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150 Films #14 & 15: The Big Lebowski (1998) / The Big Sleep (1946)

My original plan for this essay was to combine The Big Lebowski and The Big Sleep, because (1) I’ve fallen behind on these essays, and (2) they share in common a pitch-perfect depiction of L.A. culture that most other L.A. movies don’t quite catch. Even sprawling, L.A.-set ensemble epics like Short Cuts or Crash or future 150 Films entry Magnolia have a tendency to make demographic separations that aren’t quite as neat in Los Angeles. The oddest and most entertaining aspect of my brief stint in L.A. was observing the elbow-rubbing of these many varied walks of life.

In The Big Lebowski, bowling brings together an inebriated hippie, a right-wing Vietnam vet, a dullard who is frequently out of his element, and a flamboyant Latin pederast. A bogus kidnapping plot ties together a wealthy wannabe-plutocrat–who, it is revealed late in the film, is far more incompetent and beholden to others’ largesse than he lets on–his porn star trophy wife, his avant-garde artist stepdaughter, a collective of German nihilists, and a shady porn kingpin and his hired goons. A misadventure involving a joyride in a beater leads to the dunce son of a famous television writer trapped in an iron lung. All this weirdness seems perfectly normal if you’ve lived in L.A. for awhile.

Lebowski, as many know, was a conscious pastiche of Raymond Chandler’s ideas, so it’s fitting that his novel The Big Sleep similarly ties together threads of humanity who, in any saner city, would be unlikely to find each other in such close proximity. It starts, like Lebowski, with a wealthy, wheelchair-bound man and a blackmail scheme. This plot brings into the wealthy Sternwood family’s orbit: the eldest daughter’s missing bootlegger husband, the drug-addled youngest daughter, a gangster club owner, a pornographer, said pornographer’s gay lover, and a handful of shady characters from all social strata. One detail contained in the book not retained for the movie is the notion that General Sternwood was a Mexican immigrant who changed his name but retains a dark complexion.

I got that out of the way, in brief, because I think it’s an interesting facet of both stories. But as I rewatched the movies, back to back, I realized very quickly that they both make an even more important point as it pertains to my development as a human person, an aspect I touched on in essays about Above the Law and All the President’s Men: the importance of the truth. Of course, the way each film manages to get at the truth—operating as extensions of its central characters—is very different, but I would say the reason they’re both equally satisfying, in their different ways, is because of my desire for truth and justice in a world that often lacks either.

Alphabetically, I know I should start out talking about The Big Lebowski, but autobiographically, it doesn’t quite work. I came to Chandler earlier, and if I’m being honest, the first few times I saw The Big Lebowski, I didn’t like it at all. I dismissed it as a stoner comedy that had the same sort of languid, borderline-incoherent rhythm of talking to a stoned person. I admired the Coens for pulling that off in a film, but I didn’t actually enjoy it. It wasn’t until the cult audience started to build, and the numerous times I was subjected to it during film school, that I began to appreciate how well the Coens manage to combine a pitch-perfect Chandler narrative with ’90s L.A. culture and a dash of stoner ambling.

So let me start with The Big Sleep and my general love of Philip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler’s indelible, incorruptible investigator. The Marlowe of the books is slightly different from the Marlowe of the film version of The Big Sleep. Marlowe’s backstory very simply explains who he is: a former insurance investigator and D.A.’s office investigator, repeatedly fired for insubordination before striking out on his own. The major difference in the film version is that he is catnip to women, a strange addition that I have to assume came at Warner Brothers’ insistence–in their first starring vehicle together, director Howard Hawks had to make it believable that short, middle-aged, not-very-hunky Humphrey Bogart could land Lauren Bacall, a bombshell less than half his age.

Many actors have played the role of Marlowe over the years. Chandler’s personal choice for the role was Dick Powell, who played him in 1944’s Murder, My Sweet. I still can’t fathom this choice; Powell is fine, but if we’re talking the definitive 1940s star to play the definitive 1940s detective, it has to be Bogart. Bogart’s persona nails the wise-ass, takes-no-shit dialogue better than just about anyone, and he’s one of a very small number of actors who can project being both the toughest and smartest guy in the room at any given time. (Powers Boothe, who played Marlowe for a short-lived HBO series, is the only other actor who has come close to nailing the role.)

So while it’s a little goofy that Hawks adds cartoonish sex appeal to Bogart’s Marlowe, The Big Sleep remains just about the best adaptation of any of Chandler’s books, for two major reasons: first, Bogart’s performance captures Marlowe’s integrity and persistence, and secondly, Hawks’s direction captures Chandler’s frequent descriptions of the tedium of investigation, making it clear that the exciting parts of the story are the exception rather than the rule.

