Thursday, 28 May 2020

The Big Lebowski

Bunny Lebowski Is Missing

The Big Lebowski
USA/UK 1998
Written and Directed by The Coen Brothers
Universal Ltd Edition Blu Ray Book Zone B

I remember the first time I saw The Big Lebowski. It was at the end of April 1998 at the Metro Cinema on Rupert Street in London. The cinema is, sadly, now deceased but I remember I was alone and all through the film I was just in awe of what is, frankly, one of the greatest movie comedies ever committed to celluloid... I just had nobody to talk to about it. When I left I realised that the film was one of those rare beasts that is, as I exclaimed to myself at the time, ‘pure cinema’. This is the kind of amazing spectacle that completely justifies the art of film to anybody who would question the validity of the medium. It blew me away and I pretty much dragged a fair few people to see it over the course of the next month. A truly brilliant piece of magic.

I’ve now just got around to watching a limited edition book set I picked up maybe four or five years ago and, although I haven’t had time to watch the supplementary material (as I rarely do), it is packed to the brim with extras. And, more importantly, the film itself really stands the test of time. From it’s opening narrative from the great Sam Elliot to his address directly to the audience at the end of the picture, the film is a pure joy as we follow the exploits of a week or so in the life of Jeff ‘The Dude’ Lebowski, who is set on a mission by his millionaire namesake to be the ‘delivery guy’ for the ransom of The Big Lebowski’s wife Bunny. A job which turns into a convoluted mess of a plot which is an absolute joy to follow as the overly relaxed and accommodating, Fletch-like character becomes inexplicably embroiled in a bizarre double cross of a blackmail plot which is itself exploited by the potential victim of that plot.

I’ve mentioned Fletch above as perhaps being close kin to certain aspects of the character but perhaps only because of the similarity of the tropes of the genre The Coens are following here. This is pure Raymond Chandler/Dashiel Hammet style, hard boiled detective noir but shot through with a slobby but 'adrenalin rush' jab of broad humour and some nicely surrealistic moments... uniting in a work which is an experience first, a film second.

Played expertly by Jeff Bridges, Lebowski is aided or, frankly, more abetted by his companions Walter and Donnie, played brilliantly by John Goodman and Steve Buscemi. During his adventures he meets more and more bizarre characters played by the likes of Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tara Reade (as Bunny, who was also perfect in the remarkable Josie And The Pussycats), Peter Stormare and John Turturro, who reprised his role earlier this year as ‘Jesus’ in his film The Jesus Rolls.

The plot is not something I’m going to dig into here... it’s a standard mystery with various reveals but it’s totally not important... the film is completely character driven and though it certainly needs a story to tie the whole thing together (just as Lebowski needs his rug to tie his room together) it is the brilliance of the characters, the people who perform then and the witty script which really maketh the movie here. Being as it’s by Joel and Ethan Coen, who I still find a bit hit and miss on their projects, the whole thing looks great too... and no wonder when they’ve got cinematographer Roger Deakins on board. I especially liked the very sharp focus, brightly coloured and contrasted stuff he shoots the second dream sequence, the Gutterballs porn parody, with. It looks fantastic and brings that whole sense of ‘epic’ to the silliness of the premise. This is a work of genius here, make no mistake.

I also love the way the dialogue kind of keeps refuelling itself from scene to scene too. I think the first two or three times I saw this it took a while to sink in but, the more you see it, the more you realise that a lot of Jeff Bridges’ dialogue is culled from things he’s heard other people say in a prior sequence. It’s amazing how somebody will say something to him in one scene and he will then say the exact same phrase he’s picked up to somebody else in a later scene. This kind of eclectic approach to the dialogue is fantastic and, though it’s obviously very rigid in the way it evolves in the writing, Bridges makes it feel so off-the-cuff and natural that... well, as I said, you might not even notice it for a while.

There are a lot of little sly references to other pop culture elements in the film but, with the structure of dialogue and the way the piece folds in on itself by building on its own foundations, some of these do kind of get lost in the mix on first or second viewings and, even if you do spot them, like the various overt shout outs to the TV show Branded (The Dude even sings the theme tune when he’s drunk), they are often fictionalised with, in this case, a fake writer and a ‘way off’ episode count.

Probably my favourite reference, though, is the fact that the nihilists fronted by Peter Stormare, who are among those who give The Dude and his friends such a hard time in the film, were also part of a once famous, fictional ‘euro pop’ group who are so obviously a version of the group Kraftwerk. Even their album cover features a nice parody of exactly the style of 70s/80s artwork the band would use as their front jackets and the name of their group is the name of one of the band’s famous hits, Autobahn.

Oh, saying that I also love the Lenin/Lennon confusion moment with Donnie repeatedly saying... “I am the Walrus.”

And I think I’ll leave it there. I could probably go on to say quite a lot about the movie if I had the time but I don’t want to get into a full blown analysis of every minute of the film on here and, frankly, if you’ve never seen it before, I certainly don’t want to spoil it for you. All I will say is that, despite a mainly needle-dropped soundtrack comprising of songs and only a few minutes of Carter Burwell score, The Big Lebowski is still an absolute masterpiece and, probably still, the greatest movie The Coens ever put together. This is one of those films that deserves another look every seven years or so, for sure. Recommended for absolutely anyone who loves cinema.

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