March 11, 2004
All The Dude ever wanted was his rug back...
When attempting to understand a work of art, it is essential to keep in mind the context in which it was created. Just as one's appreciation and understanding of a Picasso is augmented when considered as a response to the surrealist movement, the Coen brother's masterpiece, The Big Lebowski is enhanced when compared with it's cinematic forebear, The Big Sleep.
The Coen Brothers, who are characteristically reticent about discussing the meaning of their films, cite Raymond Chandler's novel, and Howard Hawks' 1945 film adaptation starring Humphrey Bogart as intrepid detective Phillip Marlowe, as the inspiration for The Big Lebowski. The films share many qualities. The Coens pay homage to the original in many ways; the films share characters (for example, a wealthy, wheelchair-bound war veteran), crimes (blackmail) and locales (Los Angeles). On a still deeper level, the films are essentially the same in that they both are about a man trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
The Big Sleep unfolds from the perspective of Marlowe, the private detective hired by the General to resolve a blackmail case. We never leave Marlowe's perspective, seeing what he sees, experiencing what he experiences. We follow him through the streets of L.A. as he pieces together the clues that lead to murder and betrayal. We are given the distinct sense that Marlowe has no idea what is going on, is making it up as he goes; the plot is convoluted and at times, does not even make sense (the writers, one of whom was William Faulkner, were told to follow the novel's plot as closely as possible, which they did; they were so confused as to who killed the General's chauffeur, they asked Chandler for clarification, and he replied that even he was unsure who did it). By the time the movie comes to a close, we look back and wonder just how we got there.
The Big Lebowski is, in essence, the same. Apart from a few scenes narrated by The Stranger, the plot unfolds exclusively from The Dude's perspective. We follow him around L.A. as he tries to unravel any number of mysteries (who micturated on his rug, the whereabouts of Bunny, who stole his car). Some of these are never resolved (it's still not clear to me who stole the car - was it Larry?), while others are puzzled through by the Dude. While the Coens add a subtle layer of philosophy to the story (there is a lot here, by the way; a lot), the underlying path of the two protaganists is essentially the same. At the end, we know we're done, but damned if we know how we got there. Both films put their heroes in a world that is random, irrational and defies understanding, and leaves it up to them to puzzle their way out. In the case of Marlowe, this begets a great detective story; in the case of The Dude, well, hilarity ensues. Marlowe challenges this uncertainty with all his strength; The Dude, as they say, abides. Both come to the realization that answering the Big Questions will not solve anything. You might as well go bowling.
There's a lot more to be said, particularly about The Big Lebowski, Western religion and nihilism, but that is all for now. I will leave you with a tangential link between the themes presented in The Big Sleep and Lebowski with the recently celebrated holiday of Purim, where the Jewish people, their Temple and connection to God recently destroyed, are cast into a world without God's Presence to provide guidance. They are confronted by an evil that seeks to destroy them, and through a seemingly unrelated string of events come out victorious, a bright new future on the horizon. I think there are a few themes in common here.
A few related links of interest: