Well, Mrs. Jiwaku and I have become really big fans of the Coen Brothers. We’ve been watching their films, thinking about the structure and mode they use, and re-watching the ones we saw too far back to remember well, as well as checking out the ones we’d not gotten to yet.
One thing I can say is that these guys buck the trend. Even with a picture like The Ladykillers, which in my opinion doesn’t quite hang together as it should, there’s plenty to enjoy, the characters are colorful, their collective fates well-deserved. I mean, a recurring gag where characters are dropped from a bridge onto trash barges floating down the river? A character named Mountain Girl described as “a sixty-year-old lady in pigtails” (who met her lover, the criminal gang’s [inept] explosives “expert,” at an IBS conference, of all places)? It’s not their best movie, but it is one of the best send-ups I’ve ever found of that whole heist-with-experts subgenre that has become so popular in recent years.
What I like about their work is that it feels more honest to me than most films: doing difficult things is actually difficult, and no training montage will ever make a hopeless moron an expert. Likewise, stupid people often really do destroy themselves, sometimes quite literally. (A fact to which the Darwin Awards attest.) Stupid people often overestimate their competence, and underestimate the competence of others. (No, really. It’s known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)
Yet it’s so rare one finds films in which stupidity dooms a character; rather, morons often are put up on a pedestal, as if they’re the ones we need to save the world: we need roughneck miners to go to space to save the world. We need a thug with a gun to save the world. This isn’t how history actually has happened so far, though. Time and again, it’s been intelligent people who’ve made the difference between sickness and health, between suffering and comfort, between horror and joy. You’d think one of Hollywood’s maxims was, “No moron left behind,” and if you thought about it too long, you’d end up wondering why Hollywood is so eager to propagandize for the benefit of the morons for the world…
Not so in the Coen Brothers films… and their films feature morons in such numbers, and so cleverly, that you don’t always even recognize the morons at first. (The most outstanding example being The Man Who Wasn’t There, where most viewers will not realize their trusty narrator is yet another Coen Brothers self-dooming moron from the get-go, because of the way the narrative and the imagery conforms to the noir genre.) By the way, I think The Man Who Wasn’t There is probably my favorite Coen Bros. film, and easily in my top ten films. It’s beautiful, it’s intelligent, it messes with you in all the best ways, and it’s a great story.
All of which leaves me puzzled when it comes to the popularity of the The Big Lebowski, the film I re-watched with Mrs. Jiwaku a while ago.
Back around the turn of the century, the film had attained some kind of cult popularity among young men, to the point where they were constantly quoting it to one another, drinking White Russians, and, well, frankly, I knew one guy who seemed to have made a lot of his fashion decisions based on Walter’s attire in the film (that is, John Goodman’s character). I found a lot of them idolized the slacker lifestyle that Lebowski was leading, including being inveterate pot-smokers despite the much sharper criminal penalties for using marijuana in Korea. (The pot-smoking probably wasn’t in imitation of the film, but it does speak to a synergy.) Saying that, I probably sound to fans of the film just like the other Lewbowski, the eponymous Big Lebowski, when he asks the other Lewboski multiple times, “Are you employed?” as if it’s a measure of his worth as a human being.
Now, I can’t knock the film too hard: there are some wonderful moments in it, like the first time we see John Turturro playing Jesus at the bowling alley:
That stuff is priceless. And there’s a ton of gorgeous bowling alley shots–so much of what ends up on the screen is shot with care and attention that borders on fanatical, which I can appreciate. The Gutterballs mini-feature is a pretty amazing little tribute to the choreography of Busby Berkeley, so they say–and it seems to be true, from this bit of the clip (it should start at 3:24):
The characters are all memorable, even poor useless Donnie. They’re all somehow charismatic and sympathetic to most people, okay, except maybe Bunny. I get all that, or, okay, I don’t really, but I can at least squint and imagine why other people would feel that way. I get that the film is at once an homage and a send-up of noir.
