After having read J. Hoberman’s film review of Inside Llewyn Davis in Tablet, I was excited to see the latest Coen Brothers film. What I found most interesting about the review was the fact that Hoberman uses the schlemiel to interpret the Coen Brothers films in general and this film in particular. But in his reading of the schlemiel in their films, he employs an interesting strategy: he starts by focusing on the Coen Brothers’ desire to “torture” their characters and from there moves to a description of their “victims.” Before I discuss the film and my response to it, I’d like to address Hoberman’s strategy since it seems to suggest something contrary to what Ruth Wisse, who he cites in his article, suggests about the schlemiel: while he focuses on the comic character’s “existential victimization,” Wisse argues that the point of the schlemiel is not just to disclose “existential victimization” so much as its tension with those little things about humanity that give hope. The schlemiel narrowly averts total victimization by way of wit, language, or art. In her own words, the schlemiel may lose in reality but she ultimately wins an “ironic victory” by way of art. But, as Wisse well knew, this victory is not complete. It is marked by the tension between hope and skepticism.
While Hoberman is correct in noting that the main character of the Coen Brothers film is plagued by bad luck, his emphasis on the Coen Brother’s desire to “victimize” their characters and his characterization of the schlemiel as an “existential (read absolute) victim” takes away from this tension. To be sure, if a character is totally hopeless, he or she is not a schlemiel. No matter how minimal, there must be some redeeming quality (either in the character, the characterization, or the tone of the medium). To be sure, the Coen Brothers film tests the limits of the schlemiel and prompts us to ask about why they would do this. What is at stake with this old/new incarnation of the schlemiel? How does it relate to how “we” view ourselves in these trying times?
Hoberman begins his reading of the schlemiel in the Coen Brothers films with a reading of Larry Gopnik, the “Job-like anti-hero” of A Serious Man. He calls Gopnik an “existential victim”:
While most Coen characters could be considered garden variety shmeggeges, Larry Gopnik is something more culturally specific: a schlemiel. A shmeggege is merely a nitwit. The luckless and self-deceiving, well-intentioned but ineffectual schlemiel, defined by the Universal Jewish Encyclopedia as one who “handles a situation in the worst possible manner” is an existential victim—or maybe the embodiment of an existential condition.
Paraphrasing Ruth Wisse and her opus on the schlemiel, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, he argues that for writers like Sholem Aleichem the Jewish people are a “schlemiel people.” But were he to look closer at Wisse’s book, he would find that though they may be a “schlemiel people,” Aleichem, in Wisse’s view, always maintained that while he saw the Jews as the losers of history, he didn’t see them as “existential” (read absolute) victims. (I want to note, here, that I don’t equate the word “existential” with absolute, but the way Hoberman uses it – vis-à-vis the “existential victim” – one would think that a fatalism is at work. And this is not what the schlemiel is about. His crisis-slash-victimization-by-existence (or history, rather) is informed by his existential condition; however, it is narrowly averted.) In fact, in Aleichem’s novels we find joy juxtaposed with pain. And this is accomplished through wit and art. Both Irving Howe and Ruth Wisse have noted this juxtaposition in their critical analysis on Aleichem.
Hoberman goes on to emphasize the schlemiel’s “existential” (victim) quality in A Serious Man by comparing it to the one of the most bleak American schlemiel novels in the 20th century; namely, Stern by Bruce Jay Friedman:
Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher. (A Serious Man, as outraged Village Voice reviewer Ella Taylor wrote in a memorable rant, was “crowded with fat Jews, aggressive Jews, passive-aggressive Jews, traitor Jews, loser Jews, shyster-Jews, emo-Jews, Jews who slurp their chicken soup, and—passing as sages—a clutch of yellow-toothed, know nothing rabbis.” They are, to say the least, uniformly unlovely.)
This contrast is telling, and I would love to hear more on the meaning of this difference. However, from here Hoberman turns to Inside Llewyn Davis to note that the main character in this film “inspires a sympathy beyond the constraints of his creators’ rote contempt.” If this is the case, wouldn’t Llewyn’s schlemiel character have some redeeming qualities that turn us against the world? While Wisse would see this as a key feature of the schlemiel (in many a Yiddish novel), Hoberman doesn’t – at this point – make too much of the sympathy inspired by this character.
Rather, Hoberman gives much more attention to the character as existential victim:
Every aspect of Llewyn’s life is absurd. He is the universe’s plaything. For much of the movie’s first half, the Coens contrive to have him in futile pursuit of a benefactor’s pet cat while at the same time fending off the escalating fury of a friend and fellow folksinger’s wife (Carey Mulligan) who claims that he’s made her pregnant. Later, Llewyn goes on the road to Chicago with a feline cat and a human one (John Goodman as a hideous jazz junkie hipster), hoping to land a gig at the Gate of Horn or at least get representation from the owner Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). A stand-in for Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman, this imposing figure is singularly unimpressed by Llewyn’s heartfelt and not unoriginal rendition of “The Death of Queen Jane,” crassly remarking only “I don’t see a lot of money here.”
