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Stuck Inside Bob Dylan and Llewyn Davis Again

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And now enter again -- and again and again and again and again -- Bob Dylan, the cultural hustler, specter, and master of disguise that will not leave us well enough alone.

First, there was the Super Bowl.

For those who were not among the 100+ million Americans and the many millions more around the globe who watched one of the worst NFL finales in history -- admittedly, I missed it -- Bob Dylan played a starring role in the barrage of ads that can be as banal as the game can be boring in an off-year like this one.

For what is said to have been a cool $5 million payday, not just Dylan's raspy, ironic Theme Time Radio Hour voice came to call upon the football nation and their friends, but Dylan in all his waxy, ghostly glory slunk about a cliché landscape of Americana. "Is there anything more American than America?" he asked.

Well, that's a tough question, Bob. You have asked and answered it since the beginning -- from the chaotic landings of you and the Mayflower and Captain Ahab and wishing Columbus good luck in "Bob Dylan's 115th Dream" to recalling that "patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings" in "Sweetheart Like You" to a recent peek into a long-locked American cellar in "Scarlet Town."

But it's hard to level too much critique on a figure who has arguably meant more to popular culture than anyone over the past half century. Dylan may or may not care about the quality or accessibility of the product he creates on stage and on record any more than he cares what products his image and music sell. (He also allowed "I Want You" to serve as the soundtrack for an ad for Chobani yogurt during the same Super Bowl.)

We just do not know, as he once sang of the gangster Joey Gallo, "where he is reeeeeeally at." Is he winking at us because we understand the joke? Is he the suffering at the hand of his own "Dear Landlord," "trying to work too hard to have it too fast and too much?" Is he really out to save Detroit in that ad for Chrysler -- while saving yogurt and women's lingerie too? Is he a mercenary, pompous jerk making fun of us all? Indulging another quote, the answer to all of the above is probably "God Knows."

All we really know is that Dylan sucks in the marrow of culture and then spits it back out again. He turns up on unexpected corners to remind his audiences of almost anything it wants to see in him. He is a consummate, cosmic, karmic disrupter.

Like the recent video for "Like a Rolling Stone" -- produced almost fifty years after the original appearance of the tune -- which puts Dylan in the mouth of every presenter on every channel on the cable box, Dylan's appearance at the Super Bowl can mean whatever your ears and eyes want it to mean.

And what does Dylan mean? What do his art and presence mean? These are the questions that quietly and hauntingly animate the Coen Brother's beautiful film "Inside Llewyn Davis." If struggling musician Llewyn Davis is a compelling and believable composite figure drifting amidst the Greenwich Village zeitgeist out of which Dylan emerged -- like Eve from Adam's rib or Athena from Zeus' head -- he is also a reversal, a luckless memory, a shadow, a just-miss, another Bob Dylan who was never meant to be.

If you are looking for him, you can find Dylan lurking in every scene of the film, particularly if your imagination was shaped by the music of the era or reflections of Dylan's autobiographical Chronicles or scores of other histories of the early Sixties folk scene in New York City. That's the dank, dark club, the old couch surrounded by records and books, the fifth floor walk-up, the crowded sidewalk, the steam grate, the winter wind sweeping through Lower Manhattan, the longshoreman's cap, the wool coat, the Martin guitar; and of course, those songs all sound like Dylan's songs.

Like Todd Haynes' film "I'm Not There" which was based on The Basement Tapes epic of the same name, Dylan is and is not there in "Davis" but for a single, brief glimpse in the flesh at a critical turn in the film. In that moment, Llewyn Davis is revealed as Lilith to Dylan's Eve, the face of a presence mutated and muted while another legend grows on.

"Inside Llewyn Davis" is a kind of creation myth tracing the outlines of an age when self-conscious, over-serious, guitar-slinging, self-styled artists were challenging bourgeois assumptions about meaning and spirit that merged through Dylan directly into rock and roll. That music became the soundtrack for seeking community, fulfillment, fun, and meaning for many more people over many more lifetimes than watched this year's Super Bowl. But at the same time rock and roll became a soundtrack for cars and yogurt and underwear as well. As Dylan said back in the day, when it comes to popular music "it's easy to tell without looking too far that not that much is sacred."

What is happening underneath the mask of commerce and cultural stasis that Dylan wore to the Super Bowl? What is happening inside Bob Dylan and Llewyn Davis right about now? The answer is music, the last refuge to which both of these scoundrels cling. What this music can still do in the world remains the question.