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Context. Is a period piece- takes place in 1991 Historically- what’s going on? “This aggression will not stand!” Crime comedy film with neo-noir elements Slacker archetype- an educated young person who is anti-materialistic, purposeless, apathetic, and usually works in a dead-end job.
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Context • Is a period piece- takes place in 1991 • Historically- what’s going on? • “This aggression will not stand!” • Crime comedy film with neo-noir elements • Slacker archetype- an educated young person who is anti-materialistic, purposeless, apathetic, and usually works in a dead-end job
Theories to approach it with • Existentialism • Feminist • Queer • Political-social • Commodity fetishism • Spectatorship (narrator, 4th wall)
The Coen Brothers’ Oeuvre • Postmodernist Filmmaking: • Mixing high and low cultural sources • Blurring genres like noir and comedy • Use of pastiche and anti-realism • Commercial/independent films
The Maguffin (McGuffin) • “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'Maguffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.” – Alfred Hitchcock, 1939 lecture at Columbia University. • “It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all.” – Alfred Hitchcock, 1966 interview with Francois Truffaut. • What is the Maguffin in the classic film noir pictures we watched? What is the Maguffin in The Big Lebowski? Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock on the set of Psycho (1960).
Why is Los Angeles the ideal setting for film noir crime/detective pictures? Isolated, “ideal” place with an “unreal” view of the world. How are American values represented in The Big Lebowski? Dude: average, apathetic, “tumbling along with the tumbling tumbleweeds,” attempts to become engaged are thwarted by the system and the powerful Big Lebowski: success, arrogance, upper class conservatism Walter: religion, arrogance, average citizen, war, rules, law, working-class conservatism Stranger: western-cowboy, wisdom, big brother to the world Jackie Treehorn: morality, excess Donnie: naïve, innocent, follower Bunny: young, dreamer, femme fatale Maude: mature, cynical, vaginal, radical, postmodern, feminist artist Brant: effeminate, loyal valet The Setting: City of the Angels
America & War: Unchecked Aggression • President George H.W. Bush: “This aggression will not stand.” • Dude: “Woo peed on the rug” (a symbol of world hubris toward American complacence). The Dude replaces the rug with one that appears to be of Middle-Eastern origin. He's later seen practicing Tai Chi on the new rug. • Walter: “We’re talking about unchecked aggression here.... I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line you do not…” • The Big Lebowski: “I didn’t blame anyone for the loss of my legs. Some Chinaman in Korea took them from me.” • Walter pulling his gun on a Smokey: "This is not Nam, this is bowling. There are rules. Smokey, my friend. You're entering a world of pain." • Dude: “Walter, you can’t do that. These guys are like me, they’re pacifists. Smokey was a conscientious objector.” Walter: “You know Dude, I myself dabbled with pacifism at one point. Not in Nam, or course.” Dude: “And you know Smokey has emotional problems!” Walter: “You mean—beyond pacifism?” • Walter: “And let me point out—pacifism is not—look at our current situation with that camelfucker in Iraq--pacifism is not something to hide behind.” • Walter: “Sure you’ll see some tank battles. But fighting in desert is very different from fighting in canopy jungle. I mean Nam was a foot-soldier’s war whereas, uh, this thing should be a fucking cakewalk. I mean I had an M16, Jacko, not an Abrams fucking tank. Just me and Charlie, man, eyeball to eyeball. That’s fuckin’ combat. The man in the black pajamas, Dude. Worthy fuckin’ adversary…. Not a bunch of fig-eaters with towels on their heads tryin' to find reverse on a Soviet tank. This is not a worthy, uh…” • Walter: “Those rich fucks—this whole fucking thing—I did not watch my buddies die face down in the muck so that this fucking whore—this strumpet..." Dude: “I don’t see any connection to Vietnam, Walter.” Walter: “Well, there isn’t a literal connection.” • Walter: “Look, Larry... Have you ever heard of Vietnam? You’re entering a world of pain.” • Dude to the Malibu Police Chief: “Ow! Fucking fascist!” The Dude’s prophetic Ralph’s check dated 9/11.
