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Getting Stoned and Bowling and Outsmarting The Man

April 8th, 2009 · 12 Comments

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Written by Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Directed by Joel Coen
Produced by Working Title Films/ Polygram Filmed Entertainment
Running time: 117 minutes

Big Lebowski 1998 poster Big Lebowski DVD

What the *&#! Is This About?

“A way out west there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski,” says the voice of the Stranger (Sam Elliott) as he follows tumbleweed blowing through the streets of Los Angeles. Jeff Lebowski, alias the Dude (Jeff Bridges) shuffles through Ralph’s in his bathrobe and sandals in search of creamer for his White Russian. The Stranger continues, “And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in all of Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide …” The Dude returns home to be attacked by goons that have confused him with another Jeff Lebowski. Seeking to collect a debt, one of the goons pees on a prized rug belonging to the Dude.

Two pals on the Dude’s bowling team – bitter Vietnam veteran Walter (John Goodman) and the child-like Donny (Steve Buscemi) – compel him to seek out the other Jeff Lebowski for compensation. After being given a tour of Lebowski’s mansion by his loyal personal assistant (Philip Seymour Hoffman), wheelchair bound industrialist Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) refuses to replace the Dude’s rug as a matter of principle. The Dude takes one anyway, and on his way out, meets Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid). When Bunny is kidnapped, her husband employs the Dude to handle the ransom exchange in hopes he can identify the rug peers as her kidnappers.

Big Lebowski 1998 Jeff Bridges Steve Buscemi John Goodman

The Dude sees fit to bring Walter along for the exchange, but his militaristic buddy only screws things up. The Dude leaves the ransom money in the backseat of his ‘73 Ford Torino, which is promptly stolen out of the bowling alley parking lot. Lebowski directs the kidnappers – German nihilists (Peter Stomare, Flea, Aimee Mann) – to take matters up with the Dude. Meanwhile, Lebowski’s daughter, an avant garde artist named Maude (Julianne Moore) with a strange continental speech inflection surfaces with an proposition of her own for the Dude. Juggling this intrigue with his Thai stick reefers and his bowling tournament proves exhausting, particularly with the Dude’s team being taunted by their rival, a Hispanic pederast named Jesus Quintana (John Turturro).

Who Should Be Held Responsible?

The Big Lebowski may have had its origins in a visit that filmmakers Ethan Coen & Joel Coen paid to the Los Angeles home of a producer’s assistant named Pete Exline in the mid-1980s, during the time they were scrounging financing for their first feature, Blood Simple. Tickled by Exline’s sense of humor, the Coen brothers would come to refer to him as “the Philosopher King of Hollywood” and “Uncle Pete”. As Ethan Coen recalled it, “We were at Pete’s house, which was, you know, kind of a dump. Uncle Pete was in a bad mood for some reason. He was feeling down. So, we complimented him on his place, and he told us how proud he was of this ratty-ass little rug he had in the living room and how it ‘tied the room together.’ So we told him that we too thought it ‘tied the room together.’ We just kept talking about how it ‘tied the room together.’ You know how you beat something to death.”

Big Lebowski 1998 Jeff Bridges

Ethan Coen continued, “Pete is a Vietnam vet. Very bitter. Whenever the subject of Vietnam comes up, he says, ‘Well, we were winning when I left.’ You know, after the Gulf War was over in a hundred hours, or whatever the fuck it was, Uncle Pete called up and said, ‘Look, it’s a lot different fighting in the desert and fighting in a canopy jungle.’ Defensive acrimony.” Exline had buddy named Lew Abernathy, who was also a vet, and had knocked around Hollywood as an actor and writer, as well as a private investigator. One of Uncle Pete’s favorite stories was Lew having his car stolen by joyriders. Retrieving the vehicle at the police impound, Lew discovered one of the perpetrators had left his homework in the back seat. Sealing the evidence in a baggie, the men tracked the juvenile down and confronted him.

Another character the Coen brothers ran across was Jeff Dowd, a movie marketing consultant – he helped finance Blood Simple – who’d been involved in the Seattle anti-war movement of the early 1970s. Dowd was referred to as “the Pope of Dope” as well as “the Dude”. On the opposite end of the political spectrum was producer/director John Milius, a military enthusiast whose gift of gab prompted the Coen brothers to offer him the role of the studio boss in Barton Fink. Ethan Coen recalled, “You sort of know these people and hear these stories and they all sort of figure together in nebulous ways. The character of Jeff Lebowski, the Dude, is personally more like Jeff Dowd and Jeff’s whole way of seeing things. And, not that the character is based on him in any literal way, but John Milius is sort of like Walter Sobchak. Pete Exline is a bit of both. One of the early ingredients came in setting these two characters beside each other – the Dude and Walter – and these two characters somehow seeming promising.”

