The Big Lebowski (1998)
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Writer: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
by Jon Cvack
I’ve seen this film probably four or five times, recalling my friend Phil in high school - one of the funniest people I’ve ever met - quoting it incessantly. It was released prior to my interest in film, and looking back, it’s crazy to think that I was witnessing the cult phenomenon taking place, as beyond Phil there were countless others, often the pot-heavy crowd, who loved the film. In all honesty, I don’t think I fully understood the film the first time I watched it, or the second, or even the last before this, which must have been over seven years ago when I think about it. I didn’t grasp the hard boiled narrative, inspired by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett; that the Coen Bros were essentially making a stoner comedy out of the classic film noirs; and all of the more subtle jokes that maturity often brings to great films.
It’s a film where the history and trivia is almost as interesting as the film, and far better than any review could sum up. In fact, while watching the film on my laptop, I discovered that each time I paused it, Amazon Prime would pull up a piece of trivia, with one of the most memorable being that Metallica tried to incorporate their reference into a summer tour at one point (if you forgot, The Dude was a their roadie on the “Speed of Sound” tour, thinking they were all assholes). In the background of it all is the ongoing tension between Saddam Hussein and Bush Senior’s administration, taking place more or less on the eve of the Gulf War. I recall wondering and arriving at wild ideas of what this meant, only to discover that it was deliberately unrelated, which makes it all the funnier.
The film leaves you longing for that old LA which is rapidly fading. I recall an article about the tech development in Venice Beach and what it was doing to the small community, which use to be cheap destination for artists, with Dogtown and Z-Boys portraying the famous beach as once a run down, trashy neighborhood. With Venice now one of the most expensive areas in the city, filled with the likes of YouTube, Facebook, SnapChat, and hundreds of other tech companies, the area has now become a destination for the wealthy, with Santa Monica serving as a type of San Francisco satellite. There was a bowling alley, Mar Vista Lanes, down the street from where I lived that reminded me of The Big Lebowski, to the point of leading me to research if it’s where the film was shot (it wasn’t). It had an old diner, and looked like it was built in the 1980s and hadn’t been renovated since; a place completely removed from the ‘hipness’ of LA. Well, that place was closed for half a year for remodeling, and now it has expensive neon light art designs all over the place, an old motel facade, $12 burgers, and ambient lighting. Not knowing any of the regulars, I could see them all ditching the place.
The point being that in about 20 years time, The Dude’s home turf has completely transformed, and a person like him couldn’t afford a shared Airbnb room for even a week. I still don’t entirely understand why the film takes place in LA, and wonder if that’s only because I now know the city as the 2nd Most Expensive in the Country, complete with all the overpriced amenities such a place would demand. My best guess is that the location was honoring the hardboiled novels and films that inspired the narrative. Still, I also think the Coens unfamiliarity worked against them (they live in NYC; born in Minnesota). The place was painted much more as a MidWestern town, except with a beach, palm trees, and porn industry. I kept thinking that it would have worked so much better in a Florida town, or even in the Midwest, and that it might have worked better. The absence of glitz and glamor, which from all I understand, has been here forever - beautiful women, the movies, and fame. Or, maybe the Coens deliberately chose to exclude such things as another bit of hilarious and unrelated humor. Or maybe it’s because I recently watched Night Moves and enjoyed it’s Key West setting given the film noir throwback. And for anyone arguing that LA was just different back then, I agree, but I also think that Paul Thomas Anderson did an incredible job of portraying LA as it is, and shot it around the same time. There’s something about capturing your home town that adds another dimension of plausibility, and why Fargo worked so well (and yes, No Country for Old Men was shot in the South, but that might have been their twenty-plus years of skill and collaboration with the greatest novelist of modern times). It's the intricate plot, inspired by Hammett and Chandler, that really makes you appreciate the noir throwback; which the Coens have executed brilliantly a few years before with Miller’s Crossing, and attempted, though not that well, with the recent Hail Caesar!.
However, I never did and still don’t like Maude Lebowski’s character, who I think just doesn’t fit that well against The Dude, though this might be on account of Julianne Moore’s stolid performance, which while brilliant, seems too muted against the other more colorful and hilarious characters. Compared to everyone else, she’s lifeless and unfunny, which might provide a break from the more ridiculous humor, but always leaves me wanting to fast forward. I just don’t find the character all that interesting, and it could have been much better served by a more traditional femme fatale with a nice Coen Bros touch.
It’s a film where the history and trivia are just as entertaining as the story; a movie that transcends genre, in which the Coens essentially redefined the formula; getting better with each viewing, especially with there is to unpack and all the brilliant gems discovered in the process.
BELOW: One of the funniest scenes in history
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