Film analysis focussing on
references, allusions, the use of music, dialogs, and imagery
By Anne Lehwald
Dresden, September 7th 2005
Dresden University of Technology
Institute for English and American Studies
Graduate level course: “Outstanding Film Directors“
Lecturer: Prof. Dr. Hans-Ulrich Mohr
Winter semester 2004 / 2005
II The Universe of Joel and Ethan Coen
II.1 Biography – Filmography – Philosophy
II.2 The Style of the Coen Brothers
III The Coens´ Effort The Big Lebowski
III.1 The Plot
III.2 The Characters
IV Analysis of The Big Lebowski
IV.1 References and Allusions
IV.2 Music and Dialogs
IV.3 Imagery: Symbols and Metaphors
IV.4 Postmodern Elements
In this paper for the seminar “Outstanding Film Directors“ I want to analyze the movie The Big Lebowski (TBL) by Joel and Ethan Coen. Released in 1998 TBL is the seventh effort of the Coen brothers and – after Raising Arizona (1987) and Fargo (1996) – their third movie that deals with kidnapping.
TBL has been praised by most authors of the feature pages of newspapers and magazines. For Jan Distelmeyer, author of the magazine Spex, for example, TBL is an `extremly entertaining tasty morsel` (in www.gezetera.ch). The main characters´ favorite cocktail, White Russian, has become a cult drink not only among TBL-fans. While the audience for the most part enjoy the laconic irony of the Coens´ hommage to the hard-boiled classics of Raymond Chandler, some academics question the significance of the movie. R. Barton Palmer, director of the South Carolina Film Institute, believes that TBL adds only little importance to the general account of the Coens´ place within the history of the contemporary American filmmaking scene (6).
In this paper I want to introduce the Coen brothers and their typical style that is even referred to as “Coen-esque”. The indepth analysis of their effort TBL is the principal concern of this paper. After a brief introduction of the plot and the characters I will analyze the references and allusions that occur in TBL. The meaning of the music and the peculiarities of the dialogs are also being discussed. The analysis of the used imagery in TBL and some of the emerging postmodern elements are also subjects of discussion.
The Coen brothers refuse to intellectualize and stress the fact that they “simply” want to entertain their audience. With this paper I want to show that TBL is much more than 112 minutes of entertainment. It is a political statement and a perfect cinematic symbiosis of pictures, music, and dialogs.
II The Universe of Joel and Ethan Coen
II.1 Biography – Filmography – Philosophy
Born (Joel in 1954, Ethan in 1957) and raised in the St. Louis Park suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota the Coen brothers are children of academics. Their father, Edward, was an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. Their mother, Rena, taught fine arts at St. Cloud State. “The brothers, they have often confessed, found growing up in the American heartland boring.” They spent much time watching television. Uninspired by what public education had to offer in Minnesota Joel and Ethan persuaded their parents to send them to Simon´s Rock, a school in Massachusetts. “In an environment that encouraged independent study, they thrived”. After graduation Joel spent “four unhappy years” in the New York University undergraduate film program, “taking away little from the experience”. Ethan found his college years at Princeton studying philosophy “more rewarding”. After graduation Ethan joined Joel in New York City, where he was working as an editor on low-budget horror films. “Their big opportunity came when they met Sam Raimi, a young man determined like themselves to break into the industry (Palmer 6). Up to now the Coens have released eleven movies working mostly within the confines of two recognizable genres : film noir and comedy. “What matters most about the Coen brothers is that they have made some of the most provocative and engaged films to appear in the New Hollywood era” (Palmer 4).
The Coens´ first effort Blood Simple (1984) was a hit with audiences and critics at film festivals which led to a commercial distribution contract. Their next production features the two rising Hollywood stars Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage. Raising Arizona (1987) is a “wacky comedy” about a career criminal who marries a prison guard (Palmer 7). Its successor Miller´s Crossing (1990) is “not so much a gangster movie as an extended, elaborate allusion to one” as Terence Rafferty points out (in Palmer 9). Despite the lack of financial success with their effort Barton Fink (1991) Hollywood producer Joel Silver was convinced that the Coens could achieve a breakthrough to substantial profitability (Palmer 10). But also the witty, inventive meditation on the Horatio Alger myth The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) “never found an audience”. The Coens triumphed when they returned to small-budget filmmaking. Fargo (1996) is a “masterpiece of naturalist stylization” (Palmer 11). The movie won two academy-awards and three other nominations. The film is also placed on the American Film Institute´s list of Hollywood´s top one hundred films of all time (Palmer 3). The Coens´ comedy The Big Lebowski (1998) seemed to many of their admirers an `exercise in postmodern pointlessness´ (www.gezetera.ch) which will, among other issues, be discussed further on. The follow-up O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) starring George Clooney is to date the most profitable film, earning more than $45 million at the U.S. box office alone (Palmer 12). The Coens´ latest efforts are the film noir The Man Who Wasn´t There (2001), the romance Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and the 50s remake The Ladykillers (2004).
