I have always taken precocious joy in spotting references. In middle school my dad and I had a running joke about the opening strains of ”6th Avenue Heartbreak,” by the Wallflowers, sounding like a Beatles song. (Listening now, I can hear this—there’s a George Harrison twang to the guitar.) And I thought maybe I could get my parents on board with the White Stripes by playing them “We’re Going to Be Friends,” (“it’s, like, just a Paul McCartney song, basically—you’ll love it”). As I’ve gotten older I still get excited when I identify a riff that sounds like something, or a shot that looks like something, or a story works like something. (I’ve also found referents outside the Beatles, thank goodness.) I want to catch those moments, and I want to know if anyone else has caught those moments, so I’m going to start posting them here with the hashtag #thisislikethat.
INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is like Susan Seidelman films
I saw SMITHEREENS (1982) at BAM as part of their Punk Rock Girls series and it reminded me of INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS (2013). Kind of a lot. SMITHEREENS, like ILD, is a music movie set in New York (I know, snooze, there are a million). The protagonist of SMITHEREENS, Wren, is stylish but, like, borderline—an autist who engages with the world, unendingly, despite lacking the social equipment to do so. She’s abrasive—narcissistic and a compulsive liar—and she is always bothering someone, because she’s got no money and no job and, by the end of the movie, nowhere to live. Kind of like Llewyn, whose offenses are at least tempered by talent that, as presented to the viewer, borders on grace. (The actual characters in the film are less enraptured with Llewyn’s folk songs than the filmmakers seem to be, but the point is that those unappreciative characters are mercenaries looking to make a buck.) In both movies, the protagonist’s reliance on the kindness of strangers is a kind of journey. Both characters have homes and families they prefer, for aesthetic reasons, not to return to—they demonstrate their commitment to a higher calling by choosing dangerous itineracy over the merchant marines (Llewyn) or ever going back to New Jersey (Wren). There are even shots in SMITHEREENS that reminded me of shots in INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, especially a scene where Wren is thrown out of the lower Manhattan punk bar she regularly barges into.
I looked online to see if the Coen Brothers had mentioned Seidelman in any interviews. I saw no evidence that they had, but I did learn that another of her movies, MAKING MR. RIGHT (1987), features a character named Ulysses—the name of the cat in ILD. I’ve never seen MAKING MR. RIGHT, and also it’s hardly original to name a character Ulysses (the name carries the weight of canon and tends to attach to characters who wander or journey), but this 1987 review (http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/women-on-top/Content?oid=870558) seems to support an LD/Seidelman consonance. Ulysses in MAKING MR. RiGHT is, according to the review, “a human-appearing android designed in the image of its creator”—not an orange cat, exactly, but a sort of pet. Android-Ulysses, like the kitty in ILD, apparently “escapes into” the world, accompanied by that film’s protagonist, Frankie; it’s the cat’s escape into the world that sets Llewyn’s story in motion.
Cool, right? Just me? I don’t know what I get, really, out of finding these similarities, other than misplaced pride in thinking maybe this talented person whose work I admire is consuming the same cultural content I’m consuming. And isn’t it just fun to imagine the Coen brothers sitting around watching and being influenced by punk rock movies starring strong (if flawed) young women?.