching half of Steve Buscemi’s in Fargo.

There’s just something ineffably sad about how lost and confused Crane is during this film, something that elevates him (and his search for meaning in the intangibility of Art) beyond the question of authenticity. The ultimate Non-Talker (who just wants the rest of those stupid people to shut up for once), his encounters with a rageful James Gandolfini, a motor-mouthed attorney (who, in one of the classic Coen jokes, is uncertain of the name of the man who created the Uncertainty Principle), and eventually what appears to be a UFO leave him anything but nonplussed, but to me, they were incredibly affecting.

This is quite possibly the brothers’ least ironic film, and in that way, it hews closer to Bob Dylan’s aesthetic than most. Certainly, Bob is a joker, but at his most sobering, he’s a crusader, a somber truth-teller who regrets his station in life through stoicism and a harsh, pitiless misanthropy. A lot like Ed Crane, honestly. Furthermore, the post-war anxiety and suburban paranoia this film taps into is something Bob would have had ample experience with. Just a fantastically morose film, the story of an authentic man who tries his hardest to poke his head out of the bushes before it gets blown clean off.

The Coens’ next two films, Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers, are most notable for being their two worst, though they aren’t useless for our purposes. Well, Cruelty is. The Ladykillers at the very least perpetuates the Coen theme of musical clashes, with Mrs. Munson’s gospel clashing with both Gawain’s “hippity hop” and G.H. Dorr’s pretensive love for Renaissance Music. Also, there’s almost certainly a direct reference to the man himself in Ladykillers, when Mrs. Munson mentions her church having once hosted a “Jew with a guitar” during the 1960s. Two guesses who that’s supposed to be.

No Country For Old Men
Things Have Changed

As we approach the later stages of the Coens’ filmography, a new question begins to emerge: is there a God? When No Country For Old Men was released in 2007, the brothers were 53 and 50 years old. Old enough to know that the title of their latest film, an adaptation of the Cormac MacCarthy novel of the same name, could apply to them just as well as it could any of the film’s characters.

Of all those characters, perhaps none (even in all of Coen-dom) fit this question — the eternal question — better than Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones), the aged sherrif of a small town in Rural Texas. Bell serves as the film’s narrator and its heart, but not its protagonist. His is a reactionary function, always arriving too late, always doing too little. In the face of the Godlessness that surrounds him (personified by Anton Chigurh), he gives his all in the pursuit of welder-turned-robber Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), and soon realizes that his all is not enough. Death is approaching.

Surely, Chigurh and Moss are great characters, the former seeming to have sprung from one of Dylan’s magical tunes, the latter one of a doomed pair of lovers from antiquity, but they aren’t what Ed Tom Bell is. Which is to say, he’s the most explicitly Dylanesque character the Coens have created to this point. To be precise, he’s elder statesman Bob Dylan, the one who has been touring for nearly 30 years straight. The croaky-voiced balladeer who can’t get back to what he used to be (even if he’s released some damned good albums in the interim).

The poem from which this seminal work takes its name, “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats, is similarly focused. “An aged man is but a paltry thing,” the poem’s narrator states. In his pursuit for immortal life, the poem’s narrator has come to understand that his only hope of success is imaginative. In the mind. In dreams.

In Ed Tom’s dream, his father rides past him into an ancient mountain pass. He knows that when he catches up, his father will have lit the way and made it safe for him. Then, when he wakes up, he knows none of it was real. It never was. There’s no one out there in the howling dark.

Thankfully for Ed Tom, and for us, it’s not dark yet. But it’s getting there.

Burn After Reading and A Serious Man
Because something is happening here / But you don’t know what it is

2008’s Burn After Reading is an excellent film, but perhaps not quite suited to this discussion. It suffices to say that everyone involved is completely inauthentic. If they could ever understand Llewyn Davis’s music, they certainly wouldn’t care about where it came from.

If No Country For Old Men asked if there was a God, 2009’s A Serious Man asked, more confusingly: Why is God? Following the exploits of another Minnesota Jew, Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), the film is unsubtly set in St. Louis Park, Minnesota in 1967, the very time and place the Coens themselves grew up in.