The Coen brothers come as a pair (Woods 78). Officially one directs (Joel), the other produces (Ethan), but they are a team that works well together. They even end each others sentences during interviews as Annette Kilzer notices (in Kilzer / Rogall 9). The Coens both write and edit under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes because their names dominated the credits of their movies so much. For Roderick Jaynes they even came up with an outrageous curriculum vitae. The Coens have consistently refused to be public figures (Palmer 4). For his writing debut “Gates of Eden” Ethan Coen invented a hair-raisingly funny curriculum vitae for himself (Coen 253). The Coens prefer to put all their energies into making movies that are “interestingly idiosyncratic, smart, and more than a little enigmatic” (Palmer 14). The most predictable aspect of their filmmaking is its unpredictability (Palmer 5). The Coens are perfectionists who draw a “thumbnail version of the storyboards” (Joel Coen in Kilzer / Rogall 10), work in close collaboration with their cinematographer, and do not tolerate improvisation. Ethan explains: “We do not forbid practice but when the camera is on they (the actors) have to say what we wrote” (in Kilzer / Rogall 134).
The Coen brothers are widely considered the “most visionary and idiosyncratic filmmakers of the late 20th century“ (www.imdb.com). They share a private cinematic language which makes their films self-contained, almost hermetic alternative universes (www.calendarlive.com). For Ian Nathan the Coens make “the cleverest, most distinctive and most uncategorisable movies in town.” But with “Hitchcockian candor” they will deny all knowledge of trickery (in Woods 5). Allegedly the Coens “simply” want to entertain their audience, and refuse to intellectualize (Woods 16). As Joel tersely puts it: “If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn´t designed mainly to entertain people, then I don´t know what the fuck they are doing” (in Kilzer / Rogall 40).
II.2 The Style of the Coen Brothers
The Coen brothers are considered to be `the stars on the American independent sky` and the `leading stylists of US cinema`. Their movies are a unique mixture of bizarre or morbid humor, cutting irony, surreal narration, and striking lacony with `ingenious, strictly composed images` (Kilzer / Rogall 7).
“In order to paint their disenchanted picture of America, the Coen brothers have developed a personal style that introduces innovations into the traditional imagery of cinema. They call on cinematic culture while subverting genre films and their long-standing relationship with the memory” (Woods 178).
The “Film Buffs“ (Bock 96) have become famous for their unexpected changes of styles. “From the film noir to the contemporary police film, from Capra-esque comedy to the gangster film, the Coen brothers explode traditional genres” (Woods 179). The Coens´ movies are a bow to the classical Hollywood genres and contemporary American cinema to the highest perfection (Kilzer / Rogall 7). Continuity is very important for the Coens. For years they have been working together with the same actors (e.g. Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, John Turtorro), the same cinematographers (Barry Sonnenfeld and Roger Deakins), the same composers and set designers (Kilzer / Rogall 7).
Their movies present complex stories that demand the undivided attention of the audience. Frank Schnelle argues that often narrating seems to be more important than the narration itself (in Kilzer / Rogall 14). “Once the audience are set on their narrative path, however, the brothers like to throw ´em a bum steer and make ´em pay attention with an unexpected change of pace” (Woods 15). Each film takes place in a “quirky, hermetically-sealed universe” (Woods 16) and tells the story of the impossibility of overcoming a destiny which the characters unintentionally chose (Kilzer / Rogall 7).
“Each film studies a type of imprisonment and a quest for specific freedom, of characters struggling to both keep their self-control and give a personal meaning to their lives” (Woods 178). Ethan and Joel Coen strive to make characters geographically or sociologically or ethnically as specific as they possibly can (Woods 162). Joel explains why most of the characters in their movies are pretty unpleasant “losers or lunkheads, or both”: “We are not interested in burly superhero types” (in Woods 164). The Coens´ characters are not perfect in any sense. At the end of their story they do not look matured and more reasonable in their future and also do not understand how to use the experience (Kilzer / Rogall 28). The Coens observe the wrong tracks of their characters until the bitter end. That is why Joel Coen uses the term “clinical observation“ (in Kilzer / Rogall 29).
Sascha Bregenhorn even speaks about the special genre “Coen brother“ because he believes that the Coens´ efforts belong in `a category all on their own` (www.moviemaze.de). The Coens´ films impress not only with detail in story and set design but also with extremely odd characters. The Coens´ 1998 effort The Big Lebowksi (TBL), which will be discussed in detail further on, offers a laid-back pothead who refers to himself as “The Dude”, a choleric Vietnam veteran, a feminist Fluxux artist, a wheelchair-bound millionaire, a strike-scoring pederast, a Cowboy, and German nihilists, to mention only some of the odd characters the Coens came up with. Some examples for the Coens´ predilection for details are also taken from TBL. The wallpaper in The Dude´s bathroom is patterned with colorful balloons which indicates that he probably has moved in the bungalow without changing much. A reprint of Van Gogh´s “Sunflowers” decorates the corridor in the Sellers´ house. That becomes an interesting detail when Walter later on bites off the ear of one of the German nihilists. The Coen brothers do not take away the horror of violence but display its absurdity, awkwardness, and uncontrollability. Thus they develop an unexpected humor which is bizarre and morbid (Kilzer / Rogall 26).
