What makes The Big Lebowski memorable is its premise, in which it takes an age old narrative of the detective story and approaches it from an entirely new angle: what if everybody involved in the film thought they knew everything and in fact knew nothing? Loosely based on the Raymond Chandler novel The Big Sleep, it has such a strong identity and a telling narrative style that there is only one film making team that it could have come from: The Coen Brothers.
What is remarkable about the opening ten pages of The Big Lebowski is how long each of the scenes are, there are just five changes in location during those first ten pages, the last appearing right on the very end of page ten. Two of those scenes take up a whopping 8 pages, yet there is not a single line of dialogue that could be considered padding. Everything fits and every line adds something new and unexpected to the piece, and elevates each scene further. In fact, we can establish five major elements of the screenplay, in just five pages.
The Big Lebowski could easily be described as a slacker movie, but that would be missing out on a lot of details, considering the slacker in question becomes involved in a hostage situation filled with double crossing, extortion, and Shabbat. That tends to be remittal of a detective thriller or the crime film, which suggests a slightly different genre: parody. The Big Lebowski is a slacker parody of the hard-boiled crime novel The Big Sleep. The Coen’s have talked a lot about the influence Raymond Chandler novels had on the structure of the film and have acknowledged it’s a retelling of one of his most acclaimed works.
This includes mocking one of the staple techniques of Film Noirs, which were of similar ilk. The narrator is a dying breed in film making, often trapped in the more mediocre of films. The reason being that they have an unfortunate tendency to talk over a film and reveal information that could have easily been shown and not said and be far more rewarding to the viewer. In some circles it’s derided as a lazy and cheap script writing technique. In The Big Lebowski, however, it takes our expectations of the narrator and twists them, giving us a gag at the expense of The Dude as well as framing how we feel about the film before we even meet the main character.
We are floating up a steep scrubby slope. We hear male voices gently singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and a deep affable, Western-accented voice-Sam Elliot’s, perhaps:
VOICE OVER: A Way out west there was a fella, fella I want to tell you about, fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski. At least, that was the handle his lovin’ parents gave him, but he never had much use for it himself. This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude, that’s a name that no one would self-apply where I came from. But then, there was a lot about the dude that didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And a lot about where he lived, like-wise. But then again, maybe that’s why I found the place so darned interesting.
Although these are only the first two paragraphs of the film, they set up the genre and the tone of the film perfectly. Think of how a hard-boiled detective would introduce a film to its audience, like Double Indemnity, whose narration comes from a man recording his own confession: bitter, tense, and remorseful. The V.O. in The Big Lewbowski, however, is the complete opposite: non-threatening and homely. There is no sense of bitterness or betrayal that normally greets the audience, instead a feeling of warmth and good nature. As he talks about a guy called “the Dude,” the tone of the film is made abundantly clear: completely comic.
WORLD OF THE STORY
The narration is broken up by a shot of Los Angeles, which is the setting for The Big Lebowski. The narrator uses the first V.O. paragraph to set the tone of the piece, and then uses his second V.O. paragraph to create the world we are about to enter:
VOICE-OVER: They call Los Angeles the City of Angels. I didn’t find it to be that exactly, but I’ll allow as there are some nice folks there. ‘Course, I can’t say I seen London, and I never been to France, and I ain’t seen no queen in her damn undies as the fella says. But I’ll tell you what, after seeing Los Angeles and thisahere story I’m about to unfold—wal, I guess I seen somethin’ ever’ bit as stupefyin’ as ya’d see in any a those places, and in English too, so I can die with a smile on my face without feelin’ like the good lord gypped me.
Parodying the old detective narrative in which the town is full of bad eggs, our western accented guy settles for a softer description of the world. The Los Angeles we are about to enter is a place where wrongdoing is afoot, but has a few nice folks. The placement of ‘stupefyin’ in the middle of his rambling monologue is relevant, as it sticks out on the page. Stupefyin’ suggests that what is about to unfold is unbelievable, and that it will be farcical. The story will be a tale of idiots doing idiotic things. This will finally be confirmed when we meet our main character.
A film influenced by detective novels needs a man at the centre of the piece learning the secrets, and that man is Jeff Lebowski, although he prefers the name “Dude”. The film introduces him as the hero of the piece, although the opening paragraph suggests otherwise:
It is late, the supermarket all but deserted. We are tracking in on a fortyish man in Bermuda shorts and sunglasses at the dairy case. He is the Dude. His rumpled look and relaxed manner suggest a man in whom casualness runs deep.
He is feeling quarts of milk for coldness and examining their expiration dates.
What kind of guy trawls the supermarket isles, late at night, in his forties, carefully examining milk cartons for their quality? Our hero is introduced in traditional slacker terms, although his late age is a little unusual and suggests he has been a slacker for some years. Note how everything is tied together to establish Dude: The setting, the time, the appearance and the actions of Jeff Lebowski all described in simple terms which paint the picture of the man without resorting to specifically writing down that he is a slacker, neatly summarized and that last sentence as the most carefree man in the world. Without a hint of dialogue from the man or a page of exposition we now know the ethos of this guy.
This is all aided by a narrator who attempts to give our hero the introduction he feels the Dude deserves, but still can’t quite relate:
VOICE OVER: Now this story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early nineties - - just about the time of our conflict with Sad’m and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it ‘cause some- times there’s a man- -I won’t say a hee-ro ‘cause what’s a hee-ro?- -but sometimes there’s a man.
The Dude glances furtively about and then opens a quart of milk. He sticks his nose in the spout and sniffs.
