Like most prolific authors of a certain age (i.e., middle), I’ve written dozens of uncollected essays, articles, and reviews that vanished into the Black Hole of Forgotten Journalism shortly after they saw print. The posting that follows is cobbled together from a couple of pieces I wrote back in the Nineties, neither of which made it into A Terry Teachout Reader. In the unlikely event that any of you read either one of them when they were originally published, pardon my redundancy. Otherwise, I hope you find this recycled version interesting.
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The surprising thing about American movies is not that most of them are stupid, but that any of them are smart. This blinding flash of insight came to me a few years ago as I sat in my neighborhood movie house and watched a more than usually boneheaded reel of trailers advertising the summer’s coming attractions. I wouldn’t have willingly paid a quarter to see a single one of them, even with free popcorn thrown in. Of course they were dumb. They’re supposed to be dumb, so as to attract the largest possible audience of paying dummies.
Just because I’m not a cynic doesn’t make me an optimist, though. I know I’m betting against the house every time I walk into a theater. For this reason, I sometimes find myself temporarily disarmed by a movie that is smart on the surface; less often, a film may simulate smartness so effectively that I go home thinking it was good, and only later realize that I’ve been hornswoggled. Joel and Ethan Coen fall between these two stools. I’ve seen most all of the Coen brothers’ movies, and in nearly every case I had the same sequence of mixed feelings, not after the fact but on the spot. First came a rush of something like relief, usually within the first minute or two: whatever else Blood Simple, The Hudsucker Proxy, and Fargo were, they weren’t stupid. Thus reassured, I relaxed and started to enjoy myself–but then second thoughts started to creep in, not about how smart the Coens were, but about the ends to which their smartness was being put.
The movie that finally caused me to make up my mind about the Coen brothers was The Big Lebowski, in which they explicitly satirized the film noir conventions with which they played in Blood Simple and Miller’s Crossing. In case you’ve forgotten, The Big Lebowski is the story of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, a former SDS member who spent his undergraduate days occupying administration buildings and smoking dope by the kilo (his sole achievement in life is to have helped write “the original Port Huron Statement–not the compromised second draft”), has renounced his dreams of revolution and retired to Los Angeles, the paradise of sloth and disillusion, where he draws unemployment, slurps down White Russians more or less continuously and hangs out at the neighborhood bowling alley with his foul-mouthed friends. But someone has been telling lies about the Dude, for one fine day a pair of hired thugs, mistaking him for a self-made millionaire of the same name, smash up his apartment and urinate on his rug. He thereupon seeks out “the big Lebowski” for a chat and promptly finds himself swept up in a kidnapping.
What follows is straight out of Raymond Chandler–the wheelchair-bound client, the blonde trophy wife, the sex-crazed daughter, the rich pornographer, the impossibly complex plot whose various elements never quite mesh–except that Philip Marlowe, the sardonic knight errant of The Big Sleep, has been replaced by the Dude, an unfailingly amiable slacker who reacts to the chaos swirling around him with a combination of befuddlement and good humor, pushing his remaining brain cells to the limit as he endeavors to puzzle out who did what to whom.
Like all of the Coens’ movies, The Big Lebowski crackles with disdain for the irredeemable banality of American mass culture. Even Fargo, the first of their films to appeal to a popular audience–and the only one to suggest a certain grudging respect for the traditional values it portrays–took a decidedly dim view of life in small-town Minnesota. It’s surely no coincidence that the Dude, who is alienated to the point of paralysis, is also the only person in The Big Lebowski for whom we are meant to feel anything more than amused scorn. Far more representative of the Coens’ now-familiar stock company of blithering idiots is Walter Sobchak, the Dude’s bowling partner, a pistol-packing Vietnam vet whose impenetrable stupidity is matched only by his unshakable conviction that he knows the one best way to do everything. Leave it to the Coens to make a joke out of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Scorn is the gunpowder of satire, and The Big Lebowski is so keenly observed that it’s tempting to treat it as a serious critique of the moral emptiness of American life. It helps that there’s so much to satirize in the apathetic lifestyles of such hapless members of the contemporary lumpenproletariat as Walter and the Dude, not to mention the latter-day cult of noir: both phenomena, after all, are expressions of the homegrown quasi-nihilism that is fully as intrinsic to the American national character as the Puritan work ethic which is its inversion.
But noir, for all its tiresome affectations, really does pose a challenging ethical question: how can a man conduct himself with honor in a radically corrupted society? This, needless to say, is the whole point of Chandler’s novels, The Big Sleep very much included. Philip Marlowe may talk in wisecracks, but there is nothing frivolous about the way he struggles to preserve his integrity in the face of temptation. Nor are the unhappy children of the Sixties who inhabit The Big Lebowski wholly deserving of our contempt. Though they made desperate messes of their lives, their foolishness arose from genuine idealism, however misbegotten, and if they failed to appreciate the values of the society they proposed to dismantle in the name of peace, love, and understanding, it was in no small part because their parents, worn down by the Great Depression and World War II, proved unwilling to defend those values when push came once again to shove.
As for Joel and Ethan Coen, it turns out that they, too, are nihilists, albeit in the postmodern manner: believing in nothing, they find everything funny. This is why their movies so rarely engage the emotions, and thus lack the dangerous edge of real satire. Satire occurs when scorn is ignited by passion, a commodity rarely found in the work of the Coens, who prefer Gen-X cool to baby-boom angst. The last thing they’d want is to be caught feeling something intensely.
“He’s a nihilist,” Maude Lebowski says of one of the heavies in The Big Lebowski, to which the Dude cheerfully replies, “Oh, that must be exhausting.” Indeed it is, and the Coens, like the Dude, are too tired to do anything but poke clever but ultimately pointless fun at the morally null world in which they live. True postmodernists, they look into the abyss and laugh.