Noah Millman's On a Roll

First he renders Inside Llewyn Davis a great movie (I left the theater scratching my head about a good movie that defied the Coen’s conventions):

There’s a poetic rightness to the fact that “Inside Llewyn Davis,” one of the best films of the year, was not nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The latest from the Coen Brothers, “Inside Llewyn Davis” does just about everything it can to alienate voters, starting with the fact that it’s about a raging misanthrope. Like “Her” but in the opposite emotional key, this is another story where form and subject are perfectly mated, and where the story wouldn’t work at all if they were not.

The Coen Brothers have always been interested in losers. But never before have they gotten us so close to the heart of one of those losers, and a loser who knows that he deserves to win, and knows he just isn’t going to, and is consumed by the bitterness of that condition. Like “A Serious Man,” this feels like a very personal film for them, but whereas “A Serious Man” wrestled with origins – specifically their Jewish identity – “Inside Llewyn Davis” wrestles with destiny, and the possibility of not having one.

Played with wonderful naturalism by relative newcomer Oscar Isaac, Llewyn Davis is a folk singer in New York in 1961, right before folk is about to explode out of its niche with the emergence of Bob Dylan. But Llewyn isn’t going anywhere. He can’t afford even a rathole apartment downtown, and crashes on the couches of the vanishingly few New Yorkers who don’t hate his guts. One of them is his more successful friend’s wife (Carey Mulligan, giving a nicely subtle performance – watch her eyes while she sings), who informs him she’s knocked up, possibly by him. Another is an uptown academic couple who are faultlessly generous with him, and whose generosity he rewards by lashing out, cursing, saying he feels like a trained poodle.

He’s got more than his share of rotten luck – beaten up by inexplicably malevolent cowboys, robbed of even his minimal royalties by his rotten manager, trapped for hours on the way to Chicago with an outlandishly insulting old jazz man who won’t stop poking him with his canes (the only out-and-out Coen grotesque in the film, played by John Goodman). But he also makes his own bad luck, telling his sister (Jeanine Serralles) to throw out his old stuff (including his old mariner’s license, which he turns out to need), refusing royalties on a ridiculous novelty song that his friend (the one he cuckolded, played with delightfully deadpan squareness by Justin Timberlake) wrote so that he can get the cash quicker (only to see the song do well), and, when he finally gets a chance to audition for a manager who could really take him places (F. Murray Abraham), picking an obscure and depressing song guaranteed to turn him away. And his response to every piece of bad mazel he suffers is the same, whether he’s obviously implicated or not: a sour conviction that it figures, that the universe has it in for him one way or another.

With one exception. In what is certainly a screenwriting joke (given the ubiquity of Blake Snyder’s book) this deeply unattractive character does one noble thing. He saves a cat. Or tries to.

Then Millman wonders about the value of using w-w to debate atheists who use Pat Robertson as an interlocutor:

If I understand [Ross Douthat’s] argument now, it is that the new atheists’ worldview lacks “coherence” – whereas other world views, including some other varieties of atheism, would not lack that coherence so drastically.

I suspect that’s true. But what I would say in response is that virtually nobody has a “coherent” worldview. I’m pretty sure I don’t. And it’s only a certain sort of personality that feels a psychic need for a worldview characterized by coherence. I might even go further and say that some religions are more prone to seek that particular grail than others. I’d certainly rank Catholicism far higher on the “seeks coherence” scale than, say, Judaism, or the LDS Church, to say nothing of faith traditions like Hinduism that don’t even have a clear mechanism for defining the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, and that hence by definition cannot provide that kind of coherence.

If guys like Bryan Cross were to read more Millman and watch more movies by the Coens, would the Call to Communion be funnier and more effective?


48 thoughts on “Noah Millman's On a Roll

  1. I’m going to see it on Friday. Charter wouldn’t join me so I had to ask Muddy. Hope he showers first.


  2. MM, I hope you and Muddy can avoid verbal abuse fest that usually ensues when you two carouse together.


  3. Millman: The new atheists aren’t arguing with straw men. They’re arguing with real proponents of a contrary view who are quite as simple-minded as they are, and whose views are vastly more popular than those of serious theologians.

    mark: Do you think Millman would see Machen was as simple-minded as Mencken? I would be interested in his criteria for “serious theologian”. Would that be somebody like Enns or Mike Bird or (John Cortney Murray or the brothers Niebuhr)?

