Sometimes I Feel Like The Dude: Oh, To Be a White Russian Swilling Anti-Hero
My relationship with the Coen Brothers' films is somewhat tumultuous. It seems like for every excellent movie they make, there are two that leave me with reservations.This applies to their entire filmography because I find myself loving certain movies like Barton Fink and Miller's Crossing, yet am completely disappointed with others like Raising Arizona and The Lady Killers. I admit that I probably should delve more deeply into their later films; I've barely given them the chance. In my teenage years, I was something of a indie film snob; I stayed up late at night to watch Bravo and any independent film on Showtime or HBO. I was there for the everything from Floundering and Spanking the Monkey to Clerks and Pulp Fiction. The first time I saw Fargo was on Showtime when they were counting down the best independent films of 1996. My taste at the time wasn't so refined; I remember thinking that Swingers should win -- I had an early, cloying fascination with the swing revival. So I watched Fargo with a bit of apprehension, yet was instantly won over. From the understated script to the overstated accents (whether you like them or not), the brothers had crafted a winner. I was hooked.
I went and watched every other movie they had made, even those I had already seen, with a fresh eye. Of their early films, I especially liked Miller's Crossing. For a lower budget (at least for them) crime melodrama, the film has real staying power. The gritty noir trappings are culled from the work of Dashiell Hammett, but the settings, plot, and characters are pure Coen Brothers. Similar themes crop up again and again, whether they base their movies on true crimes or on fiction. With down to earth, yet larger than life characters, they craft stories that transcend each film. The bigger budgets in their recent films have watered down this characterization, despite the awards that the industry keeps heaping on them. I want to see more characters that draw me in, and leave me with a shock of recognition. I want to marvel at the skill they use when creating characters that seem fresh out of real life. While the brothers still craft strong characters, none are as strong as those in The Big Lebowski.
I still think it is their best film even if it wasn't nominated for any awards. The Coens tend to follow a pattern with their films; they make a "serious" one followed by a lighter one. The film contains elements of each type. While it might be labeled a dark comedy, it has more moments of serious vision and storytelling genius than many of their comedies, containing everything that makes their work so compelling: a good script, a tight plot (partially lifted from Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep), significant performances from star actors, but most importantly their most realized character, the Dude. Love him or hate him, you have to admit he really ties the plot together. The Dude is the perfect '90's anti-hero -- he is part bum, part hippie, part freedom fighter, and all around renaissance man. He brings a fine fashion sense and witty repartee to the party. And he doesn't know what is going on half the time. The man just wants to go bowling and drink his White Russian. He has been made a hapless hero, who screws up everything he does. Yet he does it with such style that he can't be faulted.
I was sitting at the bar the other night, nursing a White Russian instead of my usual craft brew, thinking of the Dude, and what it would be like to take his place. I can't imagine roving through life like he does, bouncing from one awkward situation to the next with just my wits to guide me -- The last hero of a long gone counterculture, embalmed in the Southern California climate like another fossil adrift in the La Brea Tar Pits. Next to his sidekicks, Walter and Donny, he is stolid, smoothly sailing over the crests and troughs of daily life. Yet he will take control of the situation if necessary. I sipped my drink slowly, drifting into the Dude's mind . . .
You have some Creedence tapes and a little booze. The local Ralph's Supermarket is open 24 hours. What else do you need? It is true that a whole life cannot be this kind of adventure. There are just days of bowling and boozing with little in between, when you are trying desperately to pay that next rent check or convince Walter that he is wrong. It is tiring being the voice of reason amidst a madcap, desperate landscape. The whispers of the patrons of the bowling alley echo in your booze-addled brain, yet you need to make quick decisions. Donny and Walter depend on you, not to mention Mr. Lebowski and those poor nihilists. So you do what you must; you fumble around resolving plot lines, becoming an unexpected hero in the process, who will be revered in story and song for years to come. In the meantime, you will abide.