Saturday Editor’s Pick: The Big Lebowski (1998)

by on November 20, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 25 & Sat Nov 26 at Midnight [Program & Tix]


A very special movie for me personally, as the first cult movie I’ve witnessed take root and, more substantially, as a film whose cult flames were fanned in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky.


And, yeah, nice marmet.


Michael Nordine for Slant:

There are few films that genuinely get better with each successive viewing. The Big Lebowski is one of them. This is owed not only to its near-infinite quotability, which itself grows with time, given how much of the film’s humor is self-referential, but also because its tangled plot requires a substantial amount of unraveling before it can be fully understood and appreciated. The Coen brothers use the noir framework of such films as The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye as a starting point and apply it to a wonderfully trivial case sparked by a micturated-upon rug which, we’re reminded ad infinitum, “really tied the room together.” From there the Coens lead us on a tour involving White Russians, bowling, nihilists (read: not Nazis), a faux-kidnapping set up to mask an embezzlement scheme, and more White Russians. The plentiful in-jokes are sometimes so esoteric, in fact, that we’re often the only ones in on them: The Dude (Jeff Bridges), our semi-straight man in an increasingly labyrinthine story, is often out of his element. In order to mask this, he parrots serious-sounding phrases he hears in various places, from George H.W. Bush decrying Saddam Hussein on television to an abstract artist he’s just met. Dialogue is as fluid as it is flexible here; wordsmiths always, the Coens pack their script with adaptive turns of phrase whose meaning evolves slowly throughout.



An A.O. Scott video essay for the Times:


Geoff Andrew actually got it upon the film’s release, for Time Out (London):

This comic update of the world crystallised by Raymond Chandler charts the disastrous involvement of laidback dopehead Jeff ‘the Dude’ Lebowski (Bridges) in a kidnapping case involving the wife of his millionaire namesake (Huddleston). The Dude is hired as bagman and of course finds himself increasingly at risk as he makes his way about an LA populated by the rich, strange and dangerous. Nor do his bowling buddies help: Donny (Buscemi) is frankly several pins short of a strike; while Walter (Goodman), a crazed, irascible Viet vet, is so determined to stand his (and the Dude’s) ground that he causes more trouble than he solves. Immensely inventive and entertaining, the film may not have the enigmatic elegance or emotional resonance of Barton Fink or Fargo, but it’s still a prime example of the Coens’ effortless brand of stylistic and storytelling brilliance. Thanks to Roger Deakins’ gleaming camerawork, T-Bone Burnett’s eclectic soundtrack selection and the Coens’ typically pithy dialogue, it looks and sounds wonderful. Moreover, far from being shallow pastiche, it’s actually about something: what it means to be a man, to be a friend, and to be a ‘hero’ for a particular time and place.



Dwight Garner summarizes the cult for The New York Times:

Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1998 movie, “The Big Lebowski,” which stars Jeff Bridges as a beatific, pot-smoking, bowling-obsessed slacker known as the Dude, snuck up on the English-speaking world during the ’00s: it became, stealthily, the decade’s most venerated cult film. It’s got that elusive and addictive quality that a great midnight movie has to have: it blissfully widens and expands in your mind upon repeat viewings.


“The Big Lebowski” has spawned its own shaggy, fervid world: drinking games, Halloween costumes, bumper stickers (“This aggression will not stand, man”) and a drunken annual festival that took root in Louisville, Ky., and has spread to other cities. The movie is also the subject of an expanding shelf of books, including “The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers” and the forthcoming “The Tao of the Dude.”


The Village Voice features a slideshow of the best costumes from Lebowski Fest. The Gothamist has the 10 Best Moments of the cast reunion.


A fantastic extended interview with the Coens: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3


Sean Axmaker for Parallax View:

Rolling Stone once called it “the most worshipped comedy of its generation.” I like to think of it the Book of Duderonomy, the lost gospel of the post-modern Testament. You’ll like its style, man.



Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe in the Introduction to The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies:

This is not just your average stoner flick, but a stoned flick. Its very slackness, its lazy, bleary-eyed gaze reveals more than any one of its subjects may contain on its own. In this stoner haze, the material world is turned inside out. The American scene shakes off its rational frames, dives into itself like a psychadelic seal, and begins to glow rich and strange with its own psychic undercurrents. It isn’t a question of intelligence but feelings, desire, the unconscious, and what becomes possible again in an otherwise dead world of dead objects and dead causes. Ethan Coen “It’s that it’s kind of wrong in a way, but also kind of right in a way. I mean, even things that don’t go together should seem to clash in an interesting way – like, you know, a Cheech and Chong movie, but with bowling. You sort of do it by feel and not with reason.”


The Dude, as the non-hero of this world, is a necessarily comic figure. As Henri Bergson famously observed, we laugh at the spectacle of a human behaving like a thing, getting caught up in his own thingliness and the thingliness of his environment. The Coens’ comedic formula rests on the belief that an inverse ratio of human effort and material contingency produces the most belly laughs. Again, we’re dealing with “best-laid plans,” and so we watch the Dude sweating through the construction of a door barrer and then see the door easily opened because he inserted the chair backward, or, more brilliantly, we watch Walter’s minutely detailed plan with the ringer ho awry, here tripped up by his own girth. Undoubtedly, such humor involves a factor of humility, for when characters seem most free from the burdens of materiality, as when the Dude tries to relax and assert his dignity with a joint and a little Creedence, they are most violently struck by all manner of worldly shrapnel. When the Dude crashes the Gran Torino, say, we are granted neither irony nor even black humor, but a kind of hipster slapstick, a comedy of goofy cool that signals less an existential crisis but a warm humility. Here, the comedy approaches something like an ethos. As comic hero, the Dude is situated against a catastrophic world, but he also brings an incredible uncertainty to that world. His bumbling adventures open an otherwise sterile terrain to gleeful chaos. His very presence, like Chaplin or Boudo or Clousseau, signals encounter, collision, contingency, and eruption, the breakdown of the real, the emergence of the impossible.


A video montage of the film’s rampant f-bomb dropping:


And one of every “Dude” drop:


Geoffrey O’Brien for Film Comment (Nov/Dec 2007)

The exuberant dissonance the Coens invite into most of their movies-the carnival of grotesque intrusions and mood-altering sidebars-has tended to turn even their darkest moments into scenes for a possible comedy, even if the comedy required a wrenching adjustment of perspective to fully kick in. By the same token, a comedy like The Big Lebowski could morph into the most unnerving of melodramas. A genius for inventing worlds was coupled with an irresistible impulse to dismantle or invert their own inventions, as if in fear that the audience might look away if not constantly made to gasp in disoriented surprise.

Or perhaps they could not be happy unless every text ceaselessly generated multiple and self-canceling commentaries. Histories and subcultures-the gangland milieu of Miller’s Crossing, the rural radio station of O Brother, Where Art Thou?-might be evoked with preternatural precision only to split apart into caricature or anachronism. In The Big Lebowski, their masterpiece to date, they found for once a frame capable of infinite collapses and reversals, a free-fall zone exempt from the possibility of harm in which it therefore became possible to contemplate real suffering: sudden death and combat-induced trauma could mingle freely and outrageously with the shades of Lewis Carroll and Busby Berkeley. John Goodman’s Walter is a more terrifying figure than any of their killers or gangsters, not The Man Who Wasn’t There but The Man Who Won’t Go Away-more unnerving even than Javier Bardem’s lank-haired messenger of death in No Country for Old Men.



David Denby for the New Yorker (2008):

A slacker hymn of praise so gentle and goofy that it has floated off the screen into the fantasy life of the nation.


The surface of the Coens’ work is often jumpy, even hyperactive, but in “Fargo” they associated goodness with, of all things, a state of rest. That state, and its surprising life-affirming qualities, turns up again in “The Big Lebowski.” “Lebowski” received mediocre reviews and did little initial business, but over the years it has built an effervescent cult following. The devotion is entirely deserved. As cult movies go, “The Big Lebowski” is much wittier than “Animal House” or “Hairspray,” and free of the dumb-bunny silliness of “The Rock Horror Picture Show” or the funny mystical pretensions of “El Topo.”


