Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Greatest Film Ever Made

There are several different lists of the greatest films ever made (the American Film Institute's is the best known), and most of these lists consistently rank films like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Casablanca as the best film of all time. While I have absolutely no problem with any of these films, their selection is just a bit too predictable and safe for my liking. If I was asked to pick the great work of celluloid, I would have to go with something a bit more eclectic and interesting. For many years my own list included such questionable films as They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Lovers and Other Strangers, and The Apartment. Now I found a film that I think rightly deserves to be called THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME.

What is this cinematic masterpiece, you may be wondering? It's actually a film that didn't do very well when it first came out in 1998. In fact, many critics at the time panned it and most movie goers didn't even notice it. The film turned out to be a money loser for a pair of brothers whose previous films were often hailed as cinematic masterpieces. The general consensus was that the film was lightweight - fun, but lacking any sort of real depth.

Turns out that everyone at the time was completely wrong about this film. In fact, the first time I saw this movie, I didn't think very much of it at all. Sure I laughed at a few of the more obvious jokes, but the film left virtually no discernible impression on me. I barely thought about it at all until just recently when I was looking for something mindlessly diverting to watch and decided to rent it on Netflix. I was probably in a more expansive state of mind at the time, because the second time I watched this film I was absolutely enraptured by it. Every line was poetry to me, every performance in the film flawless, the cinematography breath-taking, the direction sublime.

So what is this film, you are probably itching to know by now? It's The Big Lebowski, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, the creators of such outstanding films as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Raising Arizona. Fargo, released in 1996, was such a quirky, original film that it is hardly surprising that The Big Lebowski, which was made only two years later, would seem almost trivial in comparison. That is indeed unfortunate, because, while Fargo was brilliant in its portrayal of the banality of evil, The Big Lebowski is actually the ultimate existential film.

The premise of the movie is actually quite simple: Jeffrey Lebowski (aka "The Dude") is a total slacker, concerned only with bowling and getting stoned. His life is turned upside down when he is mistaken for another wealthy Lebowski (the "Big Lebowski" of the title), whose wife owes money to a local pornographer, Jackie Treehorn. Treehorn's thugs commit the ultimate act of desecration when they urinate on the Dude's favorite rug - a rug which "really tied the whole room together." Egged on by his moronic friend, Walter Sobchak, the Dude attempts to get the Big Lebowski to make restitution for his soiled rug. The rest of the film involves the Dude getting increasingly intertwined in the mystery concerning the possible kidnapping of Lebowski's trophy wife, Bunny, and the delivery of ransom money to the kidnappers.

The plot in this film is almost irrelevant, because the Cohen brothers' whole point is to capture the fundamental absurdity of the human condition. The Dude just wants to get through life as comfortably as possible, but life keeps throwing stumbling stones in his path. I believe that he represents the ultimate ideal of Buddhist enlightenment: the man who refuses to get caught up in vain, worldly desires and therefore is impervious to the effects of karma. The Dude is the Bodhisattva of ultimate wisdom and compassion.

The Dude can be contrasted with Donny, who is "out of his fucking element" (i.e., unconcerned with the Dharma) and, even more so with Walter, whose experiences in Vietnam cause him to mistakenly believe that he can control reality. The Dude is willing to follow Walter's advice, but every time he does so, he winds up making his own life much more difficult. At the end of the movie, we come to realize that there was no kidnapping of Lebowski's wife (i.e., life is fundamentally absurd), Donny is dead, the carpet is still soiled (the reality of human suffering), but "the Dude abides" anyway (he returns to his normal state of samadhi).


Alright, maybe I'm pushing it just a bit with my labored Buddhist interpretation of the film, but if nothing else, The Big Lebowski is a damn funny film, as the following bits of dialogue clearly demonstrate:

The Dude: Look, let me explain something to you. I'm not Mr. Lebowski. You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. That or His Dudeness... Duder... or El Duderino, if, you know, you're not into the whole brevity thing.

Maude Lebowski: What do you do for recreation?
The Dude: Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.

The Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
The Dude: Dude.
The Big Lebowski: Huh?
The Dude: Uhh... I don't know sir.
The Big Lebowski: Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?
The Dude: Hmmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles.

The Dude: Walter, what is the point? Look, we all know who is at fault here, what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: Huh? No, what the fuck are you... I'm not... We're talking about unchecked aggression here, dude.
Donny: What the fuck is he talking about?
The Dude: My rug.
Walter Sobchak: Forget it, Donny, you're out of your element!
The Dude: Walter, the chinaman who peed on my rug, I can't go give him a bill, so what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: What the fuck are you talking about? The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT... Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.

The Dude: Walter, this isn't a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy...
Walter Sobchak: What the fuck are you...?
The Dude: Walter, he peed on my rug!
Donny: He peed on the Dude's rug.
Walter Sobchak: Donny you're out of your element! Dude, the Chinaman is not the issue here!

Who but the Cohen Brothers could possibly come up with dialogue as nutty and absurd as this? Every minute of the film is punctuated by incredible dialogue like this, delivered perfectly by phenomenal actors like Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and especially, John Turturro, who I believe deserved an Academy Award for his portrayal of The Jesus. Three or four minutes of screen time in total and Turturro creates one of the most memorable characters in film since Scarlett O'Hara. If that kind of performance doesn't merit an Academy Award, then I can't imagine what does!
You can keep all those trite, predictable films that typically are considered "masterpieces of cinema." When I want to watch a damn flawless piece of movie magic, it is going to be The Big Lebowski or nothing. The Dude abides, man.

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