Cinematic Century

1998 – The Big Lebowski

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The entire point of this Cinematic Century project was to talk about movies that I normally wouldn’t get to discuss on the site. So often I got swept up with new releases and didn’t have time to talk about the movies that served as the foundation of my tastes, so I decided to set out and pick a favorite movie from every year. Which, logically, means that I would occasionally discuss the movies that I consider my favorite of all time. It’s a very nebulous concept, and something that can change rapidly due to mood, but one of the most common films that I pick as an all-time favorite film of mine is the film we’ll be discussing today, the Coen Brothers’ stoner noir classic, the Big Lebwoski. I love this movie. So, very much. I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a teenager, more than likely reaching my heights in college when I became an ordained minister in Dudism, the fake internet religion that spawned from this film. So, there really was never any question about what movie I would be discussing this week. Which isn’t to say that there aren’t other great movies from 1998. I honestly was a little disappointed to see that 1998 also gave us the Truman Show, because I think just about any other year that movie would have easily won the title of my favorite of the year. Likewise, I’ve always had a massive soft spot for Terry Gilliam’s insane adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, another thing I was hugely fixated upon in high school. I’m also a big fan of the movie Pleasantville, but I’ve only actually seen the movie once, while I was tremendously high, and found it to be an incredibly poignant and beautiful film, and have never really felt the need to revisit and ruin that potentially biased experience. There’s also a bunch of other rad movies I’d highly recommend checking out if you haven’t seen them, like Prince of Egypt, Dark City, the Wedding Singer, and Small Soldiers, but none of them really hold a candle to the sheer majesty of the Big Lebowski.

The film began life as a screenplay the Coen Brothers were tinkering around with around the time they were making Barton Fink. Largely inspired by the real life stories of various oddballs they had met in the Los Angeles area while getting their film career up and running, the story began as one that revolved around the characters of the Dude and Walter, each of which was an amalgamation of men they’d met. And, while taking bits and pieces of these various deadbeats and dropouts’s lives, they started to notice that certain elements were too absurd to be believed, occasionally reaching the point of something from the noir novels they grew up on. I’ve already discussed the Coen film Miller’s Crossing, which took quite a bit of influence from the works of Dashiell Hammett, and for the Big Lebowski they decided to lean into the world of Raymond Chandler, specifically channeling the energy of Robert Altman’s masterpiece the Long Goodbye. The script then became a comedic noir, focusing on these two larger than life characters and the lives they lead, all while letting both John Goodman and Jeff Bridges full realize their characters, largely thanks to spending quality time with the men that they were based upon. They sought to make a movie about aging counter-culture figures, while attempting to not fall into the traditional archetypes of old hippies, trying to find new ways to portray these sorts of characters, while also leaning into the strange world of noirs to create insane fantasy sequences that border on Busby Berkely musical numbers. Because it’s painfully clear that the Coen Brothers want nothing more than to direct an old-school musical. And, as you can probably guess, this weird hodgepodge of influences and genres didn’t exactly lead to a smash hit. The movie mad a bit of money, but it was largely seen as a mixed bag, not quite up to the Coen Brother’s previous works. But, as we all know, things began to change. the Big Lebowski has gone on to become one of the defining cult films, gaining frequent midnight screenings around the world, its own annual festival, a previously mentioned fake religion, and has become accepted as one of the Coen Brothers’ defining works.

 

 

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The story follows Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski, a deadbeat burnout living in Los Angeles, who has enjoyed a peaceful life of sloth, only to be attacked one day in his house by two goons representing someone known as Jackie Treehorn. They beat the Dude, and pee on his rug, before realizing that they seem to have found the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski, because the one they were looking for was supposed to be rich. So, they leave, and the Dude is left in state of turmoil, which he shares with his two best friends, Donny Kerabatsos and Walter Sobchak, his bowling team members. And, while discussing this strange incident the Dude learns that the other Lebowski is apparently quite wealthy, so the Dude decides to stop by and see if he can get some sort of reimbursement. the Dude then meets the “big” Lebowski, a cantankerous old millionaire who refuses to help him out. The Dude also meets Lebowski’s young trophy wife, Bunny, who seems to have been the reason he was attacked in the first place. But, they Dude does his best to put all of this out of his mind, successfully stealing one of Lebowski’s rugs in the process, and tries to go on with his life.

That is until he’s called up by the Big Lebowski, who wants to speak with the Dude. Apparently Bunny has been kidnapped, and Lebowski would like to hire the Dude to deliver a briefcase full of money, because the kidnappers asked for an impartial person to be involved. He agrees, and prepares for the drop when some new goons break into his house, knock him out, and steal the rug he had just stolen. But, he puts that aside, and gets ready to deliver Bunny’s ransom, only to find that Walter has decided on a change of course. He wants to double cross the kidnappers, having decided that Bunny actually kidnapped herself to get the money, and wants to just give them a suitcase full of underwear instead. The whole drop goes catastrophically wrong, and the pair return to the bowling alley to ignore it, only to find that while they were bowling the Dude’s car has been stolen, along with the briefcase of real money that Lebowski gave them. Which is when the Dude is introduced to Maude Lebowski, Jeffrey’s eldest daughter, who is the person who stole the rug. She explains that her father actually has no money of his own, and has essentially stolen Bunny’s ransom from a foundation in her mother’s name, which she wants the Dude to repay. But, since the money has been stolen, he isn’t able to help.