Big Lebowski 1998 John Goodman Jeff Bridges

Once the Coen brothers paired the Dude with Walter – using the crime of a soiled rug in contemporary Los Angeles as a catalyst – a story began to crystallize, which the brothers loosely based on the narrative structure of a Raymond Chandler novel. Unlike their experience writing Miller’s Crossing, the filmmakers didn’t exactly beat their heads against the wall completing a script. Joel Coen recalled, “This one we sort of figured, you know, if things become a little bit too complicated and they’re unclear it doesn’t really matter. I mean, the plot is not – and again, this is similar to Chandler – the plot is sort of secondary to the other things that are sort of going on in the piece. I think, if people get a little bit confused, I don’t think really, necessarily, going to get in the way of them enjoying the movie. Um, yeah. You look at something like The Big Sleep, and nobody seemed to know – including the people who sort of wrote it – what the hell is going on in that plot either.”

Referring to the Dude, Ethan Coen added, “It just seemed interesting to us to thrust that character into the most confusing situation possible. The person who would seem – on the face of it – least equipped to deal with it. That’s sort of the conceit of the movie.” The Coen brothers had a script for The Big Lebowski finished by the time they wrapped The Hudsucker Proxy in 1993. Walter Sobchak had been written for John Goodman, but the actor’s hiatus from the sitcom Roseanne didn’t line up with the production schedule. The role of the Dude hadn’t been written with any particular actor in mind, but the filmmakers wanted Jeff Bridges playing the part. Bridges had committed to star in Wild Bill and wasn’t available either. Rather than consider other actors, the Coen brothers turned their attention to Fargo instead. The 1996 crime film became the critical and commercial pinnacle of their careers, winning an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay.

Big Lebowski 1998 Jeff Bridges

When the time came to turn their attention back to The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers had little difficulty assembling the cast they wanted. Jeff Bridges recalled, “I had heard, or they had told me, that they had written a script for me. And I was a big fan of theirs – I loved Blood Simple. And when they finally gave me the script, I was kind of surprised in a wonderful way. I loved the story and everything, but it was quite unlike anything I’d done before; and it seemed like they had spied on me at a couple of high school parties I was at.” Years later, John Goodman stated, “It’s just so well fucking written. It’s the writing. The writing, the detail. I’m not going to start making up words here, but it’s the noir quality of it, oh crap, it’s just funny. Jesus Christ, you know, my fondest wish is that we could do another one. But if we did, it would fuck everything up. It would just ruin everything.”

With Working Title picking up the roughly $15 million budget, The Big Lebowski commenced a thirteen week production schedule January 1997 in Los Angeles. To serve as director of photography, the Coen brothers reteamed with Roger Deakins, whom they’d met in 1990 – searching for a DP who was both non-union and established – to shoot Barton Fink. His preference for using a single camera and prime lenses suited the way in which the filmmakers liked to work: tightly. Deakins recalled, “It means you’re locked into shooting at 50mm or 32mm or whatever the lens’s focal length is, whereas with a zoom lens you can change the focal length during the shot. Which I think is a little bit of a sloppy way of shooting – pulling back on the lens as opposed to moving the camera. Using fixed lenses creates a sort of precision to your work. It forces you to think.” By 2009, Deakins had racked up eight Academy Award nominations, with four of those nods – Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men – working with the Coen brothers.

Big Lebowski 1998 Julianne Moore

When The Big Lebowski rolled into theaters March 1998 in the U.S., critical reaction was all over the map. Daphne Merkin, the New Yorker: “The clever dialogue, seductive camera work, and beautiful production design (the lavish dream sequences look like Busby Berkeley on Ecstasy) almost make you forget the vacancy at the movie’s core, but in the end there’s no escaping the feeling that the Coens are speaking a secret language.” Marjorie Baumgarten, Austin Chronicle: “It’s paved with delightfully irregular and unanticipated bits of business that stimulate the viewer to stay fully alert, while renewing our faith in the sheer joy of watching movies.” Todd McCarthy, Variety: “Spiked with wonderfully funny sequences and some brilliantly original notions, The Big Lebowski, a pseudo-mystery thriller with a keen eye and ear for societal mores and modern figures of speech, nonetheless adds up to considerably less than the sum of its often scintillating parts.” With box office receipts of $17.4 million in the States, the popular opinion at the time was that The Big Lebowski definitely did not measure up to Fargo.

