Monday, May 14, 2012

D.B.B. watches The Big Lebowski

I finally watched The Big Lebowski from beginning to end. The Coen brothers know their Dashiell Hammett (and they want you to know that they do), and the movie beautifully captures the melancholy and excitement of Raymond Chandler when the Coens want it to.

But all that good stuff takes up about five minutes, and it's not what the Coens are interested in. The rest is cheesy fantasy sequences, stoner humor, pointless zaniness, weird art-house flourishes, and bowling.  I haven't smoked enough dope in my life to get the nuances.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays Smithers to David Huddleston's Montgomery Burns and, in the rare moments when he isn't hamming it up as a repressed nerd, he's stunningly good. The story has a number of plot similarities to The Big Sleep, but the acting more closely resembles the group hamfest of Harper, which also borrows much from The Big Sleep. The Coens love to pepper their movies with references to other movies and to books. Could The Big Lebowski's assemblage of acting tics and shticks be one more such reference?

© Peter Rozovsky 2012

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60 Comments:

Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm sorry you didn't like it. I've seen it about a dozen times (in fact its on my DVR right now) and it only grows for me. I can't really explain the film, it's something you have to feel, its like when Saint Columba tried to explain the concept of the Holy Ghost to the Pictish kings.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I didn't not like it (I never got impatient watching it), but I can't see what all the cultists rave about. I have nothing especially original to say about the Coens. My criticism is the standard ones: They're too clever for their own good. They make collections of good bits rather than coherent movies. They hit viewers over the head.

I know they're talented; the scene in which the Dude figures out what's what with the money is Chandlerlike in the best way, a gorgeous scene. I just wish they'd film a straightforward crime story without all the blowing hats and tumbleweeds and running jokes that run on a bit too long.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Your comedy compass my be broken. You also didnt like Spinal Tap, right? If you didnt like Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Elvis's favourite movie) you may be in trouble.

My take on the big lebwoski here.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

although of course The Thick Of It is a big mark in your favour...

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

"They make collections of good bits rather than coherent movies."

I must respectfully disagree. FARGO, BLOOD SIMPLE, TRUE GRIT, MILLER'S CROSSING and OH BROTHER WHERE ART THOU are among my favorite movies; THE BIG LEBOWSKI is among the few I own. (I even liked BURN AFTER READING and THE MAN WHO WASN'T THERE, though I know Adrian disagrees. I've not seen BARTON FINK and a couple of the other more acclaimed films.) True, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY doesn't quite work (I've not seen THE LADYKILLERS and a few others), but their body of work is as solid as anyone working. based on recent work, I've come to consider the Coen Brothers more reliable than Scorsese.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Cary Watson said...

I agree with Adrian; Lebowski's a film that you have to have a feel for. The appeal for me is that the character of Lebowski is a passive hero. He lives in a world filled with nuts, fanatics, and crooks of various stripes, but he, unlike them, is never trying to cause hurt or harm or impose himself on anyone. The world needs more Lebowskis. If you read Chandler's famous definition of a hero it can, roughly speaking, be applied to Lebowski.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I realize I'm cutting myself from the society of my fellow man, but as much as I love bits of Monty Python, I'm not sure their stuff holds up for the length of a movie.

I remember your comments about the Hammettian overtones in "The Big Lebowski," but I could have done without the nihilists' cheezy Artie Johnson accents. I think I might like reading the script better than I liked watching the movie. What do the accents add? What about dragging Old Man Lebowski from his wheelchair? That's funny, but it's more Adam Sandler than Dashiell Hammett.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Cary, I was thinking about the Lebowski character last night. He's probably the most appealing thing about the movie, and probably the funniest, a protagonist going placidly through the world, unflappable even when thugs burst in while he's smoking a quiet joint in the bath. Someone could build a great movie around such a character but without making all his worldly obstacles into "Laugh-In" sketches the way the Coens do.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana, I half-agree with you. "O, Brother" is not a collection of bits, it's a pretentious mess, maybe the most overrated movie of my time. I loved "Fargo," on the other hand, but the Coens generally impress me not so much with their style, but rather by the degree to which they so obviously want to impress viewers with their style.

You mentioned "The Ladykillers"; (an awful, unnecessary remake) Adrian mentioned "The Thick of It" (great). The connection is that Peter Capaldi, who plays the foul-mouthed political string-puller Malcolm Tucker in "The Thick of It" also played the Alec Guinness role in a recent stage version of "The Lady Killers."

