— W.C.U.N — Pittsburgh!!


I'm certainly not the first to recognize the connections between the work of Raymond Chandler, specifically The Long Goodbye, and the Coen Brother's The Big Lebowski. The Coen's themselves have mentioned Raymond Chandler as an influence on their film, noting his narrative style allowed for an episodic interaction with various characters across various locations and social strata. Beyond that, the Coen's have been mum regarding other influences and like most Coen films the internet has its theories and analyses in abundance. The best of which is Christopher Shultz's article on LitReactor that posits critics draw parallels from The Big Lebowski to Chandler's The Big Sleep with the title and labyrinthine plots of both as chief indicators, but the real connection is to that of Chandler's entire body of work and thematically, The Long Goodbye is far more in line with the Dude's journey. Interestingly enough, Shultz goes on to focus almost exclusively on the book and not Robert Altman's film adaptation, which perhaps less obviously, informs The Big Lebowski in ways more far-reaching than simple thematics. 

The Coen's are if nothing else, masters of intertextuality, creating a dialogue between their work and other works. They have yet to make a film that is not dense with intertextual relationships. Each film, especially early on in their career, seems to be primarily a slick genre exercise with a particularly great ear for the special vernacular of each. The fact that so often their intertextual games are for laughs and not to bring any new understanding or insight can seem quite nihilistic, or I suppose punk rock in its refusal to be about anything other than what it is. A thumbing of the nose at the critical establishment as it were. And while parody is certainly among their chief tools, the degree to which they weave these intertextual games, especially in the likes of Barton Fink, Miller's Crossing and The Big Lebowski, can be something of a Eureka moment in a genre fan's education, but it's also Fool's Gold.

Robert Altman is another master of intertextual dialogue, though, I think on much more serious terms than the Coen's would ever entertain. His work in The Long Goodbye and especially McCabe & Mrs. Miller shows what gold such intertextual games can mine within genre, and what great cinema they can create. This takes a point of view and a real sense of intellectual adventure. It requires the artist to take a stance and is ultimately a far more risky, rewarding and optimistic endeavor than simply making a joke of the entire thing. Now, before I sound too much like the grumpy old man let me clarify that I absolutely love The Big Lebowski, for the obvious and not so obvious reasons, but it's because of its intertextual relationship with Altman's film that I can keep rewatching it. 

Before venturing much further, I must offer a few personal thoughts regarding literary archetypes that I believe will help illuminate The Dude's relationship to not only Phillip Marlowe but that seeming non-sequitur, The Stranger (Elliot) in The Big Lebowski. The Hero archetype has been with us at least as long as minstrels and griots recited stories from village to village. I think it's safe to say that we can lay the mantle of the first Hero, first well-known in Western literature at least, at the foot of Gilgamesh and we've since seen it perpetuate itself down through the ages via Beowulf and Odysseus until with the accouterment, and chivalric connotations of the Knight Errant we begin to see the tropes of archetype develop beyond monomyth. Escaping the Middle Ages we come to Don Quixote, largely seen as the first novel of the modern era with its metafictional approach and the novel's namesake; a man rarely in his right mind embarking upon a grand and comic episodic adventure of ultimately little consequence. A man living in his mind and in the past, sorely out of step with the time period within which he lives. Sound familiar?

From the Knight Errant to the Quixotic and very meta reappraisal of the archetype in Cervantes classic we move on to the Cowboy, the first Hero of the New World and the first to be perpetuated through the moving picture. It is also where we begin to see an inkling of the audience's fascination for the antihero, as the Cowboy's exploits were first those of Outlaws and Lawmen found in the Dime Western, a fascination that will develop into a full-blown love affair when the Cowboy is replaced in the 20th Century with the Detective of Pulp Fiction, which will eventually morph into the Action Hero we know today. In just this brief essaying of the development of the Hero archetype, we can already see the tendency of one era to reevaluate the previous era's Hero and bring him up to speed so to speak. Just as Cervantes' Don Quixote is an intertextual dialogue with the stories of Lancelot and Percival, Altman's The Long Goodbye is in dialogue with the Marlowe of Chandler's stories. The Coen's take it a step further as The Big Lebowski is not only in dialogue very specifically with Altman's Marlowe but simultaneously a parody of intertextual games. 

