Fargo

Fargo (1996)

Dir. Joel Coen

Written by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Starring: Frances McDormand, William H. Macy, Steve Buscemi, Peter Stormare

 

It’s been a while since I’ve written about a Coen Brothers movie for this project, and getting to another one feels a bit like finding an oasis in the middle of a desert. Certainly not because the quality of the films that I’ve been watching and writing about since I wrote about The Big Lebowski has been lacking, but because there is something comforting to me about immersing myself in the offbeat world in which these sibling auteurs choose to set their films. From an early age, I can remember the movies of the Coen Brothers being a background figure in my upbringing. Both of my parents had loved Raising Arizona and would regularly reference and quote the movie when I was young, though I don’t remember actually watching that movie until I was a little older. Instead, like many, Fargo was my introduction to the Coen Brothers. My parents rented the video when I was about 11, and I was allowed to stay up and watch the movie with them on a weekend night. I thought the Midwestern accents in the movie were hysterical, and even though I didn’t really understand it at the time, I sensed a darkness and a weirdness that existed on the fringes. Over the years, the movie would become an absolute favorite, and I would return to it time and time again. Fargo is still a favorite, and I think the older I get, the more I appreciate the film’s tale of small-time grift and murder born out of desperation, and its black sense of humor.

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Fargo begins with Jerry Lundegaard (Macy), a sales manager at an Oldsmobile dealership who has gotten in over his head in a bad financing scheme, meeting with Gaer Grimsrud (Stormare) and Carl Showalter (Buscemi) at a bar in Fargo, North Dakota. Jerry has hatched a plan to hire Gaer and Carl to kidnap his wife, Jean (Kristin Rudrud), and then extort a ransom out of his wealthy father-in-law, Wade (Harve Presnell). He plans to tell Wade that the ransom is $1,000,000, of which he will pay Carl and Gaer $80,000 and keep the rest to cover his debts and give him seed money for a new investment. Though Jerry begins to have second thoughts, the kidnapping takes place, and while the kidnappers are transporting Jean to their hideout to await the ransom, they are stopped by a state trooper. Gaer kills the state trooper, and later kills two witnesses who see him and Carl trying to hide the trooper’s body. The sloppy triple homicide obviously alerts the attention of the local police department, and Chief Margie Gunderson (McDormand) of Brainerd, Minnesota, takes the case. Margie’s initial investigation leads her to the discovery that the murdered trooper was ticketing a car with dealer plates, which eventually leads her investigation all the way to Jerry’s dealership in Minneapolis. What was supposed to be a simple staged kidnapping has spawned multiple homicides, and Jerry and Carl struggle to keep the lid on their scheme while Margie comes closer and closer to uncovering the truth and the connection between Jean’s kidnapping and the subsequent murders.

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As I mentioned, Fargo is a movie that I grew up with, and in many ways, grew into. I think that it’s a perfect movie to introduce someone to the Coen Brothers, especially if they’re young. There are a couple of brief sex scenes, and a few instances of pretty graphic violence, but depending on a kid’s maturity level, there shouldn’t be anything too objectionable in Fargo, and even though it’s a darkly themed film, its sinister core is coated in a quirky, quaint veneer. When I was young, the overstated Midwestern accents and mannerisms of the characters were all I really picked up on in the film, but they stuck with me, making me want to rewatch the movie where they talked about the Golden Gophers and said, “Oh, you betcha!” There was something about the specificity of the movie that spoke to me, and, as I’ve written previously, the Coens are masters at nailing the specific feeling of a time or a place. Each of their films, though often set in wildly disparate universes, feels genuinely rooted in this sense of time and place, and Fargo is no exception. From the film’s outset, with its opening shots of Jerry Lundegaard driving across the snow-swept tundra of North Dakota in a stolen car to meet up with the men he will hire to kidnap his wife, there is no mistaking the setting for anywhere but the upper Midwest. When I was young, I latched onto this aesthetic. I know I didn’t see it more than once or twice on television in the intervening years between first seeing it when it was new and purchasing the movie on DVD several years later as a teenager, but I can distinctly remember being enamored with the hermetically sealed, snow globe world of Fargo.

