When people ask me about what kind of movies I like to watch, I never reply with a genre like horror or comedy or drama, instead I always reply with a single word, “quirky”. I like movies that are slightly askew when it comes to the storyline. I appreciate being challenged to piece together what is actually happening as a movie unfolds. I enjoy mulling over the implications of what I have just watched long after the final scene has ended and I am alone again with my thoughts in the dark. Movies that flip convention on their ear such as Memento, Alien or Apocalypse Now are favourite movies of mine for this reason. I have watched each movie multiple times and still am finding new details or filming techniques that give me pause to think.
Another favourite film that falls into this category of being unique and highly original is Barton Fink. This movie was my introduction to the cinematic creativity of the Coen Brothers. Without going into too much detail, Barton Fink was a movie filled with contradictions that caused me, as a viewer, to question whether what I was seeing on screen was real or not. The contradictions were integrated everywhere into the fabric of the movie. The attention to detail by the Coen Brothers impressed me. This movie starred John Turturro and John Goodman which, in turn, introduced me to the fact that the Coen Brothers like to work with a familiar company of actors because in today’s movie, The Big Lebowski, Turturro and Goodman play prominent roles again. As with just about all Coen Brothers movies, The Big Lebowski defies convention when it comes to plot structure and character arcs. Most importantly, The Big Lebowski is built upon a foundation of contradictions and misdirections. The Coen Brothers don’t even attempt to hide the fact that they are deceiving you. Here is a simple example: Jeff Bridges is the star of the movie. His character’s name is Jeffrey Lebowski, but everyone calls him “The Dude”. If you were to conduct a Google search for this movie, I am certain that you would find movie posters or stills from various scenes that all show Jeff Bridges. All of these images would lay beneath the movie title of The Big Lebowski. So, you have the star of the movie playing a character named Lebowski smiling from beneath a title that says The Big Lebowski, which would lead one to the conclusion that Jeff Bridges’ character IS The Big Lebowski…but, he is not. The real “Big Lebowski” is someone else in the movie. The confusion over the identity of which Lebowski is which is the plot device used to start the action in the movie. But, if The Big Lebowski movie title isn’t actually referring to the “Big Lebowski” character, then what else about the movie is being made to seem obvious and upfront but is actually fake or a conman’s shell game? As it turns out, much of the movie is that way.
When The Big Lebowski premiered, it did so to mixed audience reviews. Part of the reason for this was that audiences were confused by the storyline. However, what this movie really needed was time. In the decades since its release, The Big Lebowski has become one of those movies known as a “cult classic”. One of the reasons that it has dramatically improved its popularity with movie goers is that people have had the time to study the film, peel back the layers of deceptions that are everywhere and discover the thematic truths that pin the whole premise of the movie together. So, let me illustrate the length the Coen Brothers went to in order to build a world riddled with deception. I will do so by talking about how music is used in two iconic scenes from the movie. At the end of the post, I will give my take on what I think The Big Lebowski is actually about, and we can see if you agree or disagree.
Scene one tends to be known as the “Bowling with Jesus” scene. Bowling plays a central role in the movie. In this scene, we discover that The Dude, his friend Walter (John Goodman) and their friend Donnie (Steve Buscemi) are on a team in a league tournament. We meet a rival team led by a man named Jesus (John Turturro, in a scenery-chewing scene if there ever was one). The contradictions start right away. In Southern California there is a strong Spanish influence based on its geographic proximity to Mexico. Almost every man named “Jesus” who lives there pronounces his name the Spanish way, with an “h” sound for the “J”, which causes the name to be pronounced in English as “Hay-seuss”. In this scene, Turturro plays a man who pronounces his name as if he was the Son of God. Unlike the biblical character, Turturro is a foul-mouthed convicted pedophile who talks tough to The Dude and his friends but who never actually does anything to back up his words. While Turturro struts in front of Bridges, Goodman and Buscemi, the song “Hotel California” written by The Eagles plays in the background. However, this version is a cover in Spanish by the band The Gipsy Kings. So, let me peel back the layers of deception that The Coen Brothers have built into this one scene by using this one song as they have, which again, I repeat, only plays in the background.
First of all, I am going to start with the assumption that you know the original version of this great song. (If not, click here to read a previous post about it). The Eagles are synonymous with the West Coast/California sound that took hold during the 1970s. But did you know that none of the original members of the lineup were actually from California. All were midwest boys who came to California in search of the mythical west coast laid back lifestyle. The song “Hotel California” is about the lifestyle they found themselves in once they started playing music there. It concerns addictions and false friendships and losing touch with the real world as it was once known. All throughout The Big Lebowski, there is a running gag in which The Dude hates on The Eagles because he views them as a fake California/fake rock n’ roll band. And yet, there is their biggest hit playing in the background of this iconic confrontation at the bowling alley. But wait, the layers of deception deepen further. The version used in the movie is sung in Spanish by The Gipsy Kings. The Gipsy Kings are an internationally known flamenco band who are not Spanish at all, but who actually come from France! So, in this one minor background moment, you have a French band that is often taken for being Spanish singing a song that is not their own about living a fake lifestyle as experienced by musicians in The Eagles who are not from California but are often credited with being one of the main bands that drove the momentum for the California sound back in the day. Now that is commitment to detail on the part of The Coen Brothers.
