By • Sep 1st, 2011 •

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I have sitting on my desk two constant reminders of the Brothers Coen: one is a snow globe from FARGO, their hit film crossover to the Big Time. In this globe stands a wood shredder with a bloody leg sticking out as the last piece to be disposed of. It is delightfully macabre, especially when you shake it and it begins to snow like a Christmas in Hell. The second item is an 8×10 photo of Boris Karloff bowling from SCARFACE, given to me by Peter Bogdanovich in gratitude for an early review of mine for TARGETS, the film which proved to be the swansong for the iconic Karloff.

The task is of trying to put a new spin on what has become a phenomenon in film history. THE BIG LEBOWSKI has followed the classic trajectory of Cult films by not being successful when it first came out since the critics were waiting for a follow-up to FARGO and were greeted with this very strange dark comedy which references so many other film styles and directors. I will say right now that I am not going to spend the next paragraphs comparing THE BIG LEBOWSKI to THE BIG SLEEP. If there is anyone still in the dark about this just watch the many supplementals on the anniversary edition DVD to savor a wealth of trivia on the subject. For the record that film was indeed a blueprint for what follows in the Coen brothers film, however it is a disservice to say that is all it is for this film. I believe it will be discussed and reexamined for decades to come.

THE BIG LEBOWSKI is one of the very finest cult films because you can watch it endless times and find new details to savor.

Boris Karloff bowling in SCARFACE.

The Coens are a bit like Preston Sturges in their off-kilter humor concerning the American dream. Like Sturges they have a stock company of actors like Steve Buscemi who turn up with regularity in their films; in fact you will never understand why Buscemi is always being told to “Shut the fuck up” by John Goodman’s character if you have not seen him in FARGO…you see, he can’t shut up in that film to save his life. My personal take on THE BIG LEBOWSKI is more like a riff on the most overused passage in film, O FORTUNA from Carl Orff’s CARMINA BURANA. In it, the known world is ruled by the empress Fortune on whose wheel mankind spins, stopping at points no human being can fully depend on for his lot in life …and so it is with The Dude.

I don’t think so many years later you can separate for one moment the performance of Jeff Bridges from the success of the film with its now legendary fans. The Coen brothers wrote this film for Bridges and it fits him like a glove. First of all Bridges has aged into one of the best actors of his generation, fully coming into his own after the death of his father Lloyd. It was as if Jeff knew it would have been wrong to so totally overshadow the elder Bridges as an actor in his own lifetime, although Bridges has been nominated for the Oscar from almost the start of his career. The photo from Bogdanovich is always a reminder of that since Jeff was up for the Oscar for THE LAST PICTURE SHOW.

I have noticed that a lot of ink has been spent on describing this film as a “Neo-Noir” and while it does adhere to that genre I think it is more appropriate to refer to THE BIG LEBOWSKI as an L.A. Noir since, like Polanski’s CHINATOWN and Boorman’s POINT BLANK, it is so much a part of the Los Angeles scene. The Film Noir tropes are in abundance throughout the film but always within the landscape of this city of angels, however fallen. Perhaps it is safe to say the film is a post-modernist L.A. Noir as we follow The Dude into the now-defunct Holly Lanes Bowling Alley in Santa Monica, where I observed we never see The Dude actually do any bowling. My favorite character, played by Coen Brothers regular John Turturro, is wildly over the top as Jesus (to be pronounced with a hard J). The competitive bowler is in fact a rival who also happens to be a convicted sex offender; one of the great moments is where Jesus has to make himself known to the neighborhood in which he has recently relocated, so he goes door to door with a hard-on in his pants. Only the Coen brothers, or perhaps John Waters, would have thought of that.

Much has been made of the Busby Berkeley-inspired dream sequences, in particular the one involving a cover of The First Edition’s JUST DROPPED IN (TO SEE WHAT CONDITION MY CONDITION WAS IN). This is the piece de resistance of THE BIG LEBOWSKI for me and is set in motion by an homage of sorts to MURDER MY SWEET (also a Marlowe), this time with Dick Powell instead of Bogie. Bridges is dressed in a workman’s overalls with movements right out of Robert Crumb’s KEEP ON TRUCKIN’, constantly reinforcing The Dude’s counterculture persona, which Bridges can summon with ease since he is a well-known stoner in real life as well.

The current success of the Coen Brothers reboot of TRUE GRIT, which also stars Bridges, allows one to observe the progression of The Dude in reverse, even in the final days of the Old West. I don’t think it was an accident that we have Sam Elliot’s iconic sage cowboy known simply as The Stranger introduce THE BIG LEBOWSKI in the first place.

From the very opening cues of TUMBLING TUMBLEWEEDS the film references the Old West (that perhaps exists now only in an alternative universe) from the current west coast of stoners and freaks, but as The Stranger tells us, “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place.” The Dude is that if nothing else as he tries to avoid hassles but, once involved, does what he can to abide–and we all know The Dude abides.

I was one of many film historians who arrived late to the party when it came to appreciating the charms of THE BIG LEBOWSKI since it was such a departure (or so I thought) from what we expected from the Brothers Coen, yet after repeated viewings it is my belief that this is their masterpiece. As with most things in art you have to reexamine the work over and over to fully come to terms with what you are seeing, perhaps for the first time.

This film will always be Jeff Bridges’ signature role even though he has reached further in his craft with films like CRAZY HEART, in which he ceases to act and simply inhabits his characters like a second skin. It staggers me to recall the bronzed glamour boy Jeff was in films like AGAINST ALL ODDS and THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT and then watch as he transforms into old age with a range one could not have seen coming. Bridges has always observed the conventional form of masculinity, only to play a different take in each of his films of what it really takes to be a man. For all his ineptness in LEBOWSKI he remains a man, in fact, The Dude. You can urinate on his rug but never on his pride.

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