While it’s likely entirely coincidental, it’s nevertheless fitting that the Coen brothers’ latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis, has its initial release on December 6. That was the day of the Altamont music festival in 1969, at which four people died and about which Ralph J. Gleason wrote: “If the name ‘Woodstock’ has come to denote the flowering of one phase of the youth culture, ‘Altamont’ has come to mean the end of it.”
The 1960s are often remembered in pop culture for the “youth culture” Gleason wrote about—the wave of hippies, drugs, rock and roll, passionate activism, and social revolution we see in films like 1969 and Forrest Gump and catch the tailwind of in Almost Famous. But this year, the 6th brings an anniversary and movie that both serve as reminders that the storied optimism and magic of the era did, indeed, end, and was perhaps has been exaggerated to begin with.
Llewyn Davis’s eponymous main character (Oscar Isaac) is a ’60s folk musician leading a fragile existence in New York. The film takes place in the weeks before Bob Dylan’s first performance in the city in early 1961, capturing a moment before the East Village music scene became the center of a cultural movement. Llewyn Davis is, along with David Chase’s Not Fade Away and Olivier Assayas’s French film Something in the Air, the third film in a year to look back at the 1960s with skepticism rather than with stereotypes and backward-looking romanticization. All three remind audiences that, contrary to the story often told in retrospect, some people faced private tragedy and inner turmoil even in the open-minded, happy-go-lucky 1960s, and many came out just as lost as when they entered. They tell stories about quests for artistic glory, but fame and success come only to characters in the background, if at all; what we get instead are close-up portraits of youthful aimlessness. And the fact that they’ve been released to the world in the midst of a flurry of hand-wringing over the aimlessness of Millennials reveals these films to be both rooted in history and contemporary.
Inside Llewyn Davis’s main character is not destined to lead an artistic movement, even if he has the views for it: Though he’s secure in his convictions, Llewyn is insecure in life. He wanders from couch to couch in New York like a man in permanent limbo. The characters around him can seem archetypal and cartoonish at first, until you realize that we’re seeing them through Llewyn’s eyes, filtered by his preoccupations and rigid determinations of how the world should work. For example, when Jean (Carey Mulligan), his friend, fellow musician, and sometime lover, shares that she might one day like to settle down in the suburbs with kids and that playing music may just be a way to get there, Llewyn tells her, “It’s a little careerist, it’s a little square, and it’s a little sad.”
These characters—which, besides Jean, include a heroin-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman) and a pair of Upper West Side benefactors—in turn offer brief glimpses of how that world views Llewyn: skeptically, and sometimes as a nuisance. At one point, a Chicago club manager explains why he’s hiring a rival musician and not Llewyn: “He’s a good kid. He connects with people.” It’s a description in direct contrast to Llewyn’s near constant state of tension and anxiety, of distant apprehension toward a society that he can’t find a place in. Clearly, Llewyn doesn’t have the charisma or the ambition to create the change he’d like to see in society; he searches for a revolutionary triumph, but his puttering assures that he’ll fall short.
Something in the Air and Not Fade Away depict characters with equally heartfelt commitments—to anarchist politics and to rock and roll, respectively—and both films are as skeptical about them as Llewyn Davis. They carefully portray these allegiances as part of their characters’ youthful wandering—as the characters’ attempts to find their own way in life, rather than as enduring beliefs.
Of the three, Not Fade Away manages to be both the most sympathetic to its character’s cause and the most scathing about the actual possibilities of its success. We meet Douglas (John Magaro) as a high school senior in 1963, right before the fall of Camelot gives way to the British Invasion. Douglas starts a band, and while Chase treats the band members’ enthusiasm and smug self-assurance somewhat dismissively, he takes their escapist drive dead seriously by giving it validation from an adult character: In the film’s most devastating scene, Douglas’s father, Pat (James Gandolfini), with whom Douglas has a turbulent relationship, confesses his own dissatisfaction with small-town New Jersey life, his regret at missed opportunities, and his brief thoughts a few weeks earlier about running off to California with a woman he just met.