Showing posts with label Big Lebowski. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Big Lebowski. Show all posts

17 March 2023

Il Grande Lebowski—and beyond

My fellow SleuthSayer Bob Mangeot recently shared a marvelous post about a film that is currently celebrating its 25th Anniversary. It’s the only cult film that I can say I truly obsess about, but I will admit that my experience of it is a little strange. Or shall I say, un po’ strano.

The year was 2003. I had left the United States to live overseas with my new fiancĂ©, who covered soccer for ESPN abroad and had an apartment in Rome. My Italian was so rusty that local television was an exhausting blur. Luckily, Denise had bought a number of DVDs of popular American movies at a local DVD shop, and we spent our evenings watching those—again and again and again—after switching off the subtitles and reverting the audio back to the original English dialogue. No matter what we did, however, we could not shut off the Italian subtitles of a film called Il Grande Lebowski.

I remembered seeing the film in a US theater when it arrivated in 1998. And while I’d enjoyed it, I did not rush to see it again or acquire the DVD when it was released to the home market. As a result, I never really comprehended just how much a debt the film owed to Raymond Chandler.

But now I did, and in my new temporary home, this very American film unwittingly became my window to another culture. I boned up on my Italian by ceaselessly watching the same Coen Brothers film and slowly associating the English words I heard the actors say with the Italian phrases printed at the bottom of the screen. Over time, my Italian got good enough that I could spot when an American idiomatic expression was rendered poorly in Italian. For example, the nickname of Jeff Bridges’s stoner character, the Dude, is somewhat mistranslated as Il Drugo, but that monicker sorta, kinda makes sense. (As do the other nicknames Drugo suggests in the film: Drughetto, Drugantibus, or Drughino.)

When we returned to the states and settled in the American south, we were delighted to find that we lived not far from Louisville, Kentucky, which hosts an annual LebowskiFest, featuring lookalike contests, bowling tournaments, live music, and two days of tempting merch. One year, we booked travel and lodging, only to cancel when a crop of unexpected freelance work popped up on our radar. Similar fan events are held in other cities, but we’ve never gone. It’s something I hope to do one of these days, but it’s not like I haven’t had my fill of accumulating Lebowski-themed swag.

For many years, the official artist of the Fest has been the LA-based Bill Green, whose style is truly inventive and wonderful. A signed poster of Maude Lebowski (played by Julianne Moore) hangs prominently in our living room, flanked by three bowling pins that Mr. Green has lovingly decorated with a hand-drawn image of the characters. (Three points to the astute reader who can tell me why Maude Lebowski is depicted upside down on one of these pins.) You can find more of Mr. Green’s artwork at his website.

A few years ago, the organizers of LebowskiFest released I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski, a book of interviews with the actors from the original film. And when some college profs approached them, saying they’d like to present some academic papers about the film at the next fest, the organizers accommodated them, though they admitted that they had no idea this was something brainier fans of the film did in their spare time. The result of these papers is a book entitled The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies. Before you run out to grab this title, understand that it is a collection of truly academic writing. I love Il Drugo with a passion, but I could not keep up with the writing that flowed from the pens of deconstructionists. Turns out, I don’t need to know the meaning of the word metonym. I passed the book along to a friend with tenure in an English department.

Another writer, Adam Bertocci, later weighed in with a much more palatable book entitled Two Gentlemen of Lebowski, in which every line of the Coen Brothers’ script has been rendered as if penned by the Bard. When two thugs burst into the Dude’s shabby apartment and stumble across his bowling ball, the exchange goes like this:

Thug: (extracting bowling ball from a bag): What the f— is this?

The Dude: Obviously you’re not a golfer.

In Shakespearese, the dialogue goes this way:

Thug: Villainy! Why this confounded orb, such as men use to play at ninepins; what devilry, these holes in holy trinity?

Dude: Obviously thou art not a colfer.

The pages of this book are liberally sprinkled with footnotes and etchings that shed light on Elizabethan phrases, history, and culture. I really enjoyed it, and I rooted for a local theater group in our city that wanted to mount this as a production one year. They were put off the plan only when no one could figure out how they could get the performance rights.

