****/**** Image C+ Sound A Extras B
starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi
screenplay by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
directed by Joel Coen
by Walter Chaw I think that once the book closes on the Coen Brothers, they'll be seen as the premier interpreters of our time: the best literary critics; the Mark Twains. I used to believe they were simply genre tourists on this mission to do one for every genre, but it becomes apparent with each new No Country for Old Men and True Grit unlocking each vintage Miller's Crossing and The Hudsucker Proxy that they were interpreting genres long before they took on specific pieces as a whole. Coming full-circle from the wry noir of Blood Simple and Fargo and presenting itself eventually as of a piece with a later Coen noir, The Man Who Wasn't There (just as A Serious Man is a companion piece to Barton Fink), The Big Lebowski serves as the transition point in that process while also moving the brothers from broad genre takedowns to a very specific kind of literary adaptation. That they would follow it up with O Brother, Where Art Thou?, their take on The Odyssey, speaks to a mission statement of sorts: like it, The Big Lebowski is a distillation of a classic piece of literature (Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep) that completely understands its simultaneous responsibility to its own medium and to its source material. It's not as easy as it sounds.
Opening with an extended bit of voiceover narration provided by the Stranger (Sam Elliott), the Dude (Jeff Bridges, in a career-defining role despite how that sounds) is identified as a man of his time in much the same way that Camus's stranger Merseault was a man of his. Camus is a central influence on the Coens' work, appearing in various forms in Barton Fink and, specifically, The Man Who Wasn't There as both existential thematic glue and, in the latter, a literal bridge between the work of hardboiled author James M. Cain and the film itself. The sense of disconnection is what's at play in The Big Lebowski--the total failure of communication, the feeling of being stuck in time, and an analysis of The Big Sleep that suggests that it's had its major influence not on the mainstream detective thriller, but on surrealism and post-modernism. The famous story from the Howard Hawks production of The Big Sleep is that when Hawks realized he didn't know who killed the chauffeur in the script, he called Chandler (Chandler deep in his cups 24/7 at that point), who responded that he didn't have any idea, either. The finer points of the mystery beside the point, as it were, what remains of The Big Sleep is its glorious prose and sense absolute of the meaninglessness of modern existence. No answers, no exit.
Appropriate, then, that the Stranger introduces the Dude, at that moment attired in a bathrobe and slippers and writing a check at Ralph's for sixty-nine cents to buy a quarter-gallon of half-and-half. The Stranger hesitates to call him a "hero." The Big Lebowski is a unique type of gallows comedy. What's at stake in the film, after all, is the cultural observation at the end of the '90s that the beginning of the '90s was a period of moral vacuity, confusion, and listlessness following twelve years of Reagan optimism. We were like a coma patient coming to. It affirms the breadth of the Coens' accomplishment here that in presenting a sharp sociological treatise on a "lost" decade in our recent culture, they've also managed a cogent and fascinating analysis of Raymond Chandler and the influence of noir on the way we interpret the existential crises of modern, fully-acculturated Man. The Big Lebowski is additionally the sort of comedy that Thomas Pynchon would write, with its sprawling cast of characters and essential departure from narrative. A scene set in Wilshire's legendary coffee shop Johnie's, in fact, celebrates the tenth anniversary in 1998 of Steve De Jarnatt's similarly Pynchon-indebted Miracle Mile.
Useless vanity to trainspot the voluminous similarities and direct references to Chandler (and Hawks)--best to say that the Dude and his shell-shocked buddy Walter (John Goodman) are enlisted as bagmen for a cool million-dollar ransom for the return of wheelchair-bound Lebowski's (David Huddleston) porn-star trophy wife, Bunny (Tara Reid, typecast), whose alleged kidnappers are a band of nihilists (notice chanteuse Aimee Mann and Chili Peppers' bassist Flea among their numbers) without a complete grasp on the term. Dude finds an ally in militant artist Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the vehicle to not only "solving" the case but Dude's nominal immortality as well.
The idea that no one ever at any point in the film knows what anyone else is talking about comes clear during the first extended dialogue when, after a pair of thugs misidentifies Dude as the other Jeff Lebowski (the millionaire, wheelchair-bound one), Dude and Walter briefly discuss the political correctness of the term "Chinaman" vs. "Asian-American." Smart, funny, the misunderstandings continue throughout but locate specifically in the character of Donnie (Steve Buscemi), perpetually confused until his surprise death and "travesty" of a funeral. It's meaningful that Donnie is revealed in Walter's eulogy to have been an avid surfer, just as it's meaningful that the bowling attendant in one of Dude's head trips is Saddam Hussein (Jerry Haleva). They're all pieces of a '90s mosaic, one that includes the Dude's abuse at the hands of a California police department still stinging from the O.J. Simpson trial in the middle of the decade.