VOICE OVER: And I’m talking’ about the Dude here- -sometimes there’s a man who, wal, he’s the man for his time’n place, he fits right in there- -and that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles
A checkout girl waits, arms folded. A small black-and white TV next to her register shows George Bush on the White House Lawn with helicopter rotors spinning behind him.
GEORGE BUSH: This aggression will not stand...This will not stand!
The Dude, peeking over his shades, scribbles something at the little customer’s lectern. Milk beads his moustache
VOICE OVER: And even if he’s a lazy man, and the Dude was certainly that- -quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County.
The Dude has his Ralph’s Shopper’s Club card to one side and is making out a check to Ralph’s for sixty-nine cents.
VOICE OVER: Which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide- -but sometimes there’s a man...sometimes there’s a man.
Although it is under the guise of a rambling monologue, it serves as a joke at the Dude’s expense. Its purpose is to show a narrator trying desperately to explain the ethos of Dude but unable to, possibly because he knows that the guy is hard to describe as nothing other than a drug addled hippie idiot. It’s funny to hear about a hero when the guy is sniffing milk cartons and cashing checks for 69 cents.
The dramatic situation unfolds on page 3 as the Dude returns to his apartment, and he is attacked in a case of mistaken identity. Film is a visual medium, and it is a general rule that you must show, not tell the audience about the characters and the plot. When you’re on page 3 of a screenplay and trying to establish a case of mistaken identity and throw a ‘lead’ to the Dude, then you have to rely on dialogue. Dialogue and conversations can be numbingly dull, so what the Coens do is spice things up:
His head is grabbed from behind and tucked into an armpit. We track with him as he is rushed into the living room, his arm holding the satchel flailing away from his body. Going into the bedroom the outflung satchel catches a piece of doorframe and wallboard and rips through it, leaving a hole.
The Dude is propelled across the bedroom and on into a small bathroom, the satchel once again taking away a piece of doorframe. His head is plunged into the toilet. The paper bag hugged to his chest explodes milk as it hits the toilet rim and the satchel pulverizes tile as it crashes to the floor.
The Dude blows bubbles.
VOICE: We want that money, Lebowski. Bunny said you were good for it.
Hands haul the Dude out of the toilet. The Dude blubbers and gasps for air.
VOICE: Where’s the money, Lebowski!
His head is punged back into the toilet.
(CONT’D. PAGE 4)
VOICE: Where’s the money, Lebowski!
The hands haul him out again, dripping and gasping.
VOICE: WHERE’S THE FUCKING MONEY, SHITHEAD!
DUDE: It’s uh, it’s down there somewhere. Lemme take another look.
His head is plunged back in.
VOICE: Don’t fuck with us. If your wife owes money to Jackie Treehorn, that means you owe money to Jackie Treehorn.
The Big Lebowski wastes no time establishing a conflict: Somebody thinks the Dude has a debt to pay. The scene unfolds quickly, mentioning money owed and the name Bunni going on to name her as a wife who owes money to Jackie Treehorn, important plot details broken up by the Dude being dunked four times by his mystery assailant. This is a good way of giving us something eye catching to look at while we take in these new plot details. Two intruders have broken into the Dude’s house asking for money, one of them committing the crime (peeing on Dude’s rug) that will drive him to action:
Beyond in the living room a young Chinese man unzips his fly and walks over to a rug
CHINESE MAN: Ever thus to deadbeats, Lebowski
He starts peeing on the rug
The Dude’s hand comes out of the toilet bowl with his sunglasses
DUDE: Oh, man. Don’t do-
BLOND MAN: You see what happens? You see what happens Lebowski?
The Dude puts on his dripping sunglasses
DUDE: Look, nobody calls me Lebowski. You got the wrong guy. I’m the dude man.
A mysterious case of mistaken identity and an unpaid debt to solve will be the driving force behind our enjoyment of the film, as the case becomes more convoluted and unbelievable. For the Dude, he has had a taste of this world, and he will inevitably fall straight into it, but his motives will be different to ours, he will not be so interested in uncovering the truth. He’s just wants reimbursement for the damage to his rug.
All protagonists have a goal in their lives, which define their actions, and with Jeff Lebowski that premise is simple: he is really upset about the rug. On a physical level there is a man versus man conflict at stake, which drives Dude’s early actions as he looks for his rug to be compensated. On a deeper level, there is a much trickier conflict:
BLOND MAN: Woo?
The Chinese man is zipping his fly
BLOND MAN: Wasn’t this guy supposed to be a millionaire?
They both look around
BLOND MAN: What do you think?
WOO: Looks like a fuckin’ loser
The Dude pulls his sunglasses down his nose with one finger and peeks over them
DUDE: Hey. At least I’m housebroken.
Dude’s ability to throw a pithy one liner back at the people who just assaulted him is perhaps part of the bigger problem in his life: he is a deadbeat loser, and he doesn’t care. The guy happily cashes checks for 69 cents and his appearance does not suggest he is a man with a job. Perhaps this mistaken identity throws up the perfect chance to uncover something radical and achieve something with his life, but for the Dude that doesn’t matter. It is all about the rug.
The two attackers have also committed an act of great stupidity, as they somehow manage to confuse a millionaire for a deadbeat that has no money whatsoever. One of the strong underlying themes of the film is that everyone in the film, on some level, is an idiot. For some, it’s that they don’t know the details, like Mauve Lebowski. Some like the rich Lebowski and Jackie Treehorn, look like they have the upper hand but their arrogance clouds their vision. And finally, some are just outright idiots, like the Dude, Donny, and of course Walter.