Saturday, May 17, 2008

"WTF?!" - The Big Lebowski

It’s about an hour into The Big Lebowski, and The Dude is exasperated. He’s had his head dunked in a toilet, he’s seen his living room rug pissed on and he’s been punched in the face. Now he’s standing in the loft of the genitalia-obsessed Maude Lebowski, trying to have a conversation about the maybe kidnapped Bunny Lebowski, only the discussion keeps being interrupted by the bald guy with the pencil-thin mustache who sits in a nearby chair flipping through a magazine and giggling hysterically. “What the fuck is with this guy?” asks The Dude, finally. “Who is he?”

Of course any fan of The Big Lebowski, and there are legions of them, will tell you that he is Knox Harrington. But for me, Knox Harrington might as well be any fan of The Big Lebowski. I’ve seen the 1998 Coen Brothers movie at least three times now, and I just don’t get it. That’s why the aforementioned scene speaks to me, because it marks the time in the film that I feel closest to The Dude. When it comes to The Big Lebowski, I feel as if the whole world is laughing like Knox Harrington at a joke I can’t even detect. What the fuck, indeed!

Thus, The Big Lebowski is a natural jumping off point for what will be a series of sporadic meditations on films whose charm or acclaim eludes me. These “WTF?!” entries won’t necessarily be argumentatively contrarian (though certainly some of them will be), nor will they attempt to denigrate those in the (perceived) majority view. Heck, these pieces might not even be all that passionate, because at least as far as The Big Lebowski is concerned I feel about the movie like I do techno music, sushi or nipple rings. I’m not offended by your enjoyment of such things; I’m just befuddled by it. So when I tell you that The Big Lebowski once made me fall asleep and has always been cause to glance at my watch, take it neither as mud in your eye nor as a plea for intervention. Readers are encouraged to detail the film’s genius in the comments section, to shine a light on all the greatness that I’ve missed, to tell me I have it all wrong. That’s the whole point. But don’t be surprised if this blind man never learns to see.

Now, before one of you goes off and slams a bowling ball up against your head in reaction to the concept of The Big Lebowski ennui, let me make something clear: I don’t think the movie is all bad. I detect some of its allure. Watching the film again recently, I was amused by Steve Buscemi’s Donny, always a step behind, by Julianne Moore’s Maude, talking straight in a style all her own, by John Turturro’s Jesus, flamboyance personified, by Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s Brant, doofusly obsequious, and of course by Jeff Bridges' The Dude, who we’ll get to later. But that’s as far as I got: amused. There was a laugh here or there, chuckles really. Mostly though, the best I could do was to smile…on the inside.

Watching Lebowski with the knowledge that it’s a cult sensation – and “cult” might be too limiting a word when it comes to capturing the size of the film’s adoring audience – is like walking through the National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, D.C.: Just because I’m in close proximity to tools of flight doesn’t mean I feel like I’m flying. Time and again, Lebowski leaves me grounded. I keep waiting for that magic carpet to come and whisk me away, but it never happens. As quickly as I think the siren’s song might finally lure me in, something happens to break the spell.

Frequently that something is John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak, the Vietnam vet who watched his friends die in the muck and won’t roll on Saturday, Shomer fucking Shabbos. The Dude’s annoyed dismissals of Walter’s blowhard bloviating are cute but never rewarding. Getting to the punchline with Walter requires me to sit through his incessant, obnoxious delivery, and it’s just not worth it (I feel the same about almost every scene involving David Huddleston’s equally unrestrained Big Lebowski). So, sure, I think the debate about the toe is clever. I enjoy it when Walter transitions from his rant about The Dude’s rug to note that “Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature.” But the dirty fucking undies? The argument over Smokey’s scratch? All that Shabbos shit? Well, as Walter might say, those scenes make me feel like I’m being fucked in the ass by a stranger.