One of the gags in TBL is that The Dude is “involved in a private eye adventure, while he´s the antithesis of that”, explains Joel Coen (in Woods 167). Another very bizarre situation evolves when The Dude and his friend Walter ask the director of the funeral institute if it is possible to “rent an urn” for the ashes of their buddy Donny. The handling of political issues is also “sharply pointed if humorous”, which can be illustrated by the appearance of a Saddam Hussein lookalike in front of a huge shelf with stinking bowling shoes (Palmer 5).
III The Coens´ Effort The Big Lebowski (TBL)
III.1 The Plot –
“It will leave the broader audience scratching their scalps.” (Woods 161)
“The story, if you reduced it to the plot, would seem rather ridiculous or uninteresting. (…) The plots are there to drive the characters” explains Joel Coen (in Woods 164). That should be kept in mind because any serious attempt to reconstruct the case ´ties a malicious knot in one´s brain` (Kilzer / Rogall 124). Characterization seems to be “infinitely more important to the Coens than plot minutiae” (Woods 15).
TBL is `an odyssey through the criminal L.A.` (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment) including a weighty case of mistaken identity, blackmailing, fraud, suppression, sex, drugs, and mutilation. Set during the time of the first Gulf War in 1991 TBL involves two different Jeffrey Lebowskis. One of them is “the laziest man in Los Angeles County”, a genial deadbeat who insists on being known as “The Dude”. Though The Dude is not in the business of seeking excitement, it comes unapproved one night to his Venice shack in form of a pair of sadistic thugs, one of whom urinates on The Dude´s cherished rug to make the point that he better pay his wife Bunny´s debts. The thugs soon realize that they got the wrong Lebowski. The other, bigger Lebowski is a millionaire who lives in Pasadena (www.calendarlive.com). The Dude explains the events to his bowling buddies Walter and Donny. Walter persuades him to visit the real Jeffrey Lebowski to demand compensation for the rug that “really tied the room together”. The Big Lebowski throws The Dude out when he shows up asking for compensation for his rug, but the millionaire´s assistant Brandt soon calls back. It seems Bunny has been kidnapped and the services of the Dude are requested to act as a well-paid intermediary. The Dude and Walter mess up the delivery of the ransom, so the suitcase with allegedly $ 1 million remains on the back seat of The Dude´s car which gets stolen. Meanwhil,e The Big Lebowski´s daughter Maude violently retrieves the rug from The Dude. Later on, she invites The Dude to her house and explains her point of view. She assumes that Bunny, a porno-starlet, has not been kidnapped and her hated father has kept the money. Therefore, she assigns The Dude to get the money back. Meanwhile, The Big Lebowski receives a nail polished toe from the blackmailers, supposedly Bunny´s. He accuses The Dude that he did not handover the ransom but kept the money.
The Dude´s car has been found by the police. It is almost totaled and the suitcase is missing. Because of an essay on the driver´s seat written by Larry Sellers, The Dude and Walter go to see this school-kid. While the 15-year-old boy does not say anything, Walter freaks out and destroys the Corvette of an innocent neighbor. Later on Jackie Treehorn, a porno producer, wants to see The Dude in order to find out where Bunny is. The Dude does not know, gets drugged, and finds himself in the office of a racist police chief. While Bunny comes back home after an unannounced trip to friends, Maude abuses The Dude as sperm donator. The Nihilists who did not notice that Bunny is already back home threaten The Dude and his buddies and burn The Dude´s car. During a fight Donny dies from a heart attack. After a `lazy beginning and the following Stakkati of absurd gags` in the end not much has changed except that there is a Little Lebowski on its way (Kilzer / Rogall 127) .
It must be asked if not only the $ 1 million were a McGuffin – an object or element that catches the audience´s attention but can be forgotten after it served its purpose – but the whole story. It is obvious that the suitcase handed over to The Dude by Brandt was empty but there remain many unanswered questions. If The Big Lebowski staged his wife´s kidnapping why did his daughter ask her nihilist friends to write the blackmail letter? Or did The Big Lebowski seriously believe that his wife had been kidnapped and maliciously risked her murder? And why did Jackie Treehorn send his thugs? (Kilzer / Rogall 128). As aforementioned by Joel Coen: “The plot is there to drive the characters” (in Woods 164). And the whole plot of TBL seems to fulfill the one and only pupose of making The Dude get to know as many strange characters as possible. The pornographer Jackie Treehorn, the German nihilists, the author Arthur Digby Sellers with his iron lung, weird Fluxux- and video artists, the dilettante snooper Da Fino, and Jesus Quintana, a flamboyant bowler who is a registered sex offender. They all catch the audience´s attention and can be forgotten once they have fulfilled their purpose: to entertain the audience!
