A Kiss After Supper
The Big Lebowski



in the exhausting effort to keep ahead of the tides, young friends, Stylus has a new column to offer you. We’re calling it A Kiss after Supper, and in it we’ll be tracing the expert use of pop music through some of the more music-friendly films of the past thirty years. With directors like Spike Jonze, Quentin Tarantino, and Wes Anderson using their robust appreciation for music in novel ways to document their stories through music as well as cinema, soundtracking is perhaps more critical to a film’s emotional tone than it’s ever been. As such, we thought it about time we wrote a little something on the issue...

Those of us tuning in to this little corner of the world on a regular biweekly basis have thus far seen some of America’s greatest filmmakers treated with an eye towards their use of popular music—beginning with Tarantino, we’ve since seen Scorsese, Wes Anderson, and Cameron Crowe (reserve judgment on the last gent) written about in ways that, to be sure, make it clear that rock n’ roll has irrevocably changed the face of movies.

But there’s one pair of American directors who have yet to be covered in AKAS: the Coen Brothers. But perhaps it’s appropriate—perhaps it’s fitting and just that the Coens, despite unquestionably being two of America’s greatest directors, regardless of era, have slipped so far down the line when we are immediately asked to recall those who have made great alliances between music and film. After all, there does occasionally seem to be something un-American about them, no? I don’t mean un-American like flag-burning, dog-eating patriotic heresy now. No, it’s much subtler than that. They just—they seem too knowledgeable, not raw enough, too refined in their editing to slide in enough rock n’ roll to occupy anything more than an EP’s worth of singles. Perhaps it’s because unlike Cameron Crowe, their most livened influences obviously derive from cinematic, rather than musical, history. Whether taking the genre of the gangster movie and turning it on its ear in Miller’s Crossing or parodying old Hollywood in Barton Fink, it’s difficult, I would imagine, to place pop music in a track appropriately when the movie’s epoch is well before The Ed Sullivan Show debuted. Thus, while the wealth of their work provides countless gems for movie buffs, it was not until The Big Lebowski was released in 1998 that the Coen Brothers truly produced a movie which integrated contemporary pop music into its overall aesthetic as seamlessly as many of their other American counterparts had done for much of their careers.

Anyone attending college after 1998 is surely familiar with The Big Lebowski, and it seems that the movie was destined to become, if not just a cult classic (which it has), then certainly a prominent piece of pop history, if only due to the plethora of one-liners the Coen Brothers managed to inject into the script. I understand it’s even become a ‘party-foul’ to utter a Big Lebowski one-liner unless it’s directly applicable to the situation at hand, which I think is generally probably a good rule—how many times can you hear some stoner say “Also, Dude, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature; Asian-American please” before you feel the irresistible and perhaps justified urge to throw him off the balcony? And any pop culture phenomenon in American film these days is almost certain to be backed up by a kick-ass soundtrack, and on this score the brothers Coen did not disappoint.

Though the movie opens with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” (as performed by Sons of the Pioneers (a tune likely owing its involvement to T-Bone Burnett’s role as ‘musical archivist’ for the film)) playing as the camera follows a tumbleweed across the urban terrains of Los Angeles while Sam Elliott’s mysterious, western-inspired narrator “The Stranger” serenely proffers a background for the Dude’s (Jeff Bridges) place in time and space, it is only after this cinematic epigraph, which finds our neo-hero drinking half and half straight from the carton and subsequently writing a check for sixty-nine cents to Ralph’s groceries during the middle of the night, that the movie’s engagement with pop music truly begins. The screen fades back to black and Bobby Dylan’s “The Man in Me” arrives on the scene in the midst of the Coen Brothers’ “Ode to Bowling”, a visual montage replete with all the bowling stroke material you’d expect from two of America’s greatest auteurs; close-ups of bowlers’ fat, ringed fingers drying themselves on the ball-return rack, fat men in polyester pants buttoned up around their nipples celebrating a strike, and the successful completion of the most dreaded 2nd roll in bowling—the seven-ten split, naturally completed by an egregiously fat man. All of these sublime images come onscreen in the visual foreground while the old bard’s raspy tenor melds with a laid-back, poppy, countrified melody that seems to infuse much of the rest of the movie with a similarly ‘everything’s gonna be alright’ feeling.

But while the song would be perfectly fitting if only for the emotional chord it strikes during this opening montage, the Coen Brothers, those old malcontents, couldn’t simply use music in the same Top Gun vein American audiences have all had to become used to. Not unlike many of the films previously covered in this pop playground, throughout The Big Lebowski music is a cinematic tool nearly on a par with lighting and camera angle in its import; perhaps we can see in the Coens’ increased reliance on music the first experimentations that would ultimately lead to 2000s near-musical outing O Brother, Where Art Thou?, but regardless, their burgeoning reliance on contemporary pop music in The Big Lebowski ultimately sees their soundtrack do what all well-laid soundtracks do; it offers the directors a means of amplifying and altering viewers’ understanding of the onscreen action. Whether a song’s lyrics help give subtext to a character’s motivations or the music ideologically pits a hero against a villain, The Big Lebowski, more than any previous Coen Brothers film, relies on popular music as an integral part of its aesthetic makeup. When taken in conjunction with The Stranger’s just-finished opening explication that “Sometimes there’s a man—I won’t say a hero, ‘cause what’s a hero—but sometimes there’s a man—and I’m talkin’ about the Dude here—sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man, for his time and place,” the implication for Dylan’s opening and recurring lyrics become crystalline. Expressed best not as a statement but rather a question, posed by none other than the big Lebowski himself when he asks the Dude “What makes a man?,” The Big Lebowski thematically concerns itself with determining a man’s worth. The big Lebowski’s concern with ‘achievement’ is starkly contrasted with the Dude’s ‘fuck-it’ attitude, while both run contrary to the faux-nihilism of Bunny Lebowski’s faux-kidnappers as well as Walter Sobchak’s Vietnam-obsessed irrationalism.

Though the film reworks several genres which the Coens have long displayed a fondness for, the movie most consistently vamps off of a long tradition of film noir the brothers are obviously very familiar with. Treated before in Blood Simple (1984) and since in The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), the Coen Brothers here succeed in concurrently parodying and paying homage to movies like The Maltese Falcon and Out of the Past, movies which, while punctured by stunning directorial work, rely on plot points which somehow seem hyperbolic and out of place in the 1990's. In The Big Lebowski everything that doesn’t overtly scream of 1950’s studio-westerns screams of film noir—from the intertwining, nefarious plots to the heavy-handed back lighting and zooming camera angles—yet it all comes complete with a satirical, darkly comedic edge which ultimately not only makes the material some of the duos’ most original, but also remains as something only the Coen brothers possess sense enough to achieve without making it seem gross or overbearing.

Perhaps the best instance of the Coens’ parody of film noir is the extreme subjective-camera close-up that takes place as the Dude is conversing with Jackie Treehorn. The Dude seems to have magically transformed himself into a cunning gumshoe overnight—after Jackie gets what seems to be an important phone call, the Dude quickly stencils over the notepad Jackie has just written on, only to disappointingly discover a sort of ‘man with large phallus’ stick-figure drawing—but it is the exact exploitation of these sorts of film noir markers, and the Dude’s hapless application of them, that provides so much of the movie’s comedic edge. Rather than having a character play the straight man, the Coens here use the audience’s expectations of genre as their straight man, in turn freeing up both Bridges’ and Goodman’s characters to provide laughs. Regardless if viewers are aware of it while watching the scene, the sudden, zooming camera focusing in on a minute detail evokes a context that, even if you can’t identify its roots consciously, still gives a good belly-laugh as you identify this betrayal of the Dude’s efforts as he tries to play by the game’s rules.

But back to the music. Laden with a mixture of golden oldies and classic rock hits that help give context to its characters all the while providing an expanded, dreamlike imaginative ground upon which the convoluted plot may unfold, the most striking aspect of The Big Lebowski’s soundtrack is the sheer number of covers it includes. One of the film’s most memorable moments is driven completely by the overlaid track, as the Gipsy Kings’ mariachi-inspired cover of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” accompanies the audience’s introduction to John Turturro’s unforgettable character, Jesus Quintana. Starting off slowly, with Jesus pederastically licking his bowling ball while a single guitar plays the opening lines of the Eagles’ most famous ballad as if expecting to find the audience reclining in Chi Chi’s during happy hour, the song builds to the climactic, celebratory post-strike Jesus jig, with Turturro completely clad in purple polyster, prancing across the lanes with a slimy macho swagger. Though we don’t realize it upon first viewing the scene, the choice of an Eagles cover later buoys viewers’ understanding of the relationship between the luckless neo-heroic duo of Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and the Dude and their arch bowling-nemesis Quintana. When the Dude exhorts a cab driver to change the channel, citing the fact that he “hates the fuckin’ Eagles,” while the radio plays “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” the meaning of this earlier, tongue-in-cheek use of the 70s supergroup’s most well-known tune is cemented in viewers’ minds. Though hating the Eagles, one of the Dude’s most common refrains, “Take it Easy,” is also of course the title of one of the group’s bigger hits (from 1990's Greatest Hits: Volume One), though the direct inclusion of the song would doubtlessly have seemed a bit heavy-handed. But that is how the popular soundtrack is used throughout the film—artists and their song lyrics are used and then juxtaposed against other artists with an effect that ultimately mirrors the plot and character contradictions inherent in any film noir.

The Dude, regardless of his pseudo-ascendancy in society over the course of the film’s hour and forty-five minutes, seems nonetheless to be a man stuck in time when left to his own devices, a point reinforced by his own private soundtrack. With his “Credence” being one of the meager things of value he has stolen by 15 year-old Larry Sellers, the Dude’s time on screen is largely spent accompanied by classic rock artists who blossomed during the same fertile musical era as CCR. Somewhat giddy over his success at bilking the big Lebowski out of a rug, the Dude relaxes with a white Russian while listening to Captain Beefheart’s “Her Eyes Are a Blue Million Miles.” As he immerses himself in the seedy world that comes with being first a courier and later a private-dick, his adventures with Walter are variously accompanied by CCR’s Vietnam-inspired “Run Through the Jungle,” and Santana’s “Oye Como Va,” the former of which plays during the duos’ hilarious botched ransom-delivery, which variously includes Walter rolling out of the car at “15 MPH” with an Uzi that subsequently shoots up the Dude’s car prior to the German nihilists absconding with Walter’s dirty undies.

The Dude’s dream sequences, the place where the Coens most effectively manage to pair music and cinema, are DJ’d variously by a reprisal of Dylan’s “The Man in Me” and later Kenny Rogers and First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” the latter accompanying a long, choreographed dance number which perfectly collects and makes accessible to viewers the Dude’s unconscious motivators—Maude, bowling, and, later, the fear of having his dick cut off (by that time Kenny Rogers has of course ceased playing). While we variously hear the Dude listening to a number of other noteworthy songs (including, but not limited to, Elvis Costello’s “My Aim is True” and immediately thereafter CCR’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” and Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Behave Yourself”) the movie ultimately ends with more covers, the music itself seeming to mirror the film’s increasingly-laughable parody of its forebears. In what is perhaps a last nod to its own oftentimes ridiculous blend of western and detective story, urban farce and moral fable, Elvis’ “Viva, Las Vegas” is covered not once but twice during the movie’s last twenty minutes—first by Big Johnson, to which Bunny (Tara Reid) blithely sings along as she drives right past the Dude on her way home through Malibu, oblivious to all that has gone on around her during the previous few days, and later in the ending credits, this time as performed by Shawn Colvin. As the Dude returns to his normal, routine life, symbolized by the incessant rhythm of bowling pins being recycled, Townes Van Zandt’s cover of The Rolling Stones “Dead Flowers” comes on. The epitome of country-inspired rock when it was released by the Stones on Sticky Fingers, Van Zandt’s version is a fitting one to take the audience out to credits; countrified and less gritty than the original, the song sounds confused and out of place, like a misshapen blending of styles that nonetheless seems as appropriate to The Stranger’s final remarks as the mariachi-infused “Hotel California” was to the Jesus jig.



By: Drew Miller
Published on: 2004-09-08
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