Skip to main content

Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh, your opinion, man.

The Big Lebowski
(1998)

(SPOILERS) I dothink it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. There are movies I’ve watched so many times – Withnail & I springs to mind – that I can’t envisage enjoying it as “purely” as I once did again, and certainly doubt that I’ll revisit again any time soon. Indeed, these days, I’ll rarely watch a new movie more than a couple of times in short order so as to preserve that quality as much as possible (sometimes that’s hard; Fury Road is five and counting). The Big Lebowski is one I’ve seen on numerous occasions over the years, but it’s probably been half a decade since the last time, for exactly the same reason of not wanting to diminish it.

I needn’t have worried. There’s a quality with some films whereby you can watch them in different ways or different moods and get different things from them. The aforementioned Withnail can be taken as uproariously funny on some occasions and in certain company, or a particularly bleak story about friendship, loss and ephemerality on another. The Big Lebowski isn’t like that. It doesn’t change, isn’t receptive to a different take. And that’s not a bad thing. It rather underpins its appeal; it, like the Dude, it abides. It’s a known quantity, always welcoming, cosy in a way, with just enough sadness and viscera to add spice to the mix but avoid being a turn off.

I don’t think that’s justtrue of Lebowski in the Coens’ oeuvre, though; their films aren’t especially prone to revealing layers. They aren’t onions, poised to reveal new secrets, and they aren’t thematically rich in the sense that they don’t respond well to probing critical analysis. While the brothers are famously resistant to discussing their own work in depth, there’s good reason for that. It is what it is. The richness is in the art of the storytelling, by and large, not what “they are saying with this piece”. It’s why Clooney’s decision to insert a racism commentary into their Suburbicon screenplay was dunderheaded; it’s exactly at odds with the way they approach material. You’ll never hear them announcing what they wanted to say with a piece, and I don’t think they remotely think about their subjects that way (even something ostensibly closer to home like A Serious Man veers off in tangents, as if they’re consciously mocking anyone who’d suggest as much). Lebowski touches on a whole raft of social and political texts and subtexts, but they aren’t what it’s about. It doesn’t stop to examine them, rent them shoes, buy them a fucking beer, but rather glances at them in passing and moves on.

The first Gulf War period setting isn’t really significant in any way other than it’s cute, and facilitates certain character cues (notably those of Walter), and while it might be possible to suggest there’s a commentary on (strongly vaginal) art versus (smut business) porn (when it comes down to it, both rather impartially lead to the Dude getting beaten up), one ends up feeling that Maud’s tone is an appropriate riposte (“Don’t be facile, Jeffrey”). One can analyse the Dude himself, as a “counter narrative to the post-Reaganomic entrepreneurial rush for ‘return on investment’ on display in such films as Jerry Maguire and Forrest Gump” – as Joseph Natoli did in The Rug Really Tied the Room Together – but the character wears itself on its own chin, is constantly commented upon as such (“The bums lost!”) and so resists any impulse to peer below the surface because what he is is all on the surface.

None of which is to say the brothers’ movies shouldn’t be analysed, only that I think the pickings are inevitably slim. David Perkins suggested that “Their stories are packed with meaning, but there’s never one definitive message”, going on to note of A Serious Man that it “seems to simultaneously deny and affirm the existence of the divine”; it’s almost as if they’re expressly styming those who would imbue their work with meaning, such that, to invoke Maud again, Perkins’ points of common features are facile to the point where one might apply them to any given filmmaker’s work and come away nodding (“life is cruel and punishing, but if you can be content with what you have, it doesn’t have to be”).

