Column | Feb. 9

The Llewyn Davis syndrome

Look closely, and you will see how often things fail. Take, for example, the failing of tree boughs under snow. Or, perhaps in our tango with academia last semester we realized that sometimes he is not a very kind dancer. Recently, I was reminded that failure (in all its permutations) often unifies members of a community as much as success does. That many Princeton students represent the quintessence of any particular field is not surprising. The diffusion of success among Princetonians, however, sometimes distances me from a reality in which people often find themselves stumbling and struggling everyday.

On Feb. 6, after a screening of Inside Llewyn Davis, creative writing professor Paul Muldoon joined filmmaker Ethan Coen ’79 to discuss the film in the context of his career. Eventually, Muldoon invited the audience to ask Coen questions. One student, a philosophy major, professed her uncertainty about a post-university career. She asked Coen (once a philosophy major himself) how he managed to establish a successful artistic career from the humble foundation of his humanistic studies. Coen confessed that his major factored minimally into his work as a director. In fact, he acquired many of his movie industry contacts through his brother, Joel, who studied film at NYU. Whether intentionally or not, Coen echoed some of the major themes of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, namely that exceptional success is guaranteed for few, and there are some people to whom it comes more willingly. In the spirit of those outliers, Coen attributed most of his fortune to luck (his fans may argue that talent has more to do with it than he might admit).

Following the dialogue, a woman who I had spoken with briefly before the screening joined me in line to take a picture with Coen. The woman, a young University employee, told me that she had once contemplated film school, but her hesitation prevented the fulfillment of this path. She said that Inside Llewyn Davis was especially poignant for her, since it told the story of a musician “who was good, but wasn’t great.” Or, at least, he hadn’t met the right person. The one producer he thought could launch his career had told him instead to regroup with his former bandmate (for those who have seen the film, you will understand the terrible irony of that moment; reforming the duo was no longer an option for Llewyn).

That was it, I thought. That was why the film seemed to me a comic tragedy. Chances are that most people could find something of Llewyn’s story in their own lives. At some critical moment which requires us to somehow exceed ourselves, we may learn that our abilities are only admirable, as opposed to outstanding. It seemed sadder to be “the person who almost made it” than to be “the one who never learned how good (or bad) they really were.” Maybe the Princeton employee would’ve discovered that film was not her calling; conversely, perhaps she would have had a natural affinity for the craft. The ambivalence of missed opportunity creates a cushion of uncertainty where one can imagine either of the two alternatives playing out. But unfortunately for Llewyn, his career stalled on the cusp of Bob Dylan’s musical revolution. Considered more broadly, I wonder how resonant Llewyn’s tale would be for Princeton students.

I can tell you that I often doubt my own future as an artist. I write this column from home, having recently attended the first production of a play I wrote. After the show, I received some of the kindest words I could ever hope to hear. One friend even told me that, out of the people he has known from our high school, I seem to be the one that others will one day remember. Talk about responsibility. I think this is the most flattering and intimidating remark someone can hear. Especially as a Princeton student, I’ve worked hard to temper that nasty, smooth-talking ego by reminding myself that, in all likelihood, there are students here who have already memorialized their names. These are people you read about in the morning paper. It will take time to understand what that means. How prevalent is the Llewyn Davis syndrome in a place where all students are good, but few will be great?

I reminded the employee that she was young. She said that, despite her youth, she had a sense of some kind of plan coming together. Film school hadn’t worked, but she felt as though her life would organize itself into something great. She seemed to approach the film with an understanding that Llewyn was not to be pitied. He did what he loved, and although he wouldn’t become Bob Dylan, he knew that he was good enough to be Llewyn Davis. This discussion is not exclusive to the arts. The education of scientists and mathematicians, for example, has become increasingly important to the American government. Not only is there job competition between students of different countries, but there is also the implied academic tension between students on the same campus. The chances of failure should not be your focus; rather, you should be comforted knowing that this is a place where you can at least attempt to become exceptional at what you love.

Aaron Robertson is a freshman from Detroit, Mich. He can be reached at aaroncr@princeton.edu.

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