My friends and I were really looking forward to the new Coen Brothers film, “Inside Llewyn Davis.” We’d all been involved with the subject matter, the early 1960s folk scene in New York, to some extent. Critics had been enthusiastic in their praise. And we were all Coen Brothers fans, most of us having seen most of their previous films.
But we all came out of the theater with scowls on our faces. None of us liked the movie very much. This was in spite of its obvious virtues: convincingly written, well acted, well directed, well photographed. So, what was wrong. Basically, none of us had wanted to spend two hours in the company of the title character, a narcissistic jerk. Try analyzing the plot of the film and you’ll see that Llewyn, a modestly talented musician, spends most of his time trying to find ways to take advantage of people–friends, lovers, other musicians, people in the music business. He starts out that way, wastes a lot of time and effort taking actions that are of no benefit to himself or anyone else (like a stupid, quixotic trip to Chicago). If some of the action or events in the story had inspired some change, some insight, some improvement in Llewyn’s character, I would have been pleased with the story. But no, he starts off a jerk and finishes a jerk too. The guy who plays Llewyn, Oscar Isaac, is distressingly convincing in his character.
(As an aside, I didn’t like most of the music in the film either. Llewyn and his friends are what I used to consider in the ‘60s fake folk musicians, people who took folk material or folk styles and sanitized it to make it more palatable to naive audiences. Peter, Paul and Mary, for example, used to make me sick. Too damn pretty. Oddly enough, Showtime broadcast a concert given in New York called “Another Day/Another Time” which was supposedly an offshoot of the film but had much better music.)
This kind of story seems to have enduring popularity with film makers and, sometimes, with audiences. Not with me. I consider it nihilism. I gain nothing from an experience like that, not entertainment, not insight, no revelations, just an opportunity to feel scornful towards some of my fellow human beings. I get enough of those reading the daily newspaper.
Another recent hit was a surprising adventure in nihilism, Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine.” Allen, when he hasn’t just been out for laughs, has often made remarkably powerful and moving films about our efforts to make connections with each other. “Manhattan” and “Annie Hall” were very effective depictions of people trying to make contact with others. And “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which I consider his masterpiece, tells an ugly story in a way that invites us to understand people who act out of bad motivations without endorsing them. But “Blue Jasmine,” apparently based on Allen’s fantasy of the post-conviction life of Bernard Madoff’s wife, is a hideous little story about human defeat. Cate Blanchett does a remarkable job of portraying Jasmine. But she is a weak person whose best idea about how to cope with her personal defeat is to take drugs. Not a very good idea. Like Llewyn, she learns nothing from her situation and does nothing useful or worthwhile throughout the movie. Nothing.
I find films like this displeasing and inexplicably popular. One such movie which puzzled the hell out of me was “Thelma & Louise.” This was a story of two women friends who started off by making a spectacularly stupid and self-defeating (and unnecessary) decision, trying to hide the death of a rapist instead of reporting it to the police. They then go on a road odyssey, making the worst possible decisions at every juncture. Eventually they work themselves into such an impossible situation that they decide to escape by killing themselves, which they do in a ridiculous blaze of cinematic glory. And millions of women apparently reacted to this movie as liberating for women. Ridiculous!
I was just as displeased, and just as puzzled, by the great and continuing success of “Raging Bull. Sure, Robert DeNiro does a remarkable job of acting in this movie. But the story is about a brutish character, the real-life boxer Jake LaMotta, who starts off treating everyone around him badly and continues to do so throughout the story, ending up as bad a character as he was when he started. What am I supposed to gain from this experience? What made it even worse to me was that it’s false. LaMotta actually did change through his life and has wound up a much-beloved person in boxing circles where, in his 90s, he continues to make personal appearances and occasionally does stand-up comedy. And, by the way, the boxing scenes in this film were as ludicrously unrealistic as the scenes in the “Rocky” movies. Real boxing doesn’t look anything like that!
Incidentally, I am well aware that the kind of nihilism I’m describing is not confined to films. It’s quite popular in the theater too and has been for a long time. It’s why I avoid anything written by Harold Pinter, an ace nihilist who can write, or David Mamet, a nihilist who can’t write worth a damn. And of course nihilistic novels have been common since the 19th century.
This is not my essay in favor of being nice. I have seen, and been moved by, many extraordinary films dealing with unpleasant circumstances and ugly characters. Last year, some of my friends tried to discourage me from going to see “Amour” because they thought that seeing a film about a man trying to cope (rather badly) with his wife’s deterioration would be too disturbing to me. (I’m the chief caregiver for my wife, who has Alzheimer’s Disease.) But I was very glad I went. This film was so realistic, acted and directed with such extraordinary power, and so revealing of real human conditions, that I found it liberating to watch and I look forward to seeing it again before too long. I am not a Pollyanna. I just don’t like being invited to watch bad people acting badly and learning nothing.