Monday, November 30, 2015

On The Big Lebowski and The Coen Brothers

John Goodman and Jeff Bridges star in The Big Lebowskithe Coen Brothers' great 1998 neo-noir / male buddy comedy. 

It is strange that I have made it over two years into my film-blogging career without discussing the work of the Coen Brothers at length. I love the Coens' films and regard the fraternal filmmaking duo as one of the greatest American writer-director-producer teams working in the contemporary era.

Earlier this year, a friend asked me on Facebook to comment on The Big Lebowski (1998), doubtless the most cultishly favored film in the Coens' ouvre. While I have seen Lebowski so many times that I am perhaps too familiar, even bored with it, on the whole I love it very much and rate it as one of the Coen Brothers' top three or four movies. I will therefore use Lebowski, a movie I know well, to launch a discussion of the Coens' work more generally.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, the Coens are known for meticulously planning and extensively storyboarding their films, engaging in a labor-intensive pre-production process that allows them to keep production costs down and to produce consistently excellent-quality films. The brothers, Joel and Ethan, have one of the best track records in all U.S. cinema history, cranking out only a very few pictures (The Hudsucker Proxy, The Ladykillers, Burn After Reading) that have been less than jubilantly received.

The Big Lebowski, like all Coen Brothers movies, is a postmodern work, which means that it conveys most of its meaning via references to other, earlier films, film genres, and literary traditions. As Lee Weston Sabo writes, "the Coen brothers have [spent] the bulk of their career turning proud American genre films — the western, the film noir, the gangster thriller, the screwball comedy — into dark, ironic mockeries." In the case of Lebowski, the most important referents are hardboiled detective fiction and film noir, with some elements from Westerns and buddy movies -- and one Busby Berkeley dance number -- tossed in for good measure.

Despite its light, comedic tone and its bearing little aesthetic resemblance to a film noir or neo-noir, Lebowski nevertheless abounds in noir tropes, character types, and plot structures. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is our morally ambiguous detective-protagonist, working to solve a mystery that ultimately has more to do with his personal life than the case at hand. Walter (John Goodman) is Moose Malloy from Murder. My Sweet, the likeable if dimwitted "muscle" who helps our detective out of as many jams as he creates.

"You're not wrong, Walter, you're just an asshole!"

The Big Lebowski's title is a riff on The Big Sleep, the 1939 Raymond Chandler novel whose 1946 Howard Hawks-directed film adaptation looms large in the cycle of classic films noir.* Indeed, many of Lebowski's key characters are direct homages to extremely similar characters in The Big Sleep.

The Big Sleep's wheelchair-bound millionaire Mr. Sternwood . . . 

. . . is the inspiration for The Big Lebowski's Mr. Lebowski (though not visible in this shot, the two characters even wear similar lap blankets). 

Similarly, The Big Sleep's Vivian Rutledge . . .

. . . provides a general analogue for the Coens' Maude Lebowski. 

Besides the film's titular allusion and various structural parallels to The Big Sleep, the Coens slip in some not-so-subtle yet highly amusing winks toward film noir just to make sure we know The Big Lebowski's parodic intentions. One example is The Dude's increasing self-awareness of his "detective" role, evinced in his discussions of "the case" with Lebowski and Brandt in the back of the limousine and later in the film with Maude.

The most overt (and entertaining) inter-textual film noir element in Lebowski is Da Fino (Jon Polito), a sort of parallel figure to The Stranger (Sam Elliott), who represents the Western genre. Da Fino is a 1940s-ish noir gumshoe (though his 1970s Volkswagen is a reference to Blood Simple) who follows The Dude around, ostensibly to track down Bunny Lebowski on behalf of her distraught midwestern parents. But his more significant function is to remind us that The Big Lebowski knows the genres from which it draws and is having a grand old time messing about with and satirizing film noir conventions.

"Brother Shamus" Da Fino (Jon Polito) expresses his admiration for The Dude's detective work. Da Fino "visits" the 1990s world of The Big Lebowski from a 1940s noir, as the music playing on his car radio during this scene makes clear.  

What finally makes The Big Lebowski great fun to watch is not necessarily its witty inter-textual references or deft bricolage of the conventions of several prevalent film genres -- though, as I say, the Coens' genre mashups in Lebowski are, as nearly always, extremely elegant and artful. No, the deepest pleasure to be had from Lebowski or any Coen Brothers film is the incredibly high level of cinematic craft on display, the attention to detail and nuance on every level, the excellent characterization, the obvious love of movies and of the foibles of humanity that shine through even some of their darkest films.