Throughout the film, characters try to push Marlowe away from the truth. Eddie Mars (John Ridgely), especially, telegraphs to Marlowe that he knows plenty, but he wants Marlowe to stop digging into the truth. The closer Marlowe gets to the truth, the more danger he faces; most of the time, that’s the only way he knows he’s on the right track. And he just keeps going, no matter how dangerous the job gets, until he’s solved the case. Once he makes a commitment to his client, as long as he believes they themselves aren’t criminals and he keeps getting paid, Marlowe can’t be flattered or tricked, bought or intimidated, or otherwise dissuaded from uncovering the truth.

In much the same way, but for very different reasons, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) can’t be dissuaded from uncovering the truth. The Coens have to do a lot of heavy lifting—which they do quite deftly—to put an apathetic slacker into the role of a man who wants the truth. It starts with a soiled rug, continues with a “ringer” provided by his friend Walter (John Goodman), and keeps going until The Dude has uncovered a truth that will clear his own name and rid him of the weirdos that keep attacking him. But for The Dude, the search for the truth also has to do with justice: thanks to Walter’s switch with his ringer, The Dude fears that actions forced upon him might have led to a woman’s death.

There are elements to The Dude’s character, and Bridges’s performance, that add several shades of nuance that often go ignored by even the most ardent critics and fans. For all the running gags about White Russians and smoking joints and repeating others’ dialogue as if it’s an original thought, The Dude is neither a stupid man—evidenced by his acerbic wit, his ability to cut through others’ bullshit and get at the truth, and his alleged writing of the Port Huron statement—nor an unfeeling man. The Coens understood a mere goof-off slacker stoner couldn’t fit into a Chandler-esque narrative without tapping into those feelings; The Dude needs a reason to care about finding the truth.

The masterstroke, though, is the Coens’ recognition that Marlowe learns more from bad guys tipping their hands than from actual investigation. Sure, Marlowe’s investigations tend to lead him to the wrong place at the right time—but moreso than any physical evidence, it’s the people he encounters, often in the form of threats, beatings, or attempted bribes—that let Marlowe know he’s on the right track. So The Dude gets harassed by Jackie Treehorn’s (Ben Gazzara) goons, beaten by Maude Lebowski’s (Julianne Moore) thugs, harassed by the German nihilists and their marmot, harassed again by Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, and so on—it’s these characters, who believe The Dude knows more than he does about everything that’s going on, who keep bringing The Dude into the story. It’s their forceful behavior that, ironically, allows The Dude to put all the pieces together and unravel his own role in a sort of goofy conspiracy. More than anything, the Coens managed to make a film anchored by a passive character, and it actually works!

In the end, though, neither The Big Lebowski nor The Big Sleep would succeed nearly as well if they didn’t have characters who want the truth. In one case, an incorruptible man has devoted his life to uncovering it; in the other, a goofball slacker needs to know he and his idiot friend didn’t cause the death of a mostly innocent woman. Soon enough, we’ll encounter some films in which the truth is either never discovered, or it’s more devastating than believing the lie. “The truth hurts,” they say, and that can be true a great deal of the time, but I’ve never understood why people would rather live in ignorance—or worse, with a lie. The truth may hurt, but the active refusal to know it destroys.

Then again, they also say “the truth will out,” and that’s a lie. One reason I love Chandler is that he places Marlowe in a world, similar to our own, bereft of anyone who will seek the truth no matter the cost: physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, political, whatever… And then, at the center of that sad world stands a lone hero who makes anyone reading hope for the day that there are more people like him than like everyone else. In a weird way, I feel the same about The Dude. Like The Stranger (Sam Elliott), I take comfort in knowing he’s out there, takin’ her easy for all us sinners. He’s less outwardly heroic, less clearly motivated to do the right thing, and if he has any sort of code of ethics, it would not in any way resemble a man like Marlowe’s. Yet, he exists in the same plane of awful people willing to look past the truth and prop up their own delusions: those they want others to believe, and those they want to believe themselves. The Dude himself numbs the world with drugs and alcohol, but when push literally comes to shove, he will step up and do what’s right.

That, sadly, is a rarity.

