Mar 6 2014

Reflections on Monument Men and the preservation of the creative arts

maureen

Monument Men is about a group of art scholars who are trying to chase down caches of art taken by the Nazis before it is destroyed. Though I thought the film itself dragged a bit in places, it raised the compelling question whether preserving civilization’s art during a war was worth spending lives and using resources. The film’s answer was a resounding “yes.”

Statements at the end of the film outlined art and architecture that was lost, not only to Nazi pillaging, but to bombing by both Allies and Axis forces. It made me think of the loss of literature during the Middle Ages. Invasions and the resulting battles all over Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East resulted in destruction of literature. Goths and Franks, Huns and Muslims, Vikings and Normans, and Christian Crusaders all contributed to the destruction of classical and Biblical literature. On top of that, scribes themselves sometimes made a call of scrape off writings and reuse the paper since paper was scarce and everything had to be painstakingly copied by hand. As lives crumbled and cities burned some scholars, many of them monks, predominantly Irish, decided that preserving art and literature was worth the effort. Many important texts of Western culture survived to be studied by the likes of Washington and Jefferson. Reading Euclid influenced Lincoln’s phrasing in his Gettysburg Address. To a great extent centuries of scholars studied the same collection of literature known as the Western Canon.

American education over the last century formed a common cultural canon. A liberal education meant students were exposed to roughly the same set of pieces. With the ability to digitize, massive amounts of literature, arts, music is being preserved for the next generation. The question is whether the next generation will find it relevant and worth looking at it, much less sacrificing to save it. Through education and culture there does still seem to be a collection of literature, art, music, and film that provides a sort of post-modern canon, a collection of works experienced by most of us. With the variety of schooling options and subcultures, along with the trend toward personalization, over time, as a culture, we may have fewer and fewer pieces in common. I suspect each of us will form a personal canon based on individual values. Continue reading


Jan 12 2014

The Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis is a journey

maureen

SPOILER ALERT. Inside Llewyn Davis begins and ends with the same scene outside a folk venue in 1960’s Greenwich Village. A flashback then picks up Llewyn who, while leaving his friends’ apartment after a night on their couch, accidentally lets out their orange tabby. Finding he’s locked himself and the cat out of the apartment Llewyn picks up the cat and continues his journey.

The audience is filled in on what’s happened up to this point, the event that has put Llewyn on this particular journey. He’s grieving the loss of his friend and music partner Mike and trying to restart his career as a solo folk artist. He sleeps on couches, has no winter coat, struggles with bitterness and tries to maintain what he considers his artistic integrity.

The Coens do love their mythology. O Brother Where Art Thou was a retelling of the Odyssey. A Serious Man was their take on the Book of Job.  “It’s never new. It never gets old. It’s a folk song,” Every story is a journey. And every journey is different. That’s what the Coens do. They take an archetypical pattern and make it individual to every single character they create. So many of the stories they tell involve some sort of journey, whether physical or internal. While the plot was loose, my take on Inside Lleweyn Davis is that it is yet another journey. 

Llewyn is a former merchant marine, several of the songs in the film refer to journeys, and specifically to the sea. We find out late in the film that the cat’s name is Ulysses (Roman name for Odysseus). At one point in the film Llewyn stands in front of a movie poster of The Incredible Journey, a movie about the long trek of two dogs and cat finding their way home. I read one review that compared Llewyn’s journey to that of Leopold Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Plausable. 

Llewyn has lost his singing partner Mike to suicide. He discovers he has a child he’s never seen. He has another about to be aborted. He is facing a crossroads in which he must choose to continue his dream of being a folk musician or move back into the more lucrative career of merchant marine. His father is dying. He keeps pushing the wrong buttons in his relationships with family and friends.  Llewyn’s quest takes him around the Village, to his family in Queens, and on a road trip with an aging jazz musician and his beatnik poet driver. Throughout this trek he continually carries and loses the cat.

Apparently the Coens added the cat after they’d written the movie. Whether its meant as a symbol or narrative device, the cat does hold this loose episodic narrative together. The Coens tend to trust their audience enough to leave some things up to interpretation.  Does the cat represent Llewyn’s psyche? Is it his shadow? Is it the herald of change? Does it represent his fleeting music career? Is it there to reveal that the heart beating inside this melancholy, irritable, self-absorbed character is larger than it appears? At some point during the film it seemed all these things. 

Llewyn’s story is like a folk song. A bleak journey of a suffering regretful man. So many of the songs in the movie are about loss. Songs like Fare Thee Well, Five Hundred Miles, and The Last Thing on My Mind are about lost love. Hang me o hang me is also about loss.  In the song, Queen Jane, a woman dies in childbirth. And so the film ends before Llewyn’s journey leads him to any sort of resolution. Llewyn sits beaten in the alley outside the venue listening to the future of folk singing inside. It’s left to each member of the audience to conclude whether he abandons the folk scene for the open sea or continues to plug away at his craft. Either way, I hope he got himself a cat.