The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore

 

I wrote a good bit about how much I enjoy the Coen Brothers in general when I was writing about Barton Fink last month, so I’ll keep this post more limited directly to The Big Lebowski. However, I will say that the movie’s immense mainstream popularity undercuts the fact that it’s one of the brothers’ deepest dives into filmic nostalgia. Lebowski is a celebration of old Hollywood, a deconstruction of the detective genre and film noir mode of storytelling, with shout outs to classical Hollywood pictures throughout. The nuances of the film are probably overshadowed for a lot of audiences by the story of what has become one of the classic characters in all of cinema. The Big Lebowski is a film that is equally as quotable as it is esoteric, a film with many layers, and standing tall above them all is Jeff Daniels’s iconic portrayal of Jeffrey Lebowski, the Dude, an armchair philosopher and hero for the slacker generation, one of God’s own prototypes, too weird to live and too rare to die, out there taking it easy for all us sinners.

For those who may have not seen the film yet, The Big Lebowski centers on a case of mistaken identity, in which The Dude (Bridges) is mistaken for the identically-named Jeffrey Lebowski (the titular Big Lebowski, played by David Huddleston) an aging millionaire whose trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), owes money all over town, including to pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) who sends two thugs to beat the money out of The Dude. When The Dude fails to produce any money, pointing out that it’s fairly obvious a millionaire would not live in his tiny one bedroom apartment, one of the thugs proceeds to pee on The Dude’s rug. The Dude seeks out The Big Lebowski hoping for recompense for the soiled rug, which really tied the room together, and this sets the events of the plot into motion. After their initial meeting, The Big Lebowski contacts The Dude, telling him that Bunny has been kidnapped, and he needs The Dude to get her back. In turn, The Dude enlists the help of his buddies Walter Sobchak (Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Buscemi), who are happy to help out in between games of bowling. Along the way, The Dude encounters German nihilists, a militant feminist artist who wants him for his seed, and is forced to abide countless acts of aggression. The film takes a lot of its cues from The Big Sleep, a famously inscrutable noir, and The Big Lebowski certainly doesn’t disappoint when it comes to weaving a tangled narrative web of deceit and double cross.

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If that narrative seems somewhat complicated, that’s because it is. Raymond Chandler, who wrote the novel upon which The Big Sleep is based on, famously said that even he wasn’t sure who committed one of the murders in his book. The Coens take this idea and run with it in Lebowski, creating a stylized, contemporary noir in which the detective is constantly travelling through the world in a fog, unsure of which side of each uneasy alliance he finds himself at any given moment. The film is packed with subtle allusions to the films of the 1940s, containing oblique references to Double Indemnity and The Maltese Falcon, but also to 42nd Street and other Busby Berkeley musicals. As much as they are filmmakers, the Coens are also film historians, with their films often referencing favorite classic filmmakers such as Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder. All of their films dabble in this kind of pastiche, using film references as a shorthand language, but Lebowski is probably the most overt. As in Barton Fink, the Coens suture a fantastical version of Hollywood onto an actual time and place, in this case the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War. In both films, the real life setting only serves as an anchor, and the action of the film is largely contained in its own world. The characters in the films occasionally reference actual events, but the Coens are largely free to create a universe of their own definition, and in The Big Lebowski, that universe is heavily filtered through the experience of American cinema of the 1940s.

Of course, this being a Coen Brothers film, those influences are scattered throughout The Big Lebowski, but they’re turned on their head, repurposed for a new generation and skewed in the process. The film uses many of the familiar tropes of the noir. It offers up two femmes fatales in Bunny and in The Big Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Moore). It’s Bunny’s disappearance that kickstarts the film, but Maude is certainly the more interesting character. She appears halfway through the film, introducing herself to the dude by having her henchmen knock him out and take the rug that he had chosen to replace his originally soiled rug. She asserts that her interest is in preserving the Lebowski Foundation’s money, one million dollars of which her father has put up as ransom money for his missing wife. However, in classic femme fatale fashion, Maude’s motives are more duplicitous than they might seem on the surface. Her real interest in The Dude is procreative. While most classic femme fatales attempt to ensnare the detective using their sexuality, Maude enlists the Dude to the case before seducing him. After gaining The Dude’s trust, Maude beds him and makes known her desire to have a child with a man who will have no interest in raising it, or in being a partner to her. She’s fingered The Dude as just the deadbeat for the job, interested in him not for his bravado or his cunning, but for his biological ability to help her conceive. While I do think that a lot of classic femmes fatales could be seen as feminist characters, or at least female characters with agency in an era during which there weren’t so many such roles, I think that Maude’s overall character in Lebowski very deliberately marks her as a feminist. The shift in power dynamics marks one of the ways that the Coens are playing with the tropes of the noir mode.