    The views of Joel Osteen may perhaps be more popular than those of Mike Horton, but it’s not clear to me that Millman would know the difference.


  4. If guys like Bryan Cross were to read more Millman and watch more movies by the Coens, would the Call to Communion be funnier and more effective?

    So Paul likewise quotes the poets of his day. So sure.

    What amazes me about these blogs is how everyone thinks they are scoring points. First off, the ideology you put down publicly can see and learn from mistakes and so forth.

    But more importantly is the ephemeral nature of these chatrooms that so many people miss, Darryl, you got this from the get go. Likely, these indicate a general tone or feeling. But on reality, there’s as much likelihood as these lasting, as so people’s facebook postings. This is no more evident in that CtC doubles down on its supposed “genius” blog posts with oh so many comments. I’m sorry, but none of this is truly published, and no one cares. Smart people dont read xomboxes, they trad scholars, and build scholarly works on that.

    Ok, I’m fired up now, for other reasons than the words here. I Better stop.


  5. Millman: I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with practicing faith for the sake of other people, rather than as an expression of one’s own convictions, provided that it’s done in the spirit of a gift rather than of condescension.

    mark: so is there some place between an “experimental burning in my heart” and going through the motions of church and ritual attendance? Why would we need any members with undue certainty of their own conversion, when we can do what needs to be done even in our doubt? In charity, and without evidence to the contrary, why assume that there is such a thing as any person baptized with water who has been justified once for all time already?

    john 7: So the brothers of Jesus said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him.

    Why worry about personal confession when we already have the confession of the church (ours)? Since our church already has its confession, we can show the world what the gospel is without our own words, simply by our visible attendance, which suggests that we are sinners still but not like other sinners


  6. Mark,

    You may not be much of a Bultmann fan, but this idea comes to mins, for folks like us who hang out in places like OLTS:

    Faith in God is continually being stifled by the cares of each day that lay hold of us, by wishes and plans, by the passions that drive us to pleasure, and from one pleasure to another; or by living together, which is always in danger of losing its real character as a community of free and solitary persons, and of deteriorating into a clamor of voices weakening us and deceiving us about our solitariness, a clamor in which we are distracted and lose ourselves and even join in it

    Thanks for sharing about what you read, by posting here. I’m being random with the above, I know. Just interesting, maybe. Machen and Bultmann didn’t have the internet. Imagine if they did…

    Take care.


  7. …so is there some place between an “experimental burning in my heart” and going through the motions of church and ritual attendance?

    Mark, have you considered that experientialism can be a form of externalism (even if cast in terms of the interior) and that regular attendance of Word and sacrament can be a form of piety? So it’s something of a false dichotomy. But if you mean is there some place between belief and unbelief then no.


  8. Zrim, I agree both that attendance is a piety and that persons are either justified or not, with no place in between for persons not quite condemned but also still being justified as a process but not yet justified (until what they call “final justification according to works).

    Denouncing all Zwinglians (memoralist) as nothing but free-willers, some “Reformed” theologians conclude with the rejection of any difference between sacramental Lord’s Supper and union with Christ.

    Federal vision folks, for example, are trying to sell us a narrative in which the visibility of the kingdom of Jesus has to do with the sacramental rituals inherited from Augustine and others who used violence in the name of God. If we are going to escape the ideology of Christendom , we need to talk about the sacramental errors of Augustine and all who define the Lord’s Supper as something God does instead of as the human obedience of Christians.

    The debate about sacramentalism is a debate about judging belief and unbelief. Sacramentalists want to hand out grace without judging anybody to be presently justified or condemned.. They want to include you in their “the church”, even if the inclusion turns out to be for the purpose of delivering God’s curse to you.

    Ecclesiastical antinomians want to say that “sacrament” is a secondary issue and not a gospel issue. But when you refuse the responsibility of judging if members know and profess to believe the gospel, then you have opened the way for assuming that everyone handed out the sacrament (or listening to the “minister’s” sermon) is a Christian.

    Do we see everyone with whom we talk as already Christians who simply need to know more (of what we know)?

    II Corinthians 5—If anyone is in Christ, there is a NEW CREATION. The old has passed; the new has come.” The “new creation” is not about some internal regeneration but about a legal change of identity. It’s not a gradual process. It’s an either or. The new creation is not brought about by a “sacramental feeding on Christ” but by God’s imputation of what God did in Christ in His death and resurrection.