A disjointed but diehard group of fans began to discover The Big Lebowski on their own and struck an opposing view. In July 2002, journalist Steve Palopoli wrote an article about the film for the Metro Santa Cruz in which he referred to The Big Lebowski as “either the last great cult film of the 20th century or the first great cult film of the 21st, depending on how you look at it.” Not long after, the Nickelodeon Theater in Santa Cruz, California started running The Big Lebowski on Friday and Saturday at midnight. Palopoli recalled, “The first weekend they played it, they turned away several hundred people. They held it over, which they had never done, for six weeks. It was like an old-fashioned movie experience. People were yelling quotes before it ever started. It sold out every weekend for a month.”

Lebowski Fest 2008

In October 2002, two buddies in Kentucky named Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell threw “The First Annual Big Lebowski What-Have-You Fest” at a bowling alley in Louisville. 150 fans attended. A website was launched and since, Lebowski Fest has traveled to New York, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle and Chicago, drawing thousands of fans in a weekend bowling tournament/ costume party/ fan convention. In an interview with Mr. Media in December 2007, Shuffitt and Russell were asked how one movie could inspire such an outpouring of devotion. Shuffitt: “Man, that’s a good question. I don’t even know that I know. To the best of my knowledge, it’s just a film that a lot of people enjoy, and I think that a lot of people can relate to the characters. And I think that a lot of people want to be Dude-esque and just take it easy. It was written very, very well. It’s a really good comedy. It’s shot really well. The imagery is beautiful. So I guess you add all those things together, and we end up with what we have now, which is…” Russell: “ … out of control.”

Peter Stomare commented, “It’s like a homage to California. But at the same time, in my home country of Sweden, they love The Big Lebowski too, and in Germany and Italy – everywhere I’ve been. I didn’t know it was such a global thing. It’s a combination of the craziness of being a regular human being and ending up in such a mess. Everything’s so bizarre. It’s like California. I thought it would never take off in other parts of the U.S., but it definitely did, especially the DVD.” While the Coen brothers refuse to dwell on the film’s status as a cult classic, Pete Exline offered his take on the popularity of The Big Lebowski. “I really think that it’s just the humor. If anything, if I had to analyze it beyond the humor, it’s the perfect adolescent movie because the Dude is a guy who just refuses to grow up, and the other Lebowski is like the nightmare father. Here’s this guy who is just, like, doing what he wants to do, getting stoned and bowling and outsmarting the Man. It’s a movie that each viewing, I notice something that’s funny that I never noticed before. So in that way, it’s kind of a gold mine.”

Big Lebowski 1998 John Turturro

Why Should I Care?
The short, strange trip that The Big Lebowski made from box office misfire to one of the most celebrated cult classics of all time has a mythic quality to it that the Stranger himself might even appreciate. Without test screenings, focus groups, an Oscar campaign or the endorsement of mainstream critics – Roger Ebert voted a lukewarm thumbs up, while Gene Siskel panned it, proclaiming “The Big Lebowski, a big disappointment” – this may end up being the Coen brothers feature that the filmmakers of tomorrow discover first. Goofing on the movie in altered states is enjoyable, but the real joy of The Big Lebowski comes to you in sobriety, where closer examination allows the film’s goofball universe, crackerjack visual composition, irreverence and most importantly, the performances of the cast to wash over you like a live action Merrie Melodies. This ain’t really comic perfection, but it is the perfect comedy.

If the second hour loses the characters somewhat to drags down in a convoluted haze of Thai stick, what’s beautiful about The Big Lebowski is its offbeat perspective and how the performers embody that perspective magnificently. The bowling alley diatribes featuring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and generous uses of the “fuck” word are brilliant in how each character is clearly off in their own oddball orbit, yet on the same plane as well. In addition to the acting, the recurring manners of speech (“In the parlance of our times … ”) grow more infectious the longer they have to bounce around the head. Even without the quips, this would be a triumph in cinematography (Roger Deakins), costume design (Mary Zophres) and music (Sons of the Pioneers, The Gipsy Kings, Kenny Rogers). The Coen brothers offer a sly mockery of Raymond Chandler’s L.A. and a goofy homage to it at the same time. This is their finest film to date.