Having said that, the picture does promote, by indifferent default, a kind of stoicism towards life, as Bridges notes regarding The Dude and the Zen Master, the book he wrote with Bernie Glassman, who considers the Dude a zen master; the answer to life’s myriad problems is the meditative state of bowling, where all people are equal (well, maybe not the Jesus) and entering an altered state (the Dude, after all, blisses out listening to a tape of pin hits). The antithesis of the belief in bowling is therefore nihilism. All of this is, of course, a joke (it’s interesting to note how, while the Dude is ostensibly the progressive man of peace, his attitudes and parlance are lost in a haze of less thoughtful language of generations past, which is why he has to be corrected on his “Chinaman” by the professionally intolerant Walter, and blithely uses the term handicapped in reference to Huddleston’s Big Lebowski). There’s a reading to be had that Sam Elliott’s Stranger is God, and the kind of broken-down control he has of his creation is why he appreciates the Dude ambling through it with similar slack fortitude (“Takin' her easy, for all us sinners”).

If I don’t really buy into assertions of thematic depth, then, in as much as texts replete with the degree of self-awareness theirs do rather make mining for it redundant, the Coens elicit awe with the films for entirely different reasons. They’re simply without equal as storytellers, ones with an innate facility for the requirements of whatever the chosen genre may be (to the extent of crossing the boundaries thereof, or mashing them up). It’s impossible not be ever more impressed by their writing their screenplays to within an inch of their life. At their best – and they have a remarkably high hit ratio, so it’s entirely appropriate to generalise – everything counts. Every beat is perfection. At no point does The Big Lebowski take the foot off the gas and offer a scene where one might disengage. It’s uncommon in that sense, and it at least partly explains its appeal.

I mean, obviously, its appeal is essentially that it’s very funny, has rich characters (or caricatures) you want to spend time with, and has, as I suggested above, a cosiness that invites return engagements. But if you could synthesise that, every movie would be a cult hit. It’s a stoner comedy made by guys who don’t get stoned, a detective yarn that’s so soft on the detecting the first assumption (she kidnapped herself) isn’t so very far from the truth, possessed of a shaggy dog sprawl in aspect that belies how intricate it is in a Raymond Chandler sense. This time, I was halfway through the movie thinking I must have exhausted all the good scenes, but that’s an embarrassment of riches for you.

The legend of the cult of Lebowski has it that it wasn’t especially well received when it opened, and its reputation, or legacy, gradually grew over the next half decade. Which sounds about right. I went to see it on opening day and adored it, but my anecdotal experience of friends was that they often didn’t, particularly those who thought Fargo was simply the best (contrastingly, while I like that one – I don’t dislike anything they’ve done – I’ve always been relatively cool on it). As Steve Buscemi suggests in a recent interview with Bridges and Goodman, many – including critics – didn’t quite know how to take the picture, but “once you know what it is, then you really enjoy every moment of it”. For me, 1998 was a year marked by a trio of great offbeat mainstream movies, with this leading the charge (the others being Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Warren Beatty’s Bulworth).

I don’t intend to sally headlong into liberally quoting lines – I’d be here forever – as that would be as redundant as celebrating The Life of Brian in similar fashion, but I will note the genius of the cast, in particular the perfection of Bridges and Goodman’s odd couple, culminating in the Dude’s rant at Walter for messing up the sprinkling of Donnie’s ashes, Walter revealed as just a lost little boy (“Dude, I’m sorry”). Buscemi is thrown very much a straight man role, one that at first glance gets lost in the shadows of his showier peers, but is allowed to take on form through that all-important repeat viewing (it’s about time he worked with the brothers again; it’s thirteen years).

Julianne Moore has never been funnier, the clenched precision of Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt is always a joy to behold, David Huddleston’s other Lebowski is peerlessly pompous, whiskery Sam Elliott is plain iconic, Turturro the ultimate scene stealer (I have a feeling his revisiting the character was a bad idea) and Peter Stormare a master at fixing the cable. Also deserving mention are Jack Kehler for Marty’s astonishingly rendered performance art (the difference between his and Maud’s, quality-wise?), Ben Gazzara as a very affable Jackie Treehorn (treating objects like women), Aimee Mann sporting a missing toe and Jon Polito’s Irish monk. There’s also David Thewlis with an extraordinary laugh as Knox Harrington (written as filler for an exposition scene, but great filler). Thewlis was one who, a few years later, but prior to the picture’s cachet taking hold, opined that, unfortunately, he’d appeared in one of the brothers’ not-so-good efforts. I wonder if he’d say the same now.