However, Larry Gopnik is not Joel or Ethan Coen, and nor is he Bob Dylan. He is uncertainty. If he has a catchphrase, it’s “what’s going on?” Like Mr. Jones, he can’t quite figure out what’s happening around him. In two separate lectures (one of them notably during a dream sequence,) Gopnik, a professor of physics, tells his students first about Schrodinger’s Cat, then about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The two most popular thought experiments of all time tie into Larry’s life with an unnerving clarity: his life, like Schrodinger’s Cat, lies unexamined. His wife is leaving him (for Sy Ableman!?), his children dislike him, his neighbor terrifies him, his students bribe him, his Rabbis ignore or infuriate him, and his brother mooches off of him. His life is a Kafkaesque labyrinth of misery and confusion. The Uncertainty Principle comes into play with his relationship to God. Conspicuously modeled after the Book of Job, the crux of the film comes from Larry’s confusion at his situation, and his growing disquietude with what God wants from him.

Musically, A Serious Man features several songs from direct contemparies of Dylan. Most notably, Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun” is featured during a major sequence. The relevance of this might seem tenuous at best, but I felt it worth mentioning, since Hendrix ranked himself as one of history’s biggest Dylan fans. Rumor has it that he wore his copy of Blonde on Blonde out due to overuse. They only met a scant few times, but Dylan made such an impression on a young Hendrix that he might have based his entire persona on the The Bard. Just who do you think Hendrix was trying to emulate with his hairstyle?

Anyway, as a learned man, Larry Gopnik seems to be prepared to accept his misery if only he can see the math behind it. Unfortunately there is none to be seen. In the film’s best sequence, referenced above, one of the three Rabbis in question regales Larry with a bizarre story about a local dentist who discovered “help me, save me” written in Hebrew on the back of a Goy patient’s teeth. Bewildered, the man looks to his faith for help, and finds nothing. He looks to his other patients for answers, and finds nothing. Finally, he just decides to help people more, and it seems to satisfy him. It doesn’t satisfy Larry. As the film winds down and the catastrophes unfold, Larry becomes more and more convinced that he is being tested, and like the God of Dylan’s early work, no one answers.

True Grit
Man in the Long Black Coat

If the subtext of the last two films is the Coens pondering the existence of God, their adaptation of True Grit is about something simpler: the retribution of God. Personified by the precocity and arrogance of Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), her sheer belief in God (and herself as a God-like figure) gives her the self-ordained right to do whatever she wants to whomever she wants. On one hand, the level of self-possession Mattie holds is unprecedented amongst Coen protagonists. Some might consider her willfulness endearing, and she’s certainly an interesting character, but in the larger context Mattie is at least somewhat concerning.

To put it as simply as I can: Mattie is not a good person. She’s one of the most morally bankrupt characters in the Coen canon. She extorts, she lies, she steals, and she even disobeys direct orders from two men whose job it is to keep her safe. Her quest to bring Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) to justice for the murder of her father makes her the righteous Christian on a mission, interested less in actual justice or vengeance than Biblical retribution. She goes with God on Her Side. Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) is the instrument of her (and by extension, God’s) divine retribution. On the face of it, the Coens have attempted to tell a simple story, but as always, the Coens hide their true, authentic faces behind masks. “Only the wicked flee,” the film’s teaser announces, and it sure seems like Mattie is fleeing to me.

As far as Bob Dylan is concerned, both Rooster and Mattie can be seen as representations of his more overtly religious phase(s). Think Slow Train Coming Dylan.

Back to True Grit: it’s fairly obvious early on that Rooster Cogburn is, like Mattie, not a good person (the moral standing of the Texas Ranger, LaBeouf, is less certain and less important. He does seem to be fairly interested in Mattie in a decidedly non-paternal way). Rooster is a drunkard and a murderer, but he’s also the most vicious bounty hunter in the area. Although he comes to respect and care for Mattie by the film’s climax, he’s still every bit as ornery and violent as he was before. When that climax comes, and our three heroes find themselves at odds with Chaney and Lucky Ned (Barry Pepper), it’s striking how Rooster and Ned being on the opposite sides of the law do not exactly mean that one is good and one is bad. Lucky Ned is a robber and killer in his own right, but seems to be an honorable sort, and treats Mattie with more respect than any of the other adults, despite her not really deserving it.