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I mentioned the nihilists' cheesy Artie Johnson accents. Could the particular slang term they chose for Schwantz be another tribute?

May 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Peter, if you haven't already seen it, I'd recommend you checking out their first film, 'Blood Simple', not least for M. Emmett Walsh's wonderfully slimy hit man characterisation

May 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

.....and I agree with you about the truly horrible 'Ladykillers' remake
'Riaising Arizona' is probably my favourite of theirs; 'Barton Fink', and 'Blood Simple' also recommended.
'No Country...' is good, too

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I saw "Blood Simple" years ago, on a big screen, no less. I should probably watch it again before I pass sentence.

I think "Raising Arizona" was the first Coen brothers movie that got wide attention. I wanted to see it, and I don't remember why I didn't. I do remember that one of the Coens had a funny answer to a question about the crawling babies that they kept around as extrs. When one of them started walking during filming, "We fired him immediately."

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian: Before you go insulting my comedy compass, remember that I love Wodehouse, S.J. Perelman, Woody Allen when he was funny, and Ernst Lubitch. I know which way my needle is pointing.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Peter, I liked The Big Lebowski, although I found watching the movie twice in the fourteen years since it came out perfectly adequate exposure to it. I understand the movie has brought out something equivalent to an obsessive compulsive disorder in some people. I find that peculiar. The movie's good but it's not that good.

I believe the American psychiatric profession is currently revising its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Perhaps, we should try and persuade them to include the Big Lebowski Syndrome in DSM-V.

It would be an uphill task, of course. This particular syndrome is limited to a small number of people, most of whom belong to the lower socio-economic groups. Not exactly the kind of thing likely to excite your average psychiatrist intent on making a pile of money.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, I don't know that the folks attracted to The Big Lebowski necessarily live The Dude's life. Maybe they just wish they did.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter's right. The Big Lebowski, (like all the Coens' films, s far as I'm concerned), is highly overrated. I've almost immediately forgotten their films (the ones I've seen; everybody said I had to see Miller's Crossing--crikey! I'd rather watch Alan Ladd in The Glass Key again than MC--due to its overt Hammett thefts), after one viewing and have never wanted to see any of them a second time. Their excessive self-consciousness ("Look, Ma! We're making a movie!") and "Alert! Alert! Message-and-or-clever-schtick ahead!" (I envision pointing arrows around the screen's edges) style leaves me stone cold. Strictly for the auteur cultists and film theory crowd.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

Maybe you could give us an example of a director who isn't self conscious and of films that don't leave you stone cold...

May 14, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

And maybe you need to be Irish and a fan of black humour to enjoy this:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAnD9P4ummA

But it always cheers me up.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, you betcha! However, they all date from the 1910s-1940s. Does that count? I know I'm in a tiny minority who think filmmaking has gone downhill since the 1970s.

I'll pick one (or maybe 2 or more) at random (no research other than exact date) from each of those decades. They aren't the most praised, the most written about, but none of them feature self-conscious auteurship and none of them leave me cold.

Cecil B. DeMille's Kindling, 1915. If your only experience of DeMille is his very self-conscious talkies, try some of his silents. Some, like Kindling, are worlds apart from his sound-era output. The 1910s vie with the 1930s for my favorite decade of filmmaking.

F.W. Murnau's The Last Laugh, 1924.

The 1930s is the hardest because about 10 films are jostling for position in my brain right now. Films from this decade that I can watch over and over include: The Awful Truth, (Leo McCarey), Dodsworth (William Wyler), It Happened One Night (Frank Capra), The Public Enemy, (William Wellman).

1940s. Air Force, Howard Hawks; Shadow of a Doubt, Alfred Hitchcock.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

No thats cheating. You have to man up and pick a few from the last 40 years.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

"Raising Arizona" is part slapstick, part live action cartoon, so whether or not they're clever doesn't really come into it: if you normally can't stand Nicolas Cage, you needn't worry: he won't bother you here.

You might well see some of M.Emmett Walsh's best scenes on YouTube, but give 'Blood Simple' another look

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, OK, OK. But I can't do that off the top of my head. I'll have to get back to you after I do some remind-me online research...

I can tell you that the film I've probably found most satisfying recently (recent being the last 2 years) was Barney's Version, Richard Lewis. It has stuck with me long after the initial viewing. The only overtly self-consciousness coming from Dustin Hoffman (but then he's a product of the Dark Decade of Filmmaking, the 1960s). The novel by Mordecai Richler (read subsequently) was even better. I bought a hardback, dust-jacketed copy of the novel and the DVD. I buy very few DVDs.

While typing this, I thought of another. Wings of Desire, 1987, Wim Wenders.

I'll think of more, I promise!

May 14, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Elisabeth, I agree about 'Miller's Crossing': too self-conscious, and even precious, - by half.
Although it was funny seeing Gabriel Byrne always getting knocked about, - almost in the manner of Curly of 'The Three Stooges'.

My fellow Clonmelman, Frank Patterson's, singing almost redeeemed it

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

Nice selection of movies, Elisabeth. I watched The Last Laugh recently (on YouTube) and loved it. No dialogue, no intertitles (apart from one). Amazing. Although the German title is more appropriate than the American one and Jannings is sometimes over the top. I liked Pandora's Box, as well, from a a few years later.

Have you seen The Old Dark House, a James Whale directed horror comedy from 1932? I came across that on YouTube a while back and thought it was hilarious.

It was Charles Laughton's first Hollywood movie and while he's good in it, other English actors like Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore are even better. It's even got a snatch of Singing In The Rain in it.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian,

1960s = Lawrence of Arabia. One of the most perfect films ever made because it uses all the elements of filmmaking that make the medium distinct from all others. And the actors and landscape tell the story, NOT the director; pretty amazing for a larger-than-life epic.

1970s = probably the most overrated decade in (American) film history. I'll opt for Star Wars, Part IV. Possibly the most exhilarating movie experience of my life. Is it a great film? Of course not. But, man, it was fun.

Wings of Desire will have to stand as my only 1980s choice.

1990s = Dances with Wolves. I'm reaching here but I just don't like that many films from the 1980s/1990s. Maybe this is on my list because I can't believe Kevin Costner was capable of something like it.

2000s = Gladiator. Again, I'm really reaching here. But this was a heck of a lot of fun and I'm a Russell Crowe groupie from way back. And it was made for the big screen, unlike so many non-CGI'd-to-death movies today.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

solo, Yes, the German title is more appropriate. I love Murnau but some of his films are deliberately self-conscious (and I had to shy away from those for Adrian). Including the beautiful, dreamy Sunrise and the Expressionist Nosferatu.

I have seen Whale's Old Dark House on our Turner Classic Movies. I wanted to like it more than I did. Speaking of Whale, I saw his Frankenstein in the beautifully restored "Pueblo Deco" KiMo Theatre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last Friday. Had never seen it on the big screen (really went to see the theater's interior). Those early talkies with their almost music-free soundtracks are rather eerie.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Their excessive self-consciousness ("Look, Ma! We're making a movie!") and "Alert! Alert! Message-and-or-clever-schtick ahead!" (I envision pointing arrows around the screen's edges) style ...The Big Lebowski. For all the film-school artiness, the moment Jeff Bridges' characters realizes that he's been played for a fool captures what I think of as Chandlerian melancholy emptiness. That's the one moment in the movie that rises to the level of all the mid-twentieth-century hard-boiled predecessors to which the brothers pay such self-conscious tribute elsewhere.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger adrian mckinty said...

Elisabeth

Dances With Wolves.


The defence rests, your honour.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Aw, geez, Elisabeth, as much as you and I are of one mind as regards the Coens, I thought "Gladiator" was shite.

I like the scene you posted from "Miller's Crossing," though it was a bit long, and I've lost patience with that standard (and, from what I read, inaccurate) depiction of machine-gun fire.

Finally, I'm sure your Adrian will appreciate a scene whose soundtracks includes a line that gave the title for one of his books.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Adrian, Peter. Look, guys, I told you I was reaching for films of the 1980s-2010s that "didn't leave me cold." I'm not saying that Dances with Wolves and Gladiator are great, significant, important films. They are not. But I do believe they meet the criteria for unselfconsciousness. And I've seen each of them twice.

I just think the 1910s-1940s are the most significant decades in the history of film. We could, of course, argue this point ad infinitum.

Peter, I didn't post that clip. Was it TCK?

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

the moment Jeff Bridges' characters realizes that he's been played for a fool captures what I think of as Chandlerian melancholy emptiness.

OK, I'll grant you that, Peter, but it ain't worth the price of admission or the film's worshipful following.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Although it was funny seeing Gabriel Byrne always getting knocked about...

TCK:

I like running jokes, and I wrote about one favorite here, thought it was in a novel rather than a movie. But here, too, the Coens should rein in their instinct to show off.

A repeated joke runs the risk of tedium; why the hell should you show readers or viewers what they've already seen or heard? James McClure fights that tendency, in part my abbreviating the joke a little each time he uses it.

Not so the Coens. I don't know how many times John Goodman's character tells Steve Buscemi's to shut up in The Big Lebowski, but there's no McClure-like abbreviation or modulation or variation. It's just the same line, over and over, mildly amusing the first few times and, to me, veering close to annoying thereafter.

And what's the reason for the "Shut up" line? I read one comment somewhere that it's a reference to Buscemi's talkative character from another movie. Self-reference is fine, but shouldn't it have some function other than to call attention to itself?

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, you're right. It was Adrian who posted that clip. His comment incorporated a comment you had posted that included your name. Hence the confusion. But I still recommend Dead I Well May Be.

May 14, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

the moment Jeff Bridges' characters realizes that he's been played for a fool captures what I think of as Chandlerian melancholy emptiness.

OK, I'll grant you that, Peter, but it ain't worth the price of admission or the film's worshipful following.

Well, the film did not do all that well on initial release and attained what some think of as a cultlike status. Whether its partisans regard it more indulgently because of this, I don't know.

I only wanted to say that the brief moments of beautiful filmmaking make the surrounding schtuss and narishkeit all the more frustrating.

May 14, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

But I still recommend Dead I Well May Be. Peter, Huh? You know I love this book; am always recommending it.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth, I vaguely remember you mentioning that you liked the book, though that could just be the power of suggestion.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Surely most great directors are self-conscious and may even enjoy their own jokes. Hitchcock and Lubitsch certainly did, and even Howard Hawks would have a window mullion casting symbolically cruciform shadows now and then. I have no theory about what distinguishes this sort of thing from Coenian blowing hats, but it surely has something to do with how well the flourish fits the story that surrounds it.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Elisabeth: Interesting that a number of the movies you've cited, from different eras in film history, are sprawling megaproductions. Perhaps such movies leaves little room for precious artistic flourishes.

And then there's D.W. Griffith, one of the early spectacle-makers but also noted in movie history for his intelligent use of close-ups. That's what great artists do, I guess. They can work at any scale.

May 15, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, I love D.W. Griffith. Yes, I know he's persona non grata in our PC age but so many of the devices we take for granted, don't even think about, in filmmaking were pioneered by him. Including, as you noted, close-ups. Also cross-cut editing (revolutionary for its time), sequences shot from moving vehicles, etc. The silent film festival in Pordenone screened all his extant films over a period pf years so I've seen most of them, feature length and short.

May 15, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Peter, "sprawling megaproductions" are only possible in motion picture making; perhaps they tend to stand out in my mind (when put on the spot as I was) because this is what distinguishes film from the theater, books, etc.

Oh, sure, John Ford's careful framing of shots might seem self-conscious to a film buff, but to the general viewer, they are just part of what makes so many of his films so memorable. Even if Joe Viewer can't explain why.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

A film course I took years ago included his shorts "The Lonedale Operator" and "A Corner in Wheat." I've still never seen his feature films beginning to end.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Right on Ford and those great shots of Monument Valley (or the smaller but equally self-conscious and equally memorable one of doors framing John Wayne).

May 15, 2012  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Ah, A Corner in Wheat. Great symbolism. My favorite feature length Griffith might be the sensitive, intimate Broken Blossoms. Intolerance has so many Los Angeles connections that I'm fond of it, too.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I should see if Netflix stocks any of these now that I no longer have easy access to a good video store.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

"Peter, "sprawling megaproductions" are only possible in motion picture making"

Or in Russian novels.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, I'm lukewarm on Cage. To me he looks like he has heartburn all the time. So maybe I'll finally give Raising Arizona a try.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Dana King said...

