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Adaptations: Inside Llewyn Davis

In the first of a new series, Matthew O'Donoghue considers the transformation which a story undergoes as it moves from book to screen, and introduces an extract from The Mayor of MacDougal Street - the memoir which became the Coen brothers' latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis...

Posted on 12th February 2014 by Matthew O'Donoghue



Folk music at South Street on the East River, near the Brooklyn Bridge in Lower Manhattan, draws enthusiastic crowds. (©Suzanne Szasz)

It’s only fitting that we start this series about book to film adaptations (film to book adaptations is another bag entirely and I would like to take this short opportunity to doff my cap to Alan Dean Foster, king of the movie novelisation) with the Coen brothers. Their films include both extremely faithful adaptations of books such as No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy and True Grit by Charles Portis as well as films inspired by Dashiell Hammet (Miller’s Crossing), Raymond Chandler (The Big Lebowski) and now Dave Van Ronk’s memoir The Mayor of MacDougal Street. Famously the brothers also claimed that Fargo, their Oscar winning 1996 film was based on a true story, however the film was a complete fabrication and there was a quantity of brouhaha regarding what this sleight of hand meant. Questions as to what extent do the filmmakers owe their audience the truth, what constitutes the truth in this medium, what do these stories mean to us came up in the wake of the revelation the film was completely fictional. Clearly the Coen brothers have something on their minds when they make these films, something which may or may not be best explored through a dogmatic approach to adaptation, and Inside Llewyn Davies, a film inspired by The Mayor of MacDougal Street by Dave van Ronk, is obviously about more than sharing the troubadour’s experience verbatim as the film is a bold reimagining of the book from the title down.

There are similarities, mostly thematic, between the two texts and below is an excerpt from the book regarding Llewyn/Dave’s trip to the Gate of Horn that will highlight quite how far from the text the Coen’s have strayed for those who have seen the film, offer those who haven’t a sketch of what they can expect and demonstrate quite how funny, knowledgeable and enjoyable the book is. And The Mayor of MacDougal Street is hugely enjoyable; Van Ronk is a raconteur with a mixture of pithy one liners, road worn wisdom, enthusiasm and a scholarly understanding of the various factions of the folk scene in Greenwich Village. While many of his adventures have the hint of missed opportunity the old axiom of tragedy plus time equalling comedy certainly applies here and Van Ronk displays a humane and compassionate reading of his contemporary’s successes, including, but not limited to, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Phil Ochs. Van Ronk accomplishes the rarest of feats with a book of this type: he makes folk music interesting to read about even to those who don’t care for it. Quite aside from the self-deprecation and wit that drives the prose the author understands that while this is his story the really juicy bit is the context, the surrounding characters and ideas that gives his journey boundaries and scope. More than anything the book feels like spending a few hours in the company of a born storyteller, the kind of companion who makes the bell for last orders turn up all too early.

As for Llewyn Davis? He’s not so much that storyteller as he’s the guy rolling his eyes at everyone who is eating out of the storyteller’s hands. The last in a long line of the tortured geniuses that the Coen brothers take so much joy in torturing with aplomb, Llewyn cannot help himself but rage against the phonies, the inauthentic buffoons, that surround him, but remains incapable of turning that gaze upon himself. He might yet gain the distance and understanding that fills the pages of The Mayor of MacDougal Street with pathos and humour but he has a few beatings to endure before he learns the lessons necessary for this to happen. Inside Llewyn Davis is perhaps as oblique as The Mayor of MacDougal Street is warm and inviting, and fools debate the meaning of any Coen brothers film at their own risk (and hey, if you fancy having a bash in the comments more power to you, just mark out any spoilers), but despite the lack of a traditional narrative or literal meaning it is a hugely satisfying film and a career highlight for two filmmakers with no shortage of incredible films under their belt. For my money it’s their best film since No Country for Old Men (and what an incredibly different type of adaptation that was). The snub for the best film Oscar is a sad indication of the direction of the Academy Awards at the moment and in no way indicative of the quality of this wonderful film, especially given the pedestrian nature of other films on the list.

While the link between the book and the film in this instance is more mercurial than in almost any adaptation outside of the Coen brothers’ canon of work there is plenty of light to be thrown on the film by reading this book. The horrors and delights suggested by the movie broaden into vignettes and tales about a changing America, an evolving musical scene and the price paid in altering the culture forever. Reading the first half of this book while sat in the Night and Day Café in Manchester is one of my happiest reading experiences in recent memory and watching Inside Llewyn Davis a second time a few days later, tearing into its themes on the walk home with a good friend, one of my happiest cinema experiences. The book and film are both texts I would happily push on people, that they make such an odd and complex marriage is to their credit. In a perfect world Inside Llewyn Davis is up for Best Film Oscar and we’re all enjoying The Mayor of MacDougal Street on our commutes as a result. For now here is a taster of this most enjoyable of memoirs.

Matthew O'Donoghue, for Waterstones.com/blog

The Mayor of McDougal Street"I still do not know what I sang or said, but I remember very well what happened immediately afterward. I was shaking like someone who has narrowly missed a fatal car crash, and just as happy, when up came Odetta herself with a great big smile on her face—and she has a smile that could melt diamonds. “That was wonderful,” she said. “Do you do this for a living?” I told her, no, I was a merchant seaman on the beach and I meant to ship out again as soon as my money ran low. Well, she said, if I was interested, she could take a tape of mine out to Chicago to Albert Grossman, the owner of the Gate of Horn. Of course, she could not make any promises, but there might be a gig in it for me.

