The Big Lebowski
Directed by The Coen Brothers
Barbican Comic Forum
00000000 / Kraken
So far with the Film Club we’ve managed to work our way through quite a lot of the big name famous directors: Spielberg, Kubrick, Scorsese, Hitchcock, Welles, Tarantino, Cuarón, Scott, Allen, Fincher, Lee, Nolan, Miyazaki and Verhoeven to name just a few… (yeah yeah – I know: but please don’t blame me for the patriarchy). But I’ve always kinda shied away from us getting into the Coen Brothers.
This isn’t because I’m not a fan of theirs. I mean in terms of hit rate they’re probably one of the best values for money out there: Raising Arizona; Miller’s Crossing; Barton Fink; The Hudsucker Proxy; Fargo; O Brother, Where Art Thou?; The Man Who Wasn’t There; No Country for Old Men; Burn After Reading; A Serious Man; Inside Llewyn Davis. I mean all of these films are stone cold classics – the kind of thing that leaves your brain fired and your head spinning. The tricky thing is tho is that a big part of what makes their films so beguiling is that they’re really good at being resistant at attempts to decode and unpack them.
As we saw with the last discussion for all it’s faults Pan’s Labyrinth is pretty good at meaning things. It kinda falls over itself with its symbolism and metaphors and all the rest: and you can follow the breadcrumbs and get deep into a discussion about anti-authoritarianism and religion and imagination and all that stuff (if you want) but well yeah… a Coen Brothers joint tends to have John Goodman holding a shotgun running down a corridor on fire yelling out “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” which is all sorts of fun cool and certainly feels like it means something but it’s not really the sort of thing I think I can put into words. Which means that actually trying to write about it feel a little… daunting you know?
Take The Big Lebowski for example.
First time I watched it I remember sitting there with a look on my face that was halfway between stony and confused. I’d heard that it was supposed to be a comedy but none of it really seemed to be that funny. There was a detective story which seemed like it was about trying to find out who kidnapped Bunny but then it turned out that she wasn’t really kidnapped at all (??) and everything just kinda gets more complicated and sprawling as it goes along until finally… they decide to just go bowling. What the hell man?
I’m not exactly sure what made me decide to rewatch it the first time. Maybe it was the feeling that I was missing something? Or maybe I just wanted to try to untangle the hopelessly tangled plot? I don’t know. But I do remember that the second round was much funnier. Maybe it was just the thing of knowing that none of the plot really mattered and everything was all going to collapse in a big shapeless heap at the end anyway meant that you could just kinda sit and enjoy the ride you know? Ha. It turns out that if you want to watch The Big Lebowski in the right way then you need to watch it like The Dude. Which is kinda cute if nothing else.
(Feels like maybe The Big Lebowski belongs in that micro-genre of films that somehow magically manages to get funnier each time you watch them along with Withnail and I and… well yeah that’s it actually I think?)
I do remember reading a thing once that talked about how the whole thing is about different types of religions – The Dude is Buddha. Walter is Polish Catholic / Jewish (“So what are you saying? When you get divorced you turn in your library card?”) and The Jesus is… well – he’s The Jesus. But I don’t know if there’s any real deeper meaning there – it’s feels more like a fun hook to hang stuff on. In fact that brings me to my favourite quote from The Coen Brothers which they gave way back when they made Raising Amazon (probably one of my favourites) and one of the interviewers pressed them on the reasons why they decided to go with babies as one of the motifs of the film. Was it something to do with innocence? Or about fear of the future? Or maybe something about reproductive? Obviously expecting somekind of deep and serious and insightful answer from these crazy filmmakers who always seemed to be making some kind of point even if you can’t work out what exactly the point is supposed to be – but instead they got this kinda blank look and then the deadpan answer from one of them which went like this: “A baby’s face is good movie fodder. You just wanna take elements that are good fodder and do something different with them.”
I kinda feel like that’s the secret key for understanding them and their movies: and actually maybe other stuff out there too. Maybe it’s not about trying to construct a story that works as a treatise for the mistakes of human intellectual or how the world should be – maybe it’s just about taking some good fodder and trying to do something different with them?
