With the release of Hail, Caesar!, a look back on some of the Coens’ previous comedies is in order.
Hot on the heels of their coming-of-age with Fargo, the Coen Brothers’ follow-up The Big Lebowski strides along on its own whims like an earned, lackadaisical victory lap more than another full-throttle day at the races. Yet the primarily offhand, ramshackle discombobulation of the episodic narrative – always threatening to run off the hinges and yet divining its own musings on chaos and order that never fall off the rails – becomes a layered glimpse into the sturm and drang of the Coens’ cinematic worldview. Dominated by dastardly, disgruntled otherworldly forces, the Coens delight in chiffonading those who harbor delusions of grandeur, dousing them with the fires of unthinking, all-seeing cosmic disregard. The dulcet tones of Sam Elliott which begin the film suggest a fable, as so many of the Coens’ films do, and in this case, The Big Lebowski is a fable about the entropy lurking within the default modes of polite society.
Watching the film, one might suspect that “The Dude Abides”, Jeff Bridges’ presumably trademarked phrase, would devolve into a crippling defense mechanism by the end of the film, a mask of neo-hippie recalcitrance hiding an internal passivity and frail musculature for his character Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. Bridges’ characters is a slacker in the early ’90s whose life is thrown into turmoil – or not, if one assumes he doesn’t really care to begin with – when two hitmen mistake him for a wealthy, pillar-esque man of the same name and pee on The Dude’s much-vaunted rug. From there, the film chatters, blabbers, sidetreks, and backpacks through Europe, presumably to thread a realization about ’90s slacker culture and Bush-Senior-era (and, necessarily, Clinton-era) social ennui.
But there’s no such laser sight pointed at the slacker culture of the ’90s. That culture would eventually take up the mantle of The Dude as an arbiter of a mantra, and by the 2010s, a forlorn marker of ways long past, and it’s easy to see why; the film is indomitably smitten with the ways of slacker-dorm, down to its very disinterest in pursuing the narrative it sets up for itself. Instead, The Big Lebowski is a skeletal decomposition of mainstream society, a paean to not giving a care, and a tone poem about the perils of effort in a society that’s primed and positioned to souring your every dream and every effort into stone.
Is it a little nihilistic? Maybe, which makes the film’s intrusion and invasion by self-proclaimed nihilists all the more prickly and ironic, as well as all the more disturbing. What emerges is a not-so-gentle balance between The Dude, whose effortless brew of anomie reveals a nonchalant joie de vivre at the little moments in life (like wallowing in the swirl of a white russian with friends), and the nihilists, whose potentially freeing reluctance to commit to society has itself soured into a static, stagnant rejection of one code of social cues for another, that of purposeless. For The Dude, life isn’t purposeless; the purpose is in breathing out, expanding, in rejecting corporate selfhood and narratives-of-social-betterment for life in the moment.
Fittingly, a certain twenty-years-too-late vibe hangs over the film like a circle of vampire crows; The Dude, a breakout burnout, vehemently reminds us that life wasn’t always like this. He was, as you might expect, one of the social activist group the Seattle Seven – along with six others, of course, but they don’t matter – and as such exists as a totem to forgotten resistance beaten and battened down by the cultural zeitgeist of the ’80s. The world of Lebowski is less a real place than a mindset of communal rebellion evaporated into individuals caught in the subterfuge of everyday society, struggling to survive in the only ways society has granted them: forgetful, circumstantial loneliness and not-so-fallacious passivity. It is thus that The Big Lebowski doesn’t hate The Dude, or even particularly dislike him, so much as it laments the passing of an era in which all the potential activists of the world were slashed and burned until seemingly lobotomized, fringe-dwelling, fragmentary loners remained. These are people who had given up on action as a way to preserve their sanity and turned to the gentle humanism of simply existing for the day.