Altman's film is, perhaps, the first and most complete meta-examination of the Detective story; a jokey, shaggy dog riff on the standard Detective story tropes, cleverly jettisoning the Noir theatrics of post-war America for the sunny post-Altamont, California of the 70s. Described by Altman himself as Rip Van Marlowe, he imagines Marlowe as an affable, rumpled jokester looking for his cat. A man out of time who none the less has maintained his suit and moral code in the modern era. He saunters about, saying 'It's Okay by Me', (Marlowe's version of the 'The Dude Abides?') to every affront to his sensibilities and code until, in the final scenes, he can no longer accept them so amicably. His best friend's betrayal is most certainly not ok with him and he makes a decision at once surprising and totally inevitable. This final scene brings him finally and irrevocably up to speed with his own time while departing from Chandler's ending where Marlowe does nothing and stays lost in an existential miasma typical of post-war literature. Altman's Marlowe then is, at least philosophically speaking, a man lost, but ultimately found by films end. Hooray for Hollywood!

The Big Lebowski is the same kind of riff, but on an entire genre and archetype, and twenty-five years further down the rabbit hole of cultural bankruptcy. Marlowe is now The Dude, a burnout in jellies and cardigan sweater and like Marlowe's cat, all the Dude wants is his rug back. The convoluted plot is not only lost on him, and the audience after first viewing, but turns out to not matter one bit, turning the typical existential quandaries of Noir on their head, and in stark contrast to Altman's film, making the darkest existential statement possible by not only eliminating the Hero's moment of catharsis and self-realization, but making the entire possibility of such a thing a joke. Like the Marlowe of the novel, The Dude is lost in the end, the difference is he doesn't care. None of it matters. 'Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling' is perhaps the most nihilistic statement of the film and the genre while at the same time being absolutely hilarious. Therein lies the Coen's genius. 

As I hope to show through a series of scene juxtapositions in the accompanying video, it would appear that not only are the Coen's very big fans of Altman's film, but took direct inspiration from the film, repeatedly. There are simply too many similarities.  Ephemera that Altman used as white noise to frame the film's reality, the Coen's build entire scenes and gags around. Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep has its influence, of course, especially in regards to the set-up, and in so far as the Coen's seem to worship at the altar of Howard Hawks in most of their films. Also worth noting, Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice seems to be in direct dialogue with Altman's film as well, but almost entirely on a tonal level with a similar enthusiasm and optimism in cinema's inherent capacity for art that made Altman's film such a success. Ultimately, Anderson made a film about the fallout of the sexual revolution, instead of a very complicated in-joke about intertextuality. 

Finally, and this may well be a stretch, but with the Coen's cinematic knowledge and love for playing pointless metatextual games with character names, themes, and plots, I would like to offer a reading on Sam Elliot's The Stranger in The Big Lebowski that I have yet to see mentioned elsewhere. Obviously, functioning as the narrator of the story typically found in the Detective genre and specifically Noir films, it stands out as an odd choice to make that narrator not a piece with the rest of the Dude's world. Indeed, he remains the one persisting mystery of the film for most audiences. Hailing from an entirely different genre of film altogether, the Western, the Stranger exists as a very incongruous angle in an otherwise acute work of artifice. There exists no cross-over in sensibilities between the Western and Detective genres other than what we have already discussed; The Hero Archetype and it's permutations within, if not the modern era then the American era, here bookended by The Cowboy and The Dude. Viewed as such the conversations between The Dude and The Stanger are much in keeping with the dialogue between Phillip Marlowe and The Dude. The Coen's have simply made their metatextual joke the text itself. Another layer of comment pointing toward the intertextual games already elucidated. As a final thought and in further keeping with the connection to the Western, I ask you to look no further than Dean Martin's portrayal of The Dude in Rio Bravo, an alcoholic who has to rise to the occasion over the course of the film and covets the approval of uber-masculine cowboy, John Wayne. Approval that the Coen's Dude could care less about garnering from Goodman's Walter or the Stranger for that matter. The fact that The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, highlights of their respective genres, are both directed by Howard Hawks is just icing on the proverbial cake. 

The Big Goodbye Lebowski from WCUN Deep Cuts on Vimeo.




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