Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Big Lebowski at 20 years

Jeet Heer put it directly by saying that film critics who first saw The Big Lebowski were blind to its brilliance because they were so ensconced in a commitment to naturalistic narrative they could not appreciate the absurdist inner life of The Dude or the chaotic sprawl of the world-building.


The lasting popularity of The Big Lebowski would have surprised most film critics when it first came out. As David Denby wrote in The New Yorker in 2008, the film “received mediocre reviews and did little initial business.” One of the underwhelmed critics was Denby himself. “It’s only amusing the first time the Dude gets lost in his own story—a story so incoherent that he can’t explain it to anyone,” Denby snarled in 1998 in New York magazine.  “What’s the point of scoring off morons who think they are cool? Jeff Bridges has so much dedication as an actor that he sacrifices himself to the Coen brothers’ self-defeating conception. Even Bridges can’t open up a character who remains unconscious.”

The shifting critical fortunes of The Big Lebowski are legendary. Roger Ebert initially gave the movie a mixed review because of its ramshackle plot, which “rushes in all directions and never ends up anywhere.” In 2010, he upgraded The Big Lebowski to the status of a “great” movie. Denby also changed his mind, according to a recent Washington Post survey of critics who initially panned the movie. Others either haven’t revisited it or are still put off by it. Daphne Merkin, in her original New Yorker review, said the movie was “drenched in knowingness” and lacked a “narrative structure.” She likes the movie slightly more now, but not by much. “I think it is a quintessential insider movie, one that plays in this shrewd way to groupthink,” Merkin told the Post. “You’re either in on it, or you’re not in on it.” But even Merkin allowed that “the dude and his disconnected dudeness has a certain appeal now, maybe because the world has grown more horrendous or reality is less bearable than when the film was made.”

The failure of many critics to appreciate The Big Lebowski when it came out illustrates some major blind spots that are common to film critics. The movie fuses a Raymond Chandler–style detective novel plot, about the supposed kidnapping of a rich man’s trophy wife, and a Cheech & Chong–style stoner comedy. Interspersed throughout are Busby Berkeleyesque musical numbers about the Dude’s imaginative inner life.

In short, The Big Lebowski is a very strange movie set in a highly stylized filmic universe: 1991 Los Angeles, as viewed through a haze of marijuana smoke and White Russians. The characters in the movie are not realistic but parodic or even grotesque: not just the Dude, with his Buddha-like calm that verges on complete disengagement, but also his manically aggressive bowling buddy Walter (John Goodman), the browbeating millionaire who shares the Dude’s birth name of Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), the runaway nympho Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid), and fleeting roles that include a high-talking Heffner-esque pornographer and a feminist performance artist.

It’s easier to appraise a realistic movie, since everyone is qualified to judge verisimilitude—to compare the film’s world with one’s own. This is why using naturalism has become a default critical yardstick for reviewers, especially those on a tight deadline. Pauline Kael, perhaps the greatest of all American film critics, had very little time for deliberately stylized movies, which is why she panned most of Stanley Kubrick’s works after Dr. Strangelove. Kubrick, like the Coens, preferred to invent worlds rather than mimicking the real one. But by eschewing the conventions of naturalism in The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers baffled or alienated many critics. Merkin’s 1998 review is a prime example. “The Coens can’t be bothered—or perhaps they don’t know how—to make a connection between what’s inside their smart-aleck heads and the plodding, sometimes painful world in which the rest of us live when we’re not at the movies,” she wrote.

It kind of reminded me of something I'd read from the blog of a friend years back who quoted a line from Eve Tushnet.

"Realism" only works for people whose worldviews are already accepted as realistic. The rest of us must make do with genre. 
December 3, 2003 blog post over here

No, whatever the archive problem was it doesn't seem to have been fixed.

Just about the only thing The Dude could not abide was the music of The Eagles and, well, can't really say I dissent from that opinion, man. Whenever I hear songs by The Eagles now I feel as though that one band can explain the emergence of the entirety of second-wave feminism all by itself. 

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