Down but not out: film, theatre, art and more to help deal with failure

From Oscar Isaac’s underperforming folk singer to The Good Place, Guardian critics offer up bittersweet culture for when success eludes you


Pinching together the lapels of his inadequate jacket against a freezing New York February, cat-losing folk singer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) trudges in slush-filled shoes back from a failed audition in Chicago, to fail a second time: his gig at the Gaslight Cafe becomes just a footnote to Bob Dylan’s appearance that same night. Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis kept faith with its themes by underperforming at the box office but, like the songs Llewyn soulfully performs to an audience of practically no one, its tragicomic portrait of defeat retains a lovely, sad-eyed warmth, as a rare and absurdly comforting minor-key anthem for life’s also-rans. Jessica Kiang

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Everything Not Saved.
Memory lost … Everything Not Saved. Photograph: Murdo Macleod/The Guardian

Memory repeatedly fails us. In Everything Not Saved, a tricksy performance by the brilliant Irish theatre company Malaprop, the unreliability of our minds is woven through surreal stories of false history. As the certainty of things remembered breaks down, so too does the show, its scenes almost pixelating in front of us. This isn’t a story of hope but rather a cynical – and at times painfully funny – look at the factual failings of our minds: how we are desperate to find patterns in things that don’t exist, place ourselves in events we didn’t see, and trust ourselves beyond doubt. Failure here is not an emotional entanglement but something we simply cannot avoid. Kate Wyver



The Good Place.
Hell is for heroes … The Good Place. Photograph: NBC/Getty Images

Arguably the only TV show ever to combine snarky humour with practical moral philosophy lessons and make both work, Michael Schur’s afterlife comedy The Good Place explores that great fantasy of everyone who feels like a failure: the second chance (or should that be a never-ending infinity of second chances?). The quartet of main characters were, whether they realised it or not, all failures. By opening up eternity to them, the show did a redemptive and counterintuitive thing: it posited that there is always another opportunity to fail slightly better. It took the shame out of failure, suggested that it’s always relative, and argued that tiny, modest steps can have surprising outcomes. Phil Harrison



The Guide by Peter Heller - book cover

In Peter Heller’s latest novel, The Guide, fishing guide Jack is a broken man when he arrives to work at a boutique resort for the super-rich in the Colorado mountains. His best friend has died, and he blames himself; his mother died, and he blames himself. He doesn’t know where he’s going, or if he wants his life to go anywhere. But as Jack settles into his new role, he starts to ask questions about the fearsome security around this exclusive retreat, about why some of the clients don’t appear to be fishing at all, and about the scream he hears one night. This sequel to Heller’s equally brilliant The River is extraordinary: a unique blend of thriller, post-Covid dystopia and paean to the healing properties of nature, in which Jack slowly finds his way back to himself. Alison Flood



Tracey Emin.
Bring that beat back … Tracey Emin. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

It wasn’t any lack of ability that made the young Tracey Emin miss out on a dancing career. It was a bunch of brutal young men who soured her moment at a heat of the British disco dancing championship. She loved dancing, she reveals in her devastating 1995 video Why I Never Became a Dancer, but was also living a dangerous life in decayed seaside Margate. The lads singled out her sexuality, chanting “Slag, slag, slag” as she danced. Her bid for fame ended in humiliation. But she made a new life as an artist and turned failure into this triumph, telling her bullies on the soundtrack: “Shane, Eddy, Tony, Doug, Richard … This one’s for you.” And she dances on. Jonathan Jones


Jessica Kiang, Kate Wyver, Phil Harrison, Alison Flood and Jonathan Jones

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