Motif: American Exceptionalism • The Big Lebowski on rugged individualism: “Your ‘revolution’ is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost! My advice is, do what your parents did! Get a job sir! The bums will always lose…. I've accomplished more than most men, without the use of my legs. What, what makes a man? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost?” • The Big Lebowski on foreigners: “Do you speak English? Parla usted Inglese?.... I didn’t blame anyone for the loss of my legs. Some Chinaman in Korea took them from me…. • Walter on foreigners: “The Chinaman is not the issue!... Uh and also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature, uh, Asian-American. Please….. Fucking Germans! Fucking Nazis!" Donnie: "They were Nazis dude?" Walter: "Oh c'mon Donnie. They were threatening castration. Are we gonna split hairs here?" • Walter, on the Nihilists (who believe in nothing): "Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, at least it's an ethos." • The Dude drinks White Russians and Caucasians. • Dude: "Is that some kind of eastern thing?" The Cowboy: "Far from it." • The Dude listens to Credence, and is followed by VW (a German car). • A distraught Dude says, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man” (arguably the most representative band of mainstream, majority American culture) and is kicked out of a cab by the type of person you NEVER see at an Eagles concert. • Walter, the representation of the US armed forces, throws the unprotected cripple onto the floor, while shouting "Achtung, baby!".
Motif: Law & Rules • American Exceptionalism is largely predicated on its unique law/rule-based culture – which of course is just a smokescreen for arrogance, intolerance, and selfishness. • If you do not obey/follow the law/rules, there are consequences. • Both the aggression of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the Dude’s rug being soiled “will not stand.” • The phrase “you see what happens” is repeated by characters (Treehorn’s blonde goon and Walter) who are teaching the lesson of consequences. • Little Larry’s punishment for “fucking a stranger in the ass” is that his new Corvette will be smashed up. • Walter on the rules and the law: “Over the line! This is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules. Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one here who gives a shit about the rules? Mark it Zero!” • Later, Walter revisits the law: “The Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint…. These are our basic freedoms!” • Again, Walter: “Keeping wildlife, an amphibious rodent, for uh, domestic, you know, within the city—that isn’t legal either.”
Detective Films • How does this film relate to the classic film-noir, hard-boiled detective films?’ • Is The Dude a detective? • DaFino: “I’m a brother shamus! Let me tell ya something - I dig your work. Playing one side against the other, in bed with everybody - just fabulous stuff.” • Dude: “My thinking about this case has become very uptight, man.” • How is law enforcement portrayed and how does this relate to their portrayal in classic film noir? Jon Polito as Private Investigator DaFino. The Big Lebowski (1998)
Motif: Religion • The Big Lebowski can be seen as a commentary on American religiosity and its relationship to the world and war. Hence, the backdrop of the Gulf War (1990-1991). • Walter converts to Judaism when he marries Cynthia yet continues to practice despite his divorce: “I’m shomer shabbos!” • Though a convicted sex offender, the best bowler in the league is named Jesus and “nobody fucks with the Jesus.” • Walter likens the nihilists to Nazis, perplexing The Dude. Later, Walter bites off the ear of one of the nihilists while calling him an anti-Semite: “They were threatening castration.” John Turturro as Jesus Quintana.
The Detective as Morally Ambiguous Hero • How does the Dude compare with the classic film noir detective? • How does he compare with Philip Marlowe? • Could Marlowe have solved this case? • Do we root for the drug-taking, sexually promiscuous, irresponsible, slacker? Why? • When Lebowski requests to be referred to as The Dude, he is demanding non-confrontational yet equal social status with other males, including the elitist Big Lebowski. • One Lebowski explains to the other: “I’m not Mr. Lebowski; you’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or Duder. His Dudeness. Or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing—.” The repetition of the term “Dude” is important to the hegemonic male code because of it’s equalizing intent; dude is expressed from one peer to another, therefore neither male is considered to have power over the other, eliminating the need for conflict or competition. The term is primarily used in male/male interactions to establish cool solidarity, strict heterosexuality, and nonconformity. • The Dude constantly orders White Russians - a cocktail he refers to as a Caucasian. The White Russian is a drink named after the losing army in Russia’s October Revolution, therefore The Dude’s beverage of choice is the drink of social failures, a subtle reference to The Dude’s passive acceptance of his social shortcomings. Jeff Bridges as the Dude: “All the Dude wanted was his rug back.”
Turning Motifs on Their Head: Sleuthing At Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu beach house, the Dude observes Jackie writing down an address on a pad of paper. Like the rest of us, the Dude has seen classic film noir detective films and therefore goes to the pad to check the imprint to see what Jackie has written. Instead of an address, however, we find a pornographic sketch! The sketch is later found by the Malibu police chief who roughs him up. Moral: when the Dude attempts to use real sleuthing techniques, he is thwarted but when he descends into an endless sea of White Russians and marijuana he is successful.