Sorry for the language, but that happens to be the way that The Dude & Co. talk. The rampant use of “fuck” is Scorsese-esque. I’m not sure how many times it’s said in the film overall, but what I can tell you is that of the almost 6,000 words in the massive collection of “memorable quotes” over at IMDb, there are 151 entries from the “fuck” family. I’m not the least bit offended by this, understand. I love a good fucking expletive. Use ‘em all the fucking time. But not so often, I hope, that my vocabulary dissolves into tedium. Sure, there are guys in the real world who drop f-bombs as often as The Dude and Walter. I’m just not sure I want to spend 2 hours with them.

And that’s the irony here, because so far as I can tell, what people love about the film, what keeps them coming back, is The Dude, and hanging in his presence. The jellies-wearing, pot-smoking, bowling, slacking anti-hero is a pop culture icon. People are drawn to him either out of envy for his never-break-a-sweat lifestyle or out of respect for the comfort he has in his own unwashed skin. “Cool” is a hard quality to define, but confidence – even misguided confidence (Napoleon Dynamite, anyone?) – seems to be the most essential ingredient, and The Dude oozes it. He’s also cleverly sarcastic and he has some wickedly vivid fantasies. But spending time with The Dude means spending time with Walter – unless, of course, you celebrate the character culturally rather than cinematically.

So far as I can tell, that’s what Lebowski Fest attempts to do. Ostensibly, it’s an annual convention for Lebowski lovers. More accurately, it appears to be an orgy of Dudeness. This July, the carnival will celebrate its seventh installment, offering unlimited bowling, White Russians and special appearances (Bridges has stopped by in past years). Yet the adoration of Lebowski culture is clearly a year-round pursuit. The Lebowski Fest website includes a page showcasing snapshots of fans wearing “Achiever” shirts at world landmarks (or just around). There are posters and bumper stickers, too. These people really love their Dude. But the part that really mystifies me is where this love affair started.

In its original theatrical release, Lebowski was hardly a success, neither at the box office nor among critics. You could argue that the movie wasn’t marketed well, and that critics were expecting too much of the Coens’ first film since Fargo. Then again, that initial response reflects my own reaction: the movie that today makes everyone say “Dude!” was to me nothing but a dud. And since Lebowski’s excessive obscenities don’t lend well to the TNT or TBS circuits, I’m wondering how people were drawn to the film, how they came to adore The Dude, how they overlooked the film’s meandering pace and moments of pure absurdity enough to sit through the movie not once but multiple times. I’ll give this to you: I find The Dude more likeable every time I see him. But here’s the thing: there was nothing about my first viewing that suggested there should ever be a second.

So I wonder, does anyone really like The Big Lebowski? Or are they just in love with The Dude? Is the film perhaps more quoteable than it is watchable, and, if so, how many other films belong to that club? I’m reluctant to accuse all Lebowski fans of insincerity, but I have my suspicions. When it comes to coolness and comedy, there’s a natural desire to want to be in on the movement or the joke. It brings to mind the opening monologue in Field Of Dreams, when Kevin Costner’s Ray Kinsella talks about growing up in the 1960s. He smoked some grass, he says, and “tried to like sitar music,” the implication being that he really had no desire to listen to sitar music but that, well, that’s what everyone was doing back then. It was a way of being. If sitar music didn’t speak to you, you weren’t meditative enough. If you weren’t meditative enough, you weren’t high enough. If you weren’t high enough, you weren’t smoking enough grass. And if you weren’t smoking enough grass, well, you might as well be The Man. Couldn’t it be the same with The Dude?

If there are reviews touting the film as a magnificent achievement of cinematic artistry, I haven’t read them. Truth be told, I’d be more comfortable if the movie was lauded for some technical mastery that I’d overlooked or fail to respect. Instead, the adulation over Lebowski seems to come down to taste. As David Bordwell noted in a recent post on film criticism, “a person’s tastes can be wholly unsystematic and logically inconsistent,” which I guess means I just don’t have the right palate for this picture. Or, in the parlance of the film: When you watch The Big Lebowski, you hear Creedence. I hear a sitar. I just don’t get it. I’m not sure I want to.

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