Adrian,

I checked out the Miller's Crossing clip. That's a great scene, so long as you don't mind the endless magazines.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

Elizabeth and solo, I wasn't too crazy about 'The Old Dark House', but I loved another early horror which starred Laughton, 'The Island of Lost Souls', which had the added bonus of another great non-Dracula role for Bela Lugosi
(I only saw it for the first time, a couple of months back with the release of the Criterion label DVD)

And I finally discovered where 70's 'punk' group Devo came up with the refrain for their classic, 'Jocko Homo'

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana:

"Endless magazines?" I thought. "No one is reading anything in the scene." Then I realized what you meant. It's what I had in mind with my complaint about the scene's (from what I have read) inaccurate handling of machine guns. Well, that and the flames shooting from the gun barrels and the body lurching endlessly as it's riddled with bullets. Cut the bloody homages already and get to it, boys.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

TCK, Elisabeth: I shall use your comment as a reference. I've signed up with Netflix's streaming-movie service, and its list seems to be severely limited. But one can hope it will expand.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Oh, and solo, too. I like the idea of a horror comedy.

May 15, 2012  
Anonymous solo said...

TCK, I'm afraid I've only seen The Island of Lost Souls in a really bad print, and my judgement of the movie is hopelessly compromised by that fact. From what I could see it had tons of athmosphere, good lighting and good direction. But the 'acting' by Richard Arlen is the worst I've ever seen in a major studio picture. And as I think Elisabeth was suggesting last night it's one of those early talkies that could really have used a proper musical score.

I've never been sure about Charles Laughton. Sometimes he's utterly brilliant, sometimes he's totally over the top, and often he's both at the same time. Maddening fecker.

I wish he had got to direct more movies, though. I can't help thinking he got such a great performance out of Robert Mitchem in Night of the Hunter because he persuaded Mitchum to overplay rather than underplay. In other words, to be more like Laughton than Mitchum.

We old movie fans may seem to be off topic here but I don't think we are. I really loved The Old Dark House and both Elisabeth and TCK were underwhelmed by it. That perfectly mirrors the differences in opinion about The Big Lebowski.

As you have frequently said, Peter, tastes differ but when it comes to comedy tastes differ to the power of ten. In all likelihood, even your biological twin will disagree with you about what makes a good comedy.

And, Peter, The Old Dark House is on YouTube. Maybe next Halloween if you're looking for something to watch you might check it out. You mentioned running gags recently. I think any movie that can make a running gag of the line 'Have a potato' is a damn fine movie.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like "Have a potato."

Laughton, Laughton. Offhand, I remember seeing him in "Rembrandt," "Jamaica Inn," and "The Big Clock." He was fine in the latter two, even in the weird "Jamaica Inn," and no star in a biopic can ever have looked more like the person he was portraying than Laughton did like the middle-aged Rembrandt.

In re comedies and taste, you'll have seen that Adrian and I agree to disagree on "The Big Lebowski," but are soundly pro-"The Thick of It" and P.G. Wodehouse. De gustubus non disputandum est and all that.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger The Celtic Kagemusha said...

I remember when I was a very young lad and thinking that Charles Laughton actually looked like Quasimodo; it took me a while to figure out that he wasn't actually a hunchback.

I used to have nightmares about Lon Chaney's 'Phantom': who was his dentist??

May 15, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

There was probably more to Laughton than good makeup. He was a commendably pliable actor who could inhabit his makeup.

May 15, 2012  
Blogger pattinase (abbott) said...

I think it would be a great disadvantage to go into this film with high expectations--thinking that it's going to be about more than it is. It might have more in common with Ridgemont High than classic noir films. It's a film where low, or even better, no expectations will serve you well. And it helps to love Jeff Bridges.

May 16, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Patti, that may an apt comparison, though I haven't seen "Ridgemont High." I'm not sure the Lebowski cultists would agree, though.

Bridges' performance was pretty good. As I remarked above, I'd love to see a movie based on a Dude-like character, but without all the Coenian gimmicks.

May 16, 2012  
Anonymous Howard Shrier said...

Peter, I'm a huge Coen Brothers fan, but am also in the minority who didn't love the Big Lebowski. One viewing was enough. Give me Blood Simple anyday over this one.

May 22, 2012  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

My mother liked "The Big Lebowski," or at least John Goodman's character's being unable to bowl because he was shomer Shabbos.

By odd coincidence, I've been reading Dashiell Hammett, and just today I came upon the passage in Red Harvest where the Op complains to Dinah Brand that he fears he's losing his mind with all the killings -- that's he's going blood-simple. That was probably the first of the Coens' many Hammett borrowings.

May 22, 2012  

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