a journal of modern society & culture

The Mayor of MacDougall Street, by Dave Van Ronk

Lost & Found Books is an occasional Logos series reconsidering books that reviewers argue were lost in the shuffle, fell unjustly by the wayside or are otherwise worth a revival. Submissions are welcome but it is wise to propose pieces first.– KJ

Lost and Found Books: Dave Van Ronk, The Mayor of MacDougall Street (New York: Da Capo Press, 2005)

Few books ever got as totally, hopelessly, deliberately lost in a “based-upon” major film as Dave Van Ronk’s memoir Mayor of MacDougall Street did in Inside Llewyn Davis, the latest Coen Brothers film, which purports to be an insightful look at early 1960s Greenwich Village; a world observed through the eyes of a failed folksinger. The film, for reasons we’ll get into shortly, is widely acclaimed and got an Academy Award for cinematography. The domestic and foreign take has been in the mega-millions. The film’s promo material hailed it as based on the memoirs of folkie legend, Dave Von Ronk who, though he never cracked the big time like Bob Dylan, whom he mentored, was said to have been deemed the unofficial “Mayor of Greenwich Village,” which was the intentionally ironic title (humbly reduced to one storied Street) of his autobiographical musings – a very lively and feisty read.

The Coens’ film, in shorting Van Ronk, does us all a disservice. I met Van Ronk in the early Sixties: a gravel-voiced trader in the anecdotes which piqued my interest in a Village scene that produced Susie Rotolo, Dylan, David Blue, Jack Smith and the myriad characters who went on, like Patti Smith, to change the music and culture Scene. Van Ronk in person was both accessible and voluble. He knew how to laugh and one of his party-dotes was detailing just how Dylan had stolen his version of “House of the Rising Sun,” for which Dylan later apologized. The tune turns up on Dylan’s first record. He could forgive as well as remember.No one at that time and place could lay claim to more street cred than he.

The Coens therefore dispensed with the rollicking, passionate, and hilarious Van Ronk book and wrote their own utterly unrelated script, but their feeble insistence on citing the Van Ronk book may be taken as evidence that they guiltily craved an association with something authentic as a means of legitimating a script one senses they may even have seen for what it was, absolute dreck.

The Coens have been endlessly productive. Their early stuff can be beheld as nothing so much as a film school primer where scenes are subliminally labeled: a Visconti moment here, a Rosselini homage there, a Fellini reference, followed by a Wellesian image, etc. The cloistered ingrown film school world is summed in Generation X’er drivel featuring the manic pixie dreams of privileged adolescence, as summed in a director like Wes Anderson, who appears to have sprung, tireless, from the mind of a kind of meth-addled Peter Pan.

The Llewyn Davis film, according to the obigatorily clueless New York Times reviewer, supposedly opens up a world in which we are, gasp, revealed “as a species, ridiculous: vain, ugly, selfish and self-deluding.” The sentence indeed describes nearly everyone populating the film. The NY Times reviewer is right and perhaps even hits a little too close to a characterization of his own jam-packed Facebook page, but this contemptuous classification stands in absolute contradiction to the real Village of the early 1960s, as anyone bothering to read Van Ronk’s memoir would learn.

Contrary to the Coens’ demeaning portrait, this era in the Village was a time of fantastic productivity and originality – whether it was Jonas Mekas, Ed Sander’s Peace Eye Bookstore ( see Sanders Tales of Beatnik Glory), Julian Beck and Judith Malina’s Living Theatre, the theatrical genius of Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith, Schuman’s Bread and Puppet, and of course the teeming fans attracted by The Folklore Center and issues of Sing Out, in addition to a superb bar, club, and café life now inexorably supplanted by stock brokers town houses, boutique shops and consumerist cleansing and gentrification.

The Sixties scene is still the source of an endless list of books and memoirs from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez to Van Ronk, and even Brecht’s son Stephan – whose “Queer Theater” is well worth a look. The Coen film declines to provide even a brief glimpse of this heady world, instead it will tell you a great deal about where we are in 2014.

The Coens are savvy film mercantilists who have made some interesting moves over the past few decades. Their blockbuster Oh Brother Where Art Thou looked just outsider enough to do $70 million world wide and helped them propel a CD from the film (overseen by the now ubiquitous T-Bone Burnett) into the monetary stratosphere. It is axiomatic that a music sampling from any venture, when stacked with a successful film/video release, will generate figures double and triple and beyond what the old single feature release would rake in. Think T-shirts, spin offs, residuals, coffee mugs, crocheted logo’d soccer outfits, and psychedelic tea cozies.

So with Llewyn Davis we move into Coen fiscal sleight-of-hand land. They released a “documentary” of the film music as a companion. The “doc” features most of the performers from the film, with excellent additions like Joan Baez (who does not appear in the feature) playing music of the period. Most of the “doc” music does not appear in the Davies feature. What this canny move can do for the sales figures is significant: the “doc” can be marketed with a CD, just as the film can be marketed, and though the “doc” seems more a sales innovation than it does an addition to the feature, imagine the added revenue with all that product out there.

One should be post-modernist enough here not to have to allude to anything as retro as a plot line, but we unabashedly are taking an Old School approach to the question of an awful, cynical and spurious reworking of the early Sixties legacy, a legacy which is still (barely) with us in the shape of people like Dylan, whose Chronicles does attempt a serious look at just how vibrant the early Village years were.