    No sacrament is a sign from God that we in particular have been united to Christ. Even if our children were to eat the “sacrament” with us, still that’s no seal that either we or our children have been justified or that God is our God in the sense of saving us by grace (forgiving our sins, with rights to the life of the age to come).


  9. One question is about if we need to make our piety visible to the world or to others (or to ourselves).

    John 7: 3 So the brothers of Jesus said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him.

    Some of us think we will show the world what the gospel is without words, simply by what we do and by not being sinners like other people are. But is it true that we sinners make Christ more visible to the world by becoming ourselves more visible to the world?

    John 3:19 And this is the judgment— the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their WORKS were evil. 20 For everyone who DOES wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his WORKS should be exposed. 21 But whoever DOES WHAT IS TRUE comes to the light, so that it will be clearly seen that his WORKS have been carried out in God.”


  10. Like DGH, I’m going to ponder the movie for a time but I’ll throw out a few observations.

    First, I’m not sure the Coens really like human beings at this point or at least human nature. You will find no moral hero like the police woman in Fargo or the sympathetic lead in A Serious Man. Llewyn is a creep. He loathes people he considers shallow or square; they are portrayed not as more wholesome but actually shallow and odd as well. Then the camera lingers on various odd and ugly faces, culminated by Llewyn’s father who is unresponsive and incontinent.

    They continue to explore themes of serious and non-serious creativity. Like Barton Fink, Llewyn is serious about his craft. Barton ran up against men who made formulaic movies and Llewyn is disgusted by easy and breezy folk music. But at the same time, the Coens mock Barton and Llewyn, since Barton really doesn’t know the people he is supposedly standing up for and Llewyn is a self-important parasitic jerk.

    If you are a boomer who is notstalgic about the good old days of creative and authentic folk music in modest venues, this movie will trash your nostalgia.

    The cat is potentially an important symbol, with the only trace of moral goodness in Llewyn being his care for the cat. But I’m open to the possibility that the Coens are just screwing with us by giving us this apparent symbol named Odysseus and the head-scratching loop in the plot.

    I haven’t heard from Muddy for a while. He said something about AB driving him to drink. But it’s just as well that he didn’t go because he laughs when no one else does, and people look in our direction. Erik was somewhat better behaved.


  11. I haven’t heard from Muddy for a wh He said something about AB driving him to drink.

    The events of this week means that unto this day you, a blog has been born. I like to think if this as bringing peace unto you, Muddy, et al, but we can’t be sure. We do know the OLTS WEB BOT 9000 ultimately serves the greater humanity. It will out me down if and when it comes to that.

    All is well..


  12. Saw it. Liked it. Thinking that it might have to replace “Lebowski” as the unofficial Old Life movie.

    Did D.G, weep over the possible fate of pseudo-Ulysses?

    Llewyn is the Deacon Blues of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk music scene.

    If it’s about anything I think it’s about the difficulty of living an authentic life totally devoted to artistic pursuits.

    Jim & Jean have to sell out by either taking gigs to play insipid, commercial songs (which become hits) or by sleeping with creeps to get work.

    The Gorfein’s sell out by becoming devotees of art from the safe, privileged position of a tenured academic.

    Bud Grossman knows that you need to sell out and favors the insipid Troy Nelson to Llewyn.

    The only people who haven’t sold out in the pursuit of art are Llewyn, Johnny Five (a parody of the Beats?), and Roland Turner, and they’re all losers. Llewyn’s partner, Mike, realized the fate of artists and took the easy way out.

    We get a glimpse of one who didn’t sell out AND was successful at the end of the film, but he and the entire folk genre would be swamped in a few short years by The Beatles and rock-and-roll.

    I liked the music and the casting of Adam Driver & Alex Karpovsky (both from “Girls”).

    And I liked the cats, especially when they were naughty. They were robbed by not getting a best supporting actor (actress?) nod from the Academy.


  13. Underlying my view is the conviction that the Coens are quite interested in moral character and human nature. This theme was especially prominent in Fargo, with the truly decent police woman and native Minnesotans over against the depravity of the killers. But here you don’t have the morally decent vs. the morally upright. The Coens could have made Llewyn’s sister or the the female friend of Llewyn’s into virtuous people but they are people that have or seek not the good life but the comfortable and conventional life. One chooses to be an impoverished couch-hopper and the other seek comfort, but his hard times are not a burden to be borne by a good man but just the path he’s chosen, and possibly one that serves to enhance his stupid self-importance.


