In a recent New Yorker, David Denby wrote a fairly backhandedly complementary piece on the Coen bros. Although the occasion for the essay was the brothers' Best Picture nomination (and eventual victory) for "No Country for Old Men," Denby proceeded to fairly seriously attack their entire body of work—and the films he does claim to like, he damns with faint praise. Basically, it fell into the tried-and-true "master-craftsmen, but cruel and cold" school of Coens criticism, a school with which I almost entirely disagree. Just so you know, this post started out as a letter to the editor and a conversation with my Dad. Two posts and 3,000 words later...(also, don't know why internet persists in single spacing the last half. Internet is magic.)
Denby spends quite a bit of time critiquing the Coens often burlesque treatment of supporting characters, which he finds cruel. What’s more, they hold up all of their characters as objects of ridicule, not as fully-formed people with whom we are meant to sympathize. He argues that the Coens’ films are neither sufficiently reverential of film history, nor sufficiently humanistic. Rather, they are cold parodies of earnest genres with a strong dose of elitist misanthropy at their core. At the center of this argument is a two-pronged observation: 1) the Coens’ characters are backward and stupid. 2) They are ridiculed and punished for their stupidity. Denby on the brothers’ first film, “Blood Simple”:
“What interests the Coens is how foolishly people behave, and how little they understand of what they’re doing. The lovers keep misreading signs and misperceiving what’s going on. The Coens may be the first major filmmakers since Preston Sturges to exploit the dramatic possibilities of stupidity. In Sturges’s movies, however, you don’t feel that the rubes and yokels are being put down. […] In [the Coens] world, stupidity leads to well-deserved disaster.”
This statement is the central misinterpretation in the piece. I’ve always understood “Blood Simple” in particular, and the greater portion of the Coens’ earlier work in general, to be, not a treatise on human stupidity, but a demonstration of the failure of information. It’s true that the characters constantly misinterpret, but only because they don’t’ have access to the viewer’s omniscient perspective; they can’t possibly know that their information is wrong until it’s too late. The subtle misunderstandings and cases of mistaken identity build over the course of the film and culminate in a climax in which literally none of the characters’ assumptions are correct. It is not that “stupidity leads to disaster” but that the breakdown of truth-correspondence is, itself, the disaster. Certainly, there’s no shortage of human malice and cruelty, but the main characters are victims of this malice and of the radically untrustworthy world in which they find themselves.
Deception and tragic misunderstanding have been narrative engines since forever, but the very structure of “The Big Lebowski,” subsists almost entirely on misinformation. The film, at first, seems to be a story of a kidnapping and subsequently blown ransom, with various groups and individuals serving as the chief suspects. It’s handled as farce, sure, but at least there seems to be a reliable plot. But, as the film proceeds, every single one of our assumptions turns out to be false; none of the usual suspects turn out to be culpable. In fact, there’s no kidnapping at all and no ransom money; in fact, the real heart of the movie truly is a stoner, The Dude, attempting to replace his urine-soaked carpet.
It’s true that, as Denby says, the film’s incredible likeability derives from its goofy sweetness, but it is not simply “ a tribute to harmlessness, friendship, and team bowling.” There is a radical skepticism at work here that is far from harmless. Though he is reportedly an author of the Port Huron Statement, The Dude has one of the most hilariously limited vocabularies in history. What’s more, he and his bowling buddies—the John Milius-inspired, maniac ‘Nam vet, Walter, and the loveable but vacuous Donnie—subsist mostly on repeated clichés and sayings, most of which are recycled media sound-bytes (particularly H.W.’s pre-Gulf War national address). And the entire film takes place within this absurd, perfectly L.A. milieu of performance art, radical nihilism, pornography and freeways, a world in which both plot and language have been revealed to be empty of content. It would be hard to find a more complete (and funny) treatise on millennial culture and the decay of meaning-based discourse.
I see “The Big Lebowski” as the culmination of the Coens fascination with the unreliability of formerly stable structures: narrative, political idealogy, language itself. To me, the characters are not so much fools, as prisoners of a world in which the traditional modes of communication are inadequate. This is definitely cynical, and the worlds they create are full of people at their worst, but its not misanthropic. In fact, the Dude’s gentle nature and the sweet, funny way in which the Coens handle his story—and, I think, the comedic tone of all their films as well as their obvious enjoyment of film culture—points to a real tender-heartedness, a real sympathy for the ridiculous fix we’re in.