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Another modal shift takes place in the film’s style. Though its narrative is decidedly noir-influenced, the film’s visual style rarely quotes from film noir. They had already explored the visual aesthetic of noir in their debut Blood Simple and would return to the genre with a very explicitly noir-influenced aesthetic in The Man Who Wasn’t There, but The Big Lebowski is a much brighter, color-saturated film. Its hallmark visual sequence, the dream sequence that The Dude experiences after being drugged at Jackie Treehorn’s party, is an homage to the classic Hollywood musicals of the 1930s and 40s. The sequence is choreographed just like a Busby Berkeley musical number, with The Dude descending a black-and-white checked staircase to be greeted by a dozen beautiful dancers with tiaras made of bowling pins. He shares a dance with Maude and then floats down a bowling lane through the straddled legs of the dancers. The dream devolves into a nightmare after The Dude crashes through the pins at the end of the lane and cascades into blackness where he meets the three German nihilists, who are wearing red form-fitting suits, and who chase him through the nothingness with oversized scissors, presumably hoping to “cut off his johnson.” While this sequence marks just the most striking departure from the established visual style of noir, the film’s style overall is a bit more dreamy and subjective than a typical noir. That mode established the use of evocative chiaroscuro lighting and adopted the subjectivity of the canted angle, but the Los Angeles of Lebowski is characterized by bright lights, loud noises, and a slow-moving camera that often takes in the world through a gauzy filter.

The biggest departure of the film from a traditional noir detective story, of course, is in the character of The Dude. The prototypical noir detective is personified by Humphrey Bogart: serious, square-jawed, able to take and deliver a punch. The Dude is decidedly none of these things. He is a self-described pacifist who only gets caught up in this whole mess through a case of mistaken identity and a desire to get back a rug that really tied the room together. The Dude trades in Bogart’s ever-present scotch and cigarette for a white russian and a joint. He has reached a level of Zen that Bogart’s restless men of action could never hope to achieve. He treats the whole caper involving Bunny, the nihilists, his missing rug, and his perpetually battered car, as a cosmic inconvenience rather than a case to be solved or a mission to accomplish. The Dude would rather be left alone to listen to his tapes and bowl in the next round robin. If Bogart was the masculine ideal for a post-war generation, then Bridges’s performance as The Dude served as an inspiration and a rallying point for a certain type of counter cultural slacker in the late 90s and early 2000s. He is the Coens most enduring and endearing creation.

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I first watched Lebowski around 1999 or 2000, a couple of years after it was released in theaters. I was instantly taken in by the characters and the dialogue. The film is simply hilarious and Bridges, Goodman, and Buscemi have unbelievable chemistry as The Dude, Walter, and Donny. Their lines are delivered lightning quick, one on top of the other, just like the conversation of real-life friends who know each other intimately. The film is endlessly quotable, with many of its turns of phrase having entered the cultural lexicon, but it is so densely written that it’s also easy to miss off-the-cuff lines on the first couple of viewings. The humor and the characters were what initially drew me into Lebowski. The interplay between Walter and Donny was so funny, and The Dude was one of the coolest characters I’d yet to encounter. Over time and additional viewings, I found new things to enjoy about The Big Lebowski and if you had asked me 15, or even ten years ago, it might have ranked up in my favorite movies of all time. It isn’t up there for me anymore, but it’s still a film that I love and probably one that I watch more frequently than some that might be in my “top ten favorite” films.