The Big Lebowski (1998)

Keep or Sell? Keep

The Big Sleep (1946)

Keep or Sell? Keep

Next Up: Blood Simple (1984)

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150 Films #13: The Bicycle Thief [Ladri di biciclette] (1948)

I’ve made a number of cracks at this essay. It turns out a film with such a brief running time and simple story asks too many profound questions. Without a heavy hand or any pompous philosophizing, the story of a man who needs to recover his stolen bike in order to keep a job he desperately needs manages to ask the following:

  • Does faith, religious or otherwise, serve any purpose or have any value?
  • How can a man with nothing deal with the consequences of a thief literally stealing his livelihood?
  • To what extent does poverty fuel desperate, criminal behavior?
  • What purpose does a criminal justice system serve when it has little interest in criminals or justice?
  • Does a man who can’t provide for his family have any purpose? (This is a bit dated but still a relevant concern for many men.)
  • How can a man who can’t provide for his family—or himself, for that matter—set a good example for his children?
  • Is one man’s desperate story any more important than anyone else’s?

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150 Films #12: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946)

In a 1973 interview with Gene Siskel, François Truffaut famously said, “I don’t think I’ve really seen an antiwar movie. Every film about war ends up being pro-war.” He’s not wrong. Even an ardently antiwar film, like Oliver Stone’s Platoon or Stanley Kubrick’s future 150 Films entry Paths of Glory, tends to shy away from actually making the case that war, across the board, is futile. The war in Vietnam was terrible, pointless, and monstrous, says Oliver Stone—and I agree, but would he say the same about the Civil War? Would Kubrick argue that war, itself, is the problem, or would he merely claim that bureaucracy and incompetence lead to unnecessary deaths in otherwise justifiable wars?

Until recently, I don’t think I could have called myself “pro-war” or “antiwar”; my interest in war has always had more to do with an inability to understand why wars happen, what constitutes “war” (as opposed to “police action” or “skirmish”), and whether or not they cause more harm than good (even in the case of so-called “just” wars). As we get deeper into this list, I think my stance will grow clearer. The “war films” that I admire tend to focus more on the psychological consequences of battles than the spectacle of explosions. Now, don’t get me wrong—I love action movies, I love explosions, I love combining the thrill of gymnastics with the kill of karate. But action movies, even ones with spectacular battles, don’t aim for the same thing as a “war movie.” Generally speaking, war movies take sides: World War II was the greatest, Vietnam was the worst, the Civil War was noble, the Hundred Years’ War was not…

The inherently political nature of war means, of course, that I inherently distrust them. As I see it, wars should only happen in clear-cut cases of self-defense. If someone attacks the U.S.—as opposed to, say, ineffectual saber-rattling by leaders playing to the cheap seats—we respond by decimating them. End of story. Political pressures encroach on that logic. If the government knew an attack was imminent, how could they let it happen? If the government didn’t know about an attack, why didn’t they? Isn’t it their job to protect us?! If a President says, “We’ve been attacked, but we won’t respond until we’ve done a thorough investigation,” he’s criticized for ineffectual leadership; yet, if he jumps on the first scraps of intelligence, we end up playing Whac-a-Mole® in the mountains of Tora Bora while the mastermind slips away to our “friend” Pakistan.

Another aspect of my ambivalence toward war is the moral cowardice of American politicians. I grew up with a military that picked fights like cowards, against enemies they knew they could beat, while backing away from (and often allying with) countries with abominable human rights records spitting in the face of American values. When was it ever necessary and just to use the U.S. military to secretly back Latin American coups (trading a dictator we don’t like for one we do)? Why was it just for Saudi Arabia to face no consequences for attacks perpetrated mostly by Saudis (because of what Saudis are taught to believe), or for Pakistan to face no consequences for housing the mastermind and financier of the September 11th attacks, when we blew up Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of a “War on Terror”?

To me, the answer is simple: American politicians are pussies. Neo-cons, especially, have an obsession with “nation-building”—reshaping jerkwater dumps in the image of ‘Murica—but whenever we’ve had neo-cons at the helm, we’ve gone after weak countries we could beat so handily, we often did it in secret. It looks really, really bad to boldly declare we’ve sent American troops to dumps like El Salvador, Chile, and Bolivia, taking sides in their political strife. None of them did anything to us, so why were we even there? Because we want their stuff, and we want a friendly leader to sell their stuff and exploit their labor. That’s not a good enough reason to back somebody else’s war.

