When The Movies Get It Right: A Great Artist Makes A Bad Business Decision In A Great Film, a.k.a. The Curse Of Llewyn Davis

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[Potential Spoilers Follow for Inside Llewyn Davis. Be warned.]

If you’re a working artist, Ethan and Joel Coen understand you. Inside Llewyn Davis is a movie by artists, about artists, for artists. It is sad and soulful, angry but thoughtful, bleak yet hope shines in around the edges, and is totally, utterly understanding of the trials and tribulations you go through.

Oscar Isaac is stunning as the eponymous, transient hero. Seriously stunning. His Llewyn is a homeless bounder, sleeping on friends’ couches night by night, carrying nothing with him but a guitar and a cat, trying to pick up gigs and cash wherever he can.  Unmoored by the untimely death of his singing partner, he is still creatively vibrant, but unable to parlay that into a meaningful solo career. As the movie takes pains to show, he’s no Bob Dylan.

Several times throughout the film, Isaac's performance brought me nearly to tears because I’ve been him. Obviously not in the particulars of his life, but the way he shows the dogged pursuit, the endless failure, and the devotion to the craft despite it all are so familiar it’s scary. We have all experienced that crushing weight when your last best hope for a paying gig (and maybe your entire future) tells you “I don't see a lot of money here” and sends you packing. Maintaining the integrity of your art is difficult enough, but when you add commerce to the mix, how do you ever reconcile the two? This movie is about that very paradox (lest I make the movie sound like a relentless downer, rest assured; as with other Coen Bros films, this one is ferociously funny).

There’s a scene midway through the film where Llewyn signs away royalties and the right to be credited on what turns out to be a popular and financially successful song because he needs the money N-O-W. He’s got expenses to pay and places to be and he can’t sit around waiting for a royalty check to come, if it ever does. I’ve never done that but I know people who did, and the way the scene is played - Llewyn doesn't even take a moment to consider the potential windfall at his fingertips - rings so true that I couldn’t let it lie, I had to write about it.

It’s been going on as long as artists have tried to profit from their art. In perhaps the best known example of this, two Jewish kids from Ohio sold their little-known comic book character to a publisher in the 1930s for 130 bucks. That hero turned out to be Superman and the publisher, DC Comics, made millions while Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster died penniless. 75 years after Siegel and Shuster were scammed out of the most iconic creation of the 20th century, their estates are STILL fighting with DC Comics over the rights to the character.

As someone who advises artists in manners of law and business, it’s easy for me to sit here and tell you to take the long view. You never know when something you work on will hit big, so it’s better to plan for the future, right? Of course it is! But who can ever know if that will happen? The odds of that kind of success are frankly against you, and plus, you have rent to pay, so why not take the money now?

That’s what Inside Llewyn Davis gets to its very core. That the life for artists is messy and filled with dire financial obligations (a friend of mine coined the phrase “adulthood is a never-ending series of urgent expenses”). The only person who can control how you get paid is you, and like Llewyn, you’re often making that call while shouldering the weight of the world. If there is a lesson to learn here, it’s that you should try to mentally detach yourself from your obligations in order to make a good decision. That may not be easy or even possible in some situations, but there you go.

You can't know if your work will be successful; the only thing you can control is your decision-making process. So find a way to control it. Llewyn didn’t because he’s a hot head. That kind of passion makes him a great artist, but it’s also why he’s essentially a bum.

[P.S. If you can’t tell, I loved the film. You should see it.]

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA