what is the big lebowski about, you ask?

Well, basically, the book Tom Sawyer is about the olden days, back in the days of Huckleberry Finn. Back then, many people were so poor, they had no shoes and often wore only overalls with no shirt. The main character, whose name is Tom Sawyer, was so poor he had to paint something to earn money. Which is tough work, as I know, because I once had to paint a garage, and it took a long time.
–”Ask A High School Student Who Didn’t Do The Required Reading” (The Onion)

We are so determined to play your requests, here at the Kugelmass Episodes, that we’ll do it even if it means publishing undergraduate work that should never, ever be allowed back into the light of day. This one goes out to alert reader Sara Liner.

Reading this was so wonderfully comforting. No matter how dissatisfied I might be with what I write now, it’s fantastic to know that it could be much, much worse…and that it provably was, not so very long ago. “Locates his golden years”? Who the hell even says that? As for my experiments with the noun “veneer,” the less said, the better.

***

The Coens returned to the outcast comedy again with The Big Lebowski, about an unemployed bowler named Jeff Lebowski who becomes involved in the sordid affairs of a millionaire, also named Jeff Lebowski. It is immediately obvious that the Coens intend to draw a contrast: between a lazy, mellow man without ambition or greed, and a pathetic, scheming millionaire whose success is a veneer over corruption.

Except for The Dude and his friends, The Big Lebowski is peopled with stereotypes. Julianne Moore plays Maude Lebowski, a pretentious modern artist who we see splatter-painting, confronting The Dude about vaginal art and playing host to obnoxious colleagues. Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny is a hunted, irresponsible girl who pretends to kidnap herself in order to pay her debts. There are funny Germans with funny accents, moronic thugs, and vengeful sheriffs. And against them all is the Dude, whose equaniminity elevates him to the status of hero.

Much like Hi McDonnough in Raising Arizona, the Dude is completely unsuited for normal society. However, instead of hearkening back to the outlaw mythos of the 1970s, The Dude locates his golden years in the protest movements of the 60s. After a heyday of drugs and political action, the Dude has declined until all he has left are two bowling buddies and an apartment. Here the Coen brothers use several brilliantly shot fantasies to endorse the Dude’s complacency. In a series of surreal dreams, the Dude imbues bowling with a balletic grace that give it surprising dignity. And the fantasies themselves, unlike Hi’s prophetic dreams, are an escape from banality. All of the Dude’s fantasies occur after he is drugged, knocked unconscious, or about to be threatened. And the “happy ending” of the film is only possible because the Dude cannot be bothered to mourn his wrecked apartment or the abuse he unjustly receives. He accepts it as the price of contact with more “normal” members of society.

For much of their audience, the Coen brothers are beloved for their imaginative, offbeat comic sensibility. However, there is a deeper current to their films that elevates them above other pastiche comedies (like Kevin Smith’s Mallrats or Dogma). The heroes of the Coen films are simple, aging characters whose simplicity and integrity carry them intact through a whirlwind of complications.

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