The Big Lebowski
Directed by Joel Coen
The critic Terrence Rafferty has a sensible column in the current GQ on the vapidity of independent film. “In 1997,” Rafferty writes, “independent movie after independent movie arrived in theaters on waves of critical admiration, and moviegoers unaccustomed to the peculiar moral universe of indie-ness must have emerged from these experiences deeply perplexed: wondering, perhaps, how the reviewers who carped about studio films like Steven Spielberg’s majestic, flawed Amistad could embrace wholeheartedly stuff as dubious as Deconstructing Harry, The Sweet Hereafter, Boogie Nights, [and] In the Company of Men.” Rafferty correctly identifies indie film’s “air of smugness.” Because its supposed anti-commercial values are pre-approved by a youngish, left-of-center audience, indie filmmakers are encouraged to be “less rigorous with themselves–to accept limitations that they’d be better off trying to correct or transcend.”
This is a familiar debate, but Rafferty turns the usual cant around. It’s the hypercapitalist studio mentality that is usually deemed corrupt. Independent films, no matter how incompetent, are thought to be well-meaning. Rafferty passes over obvious chances to criticize the indies in technical terms–no review of Boogie Nights prepared me for what a patchy, tedious film it was–and instead finds something morally defective in them. He has in mind Woody Allen, Anthony Minghella (The English Patient), Neil LaBute (In the Company of Men), and Quentin Tarantino. This rather disparate group is tied together by a desire to resist the strictures of studio filmmaking and to advertise that resistance to a discerning audience. So instead of uplifting stories we get studiously downbeat ones; instead of good vs. evil we get calculated ambiguity; instead of violence as plot device we get violence as happenstance; and instead of a corporate worldview we get self-expression and self-regard.
Rafferty uses the word “moral” quite pointedly. He thinks that these movies are destructive, that they enjoy degradation. I think he’s mostly right. Tarantino, notably, manipulates our capacity to be aroused by death. No less offensive, however, is the automatic presumption of quality in work that defines itself merely by its choice of subject matter and mannerism. Because a Martin Scorsese epigone named Paul Thomas Anderson announced a film on the subject of L.A. porn–because he promised to show some dick–he was celebrated as a poetic chronicler of subcultures. Meanwhile, better-than-average studio films–I’d name Titanic and The Devil’s Advocate–are picked apart by highbrow critics, even by those who admitted enjoying them. (Tony Gilroy and Jonathan Lemkin’s script for The Devil’s Advocate was witty and literate; Anderson’s for Boogie Nights was not.)
Most freethinking filmgoers will admit the existence of morally repugnant indie poseurs. But what does that species have in common with the almost universally admired Coen brothers? This writing-directing-producing team–Joel Coen directs, Ethan Coen produces, both write–has cannily outlasted the cyclical faddishness of indie-dom. Their movies–Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, The Hudsucker Proxy, Fargo, and now The Big Lebowski–have been eccentric in the best sense, avoiding both mainstream studio practices and the indie mentality that mindlessly reacts against them. And yet something is not working. Every Coen opus after Blood Simple has, in one way or another, fallen flat.
I don’t subscribe to the standard critique of the Coens–that they are too cool and too clever by half, that they care more for wordplay than for flesh-and-blood characters. In fact, they have a tremendous gift for character. They can write a role, and find an actor for it, in a way that creates a small myth on the screen. I’m thinking in particular of Frances McDormand’s unflappable pregnant cop in Fargo; John Turturro’s Barton Fink, the mediocre leftist playwright who tries to go Hollywood; and in the new film, Jeff Bridges’ incarnation of Jeff Lebowski, a k a the Dude, an amiable stoner who is drawn into a Big Sleep-inspired kidnap scheme. What these characters have in common is an instantly plausible blend of idiosyncrasy and stereotype. The Dude is burdened with all the clichés of his kind, but he also shows pleasing eccentricities, such as an eye for interior decor. (“That rug really tied the room together,” he says, after one of the bad guys urinates on it.) His bowling buddies and co-conspirators–John Goodman’s character, a gun-toting Vietnam vet with an intellectual streak, and Steve Buscemi’s, a nice guy who’s always one step behind–are also neatly drawn. As long as they are simply chatting together at the bowling alley, the film is charming and alive.
The trouble starts with the plot. The great flaw in most of the Coens’ work is, surprisingly, an inability to sustain a plot over a two-hour span. I say surprising because their first movie, Blood Simple, came so close to perfection. Its plot really was simple–man hires hit man to kill philandering wife–and appeared complicated only to the characters in the film. The plot of Lebowski, on the other hand, is a mystery to all. It has to do with the kidnapping of the young wife of a millionaire (also named Lebowski) and debts owed to a porn impresario. I won’t describe it in more detail because it crumbles to nothing long before the end. Careless plotting first cropped up in the Coens’ murky gangster picture Miller’s Crossing, and it hurt Fargo, the best of their recent films. (If a character buries a suitcase full of money, we should find out what happens to it.) In Lebowski, we lose track not only of plot devices but of whole characters, who come and go without finding a reason to be. Turturro is wasted as a bowler named Jesus, a convicted pedophile in Spandex. He is an amazing creation, but he has no function.
T he crux of the Coens’ plot problem is climax. Over and over, they have imposed an artificial resolution on a sequence of brilliant character studies. In Barton Fink, for example, Fink’s adventures in ‘30s Hollywood lead him through a splendid gallery of vintage Los Angeles creatures–a madcap studio head, a gin-soaked Faulkneresque novelist, a seemingly ordinary insurance salesman (Goodman again) who makes strange noises in the hotel room next door. Then what? The Coens put a dead woman in Fink’s bed and set fire to the hotel. In Fargo, the kidnapping-turned-murder scheme never finds a satisfying second act, and the Coens create an illusion of climax only by having one thug kill another in a giant geyser of blood. In The Big Lebowski, the climax is so farcically arbitrary–one character drops dead of a heart attack–that the Coens seem to be laughing at their own inability to wrap things up. Anyone who’s tried to write a screenplay knows the difficulty of writing a climax. The process is always artificial. The art is in hiding the artifice. The Coens shrug off that task with annoying arrogance.
Do these enormously talented filmmakers show a moral failing in the sense that Rafferty developed in his piece? I think they do. Their sin is pride. The Coens have reached a stage where they no longer question their ideas or flesh them out. You can catch them in the act, as it were, by comparing a shooting script with the final product. I have such a script for BartonFink. (The “shooting script” is the script as it stands before filming begins; the script that you can buy in book form is a “continuity script,” which has been edited to match the film.) The degree to which the shooting script matches the film is astonishing. Page after page has been shot word for word. This, needless to say, is unusual; even directors who write their own scripts very often make major changes during production. The Coens had shot everything verbatim, right down to unfinished sentences (“I don’t know … I mean–”) and hesitations (“uh,” “er”). If the script were airtight, such faithfulness to self would be admirable. But when the script is flawed …
The moral is that the Coens might actually be able to make further artistic advances if they shackled themselves to the evil studio system. Someone needs to speak to them in time-tested studio platitudes–to say that the script goes nowhere in the third act or that there are too many marginal characters. They might also profit from filming others’ scripts. But the hype that greeted Blood Simple appears to have convinced them that they are sufficient unto themselves. They’ve reserved an independence they haven’t earned.