Turning Motifs on Their Head: Good Cop, Bad Cop • The private detective always has a complex, two-sided relationship with the police. They are at once friendly and friends while also angry and enemies. • Marlowe’s relationship with Chief Inspector Bernie Ohls. • The Dude’s interactions with Dafino, the LAPD, and the Malibu Sherriff illustrate this. • The LAPD send one “good cop” and one “bad cop” to the Dude’s house to report his stolen car. • The Auto Circus Cop is initially helpful in discussing the Dude’s car but then turns when the Dude pushes too far: “Leads? Yeah. I’ll just check with the boys down at the Crime Lab. They’ve assigned four more detectives to the case, got us working in shifts.” • Malibu Police Chief who the Dude later calls a “real reactionary:” “Mr. Treehorn draws a lot of water in this town, Lebowski. You don’t draw shit. We got a nice quiet beach community here… I don’t like you sucking around bothering our citizens Lebowski. I don’t like your jerk-off name, I don’t like your jerk-off face, I don’t like your jerk-off behavior, and I don’t like you, jerk-off…. Stay out of Malibu, Lebowski! Stay out of Malibu, deadbeat! Keep your ugly fucking goldbricking ass out of my beach community.”
Donny: “I am the Walrus” • Donny mistakes Vladimir Lenin’s for John Lennon. • Donny doesn’t know was a pederast is. • Donny wants to know “what tied the room together” and then says, “His name is Lebowski, that’s you’re name, Dude!” • When Walter explains that Little Larry Sellers lives in North Hollywood near the In-N-Out Burger, Donny again misses the point: “Those are good burgers, Walter” and then wants to make sure they stop there. • Donny is always two steps behind, misunderstanding and misinterpreting events. Why? What does his character represent? • Donny is a metaphor for the vast majority of the American people most of whom may have a pure heart but due to their ignorance do not vote, do not follow current events, and are not engaged in public life in any way, thereby allowing others to shape events. As long as they have meaningless pursuits such as surfing and bowling, feel-good music such as the Eagles, and good cheap food at the In-N-Out, they are happy to be in a constant state of blissful ignorance. And the city of the Angels feeds the escapist lifestyle in a way that no other place can. • What does Donny’s death symbolize? • Life is fragile, fleeting, and pointless. And though the simple-minded, escapists may get crushed, at least they will reach some sort of transcendence due to their basic goodness. As where the cynical and arrogant must remain in this world to live with a hellish reality.
Portrayal of Women Irene Olga Lopez “Pilar” • How do female characters in Lebowski compare with female characters in The Big Sleep? Asia Carrera “Sherry” in Logjammin’ Lu Elrod “Waitress” Robin Jones (L) played the laconic, stoned Ralph’s Checker. Here she attends a 2006 Lebowskifest in costume with her twin sister. Rock star Aimee Mann as a Nihilist: She “gafe up her toe. She sought we’d be getting million dollars! Iss not fair!” Tara Reid as Bunny Lebowski.
Feminism and the Emasculated Bowling Team • In a post-feminist world, women simply do not “need” men in the way that they once did for financial and other support. Therefore traditional men who operate in this world must either adapt to be able to offer these women something other than the traditional provider role. If they do not, they • The Dude and his bowling team are completely dominated by women: the Dude by Maude, Walter by his ex-wife Cynthia, and Donny who of course is asexual. • Maude is only interested in the Dude for his sperm: “Look, Jeffrey, I don’t want a partner. In fact I don’t want the father to be someone I have to see socially, or who’ll have any interest in rearing the child himself.” • Indeed, Bunny’s sexually promiscuous, social-climbing life demonstrates her ability to dominate the Big Lebowski – a person who’s authoritarian ways would suggest that he could never be dominated by a little girl. • The Big Lebowski is further dominated in how he achieved his social status. We learn from Maude that has no real money of his own and lives on an allowance from his late wife’s wealth and administering the charities under his daughter. She states, “We did let Father run one of the companies, briefly, but he didn’t do very well at it.” Therefore his wall of plaques and honors were made possible by his late wife’s success as the family provider. • And while we don’t know much about Walter’s ex-wife Cynthia, we observe that she too dominates a seemingly authoritative male – even after their divorce! “The fucking dog has fucking paper. You can’t bored it. It’s hair falls out.” • Hence the film’s focus on male genitals is meant to make the point about emasculated males in a post-feminist landscape. The nihilist’s want to “cut off your Johnson.” Donny wants to know: “What do you need that for, Dude?” Jackie Treehorn draws a large penis while talking on the phone. And as The Dude and Walter confront The Big Lebowski on his false masculine pretenses, he screams through his tears, “Stay away from me! You bullies! You and these women! You won’t leave a man his fucking balls!”