Somewhere in my basement is the ultimate prize—a giant one-sheet movie poster of the Italian film. I dream of showing it off someday. I just need a hunk of wall big enough to display it.

Until I buy a new house, until I demo a corner of the living room, until I build a new wall, I’ll have to make do with my assortment of tiny Lebowski bumper stickers.

As the Dude might say, until then, Il Giuseppe abides.

* * *

See you in three weeks!


Bowling Pins by artist Bill Green.

Swag by artist Bill Green.

11 March 2023

25 Years Later: Decoding The Big Lebowski

What makes a crime story? A crime, sure, but that can infer a creative box, as if the crime might ultimately confine the story. Not so. A crime story can do anything, given the ambition. 

Consider The Big Lebowski (1998), released 25 years ago this month. Even if you've never seen the oddball classic, you know the main character: The Dude (Jeff Bridges). And if the movie confounded you, you're not alone. Nobody confounds like the Coen brothers.


Actually, nobody else could've made The Big Lebowski. No Hollywood newbie could've sold a script this indulgent in directorial conceits and character asides. By 1998, though notches on the Coens' belt included Raising Arizona, Miller's Crossing, and the Oscar-winning Fargo.

The Big Lebowski comes disguised as subverted L.A. noir. That's not clear in the opening scenes, with the Dude sniffing milk and the voiceover narration. But resketch Acts One and Two to include the off-camera action, and themes will sound familiar:

  1. Jeffrey "Big" Lebowksi is a philanthropist statesman of the L.A. Chamber of Commerce set. In reality, he married well and stinks at business. His daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), controls the wealth through a family trust. Big's trophy wife, Bunny, is causing him epic grief by sleeping around and piling up gambling debts to pornographer Jackie Treehorn.
  2. Treehorn sends goons to collect from Big, but the goons mistakenly barge in on unemployed stoner Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. A rug is soiled. 
  3. Bunny disappears.
  4. Uli, an ex-Europop nihilist and Bunny's co-star in a Treehorn low-budget production, senses opportunity. Uli and his crew send Big a ransom note for $1,000,000, despite having no idea where Bunny actually went.
  5. Big senses a similar opportunity. Bunny has disappeared before, after all. She might be playing him for another payout. Big finagles a $1,000,000 withdrawal from the Lebowski trust to fund the ransom--which he pockets instead. He prepares a drop bag loaded with old papers.
  6. Big needs a fall guy for cash sure to be missed. Stealing a replacement rug from his mansion is the perfect mark: The Dude. Suspicion of double-cross and kidnapper retribution would fall squarely on the wayward but pliable Dude. Sure enough, the Dude is guilt-tripped into making a ransom drop he believes is real. 
  7. The drop goes disastrously, thanks to the Dude's bowling pal, Walter (John Goodman). The Dude is left thinking he has someone else's million, no explanation, and the sudden need to find Bunny.

Corruption, extortion, vice, adultery, mystery, questions of personal honor. It's a Marlowe riff, though you can almost hear Chandler grouse over the liberties taken.

Marlowe was in the trouble business. The Dude isn't in any business, let alone walking mean streets. His 60s-era sense of justice has devolved to jaded memories and bathtub tokes to whale cries on his headphones. He's forced to turn detective when what he thinks is the loot gets stolen along with his car. His looking for his ride or Bunny or both is a laid-back search, with ample time for bowling. Clues stumble over him from over-the-top characters who'd be at home in any Marlowe story. The Dude gets threatened, followed, drugged, lured to bed, and beat up by the Malibu cops--if any of that sounds familiar.

Subversion or not, The Big Lebowski wears its crime story clothes with clean lines. The confounding parts come with the added layers, and they're ambitious.


Big is the Korean vet become titan of industry. The Dude and Walter are yin and yang of the Vietnapm years. The backdrop is Iraqi War America. Three wars mark the eternal cycles of time in thinly-veiled allegory. The elder, conservative elite– Big, for example– are empty suits engaged in a money grab. Wars get arranged to protect their interests, and the liberals among the younger set, say like a hippie burnout, get blamed for war's downstream social issues. Attempts to break the cycle can't work unless someone deals with the systemic greed. Probably, no one will.