When I got older, I went back to Fargo and I was surprised at the depth of the movie that I mostly remembered for its cartoonish depictions of Minnesota niceties and the coldness of its mise-en-scene. I found that the coldness of its setting was reflective of the cold brutality with which the characters treat one another in the movie. I had understood the movie’s plot when I was younger, of course, but I don’t think that I had quite picked up on the callousness behind much of it. When I initially watched the film, I think I viewed Jean’s kidnapping as a farcical flawed caper, rather than the horrifying act of desperation that it really is. Being young, I didn’t really understand the deep, adult nature of Jerry’s selfish desperation, or his willingness to sacrifice everything in a misguided effort to rectify his earlier financial blunders. William H. Macy would make his name playing these types of characters, down on their luck losers who emit a palpable air of sadness and shame, but Jerry Lundegaard still stands out as one of his best performances. Macy’s hangdog expression and “aw shucks,” line delivery are perfect here, as is the nervous energy that he plays Jerry with. It’s a backhanded compliment to say that Macy might be the best actor in Hollywood at playing a weasel, but he nails that quality of Jerry perfectly. Until he made the fateful decision to hire men to kidnap his wife, Jerry was simply a parasitic, small man, desperate for a little success and recognition, who got in a little over his head and made poor decisions. Unfortunately, as a result of those decisions, bodies start piling up like snow in January.

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Another major thing that I never picked up on in Fargo is the film’s moments of immense strangeness. When I returned to the movie in my late teens, I noticed a distinct, almost Lynchian, undertone of surreality throughout the film. This plays out most regularly in the odd, clipped manner of conversation that the Coens employ often. Several times characters engage in brief conversations that seem to begin or end abruptly, or interject phrases that seem oddly out of place. When Margie is interviewing the two call girls who slept with Carl and Gaer, one of the women blurts out her high school and gives a small cheer when Margie asks her where she’s from. It’s a funny line that could easily be chalked up to the film’s specificity and the cultural pride of the Midwest, but it’s also a moment of dark absurdity. The interjection has no place in a murder investigation, and it marks a moment of darkness bubbling up from underneath the tranquil surface of small town Middle American normalcy.

Another moment in the film that has come to strike me as incredibly odd is Margie’s dinner with her former classmate, Mike Yanagita (Steve Park). They meet for lunch in Minneapolis while Margie is in town working her case, and before they’ve even had a chance to eat their meal, Mike breaks down, confessing that he’s always loved Margie and that his wife has recently died of leukemia. Only later does she find out that Mike’s wife was not dead, and in fact was never his wife, instead Mike had stalked their former classmate. Margie reflects on this information, as she had clearly pitied Mike during his breakdown, and the audience is also forced to view Mike’s previous pathetic desperation as a sinister attempt at manipulation. The interactions have always struck me as affected, and the nature of the revelation of Mike’s stalking and lying has always felt a bit out of place in the film. The scene is largely tangential to the rest of the plot, but it serves to reinforce the premise that there is a sinister sort of perversity underlying some of the character’s seemingly upstanding nature. I suppose that I connect these moments of ancillary strangeness with Lynch because I think that he explores very similar themes in Blue Velvet. Just like he explores the darkness underlying small town America in that film, in Fargo, the Coens explore the neuroses and sinister urges that can propel even the most normal seeming people.

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Of course, there is one character in the film who seems to be truly guided by noble principles, and that is Chief Margie Gusterson. Frances McDormand won an Academy Award for her performance as the pregnant police chief, and I think that this role still stands out as her signature role among a deep body of work. I’ve written before that McDormand is one of my favorite working actors, and my affinity for her work began with seeing Fargo for the first time. McDormand is the source of much of the film’s humor, playing Margie with a natural sense of bemusement that helps the audience identify with her as a character. However she also gets to be strong and tough, giving Margie an innate knack for police work and investigation, while the other cops in the movie are shown to be bumbling and inadequate. More than anything, though, McDormand imbues Margie with a sense of goodness that shines through in spite of the ugly circumstances that the character finds herself in. This basic decency and goodness makes Margie a great foil for the sleazy and selfish characters, such as Carl and Jerry, who people Fargo. Her performance is the light at the end of a tunnel, a reassurance of the basic decency that drives most people.