Until his car is found. Unfortunately, the money is missing, and the only clue the Dude can find is some homework from a local high school student. So, assuming the kid stole the car and the money, the Dude and Walter head to his house to intimidate him, which goes disastrously wrong. But, the Dude is convinced that this kid has the money, which comes in handy when the Dude is soon kidnapped by Jackie Treehorn, a pornography magnate who Bunny Lebowski owed quite a bit of money to. The Dude tells Treehorn about the teenager and the money, but Treehorn responds by drugging the Dude and getting him arrested. Lebowski finally returns home, where he finds Maude waiting for him, hoping to use him to conceive a child that he’ll have no duty toward. And, while talking with Maude, the Dude finally pieces it all together. He has Walter pick him up and the two storm into the Big Lebowski’s mansion, only to find that Bunny has returned from a vacation, having never been kidnapped. Apparently some friends of Bunny planned the fake kidnapping, and Lebowski used it as an excuse to steal money from his foundation, never having given the Dude real money in the first place. So, the whole ordeal is finally solved, and the Dude returns to the bowling alley with Walter and Donny, only to find that Bunny’s friends still want repayment, even though their whole scam has fallen apart. The men fight the Dude and his friends, and in the process Donny suffers a fatal heart attack. The two men lay their friend to rest by spreading his ashes in the ocean, and get ready to move on with their lives, preparing for an upcoming bowling tournament.

 

 

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I love this movie so completely. It’s almost hard to talk about. I’ve loved it from the moment I first saw it, and it’s so ingrained in my film tastes, being a movie that I really gained an affection for right around the time that I began to appreciate movies. The film has a massive legacy, one that is essentially impossible to separate from the film itself, but I really and truly do think that it’s easy to see why this movie has created such a life of its own. Everything about this film is iconic. From it’s oddball soundtrack, to its outlandish performances, to the frankly impenetrable plot, it’s immediately evident why this film became the sort of cult-sensation that it became. Everyone is terrific in this film, especially Jeff Bridges who brought the Dude to such vivid life that it kind of feels like Brides has more or less melded with the Dude at some point. It’s an incredibly enjoyable film, one which plays to the Coen’s strong-suits, and it’s a movie that honestly just gets better the more I see it. The Coen Brothers are masterful directors, and they’re able to place so many small details and references into their films that they successfully pay off more and more as you watch them, picking up on all the minutia of what they’ve created. And what they’ve created is one of my all-time favorite films, which gets to the heart of a concept that I absolutely adore.

I’ve loved this movie from the first time I saw it. But, that love reached a whole new level, and pushed the film to become one of my all-time favorites, after I became more familiar with the work of Raymond Chandler. Especially his first Phillip Marlowe novel, The Big Sleep. Both stories revolve around someone being hired by a wheelchair-bound millionaire to investigate a pornographer’s claim against their young family member, leading the Big Lebowski to somewhat become an adaptation of the Big Sleep. But, the key difference, and the thing that makes this film so brilliant, is that instead of Phillip Marlowe we get the Dude. I love noir. I talk about it constantly on the site, but hardboiled noir detective fiction is some of my favorite storytelling of all time, and it’s impossible to deny that it’s often a little ridiculous. Old noir stories are intricate Rube Goldberg machines of narrative, which frequently don’t make sense. They take multiple different plots, a variety of eccentric characters, and a madcap ride around Los Angels from the peaks of rich decadence to the pits of skid row, all being navigated by protagonists who are among the most competent human beings ever born. So, if you take that same basic formula and instead replace the protagonist with an old stoner, you’re in for something incredibly special. The Dude is basically an average guy being thrown into an insane noir plot, and he reacts more or less like anyone else would. By being furious, confused, and just wanting to be left out of it. Nothing make sense to the Dude, all of the plot twists and new elements to the story just further complicate things, and the one time that he actually tries to do something clever, sketching over Jackie Treehorn’s notes, he just gets a drawing of a dick as a reward. And it’s hilarious. It’s a movie that I think works on any level you approach it, but the more you know about noir, the more you recognize the insane trap that the Dude has accidentally sprung around himself, the more masterful the film is revealed to be. We all like to think about how cool it would be to be thrown into a thriller plot, but the truth is that we’d probably all just get frustrated and quit. The best we can hope to do is to remain as calm as the Dude.

 

The Big Lebowski was written by Ethan and Joel Coen, directed by Joel Coen, and released by Gramercy Pictures, 1998.

 

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