III.2 The Characters –
“You have the feeling you´re attending a congress of misfits!”
(Ethan Coen in Woods 167)
Introduced in a supermarket sampling milk from the carton, The Dude is a proto-slacker, “quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County.” He is an unemployed and ´unkempt old-hippie´ in his forties (Müller 552). He lives in a run-down bungalow in Venice, Los Angeles, and spends his days smoking joints, drinking White Russians, and bowling with his buddies Walter and Donny. “Huh?” is his most common expression, “Take it easy” his advice on every subject (www.gezetera.ch). He listens to Creedence-tapes while driving around in his rusty 1972 Pontiac LeBaron, and relaxes to the ambient sounds of whales in his bathtub. His given name is Jeffrey Lebowski but he does not identify himself with it. “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.” Mentally stuck in the seventies (Kilzer / Rogall 123) The Dude is `a pacifist who slept through the 80s` (Ethan Coen in Dreibrodt / Lukas 42). The Dude is the prototype of an anti-hero. He is making out a check to Ralph´s, his supermarket, for sixty-nine cents. He does not have a career, and his rumpled look suggests that he is a man in whom casualness runs deep. He is not married which he can easily prove to Jackie Treehorn´s thugs: “You see a wedding ring? Does this place look like I’m fucking married? All my plants are dead!”
The Dude does not seek excitement and remains stoical even after he has been beaten up by the aforementioned men who call him “fuckin´ loser”. The Dude calmly fishes his sunglasses out of the toilet and quick-wittedly says: “Hey, at least I am housebroken” after one of the guys urinated on his rug. The Dude tells Brandt, the personal assistant of The Big Lebowski, that he was in college but not in order to get a degree. “I spent most of my time occupying various administration buildings, smoking thai-stick, breaking into the ROTC, and bowling.” Allegedly, The Dude has been one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement. This statement published in June 1962 by the “Students for a Democratic Society” was the founding document of the social movement in the U.S. Its aim was to free the people from a lifelong adaption to the institutions of a capitalistic society (www.echo-online.de). Undoubtedly The Dude does not adapt to this society but whether he really was involved with the Port Huron Statement can be questioned. First of all because then he would have to be in his late-fifties by now. And secondly because the other things he tells Maude about himself are not true either: there are no Seattle Seven exsisting and the Heavy-Metal-Band Metallica has never been on a ”Speed of Sound”-tour (www.metallicamp.de). His best buddy Walter puts his stoical composure on test quite often: “I love you, Walter, but sooner or later you’re gonna have to face the fact that you’re a goddamn moron.“
Walter Sobchak is a “lunatic, as oblivious to the rest of the world as it is to him” (www.calendarlive.com). He is a short-tempered, overwrought Vietnam veteran constantly referring to the war and his experiences. For example when The Dude tells Walter about the possibility that Bunny Lebowski kidnapped herself to pay her debts he flips out: “Those rich fucks! I did not watch my buddies die face down in the muck so that this fucking strumpet…”.
Actually a Polish Catholic, he converted to Judaism when he married Cynthia. But even though divorced for five years he is taking one of the Jewish traditions very seriously: Sabbath. “Saturday is Shabbas. Jewish day of rest. Means I don’t work, I don’t drive a car, I don’t fucking ride in a car, I don’t handle money, I don’t turn on the oven, and I sure as shit don’t fucking roll!” Walter is still living in the past as his best buddy The Dude analyses. He takes care of his ex-wife´s Pomeranian dog and wears a necklace with his wedding ring and his Vietnam-ID as well as a `paramilitary outfit` (Kilzer / Rogall 133).
Bowling is much more than a game to Walter who is the corpulent owner of the security company “Sobchak Security”. When Smokey, a bowling buddy, steps over the line but does not want to mark “zero” he yells: “This is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules.” And with a loaded gun in his hands he threatens “You’re entering a world of pain.” When The Dude tells him that Smokey is a pacifist and has emotional problems Walter dryly asks “Beyond pacifism?”.
Walter is very stubborn. The rhetoric question “Am I right? Am I right?” frequently ends his monologs. While The Dude wavers more at the surface of things “it´s Walter who pushes him to undertake the venture, only to jeopardize it later” (Woods 171).