Or to put it in pictures – if you want to try and decode it all and try to understand what it all means you’re probably just going to end up with something like this:
Barbican Comic Forum
I completely understand the feeling of watching it the first time and feeling vaguely nonplussed, as if I’d fallen asleep in the middle and missed some vital piece of exposition. I admire Frederick’s attempts to figure it out. The song Twelve Days of Christmas is interesting for two reasons, firstly for it’s irregular time signature and secondly because everyone knows it but no one can remember the order of the last 7 versus. This is exactly how I feel about Big Lebowski, it’s complete refusal to comply with any sort of reasonable plot structure means despite seeing it 3 times I couldn’t tell you the order of the scenes, or whether anything gets resolved – I just know that they flow like a sort of long sitcom, all with memorable little pay offs blurred together. And so it was only a short while later when I found myself stumbling around my house in a dressing gown drinking White Russians that I realised what an impact it had had on me.
When the Big Lebowski shouts “the Bums lost” the film goes on to repeatedly disprove that claim as Jeff Bridges portrays one of the coolest idiots in film history. If he lost so hard how comes he spends his whole time drinking and getting high and bowling and having sex with Julianne Moore? His life is largely stress free, albeit slightly confusing, everyone who watches that film can see he is winning, and for the most part doing exactly what he likes, and his biggest problem is someone pissing on his rug.
The main thing about the dude is that he is completely assured of his own righteousness and this emotional immunity is a kind of super-power which is both reassuring and hilarious. You could imagine a different Coens film with an identical plot except that every incident underlined the character’s ineffectiveness, his confidence ebbing away as he is exposed to each new bizarre situation that nobody could be reasonably expected to deal with, but every character reinforces their disappointment. Instead the dude just propels the plot forward with a tired (lazy) fortitude, with his only real foil being Walter – he doesn’t really bother arguing with anyone else for any length of time. The dude abides.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to rewatch this film but the below is the impression I got from it six years ago:
The Coens are particularly interested in men tripped-up and entangled in forces beyond their control and understanding – a horror at the feeble sovereignty we can assert over our lives. With the Dude, the Coens celebrate one possible way to survive the chaos underlying our experience of the world – a tumbleweed blown around by events, oblivious, abiding. But the camaraderie between Jeff Bridges, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi rarely goes beyond a joke. And the entire film is framed in this really self-satisfied, condescending way by Sam Eliott’s “The Stranger” appearing at the start, middle and end…
Everyone loves a shouty angry guy, whether Joe Pesci in well pretty much everything or Al Pacino’s later career or Gary Oldman in Leon, the apoplectic rage is joyous. When I first think of Big Lebowski it’s not Jeff Bridges career defining performance as the dude that springs to mind, but John Goodman’s Walter and his ever present rage and hostility, and the sense of release when he loses his shit.
Except I think describing him as merely angry does him a disservice. He’s more like a completed transparent, external personality. The genius of his performance and character is that that not only does he have no layers but his entire inner life is on display. He’s the grumpy voice in our heads who wishes even our friends would sometimes shut the fuck up; he’s the venal braggart who maximises all our own views and experiences while minimising others; he’s the guy whose never really gotten over his ex-wife and finds a way to still be part of her life; and he’s the part of us which is just waiting for an excuse to bite of a nihilist’s ear.
It’s an absolutely glorious performance and having Walter on screen serves to provide narrative tension like a human embodiment of Hitchcock‘s bomb-under-the-table https://youtu.be/md6folAgGRU bringing jeopardy to even straight forward exposition scenes.
Walter feels like the perfect version of a amiable yet menacing character John Goodman has been practising throughout his career. Although when I think about how this came off so well you have to assume that putting this ridiculous cast in a room together is a good start and part of the alchemy of the Big Lebowski: Jeff and Steve you’re laid back, John and John you are throwing them into sharp relief with incandescent rage, and action! I will now shut the fuck up.