What’s interesting to me is that when Mattie finally exacts her revenge on Chaney, she is immediately cast into a pit of snakes, a literal Hell, and it takes Rooster, the amoral man, to pull her out. In the end, Mattie’s arc is (perhaps purposefully) incomplete. She doesn’t seem to learn anything, still just as bitter and self-righteous as she was at the start. Perhaps she never could learn anything. Perhaps that what she was meant to be all along.

Inside Llewyn Davis
Bringing it All Back Home

The Gaslight Cafe, 1961.

Llewyn Davis finishes strumming the final chords of “Fare Thee Well,” the traditional folk song he and his partner, Mike Timlin, recorded before the latter threw himself off a bridge. His set over, he leaves the stage to applause. After being told that a man in the alleyway wants to see him, he gets a good look at the act that follows him. A skinny Minnesota Jew wearing a harmonica holder begins strumming. After nearly three decades chasing his shadow, Bob Dylan has finally arrived on screen in a Coen film.

Despite being based on Dave Van Ronk, Llewyn Davis is, in many ways, the Coens’ stand in for Bob Dylan. He’s a man seemingly obsessed with authenticity and truthfulness, whose caustic sarcasm turns the people he depends upon for room and board against him. He’s basically Bob Dylan without Bob Dylan’s magnetic talent, and as such, he’s destined to be left behind. Unlike Barton Fink or Larry Gopnik, the other two ends of the Coens’ triptych of tortured men, Llewyn’s misery is mostly his own fault, and not of a vengeful God or Satanic figure of death and flame. That makes him, in a way, one of the most self-possessed characters in the canon. He makes his own choices, despite usually seeming to know better.

The film’s key sequence occurs after Llewyn hitches a ride to Chicago with friends of Al Cody (Adam Driver), a Ramblin’ Jack Elliott type whose kindness Llewyn subsists on. After a series of particularly acidic interactions with Roland Turner (John Goodman), an authentic musician if there ever was one, Llewyn completes his journey, arriving at the Gate of Horn in Chicago (so named after the gate in Greek myth which was thought to be the conduit for truthful dreams). In the Gate of Horn resides Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham), the arbiter of truth and authenticity in music. Llewyn plays for him, and his heartbreaking response is that he sees no money in the singer.

The truth of it is that the “common man” doesn’t care about authenticity. The average person doesn’t care who wrote a song or directed a film. “They” is the generalization usually inserted in place of any filmic or musical knowledge. Whether a person believes in the message of their art — indeed, whether there is a message to begin with — is generally not the concern of the sort of person Barton Fink professed to love or Llewyn Davis professed to represent. The common man: authenticity is for sale, and no one is buying.

So, in its own way, the end of Inside Llewyn Davis is an ode to the doomed souls caught up in the chase for authenticity. Does Llewyn deserve to sing songs of suffering? Did Ulysses Everett McGill? Did anyone? They’re just songs. Anyone can write them. Anyone can sing them. No one cares if you deserve to or not. So you can mean it, or you can fake it — it only matters to you. That, in the end, is the biggest thread tying Dylan and the Coens together: the pursuit of authenticity in a cultural landscape generally unconcerned with it. The ability to succeed, on your own terms, while communicating what you want, when you want, how you want. It’s a remarkable (and remarkably lucky) feat, and it’s one essentially none of the Coens’ protagonists manage to achieve.

Bob Dylan singing “Farewell” at the film’s end is, on one hand, a farewell to the bohemian lifestyle of the beat poet and the jazz musician and the folk singer, all of whom are about to see themselves swept away by the rising tide of protest songs and Britpop. On the other, it’s a very meta farewell to Llewyn himself, and all the Coen characters like him, who were too obsessed with being “real” than staying alive or actually succeeding. It’s a hard tightrope to walk, and the weather is against you. The wind blows hard.

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