Donny is a naïve but strike-scoring bowler. He is phlegmatic (Kilzer / Rogall 133) and always comes to wrong conclusions about what is happening. Donny is constantly ignored by his buddy The Dude and yelled at by Walter. “Forget it Donny. You are out of your element!” When The Dude desperately tries to quote Lenin at some point, Donny seems to have understood Lennon instead of Lenin and starts shouting “I´m the walrus, I´m the walrus.” Only during his funeral emerges that he used to be a surfer. Other than that he does not seem to have an identity. This is also symbolized by his shirts. In every scene he wears a shirt of a different color with an embroidered name that is not his. There is only one exception, while he is observing Martin Randahl, The Dude´s landlord, during his dilettante attempt to represent somebody else on stage. Shortly after that Donny dies from a heart attack during a fight between Walter, The Dude, and the German nihilists. When Walter tries to scatter the ashes of Theodore Donald Karabotsos in the Pacific Ocean the wind blows them on The Dude who wears a shirt that has the name “Art” embroidered.
The character of Donny is rather an ´obscure sidekick´ of the Coens´ (Kilzer /Rogall 127). The focus of TBL lies on the relationship between Walter and The Dude who are opposites of each other but very close, almost like a couple. As Joel Coen explains that “the movie leads to a reconciliation between the Dude and Walter despite their difficult relationship” (Woods 171).
The Big Lebowski, Jeffrey Lebowski, who is in his sixties, is Bunny´s husband. He is bound to a wheelchair because he lost his legs during the Korean War. “But I went out and achieved anyway. I can’t solve your problems, sir, only you can”, he brushes off The Dude when he asks for compensation for his rug. The Big Lebowski is one of the trustees of the Lebowski Foundation. He pretends to be a successful businessman and millionaire. But in fact he does not have any money of his own. “He helps administer the charities now, and I give him a reasonable allowance”, explains his daughter Maude, who does not have any other contact with her father besides that. The Big Lebowski used to run one of the companies of his former wife but did not succeed. “Father’s weakness is vanity. Hence the slut”, as Maude puts it. His vanity becomes obvious in the anteroom of his office. It is decorated with plaques and a mirrored TIME-magazine cover. “I can look back on a life of achievement, on challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome. I’ve accomplished more than most men, and without the use of my legs” he praises himself. When Bunny disappears, The Big Lebowski puts The Dude in charge of the hand-over of the ransom. The alleged reason for that is his supposition that the blackmailers and the rug-peers are the same people. While he is “in seclusion” crying because of the blackmail letter, he does not seem to be too interested let alone happy when Bunny is back home. When Walter and The Dude disclose him that they know that the the $ 1 million ransom has never been in the suitcase The Big Lebowski only says with deliberation: “Well, you have your story, I have mine. I say I entrusted the money to you, and you stole it.”
Maude Lebowski is the daughter of The Big Lebowski and a wealthy Fluxus artist. She is friends with the German nihilists, which becomes clear when she uses the expression “Johnson”. She comes into play because the Persian carpet The Dude took from the house of Mr. Lebowski has “sentimental value” for her. It was a gift from her to her deceased mother and she wants it back. She does not believe that her stepmother Bunny has been kidnapped: “The whole thing stinks to high heaven.” Maude does not approve of her father´s lifestyle and is convinced that he kept the demanded ransom for himself. Those $ 1 million belong to the Lebowski Foundation which enables children from poor families to get a college education. Because of this delicate constellation Maude decides not to involve the police with the case but puts The Dude in charge of it. Later on she abuses The Dude as sperm donator because as a feminist she wants a child but is not interested in the obligation of socially seeing the child´s father.
Bunny Lebowski is a “licentious and depraved girl” (Woods 167) in her twenties. She is not only the second wife of The Big Lebowski but also the starlet of Jackie Treehorn´s porno production “Logjammin´”. “I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars”, she offers The Dude when she meets him for the first time, which confirms Maude´s speculation that she is a nymphomaniac. The private snooper Da Fino unveils her true identity. Bunny´s real name is Fawn Knudson and she is a runaway from Moorhead, Minnesota. She owes money to Jackie Treehorn and is – as Maude – friends with the German nihilist Karl Hungus, her co-star in “Logjammin´”, who stages her kidnapping while she is visiting friends in Palm Springs.