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150 Films #11: Being John Malkovich (1999)

I can tell you exactly why the year 1999 changed my life, using the popular listicle format:

  • Magnolia
  • Three Kings
  • Election
  • The Matrix
  • The Blair Witch Project
  • October Sky
  • American Beauty
  • Bowfinger
  • Dick
  • Topsy-Turvy
  • The Iron Giant
  • South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley
  • Office Space
  • Go
  • Galaxy Quest
  • Dogma
  • Bringing Out the Dead
  • Man on the Moon
  • The Green Mile
  • The Red Violin
  • Rushmore (I’m grandfathering this in from 1998 releases, because it was barely released until 1999 and falls under the category of life-altering films I saw during this period)

Even movies I didn’t particularly like at the time—Fight Club and The Sixth Sense come to mind—sent the same messages: movies can do anything. Movies can be about anything. And this is just the list of movies that stick out from seeing during 1999 and the early part of 2000. I’ve certainly seen other 1999 movies that I’ve loved (The Insider and Summer of Sam, for example), but I saw them much later. The purpose of this list is to show the sheer number of strange, unique, inventive, “deep” movies released during this year, and how their cumulative impact put me on a new trajectory.

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150 Films #10: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

Now, as a kid, I loved the first movie, but it seemed like kids all had Year 2000 Fever. What would the future be like? The end of Back to the Future tantalized with its flying DeLoreans, transparent neckties, and devices converting garbage into fusion energy. “Roads?” Doc Brown asks. “Where we’re going we don’t need roads.” And that, to a nerdy kid (or maybe any kid), became the Maxell/Thrillhouse moment capping an already great movie.

In 1989, at the tender age of seven, 2000 seemed a lifetime away. Anything could happen. So when trailers for Back to the Future Part II showed up, promising a future of hoverboards, flying cars, Biff Tannen casino hotels, and Michael J. Fox in drag, it instantly became the must-see movie of a year that included Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, and future 150 Films entry Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

I didn’t get to see it right away, of course. The details are a little fuzzy in old man Bates’s head, but I have a recollection of being grounded when the movie came out. It’s possible the delay was caused by financial constraints; I had to wait for a lot of movies to get to the $1.50 second-run theatre behind the Burger King. Nevertheless, I bided my time with the Craig Shaw Gardner novelization available through the Troll Book Club.

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150 Films #9: Back to the Future (1985)

I can’t tell you the last time I saw Back to the Future. That’s a shame, because it holds up as possibly the best blockbuster film ever made. It’s certainly my favorite. It’s the rare blockbuster that puts a half-dozen genres into a blender, and the smoothie that comes out doesn’t taste like shit. A pastiche of teen comedy, period piece, sci-fi adventure, and romance shouldn’t work—but it does! A movie that starts out with a main character getting machine-gunned by terrorists shouldn’t stay funny—but it does! It even has a musical number that’s pivotal to the plot, a skateboard chase, a fantastic Huey Lewis & The News song, and a shitload of product placement that somehow doesn’t distract from the story! Combine all that with perfect casting, great direction by Robert Zemeckis, and some truly fantastic editing by Arthur Schmidt and Harry Keramidas. I ended up watching it twice, a 150 Films First™.

As I watched (the first time), I tried to pull back and be objective. No easy task, since Back to the Future has both familiarity and an indelible link to feelings of pure childhood joy, but I knew going into it that I’d have to ask The Question: Does this movie actually work, or do I simply love it because of the good vibes?

I can’t claim true objectivity, but I do think the movie works, in a big way. It comes down to two major reasons: characters and universal appeal. Now, let me explain the latter first. “Universal appeal” is a loaded Hollywood buzzword that often means nothing; when it means something, it tends to mean “dumb it down.” Back to the Future doesn’t dumb things down, but it appeals to a wide audience by crafting a plot that hinges on a handful of thoughts I believe all American teenagers have had: I wonder what my parents were like when they were teenagers. Were their parents as clueless and out-of-touch? Were things really so different that they can’t understand what I want from life?

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150 Films #8: The Apartment (1960)

This movie used to fill me with hope.

Not long ago, I found myself locked in a pattern that seemed inescapable. I only seemed to attract, and be attracted to, what I later termed “the three A’s”: addicts, assholes, and/or actresses. At the time, I knew it didn’t make me happy, but I couldn’t see any other choice but remaining alone. I often did, but that didn’t make me happy, either. It took a great deal of introspection, not to mention psychological and philosophical learning, to realize I had a say in the matter. My attractions were not an accident of fate, and I could break the pattern—and not just with loneliness.

At the time, though, trapped as I felt, The Apartment became the sole beacon on an endless, eternally stormy shore. The story of my relationships tended to unfold very much like C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) and Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), to the extent that, yes, sometimes the meet-cute involved a suicide attempt (or several). Often, it would begin with pining for an acquaintance or friend involved with a real Fred MacMurray-style asshole. The pining wouldn’t even begin with thoughts of romance. It started with me as the sympathetic shoulder to cry on, happy to offer comfort and advice. That would turn into something resembling pity, always a great foundation for romance: “Why does she stay with this clown?” I would wonder, sometimes aloud to her. Pity would turn to thoughts of rescue, what my friend Tarini calls “White Knight Syndrome”—and that, my friends, would start a romantic attraction brewing.