  14. Erik and M&M, what still has me scratching my head about the ILD is that it has none of the exploration of mixed motives that makes the Coens’ movies so appealing to (all about) me — like Tom Reagan in Miller’s Crossing. But ILD does have the precedent of Fink which was about creativity in a different period and setting.

    I need to see it again.

    It may become (all about) my favorite Coens’ movie, though, because of the cat. Brilliant!


  15. DGH, I’m seeing the lack of mixed motives as a downgrade in their view of human nature if I understand what you mean by that. Where are the good angels of human nature? LD’s pursuit of the cat at least involved the idea that he is responsible for the cat being let out, but that’s pretty minimal virtue.


  16. It’s high time I introduce you all to Maverick, and I can’t think of a more apropos thread.

    You guys need to put spoiler alerts. Emoticon..

    PS the cat and dog in my house get a long for the most part in my house, though sometimes they cross paths and get in a tussle. A good visual of cat/prot relations? When it’s cold, they even huddle together in the dog’s bed for warmth, though they look like they’d do anything but work together, if they could help it.

    Eccl. 4:11


  17. M&M, it’s not even a question of virtue for (all about) me. It is one of simply seeing that you can’t have your cake and eat it too. So Tom Reagan in MC has to decide between Vera and Leo. Neither one is the path of virtue. But he’d like to have both and tries. And he doesn’t make it. But the journey is a treat.


  18. I had been wondering why the Coens did a remake of True Grit. Yes, I suppose the critics raved, but it’s probably their least daring and least creative film. How does it fit into their oeuvre? But maybe now I get it. Our friend Wikipedia says it grossed $250 million whereas Barton Fink grossed $6 million. So maybe they did True Grit to make it possible to do ILD, a quirky film without anyone to root for. It’s made $11 million but it could have been in Barton Fink territory.

    The movie producer in Barton Fink would be OK with True Grit, but he never would have touched LD.


  19. A nice follow-up to “Inside Llewyn Davis” is Paul Mazursky’s “Next Stop, Greenwich Village” (1976). Early roles for Christopher Walken & Jeff Goldblum and Bill Murray’s first film role (as an extra in a bar). Director commentary is interesting. DVD available from Netflix.


  20. I just learned that Philip Seymour Hoffman is dead at 46. I am shocked. He is probably the actor who has had the greatest impact on my life. The roles I will always remember:

    His 5 roles in Paul Thomas Anderson’s films:

    Young Craps Player in “Hard Eight”
    Scotty J. in “Boogie Nights”
    Phil Parma in “Magnolia”
    Dean Trumbell in “Punch Drunk Love”
    Lancaster Dodd in “The Master”

    Brandt in “The Big Lebowski”

    Freddie Miles in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”

    Lester Bangs in “Almost Famous”

    Wilson Joel in “Love Liza” – Must See

    Dan Mahowny in “Owning Mahowny” – Must See

    Sandy Lyle in “Along Came Polly”

    Truman Capote in “Capote”

    Jon Savage in “The Savages”

    Andy in “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead”

    He is the best actor I have ever seen. Gone far too soon. RIP


  21. Erik, I have the matruity level of a 10 year old. They didn’t read my fine print when they allowed me to post comments in theology blogs. Soncsreful what you read out here.

    My problem is, my oldest will be 10 in 3 years. I’m running out of time before they are the ones showing dad how to act appropriately.

    Maybe until then, I should still live big. Ecclesiastiastes style. Yo


  22. D.G. – One of those performers whose performances I wanted to see.

    Erik – It makes me wish I had flown to NYC to see him do “Death of a Salesman” live. Sadly, producing great art and living a balanced, healthy life do not often go hand-in-hand.

    Explaining what makes an actor great is very difficult. You just know it when you see it.


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  24. I left the theater scratching my head about a good movie that defied the Coen’s conventions

    I enjoyed it, yesterday, was the first day on amazon. There was an abundance of coarse language, a it too much, but nothing this public school boy hadn’t already experienced (dare I say indulged in myself?).

    Good stuff. I’ll use the commetary here (sans these mystery trolls) to understand and explain the deeper meaning behind it all.



  25. PS sorry the amazon link is broken above. The movie is easy to find without my help.

    Erik is quite stellar. Do we know whether he moonlights as a film critic?

    Serious, I’m impressed.

    It had to be said, yo.


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