IV Analysis of The Big Lebowski
IV.1 References and Allusions
TBL is the third movie of the Coens that evolves from a kidnapping incident. Ethan Coen explains the brothers´ preference for this topic: “A kidnapping is a pregnant plot thing, an ongoing criminal enterprise that seems to suggest all kinds of promissing plot opportunities. It´s easy for things to spin out of control, to have them go progressively wrong” (in Woods 15). Their 1987 effort Raising Arizona also dealt with kidnapping. Another reference to this Coen-movie can be seen in the mixture of genres. Raising Arizona is, like TBL, a comedy with elements of a Western story. While in TBL there is the Cowboy-like stranger, in Raizing Arizona we have the Lone Motorcyclist of the Apocalypse accompanied by Western music. R. Barton Palmer suspects that what is happening outside the prison in Raising Arizona is only a dream (7) which can be seen as another connection between the two movies since the three dreams of The Dude in TBL are “psychoanalytical visions of onscreen events” (Woods 180). The Oscar-winning Fargo (1996) is set in Minnesota where TBL´s character Bunny originally comes from. The real name of the supposedly kidnapped girl is Fawn Knudson, a Scandinavian name like Gunderson or Lundegaard, the kind of names used in Fargo (Woods 170). But Ethan Coen explains: “In fact, we´d more or less written that (TBL´s) script before shooting Fargo. If there´s a refenrence, it would actually be in reverse order” (in Woods 170). A reference to Barton Fink (1991) can be seen in the tumble weed that is blown at the beginning of TBL to the same beach where Barton Fink ends. But asked about the significance of that detail Ethan Coen plays it down – ´that doesn´t have a deeper meaning`. Allegedly there was simply no other beach in Hollywood to shoot the scene (Kilzer / Rogall 132). For Annette Kilzer the Volkswagen of the private snooper Da Fino in TBL is an `homage` to the Coens´ debut Blood Simple (1984) (in Kilzer / Rogall 128).
Joel Coen admits that there are certain scenes in their movies for which they got inspiration from other films. But the director stresses that he does not approve of ´pure quotation – or pulp-movies`. Joel Coen likes classic detective stories `therefore you find allusions of this genre in each of my movies` (in Dreibrodt / Lukas 43). TBL is “loosely patterned on a Raymond Chandler novel” (Ethan Coen in Woods 12). Joel Coen explains the reference to Chandler: “Like in a Chandler novel, the hero sets out to clear up a mystery and while doing so visits a lot of odd characters who spring up like Jack-in-the-boxes” (in Woods 167). In Chandler´s private eye stories which take place in and about L.A. – as in TBL – all characters are emblematic for the city.
Ethan Coen points out that “in the case of our movie it´s obviously not a private eye movie” since TBL´s The Dude is “light years away” from Chandler´s hard-bitten white knight of the private eye Philip Marlowe. But the point of the private eye novel for the Coens is “to take the main character through a seemingly non-sequitorial odyssey of bizarre characters and edgy situations” (Woods 12). `We tell the story like Chandler would have told it`, says Joel Coen; a story with an offstage narrator, a tangle of fraud and mistrust involving different people whose motives remain vague. While there are two very different sisters in Chandler´s novel The Big Sleep, two different types of women are also presented in TBL by Maude and Bunny (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment). As in Chandler´s novels a logical reconstruction of the crime is less important than mood, atmosphere, and the attitude towards life (Kilzer / Rogall 124). Ethan sums up that TBL is the Coens´ `Raymond Chandler-story for the 90s` (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment).
The beginning of the third dream sequence in TBL is an allusion, a tribute to Busby Berkeley who was famous for his `ingenious geometrical choreographies` in his Warner Bros. musicals of the 1930s (Monaco 308). “He´s one of our heroes. He was an incredible choreographer who never worried about justifying his extravagance. His audacity and sense of freedom fascinate us”, explains Joel Coen (in Woods 171).
IV.2 Music and Dialogs –
“There´s a musical signature for each of them.”
(Ethan Coen in Woods 173)
Besides the sixties and seventies sport of bowling the characters are mainly defined by the music. “The original music, as with other elements of the movie had to echo the retro sounds”, explains Joel Coen (in Woods 173). Bob Dylan´s “The Man in Me“, Elvis Costello´s “My Mood Swings“, The Gipsy Kings´ “Hotel California”, and the music of Creedence accompanies The Dude who is mentally stuck in the 1960s and early seventies. His opponents, the German nihilists, are band members of the techno-pop formation “Autobahn” which symbolizes the nineties (Kilzer / Rogall 134).
The cowboy song “Tumbling Tumbleweed”, which is reminiscent of the pioneer spirit, symbolizes The Stranger. There is also older classical music, like Mozart´s “Requiem” and “Glück das mir verblieb” taken from the opera “Die Tote Stadt” accompanying The Big Lebowski. The Latino song “Oye Como Va” is played during Jesus Quintana´s performance in the bowling hall to demonstrate his certainty of victory. When Walter and The Dude enter the house of Arthur Digby Sellers, the author of numerous episodes of the TV-Western “Branded”, the show´s Theme Song, composed by Alan Alch, is played. Henry Mancini´s “Lujon” characterises the porn producer Jackie Treehorn. These examples illustrate that music defines the characters. “There´s a musical signature for each of them”, as Ethan Coen puts it (in Woods 173).