On the face of it, me at the Gate of Horn seemed pretty far-fetched. That was where the big kids played: Josh White, Theo Bikel, Odetta herself. On the other hand, I was a pretty arrogant young dog, so why not? Was I not a vessel of the Great Tradition, a Keeper of the Flame? In any case, I had nothing to lose. I thanked the nice lady profusely and told her I would get a tape to her directly.

With some difficulty, I got a demonstration tape made—tape recorders were expensive, and thus rare in my circle—and a mutual acquaintance volunteered to get it to Odetta before she left for Chicago. I remember thinking the tape was pretty good, and by this time I had convinced myself that within a few short weeks Destiny would summon me to the Windy City and my rightful place as King of the Folkniks. (That word had not yet been coined, but you get the idea.)

My money was still holding out, so I was in no great hurry. The days passed. I was sleeping on couches and floors—no point in getting an apartment, since soon I would be in Chicago surrounded by worshipful acolytes (mostly female) or, barring that, back at sea. Parties almost every night. Songs sung and learned. I worked on my guitar playing. I was drinking a lot. No word from Chicago.

Weeks passed. This was getting downright embarrassing. I had been telling everybody who would listen that Odetta had taken my tape to the Gate of Horn and I would be following it forthwith. I offed the remnants of my half-key of dope to a friend for a hundred bucks, but the end of my money was still visible on the horizon. Chicago remained mute.

Finally, I could stand it no longer. I was almost broke, I was drinking like a fish, and my nerves were stretched like piano wires. This thing had to be settled once and for all. I made up my mind to hitch to Chicago and find out what the hell was going down.

Why didn’t I just pick up the phone and call Grossman? And why hitch- hike? I had enough money left for a bus or even a train. (It would never have occurred to me to fly out there; I had never been on a plane in my life.) As to the first question, this was far too important a matter to be handled over the phone, and in any case my association with the radical left in those McCarthyite days—not to mention the fringes of the underground drug culture—had given me the firm conviction that all telephones were tapped and thus not to be used for anything but casual chitchat. As to the second, hitchhiking was the way we traveled. We had all read Kerouac, after all. Money would be saved for food and drink.

Hitching to Chicago was easy. You just stuck out your thumb near the entrance of the Holland Tunnel, headed west, and switched to public transportation when you got to the Illinois suburbs. The main problem was sleep. It was about 900 miles and took roughly 24 hours, depending on how many rides you needed to get there. There were some rest stops on the recently completed Ohio Turnpike, but if the cops caught you sleeping, they would roust you, and when they found that you had no car, they would run you in. You could get thirty days for vagrancy, so it was a good idea to stay awake.

I girded my loins with a huge meal at the Sagamore Cafeteria and set out with high hopes, my Gibson, a spare shirt and some clean underwear in a shopping bag, and fifty bucks or so in my pocket. For good measure, I brought along a handful of Dexedrine pills to keep the sandman at bay and for the edification of the fine fellows who were going to pick me up. I think they were already illegal then, but I had never heard of anyone being busted for them.

I got lucky with my first lift in New Jersey: a trucker going all the way to Akron. I gave him a couple of Dexies and took a couple myself, just to be sociable, and before I knew it we were pushing that semi 85 miles an hour down the Pennsy Turnpike, babbling at each other like happy lunatics. It was like that all the way, one long ride after another, right to the outskirts of Chi.

I took a bus to the Loop and taxied from there to the near North Side and the Gate of Horn. The whole trip had taken about 22 hours—great time—and I was still wide awake. In fact, I was jazzed out of my skull. It was midafternoon. I was unannounced and unexpected. There was nothing for it but to try the door and, if no one was home, wait until somebody came to open up. The door was open, so I stepped inside.

The room had that seedy, impermanent look that all nightclubs have when the house lights are on. The staff was taking chairs down from the tables and setting up for the night. At the bar, a heavy-set man with graying hair, in a too-tight suit was talking to another guy. The stage was unlit and empty. I figured that tight-suit was in charge, so I walked up to him: “Excuse me, but are you Albert Grossman?”

He wore glasses and had a blank, unblinking gaze. “Yes,” he said. “What can I do for you?”

“I did a show with Odetta a few weeks ago and she brought you a demo tape of mine. I’m Dave Van Ronk.”

A gray voice, no inflection at all: “I never got a tape of yours from Odetta.”

Suddenly I wasn’t high anymore, just tired. I was on my own in a strange city, and the vibes were spooking me plenty. (To keep the record straight, I later found out that Odetta had never got the tape in the first place. My intermediary had blown it.)

So I told him my sad tale, how I had hitched all the way from New York, blah, blah, blah. He heard me out noncommittally. “Well,” he said, “you’ve come all this way . . . Why not audition right now? There’s the stage.”

This wasn’t going according to my script at all, but maybe I could still pull it out. I got onstage and launched into a set of my biggest flag-wavers: “Tell Old Bill,” “Willie the Weeper,” “Dink’s Song,” and suchlike. I could see Albert plainly—the house lights were still on. His face had the studied impassiveness of a very bad poker player with a very good hand. All around me chairs and tables scraped and thumped, glasses and silverware clinked and rattled, but I forged on. This was D-Day, goddamnit, and I was showing this hypercool Chicago hick how we did it in Washington Square.”


Taken from The Mayor of MacDougal Street, by Dave Van Ronk


The Mayor of McDougal Street

You can Reserve & Collect The Mayor of MacDougal Street from your local Waterstones bookshop (http://bit.ly/1iO5xCz), buy it online at Waterstones.com (http://bit.ly/1iO5tCQ) or download it in ePub format (http://bit.ly/1iO5yqf)