The rest of the film’s performances are top notch, as well. The film’s characters are often paired against one another, and the casting is spot on. Harve Presnell is an apt foil for Macy’s Jerry. Where Jerry is timid and soft-spoken, Wade is bold and bellicose, and successful, to boot. Presnell is a perfect angry old man, and he delivers some great, memorable lines when he’s criticizing Jean and Jerry’s parenting. Buscemi and Stormare form a perfect pair, with Buscemi’s garrulous, frenzied acting style providing a complement for Stormare’s laconic, stoic delivery. The Coens also perfectly pit these characters against one another, utilizing Stormare’s physicality to turn Gaer into a classicly hulking villain, while Carl’s impatience and irritability come out in Buscemi’s characteristic verbal patter and his jittery screen presence. Both actors get their moments of comedy as well, with Stormare employing expert timing and a wry sense of humor to deliver blasé punch lines, while Buscemi adopts a more physical, frenzied comedy that plays like a very dark slapstick. John Lynch turns in an understated supporting performance as Norm, Margie’s devoted, loving husband. He and McDormand share several moments of genuine tenderness, and their relationship, and glowing anticipation of their unborn child, give the film its emotional heart. The two actors share an easy chemistry, helping to ground the otherwise chaotic, spiraling narrative of the film. It’s fitting that the film ends on a bedroom conversation between Norm and Margie, as it feels like their love is the good thing that is worth saving from the avaricious ambitions of Jerry, Carl, and Gaer.

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I’m sure it’s obvious that I’m a huge fan of Fargo. It’s been one of the most consistent movies in my life, and I still return to it every couple of years, or so. One of the things that I’ve learned from working on this project is that any attempt to rank or order favorite movies, particularly within the body of work of my favorite filmmakers, isn’t really an exercise that I’m interested in. I’ve hung onto these movies, for the most part, because on any given day they could find themselves mentioned among my favorites of all time. Some, like Fargo, would find themselves in that discussion with more credence and more regularity than others. It’s accepted as a masterpiece, and I think many people would rank it as the Coen Brothers’ best film, which I wouldn’t have much quibble with. The movie’s reputation as a classic is well-earned, given the strength of its performances, its perfect balance of humor and suspenseful intrigue, and its iconic and memorable visual imagery. I know that many of the movies that I champion on this site are often somewhat esoteric, but Fargo is honestly a movie with something for everyone. It can be appreciated on many different levels, and it satisfies so many different things that I would want out of a go-to comfort movie. I can put it on in the background when I’m doing chores around the house, or I can sit down and watch it intently, appreciating its perfectly crafted script, and Roger Deakins’s coldly beautiful cinematography. It’s a movie that even though I’ve seen it over a dozen times, I never tire of going back for a repeat viewing. Chances are if you can’t find something to love about Fargo, you don’t really like movies at all.

 

Desperado

Desperado (1995)

Dir. Robert Rodriguez

Written by: Robert Rodriguez

Starring: Antonio Banderas, Selma Hayek

 