As one of the Coens' lightest and funniest films, The Big Lebowski repeatedly demonstrates their ability to make the technically difficult look natural and effortless. Of course it doesn't hurt that starting one film earlier, with Fargo, the brothers began working with Roger Deakins, one of the greatest living cinematographers. Yet Joel and Ethan, who write, produce, edit, and direct all their films as a collaborative team, are meticulous and extremely well-thought out in how they stage and shoot scenes. There are several long-take three shots of conversations between Dude, Donny, and Walter at the bowling alley that are a marvel to behold. The length of the takes, the fluidity of the camera work, and the sheer confidence of the film's stellar performances really make these scenes shine, but in a way you might not notice at first. The Big Lebowski rewards repeat viewings on the level of formal film craft alone. It is also quite funny and delightful.

If The Big Lebowski has anything "serious" to say, it may be about what kind of masculinity is most needed in troubled times like "the early '90s." In this sense the film belongs to the slacker cycle of buddy comedies that swept through the 1990s, stuff like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989), Dazed and Confused (1993), Clerks (1994), Mallrats (1995), Swingers (1996), Dude Where's My Car (2000), and arguably the commercial apex of them all, American Pie (1999).** These comedies centralize white masculinity, which is problematic, yet they do celebrate slackerish values such as being sensitive to others and favoring peaceful negotiation over violence. "The Dude abides."

Along with Lebowski itself, I would nominate these other films as being among the Coens' very best, maybe approximately in this order (though that's hard to decide):

Steve Buscemi gives a career-topping performance as Carl Showalter in Fargo.

Fargo (1996) is my all-around favorite Coen Brothers film at present, or else it is tied for that honor with A Serious Man. On one level, Fargo is simply a deliciously twisted and darkly comic rural film noir. Yet it is so beautifully realized, and so rich in its characterizations, that it comes across as one of the Coens' most mature, profound, and humanistic works.

has the best soundtrack of any Coen Bros. film -- in fact, Fargo's is one of the great film scores of all time, period. Along a similar line, moments like Marge Gunderson's (Frances McDormand) discussion with Gaear Grimsrud (Peter Stormare) in her police cruiser and Marge and Norm's quiet talk that closes the film represent the Coens at their warmest and most soulful. When they want to, the Brothers Coen can really land scenes like this. Both the "Donny's funeral" scene at the end of The Big Lebowski and Fargo's concluding Marge-Norm conversation make me tear up every time.

In short, Fargo is probably the Coen Brothers' objectively best film, so if you only see one Coen picture, make it this one or one of the noirish ones like Lebowski or Blood Simple.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Larry Gopnik in A Serious Man.

I love A Serious Man (2009) for many of the reasons discussed in Lee Sabo's article about its Jewish-centered humor. Man is one of the Coens' funniest yet most sincere films, a more personal, absurdly sublime work than any other Coen film to date. As Sabo writes,
Fear and laughter are close cousins. I find Friday the 13th unintentionally funny and the lightweight documentary Spellbound positively horrifying, and I know people who thought Fargo was hilarious but stifled their laughter the first time they saw it because other people in the room thought it was “serious.” The Coens hardly see a difference between horror and farce, and if they do, A Serious Man has them in such balance that it’s impossible to separate them.
Indeed. Its near-perfect balance between dark comedy and truly horrific tragedy make A Serious Man the most refined example of the Coens' cinematic worldview. Bleak yet humanistic, alternately hilarious and heart-wrenching, Man is an absurdly Kafkaesque comedy. Indeed, Sabo accurately identifies A Serious Man's Larry Gopnik as a
Kafkan hero, a man who, for reasons never explained, suddenly has horrible things happen to him one after another, with everything getting worse and worse until his life is destroyed. In Kafka’s novels — and the finest adaptation of one of them to the screen, Orson Welles’s The Trial — this typically involves a descent into a surrealistic nightmare world that’s not only as hysterically funny as it is unbearably frightening, but funny precisely because it’s frightening. This is the basic format of A Serious Man (Barton Fink is Kafkaesque, but not as wholly).
Yet all this serious talk does not capture the wry and zany humor that pervades A Serious Man. Ultimately it is a very funny and humanistic film.

Nevertheless, much as I love A Serious Man, I must limit my recommendation of it to viewers who have checked out some of the Coens' other genre pieces first. Serious is a nuanced and ambivalent work, and it is easier to appreciate once one has some familiarity with the Coens' absurdism and dark-comic vibe. Sabo captures this essence when he writes that "the Coens are individualists to the point of eccentricity, but the blunt honesty of A Serious Man makes their earlier work seem insecure and slightly neurotic."