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150 Films #7: American Splendor (2003)

When I first started this blog, I had no idea what it would be.

It started when a friend offered a coveted LiveJournal invitation, back when that was the place to be if you were a young narcissist wanting to share your thoughts with the world. I’m not sure if it still works this way, but at the time you had the option of either paying a fee to acquire a LiveJournal—or a friend who had an account could invite you for free. As LiveJournal grew in popularity, I remember coveting friends who had received invitations. When I finally got one, it seemed like a big deal.

It went downhill very quickly. I treated my LiveJournal like, well, a journal. Random thoughts and quotes were fine, but when I started telling long-form stories about my life, the friend who invited me started yelling at me. “If you’re going to write such long entries, you have to put in a cut.” A “cut” was the same idea as the “jump” in a newspaper (or blog). Cuts bothered me, because LiveJournal had a rudimentary social-networking function where friends could follow each other, and as a user you could look at a custom feed of all your friends’ entries. At the time, the majority of my LiveJournal friends were actual, flesh-and-blood friends from high school and college. The only place my posts showed up was on my LiveJournal page or on my friends’ feeds. I kept thinking, “Why wouldn’t my actual friends want to read actual stories about my life?” Which led to the thought, “Why aren’t they putting any effort into journaling?”

In short, I think I didn’t really “get” LiveJournal.

It wasn’t too long before a friend of mine decided to start a web-hosting company and gave me a friendly discount. When he set up my space, he asked me if I wanted a blog. I could be misremembering, but I think it was the first time I’d ever heard the term before. I didn’t know what it meant, and he had to explain that it was short for “weblog,” a relatively new type of website that was little more than a self-hosted LiveJournal. Since I felt myself chafing under the restrictive etiquette of LiveJournal, I said, “Sure,” and imported my LiveJournal entries to my new blog.

But I still didn’t know what it would be.

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150 Films #6: All the Right Moves (1983)

My path to All the Right Moves began with Rosie O’Donnell.

Back in the ’90s, she had a phenomenally popular daytime talk show. O’Donnell used to have a sense of humor—a great, quick wit, in fact—and as a kid, she was one of my favorite stand-up comics. In fact, I remember during the late-’80s comedy boom, Stand-Up Spotlight on VH1 was appointment television for my sister and me, not because of all the great comedians but because Rosie O’Donnell hosted and did little jokes between each act. Then, she became the standout in A League of Their Own, which I feel like must have run on HBO 400 times a day. In our house, she was beloved by the whole family.

During the summer, the TV would invariably be on channel five at three o’clock. Even though I was at an age when it was wiser to act too cool for O’Donnell’s schtick, it was never a coincidence that if I was bumming around the house, I’d end up in the living room, pretending not to pay attention to her show.

One of the more memorable quirks of the O’Donnell persona was her near-obsessive crush on All the Right Moves star Tom Cruise. On an episode where Lea Thompson joined O’Donnell to promote Caroline in the City, O’Donnell played an eye-opening clip from the film and demanded Thompson dish on the experience.

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150 Films #5: All the President’s Men (1976)

The truth matters.

The news media drives me nuts, because I want every reporter to be a Bob Woodward or a Carl Bernstein. I want every editor to be a Ben Bradlee or a Harry Rosenfeld. Because, at the end of the day, what sets All the President’s Men (both the film and the book) apart from many tales of cover-ups and corruption is that it’s a story of the work, not what the work uncovered. It’s a story about the importance of a free press, and what it can accomplish when all the players want the same thing: the truth, the objective facts of the all-important five Ws.

Journalism has declined since the advent of cable news and, especially, the internet. It’s getting worse, too, as the social media electro-din gives meaning to the meaningless and spins stories before journalists even get their hands on them. Social media can be used as a tool, and so can cable news, and so can any other method of communication. But people tweeting are not journalists, and democracy doesn’t mean the truth becomes what the majority says it is.

All the President’s Men is the story of reporters pulling a string that, once unraveled, brought down the President of the United States. It’s the story of an editorial board keeping in check their exuberance, which at times bordered on irresponsibility. It’s the story of criminals who believed they were above the law, but perhaps not so above the law that they could get away with “disappearing” the only two reporters pulling at their string.

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