In Inside Llewyn Davis, Llewyn Davis was a man of great artistic integrity who simply could not make the leap from obscurity to commercial. One of the last images in the film saw Davis walking past a young Bob Dylan performing, a fleeting image of the sort of notoriety that he would never go on to achieve in spite of his wealth of talent. Now with a film like Frank, it’s surprising to note that it’s not Michael Fassbender’s titular character that the film invests its perspective in, but rather Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) - he’s a plucky wannabe musician working an office job. Director Leonard Abrahamson and writers Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan go through great lengths to align our perspective with this character, attempting to pivot our attention around this character of “normal” inclination as he observes a slew of characters that are anything but. This film does something atypically sly, whereby its point of observation begins to implicate the audience in his increasingly toxic behavior.
The initial images that compose Frank are that of Jon attempting to find inspiration for a song. The rigid compositions serve to underscore the distance in which he is from achieving success through his superficial observations; his “songs” consist of silly observations of women’s coats or suburban housing. A chance encounter gets him work as a keyboardist for a local indie outfit called The Soronprfbs. It’s here where he meets the band’s frontman Frank, a man known for the large paper-mâché head he dons. The film cuts to its credits sequence from here, a subtle gesture toward how ineffectual Jon’s presence is throughout the picture.
Jon is a modest success at the show and is recruited by Frank to record in seclusion. What was initially expected to be a few days of recording spans to nearly a year. All the while Jon chronicles the absurdity of his new living situation through social media outlets like Blogger and YouTube. The other band mates revel in Frank’s strangeness, which includes a pompous French guitar player and a vicious theremin player (Maggie Gyllenhaal). The other members of the band are skeptical of Jon’s artistic capacities and for good reason: he’s simply not very good despite his own inflated sense of talent.
Frank evolves from this period of artistic rumination to a picture on the misguided dependence associated with social media. Jon’s ambitions are in direct opposition with that of the rest of the band. He derives success as a series of numbers, of calculated hits on a website, rather than looking inward to achieve a measure of artistic identity. The lunacy of the band’s recording rituals draws enough attention to warrant a gig at SXSW. The band agrees to the gig, though Jon attempts to change the band’s sound prior to the show, to achieve a more commercially agreeable sound. Again, Jon rationalizes that the band needs to appeal to the greatest number of people in order to be considered a success.
Moreover, there are two wounded characters in this film that, in spite of the vast gap in their artistic capacities, are intrinsically bound by the hip. Frank and Jon are veiled characters hiding behind avatars. Frank physically depicts this sense of self-imposed alienation, concealing his identity behind his giant artificial head. He assumes that he can only connect when wearing this head, therefore he wears it at all times. Meanwhile, Jon assumes a digital avatar, hiding behind his various handles to break through. His image of reality is one that’s constructed by images - he so clearly requires digital information to inform his reality. In the film he remarks that the band’s journey is very much like Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas - is there any other film that so purposefully mocks how we consume images than Wenders film? It’s essentially an exercise in how we construct our realities based on film and media.
Frank debuted at this year’s Sundance film festival. It makes sense that it would debut there, as the word “quirky” will undoubtedly surface in most print publications to describe Frank. But the film has many operating features that go against the grain of the recent films to come out of there, including recent films like Blue Ruin and Cold in July, which suggests that it’s utilizing this sense of quirk as a source of condemnation for films of this type. Films about the strains of artistic achievement tend to be a necessary narrative that I adopt closely, and Frank’s explicit rivaling of two handicapped artists hits close to the heart.