The Boston Phoenix
Review from issue: March 5 - 12, 1998

[Film Culture]

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Making it clear

The Coen brothers

by Gary Susman

NEW YORK -- Don't expect to find deep meaning in the utterances of the Coen Brothers, any more than you would expect to find it in their films.

Sure, if you ask about the inspiration behind The Big Lebowski, Ethan will explain, "The narrative is suggested by Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels. It's this episodic narrative about a character who's not a private eye in this case, just a layabout pothead who works his way through LA society trying to unravel this mystery."

And if you ask Joel why the characters are obsessed with bowling, he'll say, "We like the design aspects of bowling. The sort of retro aspects of it seemed like the right fit for the characters. One of the people this is loosely based on was in an amateur softball league in LA that really took up a lot of his time. We changed that to bowling because bowling seemed more compelling from a visual point of view." He adds, "It's the only thing that calls itself a sport where you can smoke and drink beer."

But mostly, the brothers (Joel is credited as director and Ethan as producer, but both direct, write, produce, and edit) have no trenchant explanation for any of their weirdness. Asked why they made Vietnam vet Walter (John Goodman) an observant Jew, Ethan replies, "What's the point of any of the characterization? It's a peg to hang a few gags on him. There's something about the incongruity of a Vietnam vet, gun buff, military fanatic being also a devout converted Jew that was appealing to us."

So you make a point of going for what will make the weirdest character? "Weird isn't the right word," says Ethan. "The most vivid character. Yeah, sure."

In fact, when asked at last month's film festival in Berlin whether the movie had any point at all, beyond laughing at German nihilists and Latino pederasts, Joel said, "I guess you hit the nail on the head."

Gary Susman reviews The Big Lebowski.

Jeff Bridges, who plays the film's stoner hero, the Dude, insists that the movie does have a moral dimension, though he's hard pressed to explain it. "I think it's a film about grace, how amazing it is that we're all allowed to stay alive on this speck hurled out into space, being as screwed up as they all are.

"Like, Fargo had a moral resonance to it. This one, I think, does as well. It may not be apparent to most people at first. But working in it, kind of bathing in this thing, it rang for me. It's not a real clear thing that you can say, `That's what it means.' It's a little different."

How did the Coens justify the film's quirks to him? "They kind of laughed. It's their style to have these weird things, like that Oriental guy in Fargo with that Fargo accent. Where does that go? It doesn't go anywhere. Or [in Lebowski] the dancing landlord. Why are you here? It's kind of lifelike. It rings true somehow."

Neither did the Coens explain much to Julianne Moore, who plays Maude, an aristocratic artist who mystifies and ensnares the Dude. "They don't really talk a lot, which I love. I don't like to talk a lot when I'm working. It gets in the way. They do seem to communicate in some symbiotic way. I really loved it because you have this duality that becomes the vision on the set. You get a larger breadth of artistic vision. There's always an eye there. Which I really enjoyed."

So if you have any questions, you can go to either one of them? "Yeah. Which I thought was extremely odd. I didn't discover that until the first day on the set, when Ethan came over, and the line was `Jeffrey, tell me a little about yourself,' and Ethan said, `Lose the "little," ' and he never told Joel, `I told Julie to do this,' which would take obviously an incredible amount of time. That's when you realize that they just do that. But Joel will come over and say something, and they just balance it that way."

Moore, however, is a trouper who doesn't question the strangeness, whether she has to dance in a dream sequence in a Valkyrie costume with bowling-ball breastplates or swoop across a room, spattering paint onto a canvas on the floor, while suspended naked in a harness. "I had no idea what they were going to do," she says of that scene. "I assumed I was going to be upright. I didn't know I was going to be like Superman. That was terrifying. And I was pregnant, and it was three in the morning, and I was 30 feet in the air, and they had to bring me up really fast. It was really strange, but it was worth it in the end."

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