Only ten years apart and yet yet both seem to be brilliant, it’s difficult to understand how these two men keep creating such incredible work so consistently. Somehow, they’re able to write, direct, and edit a film nearly every year and make all of them – well, nearly all of them – worth running across the street through heavy on-coming traffic. Plus, during the shooting period, there are no re-writes. None. Zero. Those script pages stay white.
While this has become a cult classic, I still don’t think it’s that incredible. Yes, it’s fabulous, but I wouldn’t declare it “87 out of ten stars!!!!” as some have. I’m not sure what I would change, but it’s so anarchic that it’s tough to identify anything as either “not sufficiently developed” or “extraneous”. The one section which I wouldn’t remove is the dream sequence, oddly, as it’s such a fabulous reflection of Hollywood’s musical montages, as well as the idyllic nature of The Dude’s notion of life.
I might take out the character Jesus Quintana, as it really has nothing to do with anything in the story, but he acts in the same way as the gravedigger in Hamlet or the Night Porter in “the Scottish Play”. Besides, the basis for taking out that character would then have to equally apply to the character only identified as “The Stranger”, played by Sam Elliott, and he is possibly the only consistently normal person in the entire tale, so we need him. Hmmm… tricky…
Like Fargo, the movie the brother released two years earlier, The Big Lebowski is what may be best described as “minimalist noir™”. Basically, ‘how much can you do with a noir mystery or thriller to follow its rules, yet make it about as non-depressing and cynical as possible?’ Everyone in both of those films, plus Burn After Reading, is entirely out for the betterment of no one but themselves, and are willing to do anything in order to get it. The one individual who is an exception to this is the police officer Marge in the earlier film, but that’s getting a bit away from the two films we’re really examining here.
With The Big Lebowski, the questions are “why is this loser getting confused with someone else?” plus “where’s this ‘Bunny’ Lebowski, and what does Jackie Treehorn have to do with it?” An obvious additional couple of questions are “where’s The Dude going to get a decent run that really pulls the room together?” as well as “how are they going to fare in the league standings after all of this shakes down?” but those are more by the way sorts of things.
In Burn After Reading, however, the questions are more straight-forward: “who’s going to pay the most for these secret files?”, as well as “how did they get those secret files?” Again, everyone is out for their own betterment, whether they’re the author of a memoire, wanting – no, needing, dammit – cosmetic surgery, or simply looking for a bit of sex to warm them up for another run. The number of selfless people in this story are about as many as you would expect to find in Washington, DC: zilch.
The number of excellent performances from people you hadn’t expected to do real solid comedy yet are pretty damned good thank you very much, however, is “all”. There’s a moment when Brad Pitt’s character needs to be ‘sneaky’, and only ends-up looking completely self-conscious instead. And yet, if you really deconstruct what Pitt does, it’s such an incredibly subtle yet entirely clear bit of body language adjustment, but the guy makes it look effortless.
Somehow, the Coen boys get the best performances of their careers out of everyone in their films. In some cases, the actors go on to continue their careers with increased skills in every genre of film, but they never quite match their achievement without a script written by them.
Typically, each of their scripts are filled with excellent dialogue which demonstrates a love of and un-matched facility with language. They also have a love of the movie-making business, as their ability to turn stereotypes and predictable scenarios on their proverbial heads is a high-water mark in cinema.
Damn, they’re awesome!
The Big Lebowski (1998)
Polygram Filmed Entertainment
Working Title Films
Joel Coen & an uncredited Ethan Coen
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Burn After Reading (2008)
Focus Features presents
in association with Studio Canal
in association with Relativity Media
in association with Working Title Films
Mike Zoss Productions
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
This year, I’ve been watching DVDs from the library for a number of reasons, mostly to do with a combination of “filling in the gaps in my ‘pop culture’ knowledge”, as well as a concerted effort to better understand story editing by both watching a film and then re-watching listening to people who have studied that particular movie for years in order to better appreciate the themes, plot construction, symbolism, and so on.
The process would be nothing without the secondary audio tracks. Sometimes it’s like having actually been through the film-making process with the people involved.