Is The Big Lebowski a Masterpiece?
September 24, 2013
(The shortened opening is shown. NC is sitting at his computer, looking up the "That Guy With the Glasses" website; he is looking up "Renegade Cut - The Layers of Lebowski". Becoming rather puzzled, he pushes play on the video)
Leon Thomas (vo): The Big Lebowski is a 1998 comedy written and directed by the Coen Brothers. (NC sits there, looking thoughtful) But there are more layers to peel back, and much of their work is meant to be a greater commentary on other things beyond bowling and bad porno movies. The Big Lebowski is also a film about both literal and figurative castration. (NC's eyes widen in surprise) When one says, "figurative castration", it means the idea of a man feeling as if he is losing the qualities that he believes makes him a man. Walter [Sobchak] sees himself as manly, toting around firearms and talking about war service, but he is still a complete servant to his ex-wife–
(NC pauses the video, then looks toward the camera)
NC: Is– Is The Big Lebowski a masterpiece?
(Cut to footage of the film. The library track "Tender Affair" by Mike Sunderland plays throughout)
NC (vo): After premiering in 1998, this Coen Brothers comedy has gone from underground art house film to cult classic status. Growing a big following over the years, particularly with college students, The Big Lebowski has sparked...
(Cut to a shot of Walter Sobchak with the phrase "Am I the only one around here who knows how to change the toilet paper roll?")
NC (vo): ...memes...
(Cut to an image of the cover of Adam Bertocci's book "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski")
NC (vo): ...books...
(Cut to filmed footage of a convention where people cosplay as Lebowski characters and put on various sketches based on the film)
NC (vo): ...hell, even conventions based on the bizarre circumstances surrounding Jeffrey Lebowski.
The Dude: The Dude.
(Footage of the film resumes)
NC (vo): This hasn't shocked me that much, as I found the film entertaining from day one. It was always kinda that weird but cool flick you'd introduce to new friends for a surreal laugh. But since it's grown in popularity, people have been reading a lot more into it.
(Images of various books on the analysis of the film pop up, such as "Lebowski 101", "The Big Lebowski and Philosophy", and "I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski, and What Have You")
NC (vo): There's literature analyzing its philosophies and meanings.
(Cut to an image about Lebowski Studies)
NC (vo): I had a professor whose lineup of films, along with (shot of...) Citizen Kane and (shot of...) Apocalypse Now, was (shot of...) Big Lebowski.
(Cut to footage of the Renegade Cut of the movie)
NC (vo): And yes, even some of our video series like Renegade Cut put their own unique interpretation about what the film means.
NC: Which, of course, begs the question, does it mean anything? And is it even worth spending the time to figure out if it means anything?
NC (vo): The story about a lazy, unemployed bowler who gets mixed up in a kidnapping plot sounds like it has a lot going on. He has a psychotic Vietnam vet for a friend; a crazy competitor named Jesus; an artist who has randomly selected him to be the sperm daddy of her child; (The Dude does a spit take in reaction) her father, who's a millionaire with the same name, who wants him to go after his kidnapped wife who's half his age; the German nihilists who kidnapped her; the head of a pornographic industry; a whole bunch of crazy-ass characters! And what does this all add up to? Pretty much nothing. Yeah, most people either have a lesson, a moral, a story arc, something that the character goes through to show some kind of change. But here, stuff just kinda happens and... then it just kinda stops. But, to the film's credit, that's where a lot of the surreal comedy comes in. Oh, don't get me wrong; there's other funny things in the movie, like the dream sequences, the blowups, conversations that seem more focused on wasting time rather than furthering anything. But what makes this movie stand out from other movies is that, you're waiting to see what it's all adding up to, and it's never really revealed. We've seen other films that been declared a giant waste of time, but why is it everyone says this one is so good? What did this film do different that those films couldn't?
NC: Well, to help figure out that distinction, I decided to compare it to another Coen Brothers film that pretty much seems to be about nothing, Burn After Reading.
(Cut to footage of Burn After Reading)
NC (vo): This film is very similar, in that it has a lot of big events and a lot of big characters, but ultimately adds up to very little.
(Cut back to The Big Lebowski briefly before returning to Burn After Reading)
NC (vo): So why is Big Lebowski remembered and celebrated more than this? Well, for one, everything builds on top of each other and are connected in Burn After Reading, even if it's building up to the punchline that nobody learns anything because there's probably nothing to learn.
CIA Superior: What did we learn, Palmer? (Palmer doesn't answer) I guess we learned not to do it again.
Palmer: Yes, sir.
CIA Superior: Well, fucked if I know what we did.
(Cut back to The Big Lebowski)
NC (vo): But in Big Lebowski, so many things could have been cut from the movie, and it wouldn't have affected anything important to the structure. The fantasies? Could've been cut. That talk with the cop? Could've been cut. Donny's death? Could've been cut. Half the conversations? Good lord! The first one among the friends could be told in two lines: "I think that guy with the same name as you should replace your rug." "You're right!" And that's it, this scene could've been over in a couple seconds! But look how long it takes them to get around to that!
Walter: This was of value, Donny?
The Dude: My rug.
Walter: Were you listening to the Dude's story, Donny?
The Dude: Walter?
Walter: Were you listening to the Dude's story?
Donny: I was bowling.
Walter: So you have no frame of reference here, Donny. You're like a child who wanders into the middle of a movie and wants to know–
The Dude: (interrupting) Walter, Walter! What's the point, man?
Walter: There's no reason. Here's my point, Dude: there's no fucking reason why these two–
Donny: Yeah, Walter, what's your point?
NC (vo): It's not even a matter of ending the conversation as freakin' starting the conversation! Even the narrator doesn't seem to really know what he's talking about at the very beginning.
