"Trapped by their pasts": noir and nostalgia in The Big Lebowski

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Author: Marc Singer
Date: Winter-Spring 2008
From: Post Script(Vol. 27, Issue 2)
Publisher: Post Script, Inc.
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,978 words
Lexile Measure: 1560L

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Although the Coen brothers routinely deny the possibility of any calculated meaning in their films, they nevertheless produce subtle and substantive works even in their most seemingly frivolous exercises. Perhaps no film better exemplifies this sly denial and assertion of meaning than their 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski. A parody of hard-boiled fiction and film noir--combined with Westerns, Cheech and Chong comedies, Busby Berkeley musicals, and of course bowling--the film nevertheless contains a serious treatment of the role of the past, particularly the antiwar tradition of the 1960s, in contemporary anxieties over politics, war, and masculinity. The Coens have appropriated the themes and conventions of crime fiction and film noir to produce a film about the disjunction between the counterculture of the sixties and the politics of the nineties, a film about the impassable gulf between past and present.

Not so much a nostalgia film, then, as a film about nostalgia, The Big Lebowski represents the past through a wide-ranging and voracious cultural pastiche. One of the most important referents in that pastiche is the Coens' appropriation of the plot and characters of Raymond Chandler's 1939 novel The Big Sleep. Superficially, this appropriation appears to be strictly parodic as the Coens update private eye Philip Marlowe into perennial stoner Jeff "the Dude" Lebowski. Yet their adaptation is also more scrupulous than it first seems, replicating many of Chandler's themes and creating a noirish narrative in which the characters are "trapped by their pasts" (Ethan Coen, qtd. in Robertson 99), gripped by an unshakable and often destructive nostalgia. This nostalgia renders the Dude, like Philip Marlowe before him, "an outsider in the modern world" (Phillips 249), a living relic of the sixties counterculture who has somehow survived into a world that vilifies him and his values.

The Dude's preservation of his countercultural past does not go uncontested, as several other characters struggle with him over the memory of the 1960s; it is no accident that the film is set during the Gulf War as the elder George Bush attempts to banish the spectre of Vietnam with a quick victory over Iraq. This conflict over the national memory highlights two related contests within the film, as the Dude and his fellow characters spar over the appropriate response to aggression and over the definition of manhood itself. The Coens repeatedly suggest, with facetiousness masking sincerity in the manner that has become one of their hallmarks, that The Big Lebowski revolves around the question of "What makes a man?" and that the Dude is "the man for his time n'place"--an unlikely representative of manhood and virtue who stands in stark contrast to, but cannot correct, the corrupted values of his era.

CHANDLER AND THE COENS

The Big Lebowski continues a Coen tradition of reworking the archetypes of hardboiled crime fiction. Much as Blood Simple (1984) and The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) draw upon the sinister love triangles and frustrated middle-class ambitions of James M. Cain, and Miller's Crossing (1990) the elaborate double-crosses of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A184745846