Art is Film
26 February 2010
“All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back”
To the casual viewer The Big Lebowski, a 1998 film written by film maker brothers Ethan and Joel Coen and directed by Joel, would appear to be a comedy rip off of the 1940’s Los Angeles detective film The Big Sleep by Howard Hawks. It features a hippie dropout from the seventies named “the Dude” (Jeff Bridges) who gets caught up with his bowler buddies Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi) in a case of mistaken identity and a search for a presumed kidnap victim. Like Thornhill (Cary Grant) in North by Northwest he becomes a reluctant detective. However, The Dude is the polar opposite of the suave and resourceful Thornhill because he is verbally challenged, bumbling, and unemployed. I will present information that despite the film’s initial lukewarm reception by critics and audiences alike, it should be considered a classic like other movies that were initially overlooked including Annie Hall and North by Northwest. I will make the argument that because of the zany LA based characters, memorable dialogue, innovative narration, creative film elements, and entertaining music and dance; that it is a neo-noir classic that finds more fans as time marches on. Beyond that I will discuss the ideology on greed and social classes that run through the film.
In The Big Lebowski the Coen brothers wanted to explore Los Angeles stereotypes. They had successfully mined characters from their mid-western (Minnesota) roots for their previous Oscar winning independent film Fargo. The Coen’s needed a change of pace form the dark humor and graphic violence of Fargo. The brothers drew from their real life stoner friend Jeff Dowd, who actually called himself the Dude, for the story’s protagonist. Walter, Dude’s odd couple friend and a Vietnam veteran with a military haircut and camouflage attire, was based partly on their uncle Peter, also a Vietnam veteran and rug theft victim who had lamented “that the rug really tied the room together”. This line would be uttered several times throughout the movie by both the Dude and Walter to give some cover to their idiotic actions in pursuit of Bunny and the money. Other plot elements came from their private lives as well; like the homework assignment stuffed in a stolen car that happened to a friend of Uncle Peter’s.(Levine, The Coen brothers: the story of two American filmmakers)
They also wanted to do homage to the author of The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler. The film's overall structure was influenced by the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler. Ethan said, "We wanted something that would generate a certain narrative feeling – like a modern Raymond Chandler story, and that's why it had to be set in Los Angeles ... We wanted to have a narrative flow, a story that moves like a Chandler book through different parts of town and different social classes" ("The Big Lebowski").
They borrowed different elements from the The Big Sleep. As Steve Palopoli points out in his article “Five Things You Didn't Know About 'The Big Lebowski'”,
“The Dude stands in for Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe--both go to the home of a
patriarch in a wheelchair (General Sternwood in Sleep), after which they are eventually
hired to handle the case of a free-spirited young woman (Carmen in Sleep, Bunny in
Lebowski). The uptight butler Brandt in Lebowski replaces uptight butler Norris in Sleep,
while Bunny attempts to seduce the Dude just as Carmen tries to seduce Marlowe (to
which Bogart famously quips, ‘She tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up’”. (Five
Things You Didn't Know About 'The Big Lebowski). The dude’s comparative line to Bunny’s offer to give him felatio for a thousand dollars is “I’m just gonna find a cash machine”.
The movie itself did not fare well with critics or the box office. The Guardian criticized the film as "a bunch of ideas shoveled into a bag and allowed to spill out...
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