But I guess the thing is, it falls flat for me because somehow I feel like the audiences have missed the point; sort of like if they’ve all watched The Man Who Wasn’t There all the way through, and still believe the narrator is pretty much reliable, pretty much sensible, and not a victim of his own idiocy… and then somehow identify with him, and try to dress like him and talk like him.
That is, they miss the way he’s undercut in that scene where his wife comes home, annoyed that he’s been taken in by yet another door-to-door sales scam, and you realize: this guy’s a sucker. A moron. He’s hopeless! This calm, cool, collected cold fish of a man isn’t that at all: he’s small, and weak-minded, and gullible, and pathetic!
And you sympathize with him a little, but not as much as you did up till that point. And then you sit there thinking, wait, why was I so sympathetic?
Lewbowski’s like that: he’s a mannequin, a hollow man. Much of what he says is just an echo of something someone else has said. He has no ideas or thoughts of his own, he takes no action except what he’s pushed into, and he’s not worth much as a character in terms of motivation, drive, or purpose. The “big” Lebowski may be an asshole, but his critique of the small Lewbowski seems to me somehow like a veiled, but astute, metafictional criticism of the latter as a character.
Which makes it ironic that he is so widely celebrated by so many. Especially since so many of those who celebrate him, resemble him in ways that one doesn’t need to be a prick like the “big” Lebowski to despise.
To be frank: sometimes, I actually feel as if maybe the Coen Brothers were underhandedly satirizing the very man-child-populated segments of society that have taken up the film as a definitive, iconic, and indispensable part of their popular culture. People prattle on about how “The Dude” (the Jeff Bridges character) is a kind of modern-day Buddha, representing a philosophical position, when, if you’re paying any attention at all, you’ll realize that what’s true of the “nihilists” is also true of him: he believes in nothing, and nearly everything he says is simply the repetition (maybe with slight variation) of what others have said earlier.
“The Dude” is a do-nothing pot-head, celebrated by do-nothing potheads, and his history as a member of the Seattle Seven feels like a kind of key to unlocking this point: while the “big” Lebowki’s criticisms are completely capitalist in nature, The Dude’s rejection of that value system doesn’t constitute any active opposition, or the adoption of some other active value system: the culminating action of his rejection of the “big” Lebowki’s money-centric values is simply to bowl and get pizza. To sit on the couch and smoke a joint and watch TV.
Except, of course, that the cowboy who turns up in the film a few times, and narrates it–who is credited as “The Stranger”–keeps on going on about how wonderful The Dude is, and The Dude and Walter (and the big Lebowski, and Bunny, and Jackie Treehorn, and pretty much everyone except poor, useless Donnie) survives and loses very little in the deal. (If you don’t count The Dude’s rug.)
I don’t know. I can see a way to learn from it: this is a comedy-noir, rather than a tragedy (or black comedy) noir like Fargo. I mean comedy in the Shakespearean sense: it has a happy ending. The morons end up screwed, but almost all alive.
Maybe that’s the thing: one of the appeals of the Coens’ work is that there usually is a price to pay for stupidity. That is a didactic and artificial moral code imposed onto narrative and onto the universe, as much as any other. Maybe they flouted it in this film to make that very point. But it doesn’t feel like it, and I don’t feel such a reading is exactly supportable… I dunno. Rather, they seem to be doing something akin to what The Dude does, refusing to take a position and refusing to impose any kind of moral view onto their characters here.
Either way, I don’t feel particularly driven to celebrate it. It certainly won’t displace the brilliant The Man Who Wasn’t There from my top ten list of films, or the one I recommend people check out if they’re curious about the Coen Brothers–that, or Fargo, which is also a wonderful film. But The Big Lebowki sits at the top ten of my list of films that trick people into misreading. I think most of the film’s fans would hate the movie, if they actually grasped it more deeply. But then, maybe that’s part of the point: that stupidity doesn’t usually kill people: it just leaves them incredibly blind–and incredibly incompetent–at seeing their own flaws even when they’re projected onto a screen right in front of them.