Love Note – ‘Please Mr Kennedy’

The first Coen Brothers film I watched was Fargo when I was 18 and I really didn’t get it. The parody of a ‘true’ crime drama, with its humour and comic book violence, was all lost on me. As I’ve grown older, my awareness and appreciation of the Coen oeuvre has increased and expanded. My main Coen Brothers eureka moment came with A Serious Man, by way of True Grit and No Country for Old Men (I still need to watch The Big Lebowski and others). With Larry’s exasperated declaration that ‘I don’t want Santana Abraxis! I’ve just been in a terrible auto accident!’ I finally understood the full hilarious extent of the artful and subtle writing. Which brings me to Inside Llewyn Davis, which I find hilarious and joyful in its anger and misery, and it has become one of my favourites.

Llewyn is my favourite kind of grumpy arse who believes he should be an uber-successful musician but is blinded by pride, egotism and poor decision-making capabilities.[1] He has opportunities to help himself throughout the film, but prefers rather to wallow in his own self-importance and curse everyone around him for his short-sightedness, bad luck and inability to compromise. I love Llewyn because he is propelled by both intense delusions of grandeur but also a kind of endearing vulnerability that prevents him from being able to do anything else but be creative. The film was criticised by Suzanne Vega for turning the folk scene in 1960s New York into ‘a slow brown sad movie’, but I think this is to misunderstand what the Coens are getting at: there probably was a Llewyn in 1960s New York, just as there was probably a Llewyn at every point in artistic history. Wherever art and creativity are mixed up with commercial success, fame and recognition, there is going to be a Llewyn. Where there’s a Bob Dylan, there is a Llewyn. There has always been a Llewyn and there will always be a Llewyn.

One of my favourite scenes in the film is where Llewyn records a childish, novelty song with Jim Berkey (Justin Timberlake) and Al Cody (Adam Driver). ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ gives me life and I frequently sing it around the house, getting it stuck in the heads of loved ones around me (you’re welcome). Click the photo below to have a watch:

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I love everything about this 2 minutes and 59 seconds. I love the hideousness of Justin Timberlake’s beige jumper; Oscar Isaac’s cooler-than-thou cigarette hanging from his mouth; the nauseating earnestness of Timberlake’s insistence of two ‘P Ps’ before ‘please’; I love that Llewyn thinks he’s too good for the song (Llewyn: Who wrote this? Jim: I did); I love Timberlake singing and staring God-wards as though he’s delivering the most profound song in the world, when it’s probably the most ridiculous; the series of surreal blurtings and ejaculations in the scene-stealing performance of Adam Driver (‘One second please!’ and ‘Uh Oh!’ being my favourite accompaniments); the cheesiness of Timberlake’s ‘Oh pleeeeeeease’ and Llewyn’s sterling attempts to meet him with his eyes closed; and I love the stupid lyrics and the stupid music. The whole thing is just hilarious.[2]

As well as being a bonafide ear worm, I love ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ because I realised that it loosely presents a bit of an allegory for life. It reminds me of a famous painting that depicts the three standard bearers of Eastern philosophy and spirituality: the vinegar tasters.

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'The_Three_Vinegar_Tasters'_by_Kano_Isen'in,_c._1802-1816,_Honolulu_Museum_of_Art,_6156.1

The picture depicts Confucius, Buddha and Lao Tsu and represent the basic tenets of their belief systems: Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism. We have Confucius, who perceives life as full of corruption and people needing saving from degeneration: he tastes vinegar as sour, as ‘polluted wine’. Llewyn, the archetypal mardy bum hates ‘Please Mr Kennedy’, thinks it’s crap and wants to blast his way through it to get to the folk music career he wants.

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Jim represents (in a very loose way, please indulge me), Buddha. Buddha sees that tasting vinegar exposes him to bitterness, life’s bitterness. We are offered the opportunity to practice not avoiding the difficulties and trials of life, but also to practice not being overwhelmed by them either. Jim understands that he cannot take responsibility for himself and his family by pursuing a career as a purist folk singer. Whilst he performs folk classics at The Gaslight Café, he also makes space for a crap novelty song, no less earnest and with no less integrity in his performance of it as he is of ‘500 Miles’. Either which way, he is performing, practising, trying to find a middle way.

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Al represents Lao Tsu and the Tao. Lao Tsu tastes the vinegar and rejoices in the vinegar-ness of the vinegar. It is sweet to Lao Tsu because it is manifesting according to its nature, exactly as it should: when life is appreciated as it should, it becomes sweet. In a similar way, Al Cody is committed to ‘Please Mr Kennedy’ for what it is, no qualms, no quarrels but with plenty of gusto and dedication. His singing part requires no less: a half-hearted ‘Outer Space!’ just wouldn’t work. As such, as I mentioned earlier, he pretty much steals the scene.

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‘Please Mr Kennedy’ is a shmuck song, artistically questionable, a real toe-tapper and perhaps the most important song in the entire film. To appreciate it speaks volumes and to not appreciate it speaks volumes. I think we have all three characters inside of us at any one point and they all have something to teach us. I’ve had many a Llewyn day, which is fine: Llewyn is great, I wouldn’t not be a bit Llewyn. But I would encourage myself, as much as possible, to be Al: to appreciate and revel in the nature of things just as they are. This sublimely ridiculous life, encapsulated in this sublimely silly song, requires just as much humour and healthy ridiculousness to meet it.

[1] Llewyn is Welsh for ‘lion’ or ‘leader’, which just feeds the wonderful irony about this miserable, supercilious protagonist.

[2] What makes this all even better, now that time and pop culture have elapsed since 2013, is that Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver now play adversaries Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars films. What a joy it is to see these two men, stars of the biggest sci-fi franchise of all time, strumming away singing the best stupid song about space ever written. Sarah Brightman’s ‘I Lost My Heart to a Star Ship Trooper’ must be the worst stupid song about space ever written.

 

 

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