Friday, October 21, 2011

Review: The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski (1998): English, 117 min, written and directed by the Coen Brothers, starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buschemi, Julianne Moore, David Huddleston, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, Tara Reid, Peter Stormare, Ben Gazzara.

System 1 rating: 253, or 11111101

So I copped out. I have a three other reviews that I've started but I'm not really in the mood to watch/rewatch/keep thinking about them right now, plus I don't have a shortage of things to focus on, so this blog I started and didn't follow through on gets put on the wayside. But I'm going to get something up here, and this is the review that's in the best shape, so I'm finishing it up and posting it. I intended not to start on a Coen brothers movie, since I went over them in the system post, but fuck it, dude. Let's go bowling.

My intent was to start each review with a brief summary, not so much of the plot (though that's important) but the overall feel and impact the movie had on me, but attempting to summarize The Big Lebowski is pointless. First, if you haven't seen it what the hell are you doing reading a movie blog? That's not just, like, you know, my opinion, man. Lebowski is one of the most hilarious movies of all time by almost anyone's standards. This isn't like A Serious Man, where I'll tell everyone I meet that it's the funniest movie ever, and then they watch it and are really confused at the end, and don't laugh until two months later when they figure out what the movie was about. This is the ideal noir-parody stoner-comedy, a genre you didn't think the world needed until you read this sentence and you won't believe can be done so brilliantly until you see The Big Lebowski. (It's on Netflix Instant Viewing as of this writing.)

That, of course, is the second problem with summarizing the plot of Lebowski: It combines a genre famed for confusing and intricate plots with a genre known for eschewing any sort of meaning or sense in the plot. The plot of Lebowski is never tremendously difficult to follow (and it helps that everyone you and I know have seen it about a million times) but it almost never seems important enough to draw your attention which, despite how it sounds, is actually quite effective in this case. The Dude is never terribly preoccupied with what's happening to him, and neither are we. We just like to watch ridiculous shit happen to him, and the Coen Brothers give us with a glorious deluge of absurdity.

Since this is, after all, The Big Lebowski, I will accompany each question with a quote from the film that I feel is relevant. I'm in that kind of mood.

System 1 evaluation

1. Rewatch Value: Yes

There is an entire convention called Lebowski Fest where people dress up and obsess over almost literally every single joke from the tumbleweed intro to the Stranger's last lines. Even if I personally never felt the desire to watch it again, I would be forced to answer yes on behalf of everyone else in the world.

Relevant quote: "It's down there somewhere, let me take another look."

2. Emotional Impact: Yes

The Coen Brothers have a tendency to make movies that are (or seem) rather aimless and pointless, so it's difficult to say whether they really intended to have an emotional impact or just mess with your head. I think that, above all else, they intended Lebowski to be a comedy, and in that they were wildly successful. Will Farrel and Judd Apatow make comedies where I laugh at the dick jokes and gross-out humor once, but when I watch them again I only chuckle. I've seen this movie many times and I still laugh. Not chuckle. Laugh.

Also, this movie is wholly unique in that, unlike Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Napoleon Dynamite, or Anchorman, the endless stream of quotes it produces never get old or tired, and you never hear someone quote them and want to tell them to shut up already, you've heard that quote a million goddamn times and it's not funny anymore. I don't know how or why this is, but it certainly lends to the continued emotional impact of the film.

Relevant quote: "Jesus." "You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus."

3. Goals of Cinema: Yes

Whenever I come to these two questions I struggle with them, because I'm not really convinced they're good questions. I struggle a lot with what I think are the goals of art and cinema, and whether a movie achieves those goals, and I think part of the problem is that I usually answer the question of "does this movie live up to the ideals of [cinema/art]?" before I really decide what those ideals are.

But I can tell you with 100% confidence that, whatever the ideal of the cinematic medium, The Big Lebowski achieves them. My current opinion on what the goal of cinema is is "to entertain," though I think that's rather unfair of me, and if Lebowski doesn't entertain you then something may be wrong with you.

Relevant quote: "It's video, Dude."

4. Goals of Art: Yes

My current opinion on the goal of art is "to explore," because that sounds just about vague and nebulous enough that I can twist it into a "yes" for any movie I like and a "no" for any one I don't. I suppose it should also be "to challenge," which is just as good for that purpose. Lebowski may not be the Andy Warhol of stoner comedy, but I would say that, if nothing else, it fits into the Coens' broader exploration of how much unmotivated unfairness you can throw at a character before the audience gets up and leaves.

Relevant quote: "My art has been commended as being strongly vaginal which bothers some men. The word itself makes some men uncomfortable. Vagina."

5. Artistic Intentions: Yes

The Coen brothers have an ongoing theme in their movies of nihilism and pointlessness. Every element of their best movies adds to that and Lebowski, despite being a stoner comedy and ostensibly pretty light fare, is no exception. It takes place on the eve of a war that only lasted four days and didn't really seem to accomplish much, but since the Gulf War made too much sense they (and by "they" I mean Walter) repeatedly refer back to a war that lasted twenty years and made even less sense.

If the senselessness of Vietnam isn't enough, the characters more than make up for it. The Coens throw in nihilists, conceptual artists (the parody of modern conceptual art is so spot on a cynic might mistake it for the real thing), and porn producers. And we're not even at the point where "darkness warshes [sic] over the Dude" and he has a drug-induced hallucination of himself and Julianne Moore having bowling-sex. This clearly is not the world of logic and reason.

