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"The Big Lebowski" Film Review—The Dividends of Being a Tumbleweed

Hi, I'm Sam, I love movies. My main interests are science fiction and zombie movies. I also enjoy pessimistic and survival films a lot.

Movie poster for "The Big Lebowski."

Movie poster for "The Big Lebowski."

It’s simple.

A tumbling tumbleweed while Sons Of The Pioneers' “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” plays. This is how the most beloved Coen brothers film welcomes us.

From the first frame, it's evident that this film is about "going with the flow. Don't put up any resistance to the wind. The message is delivered with the same freshness of its premise.

Obviously, it works, because from there we hear the voice of The Stranger (Sam Elliott) stammering about a guy who calls himself The Dude (Jeff Bridges), who's in a Ralph's paying a $ 0.69 milk carton with a post-dated check. The Stranger seems like he's about to tell us the epic story of a great man, but he lost his train of thought, leaves the idea half-hearted, and leaves us confused.

But we're hooked. We're tumbling tumbleweeds and we'll get carried away by a movie where what matters are the dialogues and the character gallery. The plot goes second.

Jeff Bridges and John Goodman

Jeff Bridges and John Goodman

The next thing we see is The Dude being mugged inside his own home by a couple of bullies who have obviously mistaken him for a millionaire who shares his name — Jeffrey Lebowski—and who, before leaving, urinate his rug.

The Dude, as cool-headed as he is, can't let go of that aggression. That aggression will not stand. He wants to resolve that injustice in a mellow way. When we see him in his beloved bowling alley with his bowling teammates Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi), The Dude is convinced that he must talk to the "Big" Lebowski and ask him to replace his beloved rug.

From that point on, The Dude doesn't stop being a tumbling tumbleweed on this absurd (and to some extent, fake) neo-noir full of kidnappings, self-kidnappings, conspiracies, suitcases full of money, severed toes, porn moguls, post-modern artists, veiled politics, euro techno bands, fever dreams and, of course, a lot of bowling. And that, in the long run, would make him some kind of cultural prophet.

The Dude's attitude, though never stoic, is admirably laid-back. Because that's what matters. To go with the flow. The Big Lebowski fulfills this premise from every standpoint, including even the way it was technically conceived.

A scene from "The Big Lebowski."

A scene from "The Big Lebowski."

Narratively, inspiration is evident in the work of novelist Raymond Chandler. The Coen brothers have repeatedly said it. Chandler invented some kind of literary subgenre where, unlike the classic murder mystery where the plot was everything because it was the mystery to be revealed, and in his own words, the scene outranks the plot (…) and a good plot was one that made good scenes. ”

That is why the plot is secondary. Like The Dude, the plot serves up funny situations. Everything is revealed to be false: the kidnapping, the ransom money. In the end, there's virtually no plot. There's no mystery to be revealed.

But that loose approach isn't just evident in the story (or lack thereof). The actors and their characters seem at times to have no direction, and part of the magic of their dialogues resides precisely in that improvisation and strategically genuine and relaxed attitude. For example, the only thing the Coen brothers basically told John Turturro is that his Jesus Quintana character was a bowling rival of the protagonists...and a pedophile. Turturro had the freedom to modify his lines, mannerisms, gestures, and peculiar way of dressing.

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John Turturro in "The Big Lebowski."

John Turturro in "The Big Lebowski."

Visually, The Big Lebowski had a legend behind the lens: Roger Deakins (who would not only collaborate multiple times with the Coen brothers but would also do legendary work in films like Blade Runner 2049, Skyfall, Sicario, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford). And while the film is certainly a visual beauty, it doesn't really have an aesthetic coherence. Once again, cinematography serves the situations. From the modern neo-noir of everything related to Jackie Treehorn to the surreal-pop art of the dream sequences.

The setting is also quite anachronistic. We know the movie happens in Los Angeles, and the narrator tells it's 1991 (footage of George HW Bush threatening Saddam Hussein confirms this), but thanks to the bowling culture of the 1950s, and the lowkey political dialogues between The Dude and Walter from the late '60s and early '70s, plus various locations that could have been set at any time in the past 50 years, The Big Lebowski appears to be completely unrelated to or under the dominance of some time. This story is NOT a product of its time. That would be an anchor, and the tumbleweed needs to be tumbling.

The soundtrack (which is way more relevant than the score) is also a mix of genres, which seems to be taken from a Spotify selection of a bipolar drunk music lover. From the cha-cha-cha of Esquivel's "Mucha Muchacha", to the soft rock of Bob Dylan's "The Man In Me", the flamenco of the Gipsy Kings version of "Hotel California", the lounge of Dean Martin's "Standing On The Corner ” or the psychedelia of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." It's an exercise of absolute sonic freedom that has, almost miraculously, become one of the most cohesive and recognizable soundtracks in recent memory.

However, all this gives rise to the greatest contradiction of The Big Lebowski's legacy. For this being a presentist film about "going with the flow," and experiencing new things at the moment without offering resistance, its cult status is firmly based on its rewatch value. This is one of those movies that's more enjoyable with every rewatch. Its followers know and can recite the lines by memory and can answer the most random trivia about this universe.

The memorization of a work that magnifies being present. As bipolar as the two Lebowskis.

At the end of this "story", the Coen brothers give The Dude a certain mysticism that is somewhat reminiscent of Chance the Gardener walking on water at the end of Being There. The Stranger says goodbye to the audience, happy that The Dude and Walter came out well.

"The Dude abides," says The Dude, before exiting the frame with a beer in hand. The Stranger ends up mythologizing him even more: "Its good knowing hes out there. The Dude. Taking it easy for all us SINNERS."

The joke is upon us and we gladly accept it. The Big Lebowski has generated Dudeism, a real proto-religion based on The Dude, which is basically a modern and more shallow version of Taoism, with some philosophic bits of Epicurus and Buddha. You know, enjoying the little pleasures of life (like a rug, or a bowling tournament) instead of the tribulations of accumulating wealth. The "going with the flow" as a way of life. Just keep existing.

Scene from "The Big Lebowski."

Scene from "The Big Lebowski."

To let go. Don't put up resistance. Even don't rationalize situations too much. Life will still surprise you just the same and give you meaning in places where you never thought there could be.

A final, eerie gag underlines all this and catapults the myth of The Dude with an absolute reaffirmation of the premise of "the flow."

In the first scene, The Dude post-dates the check with a future, spooky date: September 11. At the same time, in the background, unknowingly foreshadowing, we see President George H. W. Bush delivering his iconic “this aggression will not stand” line.

For this to be a movie of gags, this, the only unplanned one, is the most mind-blowing. And it was generated by “the flow.” Who knows why they chose exactly that date for the check? Who knows why they decided to do it in one of the few times that the film shows some politics? It doesn't matter. Life itself spawned foreshadowing. The two Bush. The two Lebowski.

Dudeism kinda has a point. I'm going to be ordained as a pastor (it's free and online!) right now.


The Big Lebowski: Movie Details

Title: The Big Lebowski

Release Year: 1998

Director(s): Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Actors: Jeff Bridges, Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, John Turturro, a.o.

© 2020 Sam Shepards

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