© Joe Valdez

Big Lebowski 1998 Jeff Bridges

Where Are You Getting This *&#!?
The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film. Text by William Preston Robertson, edited by Tricia Cookie.W.W. Norton & Company (1998)

I’m A Lebowski, You’re A Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski and What Have You. By Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell & Scott Shuffitt. Bloomsbury USA (2007)

“The Making of The Big Lebowski” The Big Lebowski: 10th Anniversary Edition. Universal Home Video (2008)

Tags: Bathtub scene · Cult favorite · Dreams and visions · Famous line · Gangsters and hoodlums · Interrogation · Midlife crisis · Paranoia

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ed Howard // Jul 5, 2008 at 10:40 pm

    Nice write-up. This is definitely the funniest Coens movie, with only Raising Arizona possibly challenging that crown. It’s also the most endlessly rewatchable Coen flick, and the best for group viewings — my friends and I must’ve seen this a dozen times in college. It was like a default film to throw on if we couldn’t think of anything else; we knew we’d be in for some fun every time. It makes the transition from merely funny to a classic comedy by investing such idiosyncratic depth into its characters, all of whom are hilariously living and breathing creatures. There are several Coen films I think are better, as films, but none that give me this much pure pleasure.

  • 2 Mrs. Thuro's Mom // Jul 7, 2008 at 9:42 pm

    When this was chosen as LAMB’s Movie of the Month, I read all the reviews. I wondered what was wrong with me, because everyone seems to think this movie rocks, and I don’t, so I got it from Netflix and watched it again. I still don’t like it. I am a big Coen brothers fan. I’ve even seen “Blood Simple” and “Miller’s Crossing” which is 2 of their earlier films that many people have missed, but I still don’t care for this one. There are elements of the movie I liked. I liked Walter, Donny, Maude, Bunny, the Dude’s landlord, Jesus, and the German nihilists, but, unfortunately, I don’t like the Dude, and that makes it very hard for me to like the movie. I don’t have a problem with Jeff Bridge’s peformance, I just don’t like the character, so it is hard for me to care about the movie over all. I know that puts me in the minority, but so be it.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Jul 8, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Ed: Thanks for commenting. The only possible negative aspect I can think to The Big Lebowski is that it may have inspired directors like Richard Kelly to think truly inspired ideas can appear in a haze of pot smoke. The Coens are often imitated, never duplicated.

    Mrs. Thuro’s Mom: I give you a lot of credit for watching this movie more than once. Nobody can accuse you of having a closed mind. You’re certainly not alone in your negative evaluation though. The Dude’s laziness and fondness of the f-word does not endear him to all company. I’m glad you enjoyed Blood Simple; that’s a favorite of mine as well.

  • 4 Ed Howard // Jul 8, 2008 at 8:59 pm

    I’m not sure how Richard Kelly is all that relevant to the Coens; that’s an odd comparison. I honestly don’t see any trace of the Coens in his films. Kelly is most obviously inspired by David Lynch, Philip K. Dick, and Grant Morrison, and his sense of humor is quite distinct from the Coens. He’s a unique voice who I fear will not be allowed to develop into the filmmaker he could be if left alone — too many critics seem very eager to crucify him for daring to try something different and wildly ambitious.

    Frankly, I think Donnie Darko is a fine film and Southland Tales, in all its messy ambition and formal inventiveness, is even better.

  • 5 Pat Evans // Jul 10, 2008 at 3:55 am

    I belong to the camp that finds this movie masterful and a true original. I think that Jeff Bridges is one of the most if not the most underrated actor of our time and the supporting cast here with the possible exception of Moore’s rather weird turn is terrific. I have a lot of time for the Coen Brothers and apart from their two misfires with the Clooney/Zeta Jones would-be comedy and The Ladykillers remake, they make great movies when they work to their own scripts and original ideas. Of course they are now well back on form with their recent Oscar win.

  • 6 shahn // Jul 10, 2008 at 7:48 am

    I’m with Mrs Thuro’s Mom: I didn’t like this either. Individually, the components appeal to me, but I even turned it off less than half-way through.

    It must be a “guy thing.”

  • 7 AR // Jul 22, 2008 at 9:23 am

    I really didn’t get this when I first saw it. Parts were funny, but it didn’t really click and never really came together for me. And I’ve been a big fan of the Coen Bros. since before this came out.

    I watched it again a few years later, and it actually worked for me. The thing w/the Coens is that most of their films are build on the framing. Each film inhabits a specific world, and the aimlessness and incoherence more or less embodies the world that The Dude inhabits. Imagine if those old films noir were filtered through the lens of a pothead and voila.