Relevant quote: "Ve don't care. Ve still vant ze money, Lebowski, or ve fuck you up."

6. Artistic Execution: Yes

What consists of artistic execution? Well, I suppose acting would be part of it, and the acting in Lebowski is across-the-board excellent. Even Tara Reid does a good job – Lebowski is the highest-rated movie she's been in on Rotten Tomatoes and the only one rated "Fresh," with most of her other movies in the 50% range and at least two in the single digits. When someone who's been in movies that consistently disappointing does a good job, you can pretty much guarantee that the film is artistically successful (see also Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Truman Show).

Relevant quote: "Who the fuck are the Knutsens?"

7. Technical Intentions: No

This is the part where I feel my scale may break down. To some extent, I feel compelled to find something in a film to answer "no" to one of these less valuable questions, so that every movie I like doesn't simply receive a perfect score. The reason I answered no to this, and I go back and forth on this every week or so, is that the late-90's CGI and the low-budget special effects stick out like a sore thumb.

On a downswing, I feel that the sheer cheesiness of how the flying carpet looks, or the CGI bowling pins at the start of "Gutterballs" don't mesh at all with the rest of the movie, detracts from the movie; it takes me out of the movie to see effects done so poorly. On an upswing, I feel that those same elements add to the sheer absurdity and comedy of the whole charade.

As it is, I'm sticking with the answer I gave in my brief overview of Coen Brothers movies in the System 1 evaluation, but if I'd written all that a week later, poor Lebowski might've had a perfect score. I honestly can't make up my mind on this issue, and I wonder about the usefulness of some of these last four questions.

Relevant quote: "Lord. You can imagine where it goes from here." "He fixes the cable?"

8. Technical Execution: Yes

When I was in a downswing, I debated whether this question or the previous one should be given a "no" on account of the CGI, and you already know my decision. If I assume that the CGI and special effects take away from the movie, that was a technical choice made by the Coen brothers to use CGI. They certainly couldn't have done better CGI in 1998 – if technical master George Lucas couldn't muster up better effects for his Star Wars abomination a year later, how could mere artists like Joel and Ethan Coen hope to have Avatar ten years early? Clearly, then, the CGI was an issue of intention, not of execution.

Then I thought, "You know, Lebowski doesn't have anything like the blackboard shot or the ending from A Serious Man, the the snowy highway shots in Fargo, the hallway shots in Barton Fink, or every single shot in the entire film for both Blood Simple and No Country." (By the way, I'm beginning to come around on my worry that Blood Simple is rated too high.) Apart from some ingenious new perspectives on bowling, Lebowski doesn't have any shots that really blow you away.

But then I realized that Lebowski doesn't need to blow us away with it's cinematography, it just needs to present us with people being patently ridiculous. And it does – nearly every scene is covered the same way. Not plainly, like an ordinary film, with cuts between medium and close-up shots of the characters speaking, but in static shots. You never get a scene that cuts back and forth while Jeff Bridges and John Goodman talk to each other. Most scenes are covered in one static wide shot of all the characters so that we can see without distraction their yammering and interrupting each other as they fight (and, in Steve Buschemi's case, lose) for control over the conversation. The exceptions are confrontation scenes which are covered in two static wide shots, one for each opposing party. When the action heats up they switch up their coverage considerably, but as long as people are just talking the camera pretty much stays in one place.

And that is not an accident. That's not how you'd "normally" cover a scene of dialogue. That's a specific choice in execution and it's made for a reason (so we can follow their conversation, not follow the cuts) and most importantly, it works.

Relevant quote: "It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh..." "I am the walrus. "


So Lebowski is awesome. You all knew that already. I gave it 253 out of 255 on my scale, which I feel is a pretty decent representation of my opinions on the movie, but I am slightly worried that my scale is top-heavy (or extreme-heavy), and that there will be clumps around certain scores where movies I like (or dislike) congregate, and holes where no movies I watch get scores in that range.

I wonder if my scale is biased towards the top – if it's going to yield an even distribution of movies across all scores, or if it's going to clump movies I like at the top and movies I don't at the bottom, with large holes? It feels like even distribution of scores is a must for any reasonable scale, but I'm not so certain. I think asking "should my scores be evenly distributed" might be equivalent to asking "can we compare any two movies and figure out which one we like better".

On the other hand, the Coen brothers make movies that are more consistently good than most people, so I should expect their films to rate higher (and therefore more closely clumped-together) than other films. Also, I'm currently working with a sample size of about ten, so I certainly don't have enough data to really draw any conclusions. I'm still running on intuition to try to figure out if my scales are biased, which is what I was aiming not to do.

If you haven't seen Lebowski and you're reading this part, I would like to ask your permission to illegally enter your property and urinate on your rug. Kindly leave your name, address, and phone number in the comments so we can arrange for a time when you're going to be home. If you live outside of Winston-Salem please also give your credit card information so I can pay for any travel expenses I incur.

Relevant quote: "That rug really tied the room together."

(I probably shouldn't have tagged Ben Gazzara for this since his part is so small, but his part is one of my favorites and, well, it's Ben Gazzara.)

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