Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor.
- Raymond Chandler, The Simple Art of Murder
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. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles.
- The Stranger, The Big Lebowski
Robert Altman's 1973 adaptation of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye opens with Elliot Gould as Phillip Marlowe waking up in his apartment and sauntering out into the mid-70's LA evening to get food for his exceptionally picky cat. Altman and Gould have always been forthright about the fact that the loosely-intended conceit for this opening was a Rip Van Marlow scenario in which Chandler's iconic private eye of the 40s and 50s had fallen into a deep sleep and woken up a few decades later to find himself a man out of time. Gould wanders through the rest of the film encountering a distinctly Chanderlian roster of LA eccentrics and heavies, a decidedly moral and out-of-place figure eternally yet obligingly befuddled by the modern would in which he has found himself, his mantra an echoing "It's all right with me."
If it's all right with Gould, it's certainly alright with Dude.
While Altman literally brought Marlowe into the present day of the early
seventies, the Coens ease him into the early nineties by ossifying his very essence into the lackadaisically righteous soul of Jeff "the Dude" Lebowski. There is no cinematic scion more appropriate to take on Marlowe's dispassionately moral mantle than the Dude. As the narrator informs us, he is the man of his time and for his time. Even if the wrong with which he has been charged with righting is here nothing more than an unjustly besotted rug, even if he moves with more of a shuffle than an unshakable purpose through the streets of a comparatively tamer LA, and even though his pursuit is somewhat more flappable than his forbears, there is still some sense of justice that burns dimly within the pot-misted shell of a man who admits in one of his more tender moments that he helped draft the original Port Huron Statement ("not the compromised second draft"). The dark alleys have been lit with neon and aligned with ten pins, the rat-a-tat Tommy Gun fire replaced with the echoing ka-boom of a well-timed strike, but the Dude saunters along through them all the same.
Crime fiction had been the one most singular, consistent influence on the Brothers ever since the beginning. Blood Simple was a conscious attempt to capture the seedy, lust-soaked pages of James M Cain while Miller's Crossing is so indebted to the work of Dashiell Hammett that he probably deserves a posthumous co-writing credit. Lebowski's
form is all Chandler, from the shaggy dog nature of the overall story*
to the specific characters within (David Hiddleston's titular Big Lebowksi is
the inheritor of a proud tradition of wheelchair-bound millionaire plot
instigators). Jeff Bridges' performance as Lebowski the lessor may rest somewhat askew to the canon of cinematic Marlowes, drawn into a labyrinthine plot that he may not understand more by chance than by drive, yet they are kindred spirits. Much as Marlowe's world was irrevocably colored by the Last Great War, the Dude is a man haunted by the specter of conflict, an eternal pacifist whose best friend is a living reminder of an unjust war effort protested in futility. And just as the threat of Saddam looms in the Middle East promising a continuance of the cycle, the Dude is drawn ever deeper into the world of violence by his crazed companion. He stands in stark contrast to Chandler's loner by being a man kept constant company, often to his detriment, yet no matter how deeply he sinks, no matter what he encounters on the way, he is a man of unshakable resolve because he lives by a very specific, very refined code.
The Dude abides.
And as the world slides to the brink, as greed and avarice lead us to the edge of cold, unfeeling nihilism, he'll slide into a pair of bowling shoes and sip on his White Russian, and we'll rest somehow easier knowing that he's out there, takin 'er easy for us sinners.
*My favorite Chandler anecdote (and there are many when we talk about the man who called Alfred HItchcock a "fat bastard" and so frustrated Billy Wilder that the director start writing the Double Indemnity script in the office bathroom just to get away from him) is one that occured during production of the film version of The Big Sleep. In the middle of writing the screenplay, Howard Hawks and cowriter Leigh Brackett were having trouble figuring out who had murdered a particular character. They called Chandler for clarification, and upon re-checking his own manuscript the famously alcoholic writer called them back and confessed that he had no idea himself. If Big Lebowksi can be dismissed as nothing more than a shaggy-dog PI tale, it's at least in very good company.
Christopher Sailor is the Programmer of Education for the Atlanta Film Festival. He also waxes cinematic at chrissailor.com
The Big Lebowski screens at the Plaza this Thursday night at 9:30, and also Sunday afternoon at 1:00, as part of our Fall Focus on Directors screenings celebrating the work of Joel and Ethan Coen.