The jumping-off point for “The Big Lebowski” is the insolent Howard Hawks classic “The Big Sleep,” but this movie doesn’t taunt its model; it mutely reveres it, and finds a rhythm of its own. In the Hawks film, Humphrey Bogart’s incomparably adroit Philip Marlow always anticipates the next moment, whereas the Dude, caught up in an indecipherable Los Angeles intrigue, is so limp and vaguely constituted that he can hardly complete a sentence. He resists being draw into a story; he wants to spend his time bowling with his irascible friend Walter, a Jewish convert who served in Nam and has become a rhetorically enabled face-down-in-the-mud kind of guy – he thinks the fact that Americans died heroically in Vietnam justifies his getting furious over the smallest incidents in his life. Many of the Coens’ idiots are obsessives, but Walter, who has burning eyes and a tight beard outlining a mighty jaw, is so fiercely methodical in his false syllogisms that you begin to understand paranoia as a form of intellectual egotism “The Big Lebowski” is a tribute to harmlessness, friendship, and team bowling. It offers a persistent “No” to the hard-pressing American “yes.” Like “Raising Arizona,” It’s a ballad held together by tenderness.



John Turturro on his potential Jesus spinoff, to the Onion AV Club:

The only reason I wanted to make—well, not a sequel, but a spin-off or something. Joel and Ethan don’t really want to do it, but if I can get them to approve my outline, which I think they liked…. Anyway, the only reason I wanted to do it was so that people will stop asking me questions about The Big Lebowski. So I could just get it out and do it and finish it. Because people are obsessed with the movie and obsessed with that guy.


It’s really bizarre, because the movie didn’t even do that well when it came out here. Once again, it’s a movie that’s gotten better or something. I did a play that was something similar to that, and maybe that gave Joel the idea. It was small, but they kept telling me it was important, so I just threw everything but the kitchen sink in there. And they kept it, in their indomitable way. If they approve something, there’s a very good chance of making it.


Nordine continues:

Just as the Coen brothers’ grimmest films are peppered with the same dark humor at the forefront of their comedies, so too are their comedies colored by the darker shades of their dramas. In the case of The Big Lebowski, there’s no lack of underlying grimness: not only repeated allusions to Vietnam and the Nazis, but, most prominently, a recurring castration motif. This comes as the result of the Dude’s interactions with a trio of nihilists who may or may not have kidnapped the nymphomaniac trophy wife of the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski. At various points throughout the film, the nihilists drop a ferret into the Dude’s bathtub, explicitly threaten to “cut off his Johnson,” and appear in a dream sequence wielding gigantic scissors. The threat isn’t entirely from without: The Dude at one point drops a lit joint on his lap while driving his Ford Torino, and the resultant panic may be our hero at his most frazzled. Indeed, the Dude at one point answers “a pair of testicles” when asked what makes a man and later claims, perhaps only half-jokingly, that he would prefer death to castration. Clearly this is something he’s thought about a great deal, and it casts a dark cloud over much of the film.


One of the most famous repeated lines (“Fuck it, Dude, let’s go bowling”) is less an admission of defeat and more a declaration that life goes on. To dwell on that which has already passed achieves nothing and, what’s more, is very un-Dude. The ultimate significance of this line, however, that it’s Walter who always says it. By far the most volatile character in the film, he’s at times quite calm, a quality perhaps owed to so often being in the Dude’s presence. Similarly, the Stranger (Sam Elliott) who narrates the film is also an avowed admirer of our hero—this, despite essentially being a cowboy with, it’s safe to imagine, very little in common with him. The Coens likely couldn’t have known how far—and with what strength—the Dude’s aura would emanate into the cinematic world, but they make it clear enough that, within the film itself, his effect has already taken hold.


– Compiled by Brynn White

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