It’s impossible to pick out a best scene in the picture, but if there is one, it would definitely feature John Goodman; Bridges may have the cool character, but Goodman’s the engine who powers the film, usually through acting the bull in a china shop. The general perception is that the Coen brothers’ comedies are less valuable than their straight pictures; I’d certainly agree they’re more variable (of the rest, only Raising Arizona and O Brother Where Art Thou are resolutely top tier), but The Big Lebowski is a thing of such perfection that it disproves such talk. One only has to look at Inherent Vice, a movie I enjoyed and that might on the surface appear to have a similar stoner cachet but is never going to blossom with the same kind of cult appeal. Mainly because it’s entirely resistant to endearing the viewer. It isn’t a warm, likeable, quotable, hazily revisitable. It doesn’t abide.



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Everyone wants a happy ending and everyone wants closure but that's not the way life works out.

It Chapter Two (2019)
(SPOILERS) An exercise in stultifying repetitiveness, It Chapter Two does its very best to undo all the goodwill engendered by the previous instalment. It may simply be that adopting a linear approach to the novel’s interweaving timelines has scuppered the sequel’s chances of doing anything the first film hasn’t. Oh, except getting rid of Pennywise for good, which you’d be hard-pressed to discern as substantially different to the CGI-infused confrontation in the first part, Native American ritual aside.

Check it out. I wonder if BJ brought the Bear with him.

Death Proof (2007)
(SPOILERS) In a way, I’m slightly surprised Tarantino didn’t take the opportunity to disown Death Proof, to claim that, as part of Grindhouse, it was no more one of his ten-official-films-and-out than his Four Rooms segment. But that would be to spurn the exploitation genre affectation that has informed everything he’s put his name to since Kill Bill, to a greater or less extent, and also require him to admit that he was wrong, and you won’t find him doing that for anything bar My Best Friend’s Birthday.

That woman, deserves her revenge and… we deserve to die. But then again, so does she.

Kill Bill: Vol. 2  (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’m not sure I can really conclude whether one Kill Bill is better than the other, since I’m essentially with Quentin in his assertion that they’re one film, just cut into two for the purposes of a selling point. I do think Kill Bill: Vol. 2 has the movie’s one actually interesting character, though, and I’m not talking David Carradine’s title role.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

Do you read Sutter Cane?

In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
(SPOILERS) The concluding chapter of John Carpenter’s unofficial Apocalypse Trilogy (preceded by The Thing and Prince of Darkness) is also, sadly, his last great movie. Indeed, it stands apart in the qualitative wilderness that beset him during the ‘90s (not for want of output). Michael De Luca’s screenplay had been doing the rounds since the ‘80s, even turned down by Carpenter at one point, and it proves ideal fodder for the director, bringing out the best in him. Even cinematographer Gary K Kibbe seems inspired enough to rise to the occasion. It could do without the chugging rawk soundtrack, perhaps, but then, that was increasingly where Carpenter’s interests resided (as opposed to making decent movies).

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

When you grow up, if you still feel raw about it, I’ll be waiting.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003)
(SPOILERS) It sometimes seems as if Quentin Tarantino – in terms of his actual movies, rather than nearly getting Uma killed in an auto stunt – is the last bastion of can-do-no-wrong on the Internet. Or at very least has the preponderance of its vocal weight behind him. Back when his first two movies proper were coming out, so before online was really a thing, I’d likely have agreed, but by about the time the Kill Bills arrived, I’d have admitted I was having serious pause about him being all he was cracked up to be. Because the Kill Bills aren’t very good, and they’ve rather characterised his hermetically sealed wallowing in obscure media trash and genre cul-de-sacs approach to his art ever since. Sometimes to entertaining effect, sometimes less so, but always ever more entrenching his furrow; as Neil Norman note in his Evening Standard review, “Tarantino has attempted (and largely succeeded) in making a movie whose only reality is that of celluloid”. Extend t…

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.