Though it started out as a cult film, the influence of Lebowski has spread far into the mainstream. As I mentioned, many of its lines have become instantly recognizable lingo, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone in 2017 who hasn’t seen the film. Bridges’s performance is now iconic, and many people would probably most readily associate Goodman with his portrayal of the bombastic, Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak. Screenings of the film have taken on a Rocky Horror Picture Show sort of tenor, with audiences often attending in costume and bringing props with them. An entire religion has sprung up centered on The Dude as a spiritual figure, with proponents of Dudeism embracing The Dude’s laissez-faire attitude and rebel shrug. Over the last 20 years, The Big Lebowski has graduated from film to full blown cultural phenomenon and while I’m happy that a great film is getting the attention and fanfare that it deserves, I would still rather appreciate it as a film text, devoid of any of the larger cultural trappings that it has come to be associated with. As a progressively-leaning, cannabis-advocating bartender who can often be found wearing a robe until mid-afternoon, and who is trying his hardest to take a “first do no harm” approach to life, I understand that the Dudeist lifestyle is probably perfectly suited to me. However, I still watch The Big Lebowski once or twice a year because it is a film that I really love, not because I hope to emulate its style or glean life wisdom from it. It never fails to make me laugh and pick up my spirits, and every time I watch it I seem to find some new little homage or hear a throwaway line that I had forgotten about. I can understand why someone might choose The Big Lebowski as the cultural artifact upon which they model their personal ethos, but even for those who choose to just enjoy it as a film, it’s an undeniable classic.

Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991)

Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen

Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen

Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner

 

The Coen brothers have made some of my very favorite films. Their filmography is notable in both its depth of quality and its stellar high-end pedigree. Even their lesser regarded films are typically enjoyable, and a cut above the standard Hollywood fare, while their best films are often regarded as classics. Barton Fink falls into this latter category, continuing a string of early offbeat classics that would set the tone for the brothers’ careers going into the 1990s. Though it may not be as widely seen as some of the Coens’ later films such as Fargo or The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink deserves consideration along with those films and others from throughout the brothers’ thirty year run of filmmaking as one of the best in their catalog. The film continued to establish the brothers as visionary talents with a knack for crafting intricate, genre-bending screenplays, as well as furthering their unique and distinctive visual storytelling style. Barton Fink is a neo-surrealist nightmare of a comedy and it often vies for the top spot in my ever-shifting list of favorite films by the Coen brothers.

Though it might get overshadowed by some of the obvious high points of the Coens’ catalog that surround it, Barton Fink is an offbeat masterpiece in its own right. The brothers wrote the screenplay while taking a break from working on their third feature, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, and the two films could not be more different in tone. A period piece, Barton Fink is set in 1941 and follows the titular Barton Fink (Turturro), a successful New York playwright who attempts to transition his career to writing scripts in Hollywood. Barton arrives in Hollywood and takes up a room at the dilapidated Hotel Earle, where he struggles to begin work on the wrestling picture which he has been assigned by Capitol Pictures. Barton is nebbish and anxious, a typical East coast intellectual, who worries that his relocation to sunny California and the shallow material he’s asked to work with for the studio will sever his connection to the common man and hinder his quest to bring a more perfect art form to the theater. One of the reasons for Barton’s inability to work is his loud and boisterous neighbor at the Earle, Charlie (Goodman), a salt of the earth insurance salesman who is a perfect foil for the high-minded Barton. Eventually the two strike up a friendship, with Barton fetishizing Charlie’s experience as an everyday working man. The film’s final third takes a dark turn with Barton becoming embroiled in a murder investigation, while Charlie is revealed to be an at-large serial killer with a penchant for removing his victims’ heads. In the end, Barton finishes his screenplay but is ultimately blackballed by his studio, and he is relieved of the pressure of the detectives who are investigating him by the nightmarish return of Charlie (or “Madman” Mundt, as he is referred to by the detectives) who becomes evil incarnate when he torches the Hotel Earle and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.

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Already known for creating films that are difficult to slot into any one particular genre or style of filmmaking, Barton Fink is probably the Coens’ most unclassifiable film to that point in their careers. While they had explored dark, anarchic comedy in Raising Arizona, that film lacks the elements of surrealism and outright horror that are present at times in Barton Fink. The film also features much more narrative ambiguity and opens itself up more to its viewers’ subjective interpretation than any of their previous films. Miller’s Crossing presents quite a tangled web of narrative interconnections and plot twists, but careful viewers can navigate the film’s twists and turns to arrive at a sense of narrative completion and truth. Barton Fink, however, doesn’t offer up a clear narrative solution, leaving its viewers instead with a series of unanswered questions and a plethora of potential clues that could explain some of the film’s stranger elements. What I love about Barton Fink is that it is so amorphous, and it’s a great film to watch again and again, refining your own personal theory to explain how it is that Barton experiences the things he does in the Hotel Earle. I’ve been doing so for the last 15 years, since first seeing the film.