[UPDATE 5/31/2016: Jim Emerson's "Accept Mystery" video, in which the critic explains how "actor Steve Park's single-scene appearances" in Fargo and A Serious Man "provide the keys to those films," is a must-watch for those interested in the Coen brothers and these two films in particular.]

M. Emmet Walsh delivers a standout performance in Blood Simple as unscrupulous private detective Visser. His presence hails back to Walsh's role as the police chief in Bladerunner and his Volkswagen Beetle foreshadows Da Fino's in The Big Lebowski

Blood Simple (1984) is one of my very favorite Coen Brothers movies, a lean and mean neo-noir set in rural Texas. John Getz is fine in the male lead, and Frances McDormand rocks as always, but the real scene-stealers are Dan Hedaya as sleazy club owner Marty and especially M. Emmet Walsh as the delightfully unscrupulous Visser. The great cast, plus razor-sharp plotting and striking use of visual motifs (Dead fish! Lighters! Ceiling fans!) make Blood Simple a pulse-pounding noir thrill ride. Most highly recommended.

[UPDATE 11/24/2016: Especially now that it's been given a Criterion Collection release.]

No Country for Old Men (2007) is a powerful late-career work from the Coens, a darker spiritual successor to Blood Simple. I like No Country's bleak Texas setting. The first half of the film is amazing and, despite some draggy parts once Llewelyn Moss crosses the Mexican border, the movie retains pretty high re-watch value for me. Yet a lot of what makes No Country work is its remarkably chilling central performance by Javier Bardem. I love Josh Brolin's and Kelly Macdonald's work here, but Bardem's portrayal of Chigurh is the greatest highlight of this movie.

Chigurh's narrative centrality in No Country for Old Men is like if Fargo was reworked to focus mainly on Peter Stormare's Geaer Grimsrud. And if the psychopathic Chigurh is Grimsrud 2.0, then similarly, No Country's Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) is our Marge Gunderson figure. No Country can be seen as a reworking of Fargo in which Grimsrud wins and Marge Gunderson loses.

"What business is it of yours where I'm from, friend-o?"

Tonally, No Country is more brutally violent and less well-rounded than Fargo. I highly recommend No Country, but I place it just a nudge behind first-ranked Coen Brothers films like Blood Simple, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, and A Serious Man.

John Turturro as Barton Fink in Barton Fink

Barton Fink (1991) is one of the Coens' most abstract and arty films, yet it also captures their spooky Gothic side better than any other effort. Visually, Barton Fink is most like Miller's Crossing or possibly True Grit, featuring a rich and dark period setting with lots of grit and grotesquerie. Ostensibly about a New York playwright (John Turturro) who moves to L.A. to work as a screenwriter in Golden-Age Hollywood, Fink and the decaying hotel in which it is principally set are both metaphors for something else entirely. By the third act, when an unusual acquaintance of Barton's (John Goodman) goes on a rampage, the line between narrative reality and pure visual symbolism gets very blurry indeed. It is a hard film to explain. But it is also one of the Coens' very best movies, kind of like their Vertigo, a haunting, perfectly interwoven masterpiece that only they could have made. Barton Fink may not be for everyone and probably isn't an ideal first Coen Brothers film to see, but it is an essential one. I highly recommend it to anyone with more than a passing interest in the Coen Brothers' work.

If the films discussed so far constitute the top rung of the Coens' films, the next-highest rung consists of Raising Arizona (1987), Miller's Crossing (1990), and O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000).

Gabriel Byrne as Tommy in Miller's Crossing, the Coen Brothers' darkly comic 1990 gangster film. 

Miller's Crossing was the first Coen Brothers film I ever saw, in the theater no less, and so it will always hold a special place for me. Despite a noirishly convoluted plot, Miller's is at heart a gangster movie, with larger than life characters and outrageous violence. The cast is all simply terrific, with Gabriel Byrne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Jon Polito as particular standouts.

Raising Arizona is clever and funny and even touching at a couple points, yet it is not, for me, among the first tier of the Coens' work. Arizona, a screwball comedy about various folks contending over a kidnapped baby, features uniformly excellent performances, a very amusing soundtrack, and lots of audacious camera work, some of which will remind the Sam Raimi-savvy viewer of the kinetic camera movement in key shots of Evil Dead and Evil Dead II.*** Yet I have never placed this one very high on my personal list of faves. I recognize its greatness and can say nothing concrete against it, it just doesn't speak to me as much as some of the others.