Obscenity and Film • How does The Big Lebowski compare with films from the classic film noir era in terms of obscenity? • Language • Violence • Drug use • Sex/nudity • What does this tell us about standards of morality and freedom of expression over time? And what Hollywood can and cannot do in terms of implicit or explicit content. The Busby Berkeley-styled dream sequence. “Blow on them.” • Watch the two-minute “fucking” short version of The Big Lebowski by clicking on the image above. • The answer is… yep, 281 times!
The Villains • Who are the villains? • How do Lebowski’s villains compare with those in classic film noir pictures? • Can women be villains? Jerry Haleva as Saddam. Why does he hand out bowling shoes? John Turturro as Jesus Quintana. Donnie: “What’s a Pederast, Walter?” The Nihlists: (L-R) Flea (Kieffer), Torsten Voges (Franz), Peter Stormare (Karl Hungus) and their ferret. James G. Hoosier “Liam O’Brien” The Malibu Mafia: (L-R) Mark Pellegrino (Blonde Thug), Ben Bazzara (Jackie Treehorn), and Philip Moon (Woo). Why do the thugs switch clothes?
Big Comparisons • General Sternwood and the Big Lebowski: military, disabled, rich, mansion, his difficulty starts the intrigue • Vivian Sternwood Rutledge and Maude Lebowski: highly pragmatic, protective of family • Carmen Sternwood and Bunny Lebowski – irresponsible, nymphomaniac, involved in pornography • Eddie Mars and Jackie Treehorn – big-time racketeer, gambler, pornographer with police protection • Triad of grifters and Nihilists: Joe Brody, Agnes, and Harry Jones • Norris the Butler and Brant the Assistant: Unyielding service to the family • Philip Marlowe and the Dude: both are the men for their time and place—they fit right in there… And why not? That’s what film noir is: a mirror of reality, a mirror of society. • Both films deliberately de-emphasize plot in order to portray a series of journeys across the mythical but mundane southland landscape of sloth, ignorance, and greed. Moral: postmodern life is nothing more than a series of meaningless encounters between one character after the next – with the city of the angels as the haven for nothingness. So enjoy the ride…
Big Comparisons: Narrative Movement & Locations Each of these locations is linked to the next by a character who is chasing or following the protagonist in some way: • Detective’s home: Dude’s and Marlowe’s. • Mansion: Big Lebowski’s and Sternwood’s. • Two other domiciles: Maude’s apartment and the Sellers home; Brody’s apartment and Canino’s hideaway. • Detective’s office: the bowling alley and Marlowe’s office • Dwelling of the racketeer/pornographer: Jackie Treehorn’s Malibu compound and Eddie Mars’ club at Las Olindas. Elisha Cook, Jr. “Harry Jones” Jesse Flanagan “Little Larry Sellers” Louis Jean Heydt “Joe Brody” Julianne Moore “Maude Lebowski”
Big Comparison: The Rug The rug and the body: Bogart finds Geiger murdered at his house but when he returns the body is gone. The rug however is soiled with Geiger’s blood and is an important clue in the case. The Dude’s rug is soiled as well but instead of being killed like Geiger, the Dude lives to watch Woo urinate on it. Geiger cannot replace his soiled rug so it is not his journey that we are concerned about. The Dude, however, sets out to get a new rug and it is that journey that we are interested in. When the Dude gets one, he is not killed on it like Geiger but is instead knocked out by Maude’s goons. Arthur Gwynn Geiger’s murder creates blood stains on the rug. The Dude gets knocked out on his rug while listening to Dylan and bowling tapes. He also practices Tai-Chi on the rug.
Conclusion • The Big Lebowski, like all of the Coen brothers’ films, deals with the twin impossibilities of human experience: • Coming to any meaningful understanding of others; • Mastering a brute reality ruled by the principle of seemingly diabolical mischance. • These noirish themes are realized either in a somewhat positive or, most often, in a rather negative fashion. Thus the typical Coenian narrative focuses either on pathetic losers whose attempts to make a “big score” of some kind spectacularly misfire or on those of more virtue or purer heart who in their cunning or simplicity persevere to transcendence of some kind. • Ultimately, as the Stranger says at the end of the film, life is a “human comedy” and all we can do is laugh and take ‘er eazy through the absurdity of it all.
Credits • Clute, Shannon and Richard Edwards, “Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir—Episode 11: The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski.” November 15, 2005. 70 minutes. Podcast from www.noircast.net. • Palmer, R. Barton, Joel and Ethan Coen (Urban and Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press).