My personal theory about Barton Fink is that Barton died at some point on his journey from New York to Los Angeles, and that the Hotel Earle is some sort of Purgatory, where the residents must be judged and tested to determine their ultimate fate in the afterlife. Barton’s cross country journey is elided, replaced by a brief shot of a wave crashing upon a rock that will become symbolically important later in the film, and from the outset his stay at the Hotel Earle supports the theory that there may be something more than meets the eye about the tumbledown, gloomy hotel. Upon check-in, Barton is greeted by Chet (Steve Buscemi), the hotel’s concierge, who ascends a set of stairs and emerges from a trap door to ask Barton whether he is a “trans or a res,” meaning a transient or resident guest. Barton replies that he will be staying “indefinitely.” The hotel’s lobby is dim, populated by many overstuffed arm chairs, illuminated by very few stray beams of sunlight. Barton’s room is bare, aside from a picture on the wall of a girl sunbathing on the beach, staring into the horizon as the tide comes in. The sunny image in the picture represents an oasis in the otherwise grim room. The hotel is decorated in drab greens and yellows that call to mind rot and sickness, and the wallpaper in Barton’s room peels, revealing oozing, sweaty walls. The shoes left at the door of each room for nightly shining seem to suggest a hotel full of guests, but Barton and Charlie are the only ones we actually see, giving the Earle the feeling of a haunted house. Barton’s interactions with the hotel’s staff, whether with Chet or with Pete (Harry Bugin), the hotel’s morose elevator operator, are exceedingly surreal, consisting of clipped dialogue and frequent non-sequiturs, as if Barton’s reality doesn’t quite match up with theirs.

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Barton’s physical appearance throughout the film also supports this theory that he may be dead. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Barton’s physical and mental state appear to steadily deteriorate until he is able to finish his screenplay. He is plagued by ever-worsening boils, which he explains away as mosquito bites. Though it is mentioned that there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles as they are most commonly found in swamps, there is clearly a mosquito in Barton’s room, again indicating that something is not right about the Hotel Earle. He is also plagued by not only writer’s block, but intense anxiety, bordering on paranoia, as he hears sounds through the walls at the hotel. He becomes prone to extended bouts of daydreaming as he stares at the picture on his wall, fantasizing about escaping from the gloomy confines of his room at the Earle. Even outside the hotel, Barton is often shown anxiously sitting through meetings with studio executives, his pocked face glistening with sweat, giving him the pallid look of a corpse.

After a lover is found inexplicably dead in his bed, Barton’s paranoia turns to full on mania as he asks his only friend, Charlie, to help him dispose of the body and remedy the situation. Charlie leaves town, assuring Barton that everything is taken care of with regards to the body, and asks him to safeguard a package for him which we must later presume contains the head of the woman who was killed in Barton’s bed. Barton is left weeping in his room with the package and his unfinished script. As he is battling his writer’s block, Barton opens his desk drawer and finds the ubiquitous hotel room Gideon’s Bible. Opening the Bible to a random page, Barton discovers this verse from Daniel describing the demands of a King: “…Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, ye shall be cut in pieces…” Turning then to the book of Genesis, Barton sees the opening lines of his own screenplay as the first two verses in the Bible. This juxtaposition of Barton’s own work with the verse in the Bible indicates that finishing his screenplay is to be the test he must pass to depart from the Hotel Earle. The King’s demand to “make known to me my dreams” echoes the demand of Capitol Pictures studio head, Jack Lipnick (Lerner), that Barton turn in a crowd-pleasing, studio friendly wrestling picture, rather than the sort of high art that Barton aspires to. This revelation, coupled with Barton’s encounter with the detectives, Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney), who are on the hunt for Charlie, give him the impetus needed to finish his screenplay, which he does in one bout of inspired writing.