Desperado was one of my favorite action movies when I was a teen, and it, along with other early Robert Rodriguez films, became highly influential on my early ambitions of becoming a filmmaker. I was a certified Tarantino freak in high school, and his filmography and circle of influence became a major jumping off point for me in discovering other favorite films. It was a short jump from Tarantino to his friend and frequent collaborator Robert Rodriguez, and Desperado was my entry into the latter’s low budget, sun baked brand of cinema. I immediately recognized the meta-cool of Tarantino’s postmodern style, but while Desperado indulged some of the same impulses of Pulp Fiction or Jackie Brown, its influences were decidedly grittier. While Tarantino’s films sought to recontextualize and elevate their B-movie influences to the status of “high art,” Rodriguez’s reveled in the “low art” status of their cult and midnight movie predecessors. Rodriguez has proudly walked to the beat of his own drum throughout his career, learning the trade of filmmaking on the job, and constantly evolving as an artist. At this point, he has become a brand, the progenitor of a grindhouse resurgence that has only gained steam as new media has made it easier for aspiring filmmakers to create movies on a shoestring budget and get them released to wide audiences through alternative distribution channels like streaming or VOD, but Rodriguez’s early films represent a different type of guerilla filmmaking. In the 1990s, with films like Desperado, Rodriguez was one of a handful of filmmakers raising the flag for interesting, high production value, low budget, DIY filmmaking.

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Desperado begins with a road weary, possibly deranged traveler (Steve Buscemi) stumbling into a bar in Mexico and relating the tale of a tall, shadowy figure that he saw murder a bar full of gangsters a few towns over. His story piques the interest of the bartender (Cheech Marin) and his associate (Carlos Gomez), as they obviously know the principals in the traveler’s story. It turns out that that shadowy figure is known as “El Mariachi” (Banderas), and he’s strapped with a guitar case full of guns, on a quest for vengeance against Bucho (Joaquim de Almeida), the drug lord who murdered his wife. Desperado is a straight forward revenge tale, with El Mariachi stalking Mexican towns, hunting down members of Bucho’s gang as he tries to get closer to the man himself. Along the way, he meets and falls in love with Carolina (Hayek), a book store owner who happens to be Bucho’s lover. When Bucho finds out about El Mariachi and Carolina’s affair, he sends his men to hunt down the pair, but they fight off their pursuers and eventually confront Bucho himself at his compound. After dispatching of Bucho, El Mariachi is free to ride off into the sunset with Carolina, although he hangs onto his guitar case full of guns, “just in case.”

 

What the film might lack in narrative complexity, it more than makes up for in fast-paced, explosive action. Rodriguez is obviously channeling the influence of the Hong Kong action films of John Woo in Desperado, but the film doesn’t feel derivative. Instead, it becomes a celebratory homage to those action landmarks, and a testament to Rodriguez’s ability to create polished, kinetic action sequences on a shoestring budget. His book, Rebel Without A Crew, details the process that Rodriguez went through to make his debut film, El Mariachi (which Desperado is a sequel to). It can serve as a primer for young filmmakers looking to chase their own movie dreams, and it was a huge influence on me in my late teens. Though the budget for Desperado was significantly larger, it was still scant by Hollywood standards, and Rodriguez still holds true to the rules of economic action filmmaking detailed in his book. His later films would see him working with bigger budgets, full FX teams, and cutting edge CGI technology, but the essence of Rodriguez’s style is perfectly on display here.

THE FILM 'DESPERADO' BY ROBERT RODRIGUEZ

The stunt work in Desperado is impeccable, with Banderas doing all of his own stunts and performing some excellent fight choreography. He combines slapstick elements with traditional fight choreography and firearms work to create an ultraviolent, combustible ballet. Bullets rain down throughout the movie and countless scores of anonymous bad guys are dispatched of. This is action at its most impersonal and most impressive: mindless, excessive, and explosive. Rodriguez, a self-proclaimed guerrilla filmmaker, squeezes every bit of value out of his film’s $7 million budget. His mastery of practical effects and ingenuity as a filmmaker allow him to turn in a film that looks every bit as polished and has just as many high action set pieces as a big budget studio film. Although the industry and movie making technology have changed significantly in the 20+ years since Desperado was released, aspiring filmmakers who want a crash course in delivering high quality films on a budget should still look to Rodriguez’s early films and his book for tips. He’s by no means the only filmmaker capable of producing films of this quality on tight deadlines and budgets, but action films are so often the result of bloated FX budgets, lengthy shooting schedules, and complicated stunt work, and they still rarely leave the lasting impact that Desperado has, which is a testament to Rodriguez’s unique skillset.