What we get instead from the Coens is a nonstop depressive saga about a defeated Folkie whose sad journey takes him from the Village, where he has knocked up the wife of a friend, to Chicago, where Albert Grossman and Chicago’s legendary Gate of Horn are snottily parodied. That lugubrious trek is interspersed with Coen Brothers regular John Goodman who gives us a loathsome, heroin-addicted jazz musician, foulmouthed and confrontational. The Goodman character eventually will OD in a toilet stall.

There is also a do-gooding Village couple who help the hapless Davies and are roundly insulted for their trouble; a dulcimer-strumming folkie who Davies berates as she performs, and a G.I. folksinger who Davies manages to trash. The film opens and closes with Davies being beaten up by a man who, in the films final scene, is revealed as the irate husband of the singer Davies insulted. Inside Llewyn Davies is a tour de force of bad vibes, and it carries everything before it, including the New York Times’ sycophant job application posing as a review, which took the prize for contempt and shoddy thinking at Cannes. OK, I made the prize up, but it did win one at Cannes.

The Coens, children of academics, grew up in the Sixties and Seventies and were cut loose into the cutthroat world that Ronald Reagan twisted into glorious Neo Con fodder. One of them did time at NYU film school, the other dabbled in philosophy at Princeton. They have a deep and intoxicated and inevitably addling sense of film history, and they came into the “Industry” as film was becoming more and more TV-based and self-referential. Their remake of True Grit in no way improved upon the original, but it did have the merit of highlighting Jeff Bridges, one of their favorite actors.

Their work is effervescently thin, but ardent, and they are drawn to film noir and the classic dark side of American postwar film. They are adept at tracing American post-adolescence. Their Big Lebowski, for reasons that elude folks born before television began to saps every vital moment, is now iconic. Their original characters don’t just verge on cliché, they catapult into the category. Miller’s Crossing, although well acted, verged on cartoon. In good postmodernist fashion the Coens introduced large lashings of cartoonish elements into most of their work. With the exception perhaps of No Country for Old Men, where they amazingly stuck to the novel, characters that are fleshed out to the point of genuine humanity will collapse under the weight of supposedly their own (but really Coen-imposed) sad shadows.

All of this slick snideness posing as wisdom has served them well in a world where the complexity of a Welles or a Lang is now incomprehensible. It is not their fault that there has been a massive dumbing down in film but they played merrily along and mined what loot and fame they could. They don’t long to step outside their own time, they are their time. This is media: educated, savvy, endlessly weary, habituated, isolate, and successful.

The takeaway here is that the Sixties, in all their radical vitality, are now seen as a dead issue, made so by folks, like the Coens, who have no stake in that earlier jolt of progress and promise, and who now, in fact, react with considerable animus to those envied halcyon days. The Davis film is postmortem proof that the lamentable grad (and mostly business) school culture spread throughout the entertainment “industry” today diligently has reworked the cultural past into our grim present.

Film at the Coen scale requires immense amounts of moolah; the semblance of a genre (whether Cowboy, urban Punk, Sci Fi etc.); battalions of technically proficient people; a polished PR hook to hang the product on; performers who are willing to do the TV equivalent of the rubber Chicken circuit –“And what was your best moment working on this project, and how has it changed you as a person?”; star performers or soon-to-be-stars, and a directorial team with name recognition. The Tabloids must play their part in this. And still, and still God sends Good Luck, and God sends Bad.

But the question ‘What are the Coen’s after?’ doesn’t really apply. You might as well ask what did C.B. DeMille really want – after everyone had gone home, the floors had been swept, and he was left with only a cigar, his dreams, and a cowering lawyer aching to do his bidding. But no, times have changed and so has the technology. What seems a pointless pseudo-aesthetic exercise, a travesty to Van Ronk’s source material, is actually a marketing campaign disguised as a feature film. The Coens are among the new wave of filmmakers to grasp the postmodernist cliché: the only thing worth doing is selling.

From the highly promoted and even more highly tenuous relation of their film to the Van Ronk memoir; the addition of a documentary that bears virtually no musical relation to the feature (though is marketed as part of the film); to relentless interviews and tabloid puff pieces; to the absurdist reduction of the Sixties to mere failed vision, to the contemporary conceit that those Sixties folkies were really often just failed marketers of their own sad myths, we get some pointed and thoroughly modern Business School instruction.

The Coens do have a point, after all, and it sums our own time when Wall Street has proven itself untouchable after screwing tens of millions of citizens, safe even from the highest office in the land, which will not pursue the justice so many deserve. Yes, Llewyn Davis has been right all along: its just a scam, the whole sad charade, and if you can make a buck selling that back to the customers. Good on ya, Mate, lets celebrate with a folk song. Oh, and do yourselves a favor and read Van Ronk.

 

Warren Leming is a writer, musician, and filmmaker who divides his time between Chicago and Berlin. His latest documentaries include the award-winning American Road (www.americanroad.jigsy.com) and Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia (www.lastintellectuals.jigsy.com).

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1 comment

1 Ann Korach { 11.20.14 at 5:20 am }

Concise and sledgehammer on point writing Warren, thanks for the good read.