Saturday, March 5, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "THE BIG LEBOWSKI"

THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998)

Director: Joel Coen
Screenplay: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen



You can probably find people willing to make an argument for almost every Coen Brothers film as their best. (well, except maybe “The Ladykillers”) They’ve won Oscars for “Fargo,” and “No Country for Old Men,” (3 for the latter) yet when I added up which film of theirs I had seen most often in film classes, the movie that keeps seeming to come up is “The Big Lebowski,” and if you're just looking at the film on the surface, without a more analytical eye, you wouldn’t at all believe the extent of detailed analysis we’ve actually dissected the film. At it’s surface it’s a stoner comedy involving a main character known only as “The Dude,” (Jeff Bridges) who drinks caucasians (slang for white russians), smokes pot, goes bowling with his friends, a divorced Jewish Vietnam vet, Walter, who’s still obsessed with the war and Donnie, someone who’s much quieter, (Coen regulars John Goodman and Steve Buscemi) who gets caught up in a bizarre crime because he has the same name, Jeffrey Lebowski, as a paralyzed millionaire (David Huddleston) who’s slutty young wife (Tara Reid) owes money to Malibu porn producer, Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). Whew! The "case", which does actually involve a suitcase that gets thrown overboard at one point, but the investigation case, eventually leads to a possible kidnapping and ransom that the Big Lebowski insists they be go-betweens in the ransom exchange, which goes horribly wrong. “The Dude,” essentially becomes a wandering Raymond Chandleresque detective going from bizarre encounter to bizarre encounter, trying to solve a kidnapping with or without getting distracted by either Lebowski’s feminist artist daughter Maude (Julianne Moore), attacks by Nihilists (Including Coen regular Peter Stormare, and musicians Flea and Aimee Mann) an old TV-Western writer surviving on a lung machine, and his car-stealing son, lots and lots of bowling tournaments and trying to keep Walter from exploding unnecessarily, (which is impossible) and some stoned out fantasy sequence that serve as exaggerated storytelling aberrations of “The Dude’s” inner thoughts  and fears, all because of a couple lowly hitmen, confusing The Dude for The Big Lebowski, urinated on his prized rug. Did you follow all that? Don't worry, you don't really have to.

Yet, “The Dude,” is also symbolically, well almost anything.  In class, we recognized him as a Modern Male symbol, as well as a Jesus figure, ("The Dude abides", look at the wording, Abides, is a very biblical sentiment) . There’s even a character named Jesus (John Turturro) who’s a Mexican rival bowler that's also a registered sex offender. We even discussed how The Dude’s car being constantly and systematically destroyed throughout the movie as symbolic of a screenplay in Hollywood, one that starts out nice, working, crisp, but eventually get stolen, stripped down, burned, annihilated essentially by the system. The movie moves without apparent need for every part of the journey to be necessary or even relevant to the story, similar to how a Chandler novel was never about the solving the crime but about the investigation. The Coens use every storytelling trick, even a reflective narrator (Sam Shepherd) who gets so caught up talking about “The Dude,” he actually loses his train of thought as wind blows a tumbleweed all over early ‘90s Los Angeles. (Another strangely forgotten aspect of the movie, this film is a period piece, taking place not in '98, but in '91, around the time of the Persian Gulf conflict.) As a story, and a film, the movie remains completely unpredictable in regards to, what will happen next, what or how characters will react, and still remains constantly funny. And upon closer examination, like many of the Coens best films, reveals more revelations and hidden meanings upon repeated viewings. Hell, there's so many people who have found so much meaning in the film, there's practically a cult formed out of The Dude, including "The Dude" conventions and even books written about the philosophy of The Dude. It's worth noting that the character was actually loosely inspired by famous L.A. publicist Jeff Dowd, although from everything I've ever gathered, he does a bit more than sit around the house drinking white russians all day.

Looking for any sort of consistent thread in the Coen Brothers filmography, other than the fact that all the films were made by them, is asking for trouble, usually I get the sense that their main influence is simple Americana. Able to take aspects of the country, very American aspects at that and depict them with as much earnesty, surrealism and dark humor as possible; go back through the images and period and places in their films that they've depicted, and without the context of the places and people, you'd think they were inspired by Norman Rockwell considering how much they spread across the American landscape, visually and culturally. However, thinking back now, they do seem to have one other fascination and that's just the wide variety and collection of stories and styles of genres they can tell.  They've told, different kinds of film noir on multiple occasions, like "Blood Simple", "Miller's Crossing" to some extent and "The Man Who Wasn't There", they've worked in westerns or pseudowesterns, again with "Blood Simple" but also with "True Grit" and even "Raising Arizona", taking a surrealistic approach. They've adapted classic works, like "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" among others. There seems to be some themes, Hollywood comes up, but so does Texas, more than once, spying and conspiracy can show up occasionally. Mostly, there just seems to be a streak of unpredictability in their work, that completely envelopes them. Yet, there's always something going on under the surface of their films, especially when they direct them themselves.

As to why "The Big Lebowski" compared to some of the Coens other films? (Shrugs) Why anything with the Coens really. A film as quintessential to the ‘90s as “Fargo,” even without the Awards. 
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