CINE-LIST: Six Great Films About Down and Out Artists

This week, to coincide with the release of the Coens’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” Cine-List looks at the world of underpaid and over-passionate artists in film.

1. “Inside Llewyn Davis” (in theaters December 6, limited; December 20, wide). The Coens’ portrait of the early ‘60s folk music scene in
New York may be their most poignant film to date, despite taking some dark and
pitiless detours. Cynical musician Llewyn Davis (a just-right Oscar Isaac) is
well-known among his community of artists. But he’s reeling emotionally and
professionally from the suicide of his singing partner, and alienating his
contemporaries with his fuck-it attitude (not to mention his ability to
impregnate). Llewyn’s got talent, but as F. Murray Abraham tells him bluntly at
a key moment: “I don’t hear much money in it.” The film’s music–supervised by Coens regular T-Bone Burnett– is hypnotic,
and the cast is superb. Carey Mulligan is mad as hell and resigned to keep
taking it, while John Goodman steals the show as a Doc Pomus-esque blues man
whose nightly routine consists of burping up insults and overdosing. And then
there’s that pesky marmalade cat — Llewyn’s unlikely travel partner and the
ghost that haunts the narrative. One of the best films of the year.

2. “Withnail & I” (1987, streaming). Bruce Robinson’s black comedy centered on two frustrated, booze
and drug-addled London actors who hightail it to the countryside has cult
status in Britain, if not as well-known stateside. Despite centering on thespians
who can’t land a gig to pay the rent (or who are so affronted by offers of —
gasp! — being an understudy that they alienate their own agents), the film is
a winning showpiece for the acting chops of pop-eyed Richard E. Grant, as
Withnail, and fine-boned Paul McGann, as Marwood. (Both, incidentally, have
gone on to play Doctor Who.) Of course, Withnail and Marwood’s sojourn in the
country drives them crazier than they were when cooped up in their putrid apartment. The arrival of gay Uncle Monty (a hilarious Richard Griffiths),
who takes a shine to Marwood, only causes more trouble.

3. “Sunset Boulevard” (1950, streaming). Pick your poison: Down and out, or washed up? These two
depressing points on the failed artist spectrum collide with acidic vigor in
Billy Wilder’s showbiz noir “Sunset Boulevard.” William Holden stars as hack
screenwriter Joe Gillis, who becomes a lodger Chez Norma Desmond (a terrific Gloria
Swanson), a faded movie star who sucks him into her bitter orbit. Desmond lives
in an atrophying LA mansion with the one person who still appreciates her,
loyal butler and first husband Max Von Mayerling (played by silent film
director Erich Von Stroheim in a canny bit of casting). All around a classic,
and notable for its narration by a deceased character.

4. “Cutie and the Boxer” (2013, streaming). Zachary Heinzerling’s gorgeous documentary ode to the
troubled passions of aging Japanese artist couple Ushio and Noriko Shinohara is
one of the bright spots of film in 2013. The couple, who eke out a humble
living in New York despite being respected in the art community, have various
demons to contend with. Ushio, now in his eighties, never achieved the status
he dreamed of; Noriko, decades younger than her husband, has lived in his
shadow for years, squashing her own artistic goals as she bore an unplanned
child and dealt with Ushio’s drama and drunkenness. Now she plans her own art
show, tellingly centered around two characters: the meek, wistful Cutie, and
the domineering, savage Boxer. Heinzerling’s formal abilities as a director are
as artistically astute as the subjects he films.

5. “La Vie de Boheme” (1992, heading to Criterion). Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki turns his attentions to the
Parisian bohemian lifestyle in this black-and-white tragicomedy. Three
impoverished artists — a French poet (Andre Wilms), an Albanian painter (Matti
Pellonpaa), and an Irish composer (Kari Vaananen) — in the City of Lights form
a trifecta to help each other keep the wolves from the door. Pellonpaa is the hilarious
standout as the long-faced Albanian who meets the love of his life only to be
then deported back to his home country. Kaurismaki keeps the oddball humor at a
good clip, and then skillfully transitions into the film’s surprisingly
bittersweet ending.

6. “Satan’s Brew” (1976). Rainer Werner Fassbinder goes madcap in what could be argued
as the director’s sole flat-out comedy. Kurt Raab stars as anarchist
poet Walter Kranz, whose publisher stiffs him on an advance. In need of quick
cash, Walter turns to his slew of mistresses. Things go from bad to worse when
Walter blatantly plagiarizes a famous German poet, and becomes convinced he’s the
poet’s reincarnation. Has it been mentioned that Walter’s got a screeching wife
at home, as well as a brother who wants to have sex with houseflies? Fassbinder controls
the madness deftly, with DP Michael Ballhaus (later Scorsese’s
cinematographer) giving the proceedings a formal elegance.

Trailers and clips, after the jump.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.