The second scene that illustrates this point is called “The Gutterball Dream Sequence”. On the surface, this scene starts when The Dude passes out after having consumed a spiked White Russian drink and evolves into a send-off of the old Busby Berkeley musical dance scenes from the 1940s and 50s. However, as always with The Coen Brothers, there is much more going on than meets the eye, and it all starts with a layer of musical duplicity compliments of The Gambler, himself, Mr. Kenny Rogers. In this fantasy scene, Jeff Bridges finds himself in a heavenly bowling alley filled with scantily-clad beautiful women whose costumes all have something to do with bowling. One of the women there turns out to be Julianne Moore, who plays the sister of the man who actually is The Big Lebowski in the movie. She is someone that The Dude is attracted to but who, so far, has completely rebuffed him in the film. However, in this drug-induced dream, The Dude teaches her how to bowl.
Throughout this dream sequence, we hear the song “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by The First Edition. When this song was first released in the mid-1960s, it was believed that it was a song about the dangers of LSD. It was also a song that stood out for the band because it was a psychedelic rock song at a time when The First Edition was mainly known for folk and country music. But again, let me peel back the layers of deception that form the foundation of this movie scene. The First Edition was composed of members who mainly came from another well known band called The New Christy Minstrels. The New Christy Minstrels were a band that was inspired by a 1940s act called The Christy Minstrels, which was a group that performed in blackface. The New Christy Minstrels formed in 1960 and were meant to be a side project, mainly for session singers, as a way for them all to earn a few dollars while waiting for other projects to appear. On their debut album, they covered the famous Woody Guthrie tune “This Land Is My Land”, which unexpectedly became a hit for them. The record label who had released the album demanded that they go on tour to promote the single. Suddenly, this band, which really wasn’t a band, had to quickly become one. Many of the original members of The New Christy Minstrels dropped out because touring wasn’t something they had signed on for when they recorded the album. Thus, over the next few years, numerous members were added and deleted as time went on. Some of those members who quit went on to form The Byrds or, like Kim Carnes, to have a Grammy Award winning solo career or, as in the case of Kenny Rogers, drop out with several other New Christy Minstrels and form a new band called The First Edition. As many of you will know, Kenny Rogers emerged from The First Edition the same way that Diana Ross became the face of The Supremes. Soon the band was called Kenny Rogers and The First Edition, which had hits such as “Reuben James” and “Don’t Take Your Love To Town”. Again, like Diana Ross, Kenny Rogers eventually became a solo artist with dozens of chart-topping hits and Grammy Awards to his name. So, in this movie scene from The Big Lebowski, you have The Dude dreaming of sharing the thing he loves most (bowling) with the woman he desires most (Julianne Moore) all the while a song plays by a band who came from a band that was inspired by blackface actors pretending to be people they were not, all the while singing a song about the dangers of drugs in a musical style that was unusual for them in the whole course of their history.
The Big Lebowski is a movie that has transcended Hollywood. In the time since its initial release, The Big Lebowski has become studied and analyzed by academics of all subject areas from Feminist Studies, to English Literature, to Economics and History, too. There are yearly conventions in which academic papers are presented and debated as to the underlying message The Coen Brothers were attempting to give with this movie. The Coen Brothers have stated that they were only creating a comedic send-up of Raymond Chandler-esque film noir movies. But I took a different message from it. I think the main message of The Big Lebowski is about masculinity in these times of ours. Throughout the movie, the male characters are presented in ways that give viewers distinct versions of what being a man is like. The Dude is passive and avoids conflict and only seeks to bowl and get his rug replaced. His friend Walter is a Gulf War vet who presents as a right wing, hardcore rules enforcer for others but not for him. Their other friend, Donnie, represents those faceless, voiceless people whose opinion is never asked for nor is it respected if it happens to be given. Jesus turns out to be like those “Karens” of the world who threaten and shout down others to hide their own emotional deficiencies and lack of life successes. The Big Lebowski turns out to be a millionaire who measures his self worth in the form of the pretty/shiny things he surrounds himself with, including a trophy wife, but who, at his core, remains unhappy. There is also a mobster who is a porn movie director who spends his days making movies about fake intimacy that go straight to video when all he wants is to be a real filmmaker and tell real stories again. None of these men are truly happy nor feel complete. So, what is the nature of being a man? How does the answer to that question impact the women in their lives, as well as people of other races, religions and ethnic backgrounds that they come into contact with? I will leave the answer to that question to Sam Elliott, who stars as The Cowboy, an all-wise, all-knowing man who appears throughout the movie to offer clarity and point us in the right direction. He ends the film with his thoughts on this matter and on the story as a whole. All that I know for sure is that I have watched The Big Lebowski and thought it was a take on the state of masculinity in our world. But, I could be wrong and it is simply a comedy about a man whose rug gets peed on in a wacky case of mistaken identity. Therefore, let the hijinks ensue!
If you have watched this movie, what is your take? I am not sure there is a right or wrong answer to that question. In any case, I look forward to reading your thoughts in the comment box below. Have a wonderful day. Thanks for reading my words. I appreciate your presence on my blog.
The link to the video for the “Bowling with Jesus” scene featuring the Spanish version of “Hotel California” as sung by The Gypsy Kings can be found here. ***Please note, NSFW.
The link to the video for the “Gutterball Dream Sequence” scene featuring the song “I Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” by The First Edition can be found here. ***Again, viewer discretion advised.
The link to the video for the trailer to the movie The Big Lebowski can be found here.
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