Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski
I don't think I'd ever seen The Big Lebowski sober before.  Sadly it is not a movie that tends to be watched without the copious consumption of various substances.  Perhaps it was the lack of chemicals or just the fact that I've been reading and watching a lot of film history, and reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, but for the first time I feel like I really got the movie -- or at least drew something from it.  By referencing and parodying various styles of cinema it becomes a film about how difficult it is to tell a story now, how confusing and senseless everything is, and how that remains ok.

The Big Lebowski is immediately through the opening narration (and the closing as well) framed as a Western -- a story about a man who represents a moment in history in a formative moment.  As the movie progresses a second framing develops and it takes the form of a mystery, specifically in the tradition of Raymond Chandler -- what began as a story of a man and a time, becomes "a complicated case... ...You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous. And, uh, lotta strands..."  The encounter with the "other" private detective and the Malibu police call to mind Chandler's detective Phillip Marlowe's clashes with the cops and interactions with other PIs.  Lest we forget, The Big Lebowski is also a movie about bowling and as such to a lesser extent takes on the form of a sports film, complete with John Turturro's villainous Jesus as the antagonist. 
The movie sets up these predictable structures -- the kinds of movies we've seen for years, supplemented with hints of other more subtly present film structures:  the romance with Maude, the buddy film with Walter. It then proceeds to disappoint with each one:
  • There is no satisfying solution to the mystery.
  • There is no showdown with Jesus' bowling team.
  • Maude is not the Dude's lady friend, it is a romance subplot devoid of romance.
  • Walter as a sidekick/buddy is a constant frustration and disappointment.
In a sense the movie is as it claims to be a story of a particular time, the time is now, and the statement being made is that those traditional storytelling structures no longer suffice -- they are empty. Our mysteries don't have exciting solutions, our romances are devoid of love. 

The Big Lebowski doesn't reserve it's critique of art to film, a surprising range of art/artists are presented at their worst throughout the movie: 

Maude's intentionally shocking type of modern art (strongly vaginal) and her needlessly elaborate acrobatic painting methodology are exaggerations of common trends, and the important art related call that she and her ridiculous pencil mustached friend is an empty, endless chorus of hyena-esque laughter. 

Dance is fittingly represented by the Dude's landlord's piece for which he finally finds a venue. He stumbles incomprehensibly around the stage in outdated costume. 

In terms of musicians the film has Autobahn with their nihilist posing. What we hear of it consists of distortion with "We believe in nothing." repeated over it. 

The only writer in the movie is comatose, embedded in a ridiculous life support system, and his most notable claim to fame is having written some of the worst episodes of a terrible television show.

Even the pornography in The Big Lebowski fails to entertain, "He fixes her cable?"

I remember that when The Big Lebowski came out, for many critics, it was a disappointment after the success of Fargo. Reviews criticized it's lack of focus, and how the pieces didn't seem to hold together. Watching it again now though, that seems to be the point.  Our world, still at war in the Middle East, isn't a Western, a Mystery, a Romance, a Sports story. It meanders, art cannot save it or us, art flails the same way we do. The beauty though of The Big Lebowski is that even with a message this bleak, it arrives at the end with "Yeah man. Well you know the Dude abides." And Sam Elliot stumbling over how the story might make sense, concludes that things continue as they do and we all abide.  Which is indeed a good thing to know.