Some form of humanity reveals itself in this ostensibly jerry-built film that exists in so much flippant chaos that it doubles back around into its own kind of moral order about the ineffectual nature of individualist narratives. The Big Lebowski forthrightly disassembles notions of narrative clarity for prismatic, free-spirited escapades into disheveled lunacy. It’s a shaggy dog film as an ode to shaggy dogs, and there’s quite a bit to chew on when you sort through the gristle. The film’s arch, aimless commitment to subverting the structure of the hero’s journey narrative by recalibrating The Dude as an inadvertent non-hero whose success derives from blind chance as much as effort is a winner throughout. As a fable about life in the 1990s, The Big Lebowski is oddly poignant in its evocation of the loss of traditional notions of forward momentum and progress in both life and fictional mediums. The disturbed fairy tale tone of the piece, lensed by the always sublime Roger Deakins, is as pungent and provocative, if not as visually challenging, as the farcical, snowdrift Americana-lore piece Fargo.
If that film was a modern day McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then the LA-set Big Lebowski is the Coens’ The Long Goodbye, or at least an adjunct to that 1973 film’s relentless takedown of the applicability of classical storytelling forms to modern society. Like Altman’s film – like many of Altman’s films, although the Coens aren’t really as adept at the technique – The Big Lebowski suppresses forward thrust and “character growth” by submersing itself in a pool of haphazard, horizontal storytelling where characters hazily walk around in a stupor and the camera follows its tangents rather than sticking to the presumed A-plot. For both films, the world is lived in these periphery moments, and traditional point-to-point tales of capitalist, individualist growth and humans-as-self-bettering mechanisms will not do for a modern world tired of the same old bootstraps tales of individuals overcoming adversity. Not for nothing do the mansion walls of the other Lebowski champion charity to inner-city youths while the wheelchair-bound Lebowski himself lulls us into a speech of self-cleaning regurgitated Reagan-era neoliberal machinations that the film detests so. The Big Lebowski’s very core as a film that rejects linear storytelling is a more absurdist riff on Altman’s whole career, itself capped with the masterful ’90s slacker film Short Cuts.
Admittedly, The Big Lebowski is not top-tier filmmaking even for its filmmakers, primarily because it indulges heavily in the twin albatrosses of most Coen features: seeking refuge in irony and symbolism. Although the heavily-detailed, porous metaphors dotting the film are partially expressions of how hidden meaning and dense thought can latently reveal themselves in nominally superficial productions, it’s all still symbolism at the end of the day. And symbolism is still dreary filmmaking, a cop out designed to draw attention away from the caliber of the frame and onto a sort of pretentious “in-the-know” reliance on pluming one’s internal resources for knowledge outside the film itself.
Tellingly, the film’s best moments are when its criminalization of the individualist hero’s journey makes the jump from narrative structure into details of the style and mise en scene, most notably in how Deakins casts a loving glow and aura around environments and false-prophet-symbols which will prove irrelevant to the narrative as time moves on. Herein, the film tacitly exposes its elsewhere cloying symbolism as a ruse, a critical marker of how our hero’s journeys are overstuffed with overcast symbolism that premeditate stories and sap the life out of them. Still, the film also indulges in the same carefully-planned, too-literate premeditation, something one suspects The Dude would not abide. The over-bearing nature of the film’s philosophizing is unnecessary; the film is always at its best following its central character’s mantra of just taking it all in. Meaning, as it were, is already present in the film when it isn’t busy force-feeding and appending meaning onto itself. When it isn’t “searching” for observations about life in ’90s and is instead simply observing life in the ’90s, however, an odd lyricism emerges unscathed.
Most bracingly, the modern milieu isn’t a hopeless nihilism here, but a free-associative walking dream where life is a theater of the absurd swirling around us that we tentatively, almost non-corporeally, occupy without the ability to act or affect. Like a dream, we tenuously survive a world we don’t understand, a world happening to us, by accepting the possibility of the absurd and carving out a reactive persona where the only respite from confusion is to realize our own essential passivity at the chaos of existence. Not a moral statement or a moral vision of how the world should work, but as a study in Hollywood noir filtered through the surrealism of everyday life, The Big Lebowski dares not to lament a world of pandemonium but to ride its coattails. The Dude abides because, in today’s world, that’s all he feels like he can do.