Narrator: Sometimes there's a man... I won't say a hero, 'cause, what's a hero? But sometimes, there's a man. And I'm talkin' about the Dude here. But sometimes there's a man... Sometimes, there's a man... Wow. Lost my train of thought here.
NC (vo): That's setting the film's tone, and even he kind of doesn't give a shit.
Narrator: Aw, hell. I've done introduced him enough.
(Cut to Burn After Reading again)
NC (vo): Another big difference is that in Burn After Reading, while it is a complicated plot, we do see, or at least hear, what happens to every story that has begun. They all have some sort of conclusion.
(Cut back to The Big Lebowski)
NC (vo): With Big Lebowski, a lot of these have no resolution. Whatever happened to the kid who stole the car? Why did he steal the car to begin with? Does the Dude ever get his rug back? What happens with Maude in trying to get pregnant? Did Bunny ever pay back Jackie Treehorn? And if not, where does that go? Are they ever gonna do another bowling tournament that was built up so much but then randomly dropped by Walter's religious day of rest?
Walter: Shomer Shabbos!
NC (vo): The list goes on! So, in a way, Big Lebowski is more unique, because...
(Cut briefly to Burn After Reading, before returning to Big Lebowski)
NC (vo): ...unlike Burn After Reading, where the payoff is building up to nothing, this one doesn't even fully have the buildup. Half the situations just stop before they can even start to really get going. In most other narratives, this would be seen as very sloppy storytelling.
(Cut to an episode of Siskel and Ebert's review show, where they talk about this movie)
NC (vo): And there's definitely critics out there that say it is here, too.
Gene Siskel: I just thought they were so obviously written, particularly in Jeff Bridges' character as this Dude type.
(Cut back to The Big Lebowski)
NC (vo): But for others, what makes these strange situations that just sort of start and stop at random so interesting is the reactions from the Dude. I remember actually starting to laugh as the film was wrapping up. I said to myself, "Is that really it? You're not gonna resolve any of these other stories that you started? You're just gonna end with 'The Dude abides?'"
The Dude: Well... the Dude abides.
NC (vo): But then, when I looked at the whole thing, that did seem to make the most sense. It doesn't matter to us what happens in all these other situations, because it doesn't matter to him. To a lot of people, in a strange way, the Dude is sort of the perfect balance of living a happy life. I know that sounds strange, but, like I said, (an image of the cover of "The Big Lebowski and Philosophy" pops up) there's books written about this. But really think about it: he doesn't ignore everything that's going on around him, he gets angry, he gets involved, he fights back. I mean, hell, he doesn't want to see someone die because of him.
The Dude: They're gonna kill that poor woman, man!
Walter: What the fuck are you talking about?
NC (vo): But at the same time, his goal seems to be just live comfortably with his own needs, even if those needs are just of a lazy, jobless bum. He clearly doesn't care what people think of him. I mean, I don't know how many people would have a picture of Nixon bowling or proclaim how much they hate the Eagles.
The Dude: I had a rough night and I hate the fucking Eagles, man!
(The cab he is in pulls over abruptly and sharply)
Cab driver: (yanking the Dude out) Out of my fucking cab!
NC (vo): Yeah, you throw that asshole out of your cab! Fuck him, you little hater! But he still has a moral center. At least, enough to care when someone he knows is gonna get hurt. He's found what he's wanted to do, discovered a way to make it work, embraced it, and fed off the rewards that wouldn't satisfy most people his age, but seems to satisfy him. He's clearly offered nothing to the world and has shown no responsibility to it, but he's also managed a way to keep happy without ever hurting anyone. Truth be told, that's probably why so many college students enjoy this film, not only because it's funny, but because it celebrates tranquility in simplicity, as well as a shit-ton of laziness. The Dude is a terrible role model in terms of forming your goals and finding out how to achieve them, but I think you could argue he is a good role model in showing how to appreciate the goals you have accomplished, even if they are few. With a world building us up for great progress and great things that we want to achieve, very few people ever actually achieve what they were aiming for.
Kieffer: It's not fair!
Walter: FAIR?! Who's the fucking nihilist around here, you bunch of fucking crybabies?!
NC (vo): So here's a character that obviously set his goals and standards pretty low. He is pathetic, he is a loser, but at least he's content with that. And that seems to be the glue that keeps the movie afloat. Like I said before, you can take out so many of the strange elements in the story and wouldn't really affect much, but what you can't take out is the Dude himself. His reactions is what holds it together: how he accepts, challenges, or doesn't even acknowledge the problems that are put before him. I guess, in an odd way, that does kind of make this film a masterpiece, because no other film has accomplished this in such a bizarre way, and with such a strong, long-term acceptance of it. I can't think of any other movies really like this that follow such a strange, bizarre structure, but still kind of works. While others will no doubt bring their own interesting interpretations on the film's meaning and relevance, the one thing you can't deny through any of those interpretations is that he's gonna be what makes this movie last for years and still have people talking about it in the future. So yeah, despite his more than obvious faults, he has found something that can be strangely admired, and in his own unique way. He's discovered how to strive for very little, achieve very little, yet be content with very little. He did it because he wanted to and not because anybody else told him. Hell, who the hell would? He's selfish and disgusting, but he's still happy with who he is, and bugging no one in the process. And that's something to appreciate and also talk about. And if bad things from the world come in to challenge his way of life, he does what any strange yet wise, happy person would do: he abides.
Stranger: I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that.
(Cut back to the NC)
NC: I'm the Nostalgia Critic... and I don't know which Lebowski quote to end with.
(Cut briefly back to The Big Lebowski)
Walter: Donny, you're out of your element!
(Cut back to the NC again)
NC: Sure. (takes a sip of beer) Ah! That morning White Russian's always the best. (smiles)
(The credits roll)