As I mentioned, for all of its visual sheen, Desperado still finds Rodriguez struggling to flesh out his narratives. The script for Desperado is bare bones, interested only in the most direct motivations for its characters, and certainly not interested in significant psychological examination or character development. I don’t know that Rodriguez has ever really learned to write a “good” script, but I also don’t think that he often makes the type of films that are so significantly character driven that this is a bad thing. He plays to his strengths in Desperado and doesn’t let extraneous character background or plot devices get in the way of the fight scenes and explosions. There are attempts in the film to provide some depth for El Mariachi’s character, such as his relationship with a young boy who is growing up watching the cartel violence in his town, or his romantic relationship with Carolina, but these are largely underdeveloped. Narrative simplicity in a film like Desperado is fine. Character motivations in films like this one are concrete and don’t need a significant amount of discussion. However, one interesting thing about Rodriguez’s approach to storytelling in Desperado is his penchant for weaving the story together through narrated flashbacks. The film opens with one such instance of this technique, with the traveler telling the story of his encounter with El Mariachi interspersed with flashbacks of the mysterious gunman shooting up the bar. Though this isn’t a unique narrative device, Rodriguez employs it skillfully enough in Desperado that it helps to break up the linear progression of the film and makes for an interesting storytelling wrinkle.

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Though the script might not be complex or narratively innovative, it does feature several great individual moments and opportunities for characters to deliver memorable monologues in one-off scenes, particularly earlier in the film before the action really ramps up. Banderas is great as El Mariachi, which, for me, is his signature role. He plays the character with a combination of winking cool and ruthless, violent determination. There’s an elegance to the choreography that Rodriguez has designed, with Banderas performing his stunts like a dancer, performing a duet with the camera to graceful, devastating effect. Hayek has little dialogue in the film, but she proves equally capable of performing action stunts, and Rodriguez gives her enough agency in the film that she doesn’t sink to the role of eye candy, which would have been a typical choice in a Hollywood action film. Almeida is a hate-worthy villain as Bucho. His performance isn’t over the top, as he chooses to play Bucho as largely disinterested in anything going on around him. His defining characteristics are cruelty, greed, and apathy, and they’re manifested in Almeida’s nose-in-air performance and his utter disdain for the rest of his costars. In many ways, though, the film’s supporting cast are given the best moments in the film and provide the most memorable performances, aside from Banderas’s. Desperado features cameos from familiar faces such as Steve Buscemi, Cheech Marin, Quentin Tarantino, and Danny Trejo, and though most of these actors are only given a scene or two, they bring their established (or burgeoning) personae to their scenes, and individually nail them. I’ve already mentioned Buscemi’s opening scene, which sets the stage for the destruction to come, but Marin’s cynical, corrupt bartender is classic Cheech, particularly in his brief interaction with an entitled tourist. Tarantino gets a brief moment to ham it up with a memorable telling of a genuinely funny joke, while Trejo, in one of his first mainstream film appearances, makes the most of his silent performance by utilizing his imposing physicality in a role as a bounty hunter tracking El Mariachi. Top to bottom, the cast shines in a genre that often doesn’t ask much of its actors.

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It’s probably pretty obvious that my zeal for Desperado has not lessened any with age. It isn’t a film that I watch with any regularity anymore, but it’s one that I can get caught up in just as easily today as I did when I first saw it. Most modern action movies have become so formulaic and so obviously FX driven that I rarely seek them out. Desperado still feels like a breath of fresh air. It has its obvious influences, and it is clearly existing within a fairly rigid genre template, but Rodriguez’s sensibilities and his unique storytelling voice keep the film from ever feeling derivative. The film’s set pieces still hold up even with 20 years of technological innovation, and its central performance from Banderas as El Mariachi is an action archetype. I feel like Desperado doesn’t get as much consideration now, because Rodriguez’s career has moved away from making straight action movies and more into a direction of making B-movies and children’s sci-fi, but it’s a genre classic. In the 1990s, Desperado was a weekend cable TV staple, and it is still as fun of an experience to sit down and mindlessly consume as it was then.

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.