Along similar lines, I enjoy O Brother Where Art Thou? well enough but find it to be less nuanced and interesting than the films that immediately precede it, Fargo and The Big Lebowski. The soundtrack's great, the cinematography is great, and Clooney is fun, but O Brother is not a personal favorite for me.

Then there are the two strangest entries in the Coen ouvre, The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) and True Grit (2008). The thing that makes these two films so unusual is that they are more or less straightforward examples of the genres to which they belong, the film noir and the western respectively. The usual Coen Brothers tendency to mash-up and even parody the genres in which they work is more or less absent in these two films. They are very well made and enjoyable but are the least overtly Coen-esque films the brothers have made (that I've seen).

Lastly, while every Coen Brothers film is surely worth watching at least once, the titles that have recieved the least repeat viewing from me include The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) and Burn After Reading (2010). I appreciate what they're going for in the former yet the upbeat, Capra-esque vibe of Hudsucker just doesn't mesh as well with the Coens' dark-comic style, and its Moses figure (Bill Cobbs), a magical negro, is extremely racist. Burn After Reading is funny and fun and contains some great individual performances by Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, and George Clooney, but overall it's a little too thinly developed and ultimately unmemorable. Sabo calls Burn the Coens' "worst film," arguing that it is not funny or humanistic enough:
Burn After Reading chucks [the screwball comedy's] gleeful optimism out the window in favor of the brothers’ more typical penchant for watching their idiotic characters suffer hopelessly. When Burn After Reading‘s plot does a tumble, it falls off the boat and dies horribly.
I might enjoy horrific, bleak comedy more than the average viewer, but I cannot disagree with Sabo's assessment or place Burn After Reading any higher than third-tier in the rankings.

I have never seen Intolerable Cruelty (2003), The Ladykillers (2004), or Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). I don't plan to see either of the former two, but the critically beloved Llewyn Davis is one I plan to see in the (near) future.

Brandt sez: "That had not occurred to us, Dude."

UPDATE 12/11/2016: Check out this philosophical overview of the Coens' filmography.

* There is much debate over what exactly counts as film noir, some even suggesting that it is, at this point, less a film genre than a mode or style that exists not only (or primarily) in film but across what James Naremore calls the "noir mediascape." (More than Night p. 255). However, there is credible consensus around the idea that the "classic" American film noir cycle begins with John Huston's The Maltese Falcon in 1942 and ends with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958. Anything made after that is referred to as neo-noir (Naremore p. 262). Probably the best succinct rundown of what constitutes film noir (historically and aesthetically) is Paul Schrader's short article "Notes on Film Noir." For those who want a more in-depth treatment, I highly recommend Naremore's terrific More than Night (U. California Press, 2008) -- one of my favorite books!
** Those readers interested in the historical rise and ideological consequences of the geek/slacker comedy cycle should check out "Postmodern Geekdom as Simulated Ethnicity" (co-authored by me and Kom Kunyosying) and my follow-up article "Team Apatow and the Tropes of Geek-Centered Romantic Comedy."
*** A direct line of influence extends from Raimi to the Coens: Joel Coen worked with Raimi as an assistant editor on Evil Dead (1981) and Raimi is said to have helped out on the set of the Coens' Blood Simple.


  1. The Coens are the directors -- or writer-directors -- I would most like to like; I can tell that their films are good, but I find that I bounce off them. Perhaps I just don't understand them, but I will keep on trying, as I haven't seen them all yet.

    The exception is Raising Arizona, which I adore. How I can love that film but none of the others, I do not know.

    I watched Blood Simple for the first time a few days ago -- I have the Zhang Yimou remake but wanted to watch the original first -- and there is one shot in there, early on when Marty turns up at Ray's home, that is identical to the Evil Cam from Evil Dead, so I don't doubt that Raimi worked on that film.

    1. Yeah, I have directors I want to like but whom I bounce off of -- Darren Aronofsky probably tops that list for me. I admire his abilities but his films don't speak to me.

      It actually makes sense to me that you might like ARIZONA even though the Coens' work in general doesn't speak to you -- I see it as a wacky outlier in their body of work. *Maybe* you would like A SERIOUS MAN?

    2. I have seen it, but I don't remember if I liked it or not; that probably suggests I didn't!

  2. The Coen's may not intend all their films to have deeper meanings. Some clearly do (Serious Man, e.g.) I have argued for a long time that Raising Arizona is a serious inspection of the sorry state of parenting in the the modern US. I had not considered your take on Big Lebowski and masculinity. I think you're on to something.