    I always liked The Dude myself, but I’ve known many versions of the character in real life.

  • 8 adam valdez // Jul 23, 2008 at 6:16 pm

    Guys like the Coens who try to make good stuff, dare I say art, are always gonna have some mis-fires.

    To me, ‘Lebowski’ is one of their masterpieces. These guys are an asset to American filmmaking, as they are not only crafty, but use America as their subject. The way they explore the specificity of a time and place in the life of the country is truly inspired, albeit sometimes a bit condescending. In this case, building upon the structure of film noir -the classic detective stories set in LA, is a great poetic choice for the subject of LA and its inhabitants. Walter, the Dude, Donny, Jackie Treehorn, the big Lebowski, the porn stars -it’s the wonderful mix of human oddities who settle in LA, forming a bedrock of ‘real’ people.

    The violence, surreal episodes & transience of plot would again seem to be drawn from the streets of LA. It’s like a poem about LA, and the Dude fits right in there.

  • 9 Brent Johnson // Apr 9, 2009 at 6:54 am

    Nice write up. Though not my favorite Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski is a classic. You do a nice job of boiling everything down here.

  • 10 Chalupa // Apr 10, 2009 at 9:21 am

    Nice work. You’re a good man and thorough, and I can see you did your homework.

  • 11 Yojimbo_5 // Apr 12, 2009 at 12:28 pm

    Joe:

    Thanks for this.

    Doing my own Coen Bros. overview at the moment (I’ll link to yours for more deep-dish on “Lebowski”), and your comments only re-inforces my central point: the Coen’s have a unique rhythm to their story-telling that there will always be “camps” of folks who don’t like certain films.

    “The Big Lebowski” is a case in point. But I have acquaintances who love the Coen’s (or profess to) who hate “Raising Arizona” or “Fargo” or “Miller’s Crossing” or “Barton Fink” or “Intolerable Cruelty” (I have one friend who refuses to believe they made it), or “Oh, Brother, Where Art Thou?” or “No Country for Old Men” (whereas I don’t like “The Hudsucker Proxy”)!

    This astonishes me, and only points to how cutting edge the path the Coens walk is. They’ll present something that will vehemently turn-off their audience (and alternately entrance others), to the point where folks are blinded to the artistry and precision with which the Coens construct their films (in an interview with Cormac McCarthy for Time, they confess to hating every first rough assemblage of their movies).

    For me, “The Big Lebowski” is such a love-song to L.A.’s underbelly (and the broad style of Chandler) that I can’t help but love it intensely. It’s one of the wife’s and my “touchstone” movies–the ones where our sensibilities meet across different tastes and agree “Yeah, this one’s a great one.” Great romances were built on less.

  • 12 Joe Valdez // Apr 12, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Patricia: I couldn’t agree with you more. “The curve” has just not caught up to Intolerable Cruelty or The Ladykillers and I’m not sure it ever will; those two movies just misfired. With The Big Lebowski there’s so much great stuff that you don’t even notice even after watching it a few times. I love the moment when Walter is telling The Dude that Jesus did six months in Chino for exposing himself to a child. Bridges responds, “Oh!” like this news is a welcome surprise for him. Hilarious.

    Shahn: I hear ya. Even if we don’t necessarily agree, your taste in film as demonstrated by your site is so exquisite, I have no choice but to add you to my blogroll. I feel like I’m in a fine antique shop when I check out sixmartinis and the seventh art. Keep up the great work.

    Amanda: As always, your comments would be well suited to any film school textbook. I think so many people reacted to The Big Lebowski in the precise manner that you did. I couldn’t have said it better.

    Adam: My hope is that high school history teachers of the future will be able to construct their cirriculum around the Coen brothers. Regionally speaking, I think The Big Lebowski does the best job of putting you in the state of mind of where it takes place.

    Brent/ Chalupa: From two such learned Coen brothers fans, your approbation means a lot here. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your comments with the rest of the class.

    Jim: I’m glad that you got some useful mileage out of this article. I think you’re onto something about the way certain audiences reject and are even offended by certain Coen brothers films. If a movie doesn’t provoke a strong reaction, it probably isn’t that great and probably won’t even be remembered in a decade. The Coen brothers don’t typically hold back, and the audience is the beneficiary with such a diverse body of work. Living in L.A., it seems like I see Dude-like guys shuffling to Circle K for cigarettes with more regularity than I did before I saw this movie.

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