For the Coens dialogs are never an end in themselves. `There is not a single word too much`, as Stefan Rogall reckons (in Kilzer / Rogall 31). The dialogs follow the tradition of Chandler´s `laconic-poetic existentialism`, they are `hard, brilliant, funny` (Monaco 305). When one of the thugs asks The Dude “What´s that?” with his bowling ball in the hand The Dude responds “Obviously you are not a golfer.” It should be quite difficult to have a shorter punch line! The dialog makes the audience laugh through The Dude´s quick-wittedness, since by actually responding to the thug´s question The Dude shows him up. Jackie Treehorn´s man is obviously overtaxed by the unexpected situation of the mix-up. Another brilliant laconic dialog is the one between Bunny Lebowski and The Dude. She asks him to blow on the nailpolish on her toes. He precautionary asks if that will be okay with the man in the pool. Bunny explains “He´s a nihilist,” whereupon The Dude says: “That must be exhausting!” The Dude´s sarcasm also becomes obvious in the extravagant sixties-style modern decor of the villa of porno producer Jackie Treehorn. The Dude looks around without any interest, admiration, or envy and says: “This is quite a pad you got here, man. Completely unspoiled.” The dialog between Walter and Pilar in the Seller´s house is also a masterpiece of humor. While Arthur Digby Sellers, an almost dead man who can only breathe with the help of an iron lung, lies on the other side of the room Walter inquires: “Is he still writing?” – which is obviously not the case. But Pilar tersely answers: “Oh no, he has health problems.”
The Coens´ dialogs are also larded with hilarious puns. When Donny asks Walter in front of the German nihilists and the burning car if those are “the Nazis” Walter calms him: “They’re nihilists, Donny, nothing to be afraid of.”
IV.3 Symbols and Metaphors –
“It´s a weird impulse when people feel the need to read things as a code.” (Ethan Coen in Woods 162)
The Coen brothers refuse any serious interpretation or explanation of their movies and practice understatement (Kilzer / Rogall 18). They like to play with allusions, secrets, metaphors, and symbols which are not explicitly being explained (Kilzer / Rogall 19). The brothers prefer talking about “simply evocative detail rather than cryptic symbolism” (Woods 15-16). For Ethan Coen it is “a weird impulse when people feel the need to read things as a code.” His older brother Joel even claims that “we never, ever go into our films with anything like that in mind”. Fortunately, though, he admits: “We are definitely guilty of teasing” (in Woods 162). In the following chapter I will present one possible analysis of some symbols and metaphors in TBL.
TBL´s opening scene shows tumble weed being blown from the desert through the city of L.A. to the beach of the Pacific Ocean. This is a metaphor for The Dude because he is also drifting. The tumble weed is also a parody of the Western standards (Müller 552). Ethan Coen explains that `we simply have fun luring the audience on a wrong track` (in Kilzer / Rogall 132). This image is strengthened by The Stranger with his thick cowboy accent (www.calendarlive.com). The Stranger “ponders the Dude´s unlikely hero status” (Woods 14) and is the pathetic narrator of the movie who appears twice to talk with The Dude. The Stranger is the real “Dude” of the movie.
Desks seem to play an important role in the Coens´ movies, as it is also the case in TBL. When The Dude comes to The Big Lebowski´s house to ask for compensation for his ruined rug, The Big Lebowski sits behind his massive wooden desk. This desk is a `symbol for power and accomplishment but also for cowardice and excessive demand` (Kilzer / Rogall 137). In the funeral institute the desk also symbolizes the distance between the official institution and Walter and The Dude, who do not have enough money to pay for an urn. In one scene, The Dude takes a call from Maude at the bar of the bowling hall. Maude asks The Dude to see a doctor for an examination. In the retrospective view the bar becomes a caricature of the desks of the alledgedly mighty men because The Dude actually achieves something (The Little Lebowski), even if not intentionally.
Bowling is a typical seventies sport which symbolizes the world of The Dude and his buddies: the past. `Losers like the Dude have a particular liking of bowling halls`, explains Joel Coen. It is a comfortable sport that focuses on social contacts (Woods 163).
The Dude´s only food is White Russians: cocktails made of kahlua, vodka, and milk. It is an interesting detail is that White Russia became the Independent Republic of Belarus in August 1991 (www.flaggenlexikon.de). TBL is set in September 1991 in Los Angeles (PolyGram Filmed Entertainment). So The Dude´s constant consumption of those strong alcoholic cocktails might be a symbol for his liberal lifestyle and his refusal to adjust to the capitalistic society. The running gag of TBL is the progressing demolition of The Dude´s car (Kilzer / Rogall 128). In the beginning it is just a run-down vehicle: “Green, some brown rust coloration.” But during the messed up hand-over Walter´s guns fire on The Dude´s car, while later on a vagrant uses it as a toilet. After that the Corvette owner smashes it, then the Dude himself crashes into trash cans, until finally the German nihilists burn it. The demolition of the car symbolizes the escalation of the ongoing events. For Niggi Schäfer the demolition of the car is also a symbol for the racism among minorities in the United States. `With full justification was the script of TBL awarded the Bar-Kochba-Award in 1998 which is awarded to anti- racist art`, Schäfer points out (in www.gezetera.ch).