Take Big's daughter. In a prior age, Maude would've femme fatale-d across the screen. These days, she is too liberated and too busy as an artistic whirlwind. She is by some margin the smartest character in the film, even seeing through Big's shenanigans. Not that she cares much. She's after securing the balance of power for the future generation. She takes more care to retrieve the family rug than to address her dad's fraud. 


Scene One opens with a dadgum tumblin' tumbleweed and a Sons of Pioneers tune and The Stranger (Sam Elliott) in full drawl voiceover.  The Stranger rambles on how he's seen some things but this tale here might top them all, this tale how the Dude would become the man for his times. Weird, but not accidental. A man rising up right wrongs is a western trope.

As for the Stranger, maybe he's a keeper of time. Maybe he's God. He appears bodily twice, both at the Star Lanes bar, both after the Dude approaches. The first is mid-film, and over a sarsaparilla the Stranger imparts a meaningful cipher: sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear eats you. The second manifestation is at the end, where the Stranger laments the movie's sole death. 

Star Lanes is no average bowling alley. Outside it, wars and aggression rage. L.A. crime laps right to the alley's door. The Dude's car is stolen in their lot. Inside Star Lanes, time passes differently. The fluorescent lights hum, the bowlers can live their best lives, and the pins get racked again and again by mechanical magic. Star Lanes isn't heaven, but it's a higher plane. 


Or if Star Lanes is a Garden of Eden, Walter is the serpent. Everyone else is trying to relax over a few frames, but Walter steps all over the mood with his thirst to impose his personal code on league and non-league play. A practice game infraction escalates immediately to Walter's gunpoint demand the roll gets marked zero. 

Walter represents order. More precisely, the folly of seeking order. Walter insists on his solution for everything, except his problem-solving instincts are disastrous. He turns Big's fake drop into chaos by substituting a second fake bag stuffed with underwear. Walter screws up the Dude's attempts to recover his car. Walter's real problem is understanding this universe. Cosmic and random forces work vastly outside human control. We mortals just need to roll with it. The Dude would, if Walter let him.


For The Big Lebowski's first hour or so, we're fed outrageous characters and Marlowe-ish flourishes. It's a set-up. Likely as not, you hadn't the pivotal guy in plain sight: the Dude's and Walter's third wheel, Donny (Steve Buscemi). 

Donny is a happy, in-the-moment guy. He just wants to bowl. He can't ever understand what the Dude and Walter are wrangling over. Missing money? Kidnapped porn queen? Rugs that pull a room together? It's all over Donny's head.  The one time he cares enough to ride along on the case, it's because the trip goes by the North Hollywood In-N-Out Burger. 

Not long after, the ransom plot has fallen apart. The Dude confronts Big j'accuse-style about the switcheroo scam, and Bunny returns from partying in Palm Springs. It's wrapped up--and it's been about nothing. The Dude is back where he started. Worse, even. No compensation for the rug or his trashed car.

It's wrapped but not over. No one yet has gotten the bear or been gotten. That happens when Uli and his nihilist buddies confront the Dude, Walter and Donny outside Star Lanes. A hilariously weird scuffle follows. In the aftermath, poor Donny, who never wanted anything but to roll with his buds, keels over from a shock heart attack. 

Donny passes young and pointlessly. In the funeral home, while the Dude and Walter haggle over cremains urn pricing, the Coens make plain what this crime caper has been about. The funeral home wall displays a verse from the King James Bible:

Banter, eccentric character turns, absurd scenes, a kidnap that wasn't a kidnap, ransom money never at risk. These things are as flowers in the field. The film says nothing much really changes in the grand play of the cosmos. We live in a disorderly universe, we deal with events of the day, and we die. Unlike true noir, though, the Coens offer hope. The now matters. The now is all we'll ever have.

The story ambition hasn't been about crime or death, which quite literally hits the Dude in the face. The Big Lebowski is about finding harmony in life. After his hippie years and jaded downslide, he can release that baggage and just go bowling. In the closing scene, the Stranger tells the Dude to take it easy, and only then the Dude gives his pop culture line, delivered in shadow: "The Dude abides." Finally, he can.