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The final scenes of Barton Fink drive home the theory that Barton and Charlie are playing out a waiting game in Purgatory, while they attempt to finish out some aspect of their life’s work. After returning to the hotel from celebrating the completion of his screenplay, Barton finds the detectives in his room, rifling through his papers. They question Barton about his role in the murders, as another Capitol writer whom Barton had been acquainted with and admired has been found dead, and handcuff him to the bed, which is still soaked with blood. Before they can arrest Barton, however, the detectives leave the room to investigate smoke and heat pouring in from the hallway. They’re greeted by Charlie, who is wielding a double barrel shotgun, which he uses to quickly dispatch Mastrionotti. Charlie then charges down the hallway at Deutsch, bellowing “I will show you the life of the mind,” followed by a wall of fire. The hallway engulfed in flames around them, Charlie shoots Deutsch and then turns into Barton’s room for one last chat.

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Charlie settles into the chair at Barton’s desk with the world-weary air of a man who has spent one long day too many at the office. When Barton confronts Charlie about his true identity as Madman Mundt, Charlie launches into a monologue that begins, “Jesus, people can be cruel. If it’s not my build, it’s my personality,” and in which he lays out his justification for his killings. Charlie feels sorry for the people of the world, sees their day-to-day struggles, and thinks that he can best help them by giving them assistance in sloughing off their mortal coil. He laments that he has no one to have mercy on him and help him out in a similar fashion. “You think you know pain?” he says to Barton, “You think I made your life Hell? Take a look around this dump. You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here, Barton. Don’t you understand that?” Charlie has never been able to leave the Hotel Earle; the best he can do is transform it through his violence. While the hotel was once a Purgatory, Charlie has unleashed Hell on Earth, and he intends to stay there. He frees Barton from his handcuffs, and then tells him that he’ll be next door if Barton needs him. As Barton leaves his room with his finished script and Charlie’s package in tow, we see Charlie step through the inferno into his hotel room, symbolically passing into the afterlife.

Though his script is ultimately rejected, and Lipnick threatens to keep him in a professional purgatory by forcing him to work out his contract for Capitol Pictures while refusing to produce any of his scripts, Barton, too, passes into the afterlife at the film’s end. After the rejection, Barton is walking along the beach, still carrying Charlie’s package. There is a shot of a wave crashing over a rock that directly mirrors the shot that is used as a transition earlier in the film when Barton journeys from New York to Los Angeles. I believe these shots symbolically represent his character entering into a new state of being, both passing from life into death and his Purgatory state at the Hotel Earle, and then passing from Purgatory into some sort of Heaven on the beach. Barton finds a place to settle on the beach, and he is approached by a beautiful woman who sits down in front of him. “You’re very beautiful,” he asks, “Are you in pictures?” To which she replies, “Don’t be silly,” as she turns from him to stare out across the waves, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the Sun, and assuming the pose of the woman in the picture in Barton’s room. The film ends with the two of them sitting on the beach, Barton having finished his journey and finally ended up in the oasis depicted in his picture.

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Barton Fink is so rich with symbolism and literary and textual references that one could easily come up with several other plausible theories to explain the events that take place in this unusual film. In fact, my preferred analysis is actually largely unsupported by interviews with the Coen brothers that I’ve read, and their stated desire to make a sequel to the film set in the 1960s runs directly counter to my supposition that Barton is dead. However, the beauty of a film like Barton Fink is that it is so open to interpretation and so varied in its themes that it can be exactly the type of film that any given viewer might be looking for on any given viewing. There are multiple allusions to creeping fascism and the United States’ eminent entry into World War II throughout the film if one chooses to read it in that way. There is certainly evidence that everything did, in fact, happen as it was depicted and that the world of Barton Fink is just supremely strange. My own interpretations of the film have changed with time, and could likely change again, but that’s always been a part of the fun of it for me. The film is also entertaining, funny, and populated with incredibly strong performances from its cast so that if one doesn’t care to dive deep into its narrative looking for deeper meaning and continuity, it can still be an impactful and memorable viewing experience. As I mentioned earlier, Barton Fink is somewhat lesser seen than other Coen brothers films, but it is certainly not of any lesser merit, and if you haven’t seen it yet I would suggest remedying that as soon as possible.