At the end of it, the Dude "abides," indicating a fundamental disconnect between what he's experienced and its impact on him. The Big Lebowski is a sneaky bastard, failing at the box-office--as works absolutely clear about their time often do--and locating itself in the crucible of time as every bit as relevant as contemporaries The Truman Show, The Matrix, Election, even Fight Club, and especially Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It speaks of final breaks from the past (the writer of an old television show Walter reveres and partly credits for his survival in Vietnam is cocooned in an ancient iron lung) and of the hopelessness of the future in the old guard's illiterate, mute, criminal, and insolent offspring. Institutions crumbling since the postwar '40s are laughable here (marriage, law), but also useless now are wealth (variously substituted by dirty underwear and a phone book) and progeny--not evil, merely devoid of meaning and gravity. And at the bottom of it all, The Big Lebowski is genuinely hilarious. It's beautifully shot, beautifully written, beautifully performed. It's gratifyingly complex, should you choose to unravel it, and enormously satisfying as a scopophilic wonderland alight with references to everything from Busby Berkeley to the Fluxus art movement to Wagnerian opera. It's essential. And it uses "fuck" in pretty much every single line of dialogue.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Replacing the opening PolyGram Pictures logo with Universal's most current one, Focus Features' long-awaited, "Limited Edition" Blu-ray release of The Big Lebowski does not, let it be said, cater to purists. The movie's 1.85:1, 1080p presentation has been excessively de-noised, robbing the image of filmic texture; any edge-enhancement applied to compensate for lost detail--the characters sometimes look like figures in a wax museum--only furthers the digital glaze. Colours seem indiscreetly pumped up (by which I mean: when all of it pops, none of it pops), and the drop-off into black is steep; if I had a region-free player, I'd opt for the Italian BD--at least according to the framegrabs at DVDBEAVER, it boasts a transfer much more faithful to the picture's quasi-naturalistic aesthetic. On the other hand, damn if the 5.1 DTS-HD MA track on this disc doesn't emulate the experience of seeing The Big Lebowski at a THX auditorium in SDDS. The music is bombastic but warm and expansive but precise; I must admit to spinning the end credits several times already just to hear Shawn Colvin's cover of "Viva Las Vegas," which is impossible to find online, let alone in a version of such high quality. Flattened out on DVD, the mix begs to be played loud to catch all the deadpan humour layered into Skip Lievsay's richly ambient sound design.
First appearing on PolyGram's DVD from 1998, "The Making of The Big Lebowski" (25 mins., SD/4x3 letterbox) holds up as a rare extended interview with the Coen Brothers. Others including Jeff Bridges appear, but only briefly, and though impish as always, Joel and Ethan manage a fairly straightforward account of the picture's genesis, going so far as to touch on, in their cryptic way, the difficulty of adapting Hammett (with Miller's Crossing) vs. Chandler. Their anecdote about an interview with FLOOR COVERING WEEKLY is hilarious as they slowly reach the conclusion that they were probably punk'd, and overall the relaxed, hype-free tone of the piece is a nice change of pace from the overcut EPKs we get now. "The Dude's Life" (10 mins., HD), "The Dude Abides: The Big Lebowski Ten Years Later" (10 mins., HD), and the awkwardly-titled "Flying Concepts and Bowling Pin Dreams: The Dream Sequences of the Dude" (5 mins., HD) aren't exactly that, but they do suffer from a short attention span and didn't need to be three separate segments. Therein, actors Bridges, Julianne Moore, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and John Turturro reflect on The Big Lebowski with a decade's distance (none of the featurettes are new to this "Limited Edition" BD), with Moore revealing that she was pregnant and feeling gross while wearing the Viking outfit, Bridges reflecting on the differences between his relationship with brother Beau and Joel and Ethan's relationship with each other, that sort of thing. For what it's worth, there's a lot of where-are-they-now? sequel teasing--Turturro says he knows "for a fact" that the Jesus went on to become a schoolbus driver. Turturro's also the only castmember to admit he didn't "get" The Big Lebowski on first viewing. DP Roger Deakins is extolled but not interviewed because all this stuff is really for the starfuckers in the audience.
Bridges walks us through his bound collection of Big Lebowski stills, snapped with his famous Widelux camera, in "Jeff Bridges Photo Book" (18 mins., HD). Stationed in front of a mirror and effectively prompting himself to speak, his stroll down memory lane is genial and engaging, and for the second time in these extras he tells the dirty-funny story that goes with his upskirt photo of a chorine from the dream sequence. "Photo Gallery" (3 mins., SD) leaves Bridges out of the equation whilst significantly reducing the size and resolution of his pictures. "An Exclusive Introduction" (5 mins., SD/4x3 letterbox) resurrects fictitious film preservationist "Famous Mortimer" for another self-effacing intro, this one considerably funnier (or slightly less inappropriate) than Blood Simple's. I laughed at the title of the "Albanian coming-of-age movie" supposedly destroyed in Forever Young's plant explosion: Smityu Finds a Pebble. Although tongues are firmly planted in cheeks, Famous Mortimer's overview of what happened to PolyGram is basically true--not sure whether the same can be said for his claim that The Big Lebowski's Italian title is Mr. Marijuana.
"The Lebowski Fest: An Achiever's Story" (14 mins., SD) documents the titular event from its humble beginnings as a Baptist bowling-alley gathering (where a no-cussing rule put a crimp on verbal homages to the flick) to the better-populated convention it is today. ("Today" being something like 2004.) The dreaded "interactive map" leads to brief HiDef vignettes about the production's various locations narrated by a nameless fellow with specialized knowledge in the gentrification of Los Angeles, while "Worthy Adversaries: What's My Line Trivia" turns quoting Lebowski into a competitive sport. I couldn't work the U-Control feature to save my life, but it allegedly offers a guide to music cues and a swear counter that also tracks Dude-isms; a spot for Bridges's "No Kid Hungry" campaign meanwhile rounds out the platter. The DigiBook packaging contains an interview with the real-life inspiration for the Dude, Jeff Dowd. Originally published: September 1, 2011.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.