Hope does peep up, however, at the end of the film. But it is minimal. And Hoberman rightly points out that, at the very end of the movie, the appearance of Bob Dylan is kept minimal so as to disclose Llewyn as the schlemiel. Dylan is the “movie’s structuring absence”:
It cannot have been lost on the Coens that it was a Minnesota Jew like themselves who effectively schlemiel-ized an entire movement of earnest idealists. (Who could top the singer’s “Positively 4th Street” kiss-off: I wish that for just one time, you could stand inside my shoes/ You’d know what a drag it is to see you.) Nor could the brothers have failed to see the joke. The magnitude of Dylan’s off-screen success magnifies Davis’ humiliation. Dylan is their movie’s structuring absence: That he is a Jew who is not a schlemiel means he can’t be shown at all.
The last words of Hoberman’s review suggest that the Coen Brothers want to victimize Llewyn Davis by leaving the successful Jew out. We can only read Llewyn Davis’s failure by way of what is “outside” of Llewyn Davis; namely, the “Jew who is not a schlemiel.” This suggests that while Hoberman begins his review with a reading of the schlemiel and Llewyn as the “existential victim” with little to no hope, he reads the schlemiel in terms of the tension between hope and skepticism. The only redeeming quality of the schlemiel is really to be found in our historical understanding that for every Llewyn there is a Bob Dylan.
This last insight is of great interest to me because it suggests that the existence of the schlemiel, today, may be premised on how we understand history. At the end of The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse argues that the schlemiel can only exist in a historical time that is an admixture of hope and skepticism. If we live in a time that is totally skeptical or totally optimistic, the schlemiel, in her view, cannot exist.
This brings us to the question of what is “outside” Llewyn Davis. Rather than reading this film (and others) in terms of the Coen Brothers “victimizing” the schlemiel we need to ask why this might appear to be the case for Hoberman..or any of us. To be sure, the Coen Brothers are providing us with a limit case of the schlemiel that is based on how we view ourselves. Although Bob Dylan does emerge at the very end of the movie and although we know that he will emerge after the failure of folk music, we also know that history is not over and that it is not characterized by pure progress.
At one point, Ruth Wisse thought that the historical founding of Israel spelled the end of the schlemiel. But now, in her latest book, she still sees its existence as having some historical use. The Coen Brothers, to my mind, also see history as a part of their film. The film, though framed in the early 1960s, should give us pause to ask whether the schlemiel – as they understand it – exists today.
As I watched the film, I realized that the schlemiel does exist; regardless of the successes of this or that Jew, the economy is slumping and many, like Davis, feel as if everything they touch “turns to shit.” The only redeeming quality of Davis is outside him in the sense that the possibility of success exists. And although Davids is not a Jew, he is an outsider and an “existential victim” by virtue of harsh, American historical reality.
But if we don’t see the historical possibilities around us, then the appearance of Dylan at the end of the film is meaningless. Hoberman suggests –at the end of his review – that Davis will likely go up with Dylan to a life of success. But is this true? Can we read this historical moment in such positive terms? It all depends on how we read what is outside Llewyn Davis. And this is where the genius of the Coen Brothers consists: they teach us that the thin line between being a schlemiel and an absolute victim of harsh American reality is based on our historical circumstances. The power of art is limited by history.
The Yiddish writers, who popularized the schlemiel, knew this too. And they always foregrounded hope against the existential realities of history. But even during the worst pogroms, they still found hope. And many of them, including Sholem Aleichem and even Franz Kafka, saw some kind of hope in America, We live after that hope, after the Holocaust, and after 9/11. Our view of history is obviously different. But, in the end, the presence of the schlemiel depends on how we view the meaning of success in America.
As long as there is a tension with the promise of success in America, the schlemiel will exist. The minimal presence of Bob Dylan against the presence of Llweyn Davis reminds us that the margin between success and failure is growing.
When we compare Llewyn Davis to schlemiels played by Seth Rogen or Ben Stiller you can see that while films by Judd Apatow are popular they are based, ultimately, on the belief that there is lots of hope for the schlemiel and that his failure is laughable. The Coen Brothers, on the other hand, think otherwise. And this is what makes their film and their schlemiel more appealing to me than Apatow’s (which fails to balance hope and skepticism in a realistic and existential manner).
The Coen Brothers realistically look into what is outside Llewyn Davis to understand what is inside him. And our historical situation will determine whether he is a schlemiel or an “existential victim.” In other words: Dylan’s minimal presence at the end may not be enough to make us smile. In that case, our knowledge of what is outside Llewyn Davis may not change a thing.
Let’s hope he’s a schlemiel. If he’s not, America is in trouble.