The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)

Here’s a fun one to write about.  Everyone’s seen The Big Lebowski.  A crowded theater is probably the best setting for it.

Is there a tendency of filmmakers to follow up Academy success with something more personal and/or idiosyncratic?  The Coen’s follow Fargo with Lebowski and then years later follow No Country for Old Men with Burn After Reading and A Serious Man.  Sure, the argument can be made that any Coen Brothers’ film is idiosyncratic, but the loose plotting, dream sequences and in-jokiness of Lebowski, and the open-endedness, internally driven narrative and generally unreachability of the latter film are in contrast to an “Oscar-made” film.  While one could use the exact same aforementioned descriptions of A Serious Man to explain No Country, their Best Picture winner has the stars, the pedigree (Cormac McCarthy) and the marketing push to place it in a separate category.

So…Lebowski.  I can’t review this film.  That’s all been done to death.  And Mike Lamb gave an excellent introduction at the Dryden, talking about, among other things, how Lebowski in fact cribs much of his dialogue from other characters throughout the film including George Bush.

Things I noticed that I hadn’t before and that a die-hard Lebowski fan might find laughable in their being overlooked:

-When Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Brandt stands next to the “millionaire” Lebowski as they propose that The Dude deliver the money his posture is incredible.  He looks like the kid in elementary school who is forced to run track but has no idea of how to use his arms in relation to his legs.  I actually half-expected him to start doing the robot.

-The Jesus’ (John Turturro) bowling partner might have actually been given no direction.  When The Jesus gives his great monologue about “pulling the trigger until it goes click” this guy Liam is standing there looking back and forth – and occasionally off-camera – as though he can’t believe the performance is happening.  Maybe he thinks Turturro is joking and is going to play it straight on the next take.

-Much has been made of this film’s relation to The Big Sleep, and very appropriately so.  Did this strike anyone else as very similar to Kiss Me Deadly?  The “great whats-it”, the racial relationships, fear of the bomb/war, even the answering machine – all the elements of the Aldrich film can be traced in here as well.

-Speaking of the answering machine, here’s a huge nit-pick.  It’s actually not meant to be a criticism, but a question.  At what point can you cheat in sound?  The answering machine functions very conveniently in terms of the length of time between The Dude’s greeting and the message left.  It varies in duration depending on how/when it needs to be heard in the story.  Sure, this is kind of stupid, and again, I don’t mean to put much weight on this alone, but the idea of manipulating and cheating is so often reserved for the visuals, I found this an interesting example of how it can be done aurally.

-Another question: if a shot is predictable is that a mark of great filmmaking or just the opposite?  I’m sure it depends on the situation, but outside of simple shot-reverse-shot, some frames, camera moves, etc, seem to foreshadow themselves.  Great example (for me at least) in Lebowski: after being put in charge of delivering the ransom money The Dude is ushered out of the study by Brandt.  Even before The Dude glances back at Mr. Lebowski – which is actually what motivates the cut to him – I could feel the shot coming.  The shot I’m referring to is, of course, the dramatic dolly away from the heart-broken Lebowski, with back to camera, staring into the fire.  It just felt like it had to be there.  We often talk of a “button” at the end of the scene.  Your button can be a line, a shot, a sound, etc.  In short, the button, is something that smoothes the transition into the next scene, proves a final point, or leaves us with a particular emotion.  This dolly, despite the fact that it’s part of a point-of-view, is a great button in that it brings us literally out of the room, pushes us figuratively away from the obscure character of Lebowski, heightens the dramatic mood to a near-comic effect, and tells more than a line of dialogue could.  In fact, the camera move acts as substitute for a line (think: “I’ll find your wife but you are a crazy SOB,” or “What just happened and what kind of a world is this study?”).  By “replacing” the line, the Coen’s show directorial flair, but also economy in their synthesis of what film should be – poignant lines with a camera that is expository when necessary.


About dcpfilm

Shooting, teaching, writing and watching the Phillies.
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2 Responses to The Big Lebowski (Coen, 1998)

  1. Missi Sousa Egner says:

    Love the profile and reading your commentary! Keep it up!

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