The three dreams presented in TBL are the “psychoanalytical vision of onscreen events” (Woods 180). The Dude´s initial ecstatic hash dreams (“What a wonderful feeling”) in which he floats above L.A. subside with the progressive escalation of chaos (Kilzer / Rogall 127). His last dream is a nightmare in which The Dude is the star of the porno production “Gutterballs” of his opponent Jackie Treehorn. At first, the dream seems like a cheap version of a sparkling Warner-Bros.-musical of the 1930s but then the dictator Saddam Hussein (part of the real world) appears in front of a huge shelf with bowling shoes (part of The Dude´s world) and the German nihilists dressed in red catsuits threaten him with huge scissors. The scissors are based on a painting of Maude in her studio and symbolize The Dude´s fear to lose his manhood.
IV.4 Postmodern Elements
Postmodernism is a concept of cultural theory that has its origin in the 1930s and fourties. Since the 1960s the term `postmodern` has been used for changes and upheavals in society. In literature and film the elements of progress and game are stressed, fiction and reality are difficult to separate (Meyers Grosses Taschenlexikon 297).
For Jan Distelmeyer TBL is a `postmodern unleashed movie of quotation` (in www.gezetera.ch). It is typical for postmodernism that there is `nothing new under the sun, everything is a quotation` (Niggi Schäfer in www.gezetera.ch). The Dude frequently quotes the people he talked to or listened to. He picks up George Bush´s words about the Gulf War and uses them when he talks to The Big Lebowski about his rug: “I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand. This aggression will not stand, man.” He also quotes the pathetic Stranger when he engages in small talk with the barman of the bowling hall: “Sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar eats you.” The Dude also quotes Brandt, and even the German nihilists when he tries to put Larry Sellers under pressure: “We gonna cut your dick off, Larry!” But this habit does not suggest that The Dude is not able to think of his own (www.gezetera.ch). It rather implicates that individuals are not only formed by earlier periods and events in their lives (Woods 168) but are also influenced, manipulated, and copied every day.
Many postmodern films take place in the present but have many allusions to former times. In TBL the music, the bowling, the drugs, the porn producer, and the car refer to the sixties and seventies. In addition to that, the Coens refer to past times by using different genres: the 30s musical, the 50s Western, and, of course, the private eye-stories of Raymond Chandler (1888-1959).
TBL also deals with some obsolete standards of former times: Maude, for example, is a feminst who leads the unconventional life of an artist, and pays for her father´s life as well as for the education of disadvantaged children. The traditional patriarch The Big Lebowski does not have any power. He is wheelchair-bound because he lost his legs during the Korean War. Also Arthur Digby Sellers who, as a former author for mainstream TV, represents the establishment, is powerless and dependent, which is symbolized by his iron lung.
The recent entertainment industry is also criticized, or at least parodied, when the porn producer Jackie Treehorn admits: "Regrettably it’s true, standards have fallen in adult entertainment. It’s video, Dude. Now that we’re competing with the amateurs, we can’t afford to invest that little extra in story, production value, feeling…"
Nowadays large-scale movies are produced to be suitable for the nonrecurring experience of watching the film in the movie theater as well as for the repeated watching on video or DVD at home. Jürgen Müller points out that the greater the number of intentionally hidden details the more fun the viewer has watching a movie over and over again (6). Evaluating TBL from this point of view it certainly meets the expectations. Sascha Bregenhorn assesses that the Coens even surpass themselves with TBL. The journalist praises the `symbiosis of all the elements necessary for great entertainment` (in www.moviemaze.de). In contrast to that Kenneth Turan, a Los Angeles Times film critic, has a low opinion of TBL: “From a straightforward beginning TBL soon spins rapidly and completely out of control“. For him the film feels completely haphazard, and thrown together without much concern for organizing intelligence (in www.calendarlive.com).
As always when it comes to art people have different opinions depending upon their taste and expectations. With this paper I do not intend to convince anyboby to like or dislike TBL. I wanted to show that TBL has much more to offer than plain entertainment. The Coen brothers larded their movie with details which make the audience find something new everytime they watch TBL. Masterly they pay tribute to classic genres, and develop odd but gripping characters. The dialogs are pointed and funny on the surface but when you start to read between the lines they become critical, and political. Paul A. Woods summarizes that “the satire is non-stop and multi-layered“ (161). The Coen brothers do not want to instruct their audience about right or wrong, good or bad. They offer their movie and leave the interpretation to the viewer. So it is up to the audience to either get plain entertainment or profound new ideas from it.
One topic that was not mentioned in this paper is the Coens´ image compositions that are dominated by distances to avoid emotional nearness (Kilzer / Rogall 135). Also the dramatic use of light, the unusual perspectives taken by the camera, and the experiments with the shakicam deserve further investigation.
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Hi there says
“Oye Como Va” is not played during Jesus Quintana’s bit in TBL. It is played on the radio following the Larry Sellers scene. “Hotel California” by the Gypsy Kings is played during Jesus Quintana’s bit.