Archive for The Big Lebowski


Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 10, 2015 by dcairns


Pting. Vessooey. Wooch.

I never saw THE MASTER on the big screen. I missed the 70mm screenings in Dublin by days, and the big print never made it to Edinburgh. Apparently the London cinema that had first dibs on it had booked their best projectionist to handle it, but decided to save a little money by letting a less experienced employee take care of the press screening. He wrecked the print.

Bliffle. Wazzmap. Trintrintrittock.


And I wasn’t completely sure I was going to bother with seeing INHERENT VICE in 35mm — Fiona, influenced by bad reviews, wasn’t interested, and a few friends reported disappointment and bafflement. I let the Cameo screenings slide by. But, on a whim, I popped along to Filmhouse 3 after work yesterday — and I really, really liked it. But it’s put me in quite a strange frame of mind. Vuvuvungle. Ilm. Fffffiip.

Another thing that had put me off slightly is that I had read the book, and found it extremely slight by Pynchon standard. Not just thin physically — The Crying of Lot 49 is also slender — but conceptually. It seemed filmable, but a director of Paul Thomas Anderson’s stature, should have selected a LESS filmable book and then grappled with its challenges/impossibilities.

I mean, we’d already had Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE, which maybe didn’t overtly male Philip Marlowe a stoner, but by casting Elliott Gould at least implied as much. And then THE BIG LEBOWSKI made it literal. Pynchon’s “Doc” Sportello seemed doubly redundant, and more so as a movie character. Trahumph. Crrrrk.


Since seeing the movie, I have a Tourettes-like urge to make silly noises, rather in the manner of Jerry Lewis in WHICH WAY TO THE FRONT? when he can’t handle rejection. Vooolf.

Burke Stodger, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Sauncho Smilax… Wrrrab. Sporf. Maybe it’s the onslaught of Pynchonian names, even more overpowering on the screen, where an actor has to actually introduce himself as Dr. Threeply. Giddiness sets in. Watching lots of drugs being consumed doesn’t usually produce any vicarious effect in me except perhaps boredom, though the fast cutting in the brownies scene in I LOVE YOU, ALICE B TOKLAS did make me feel kind of sick. FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS, watched on a single glass of wine, did produce some kind of elation, and I kind of caught Brad Pitt’s mania from TWELVE MONKEYS. Preet. Prott. Hespelafigo.

Luckily there was nobody at the bus-stop after the film so I could Vrrroop and Pleck and Spraddlekoffup to my heart’s content.


I will discipline myself. No more eruptions. Anderson’s film is flawed — I don’t mean that it’s impossible to follow — I actually understood most of it better than I understand THE BIG SLEEP, and I suspect a repeat viewing would clear up the remaining mysteries (which are not insignificant: what the hell was Bigfoot Bjornsen trying to achieve with the stolen drugs?). But there are plainly too many two-hander scenes in which Joaquin Phoenix (very funny) sits down with an informant and gets told some more plot. In one lengthy exchange over a canister of nitrous oxide (which literally induces laughter here, something I understand to be pharmacologically inaccurate), Anderson serves up the exposition in a pair of closeups against featureless white walls in a tiny cubicle, until I felt suffocated of all visual stimulation (kind of like the incomprehensibly long two profile shots outside the church in KILL BILL: death by understimulation). But those white walls showed up the grain nicely.

I wasn’t sure how nostalgic I felt about celluloid. When the censor’s certificate came on at the start, scratched to buggery and out of focus, I thought, “Oh, I haven’t been missing THIS.” But that dancing pointillist patina… a film that so successfully evokes its period would be impossible on digital, even with all the colour manipulation available. This experience is akin to time-travel.


Oh yes, the movie’s flaws. It’s overlong and overshoots its climax by what feels like twenty minutes. But it has Owen Wilson, the heart of the movie. (The melancholy of the first scene, with the protean Katherine Waterston — one of a regiment of scratchy-voiced chicks rocking the natural look — sets up the undercurrent of sadness that Pynchon gets at in his prose sometimes but never in the actual SCENES of the novel, so it’s a brilliant piece of adaptation to me). It has Martin Short, channelling Burgess Meredith at his most Creep Factor 11, filtered through a layer of Phil Spector. Genius. I mean, NOBODY does Burgess Meredith. Short has a history of crystallizing the madness of whatever film he’s in, presenting it in a purer, more intoxicating form (MARS ATTACKS!). Josh Brolin, presenting the Tragical Comedy or the Comical Tragedy of Whiteman (to quote the Robert Crumb cartoon: “I must retain this rigid position or all is lost!”) Benicio Del Toro, underselling his quirkiness, which makes it even more striking. Some guys I don’t know so well are astounding: Jeannie Berlin, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jefferson Mays. And, in the “Where you been?” category, Eric Roberts and Martin Donovan.

This spaced-out Rockford Files won’t appeal to everybody. As I watched, I was wondering if my mum would like it. She enjoyed THE BIG LEBOWSKI… But this is more intense, peculiar, and dysfunctional. But it also has more of a purpose. Anderson, unlike Altman or the Coens, finds Sportello’s moral code admirable, I think. And the film’s elegiac quality, creeping up on you unexpectedly, is something far out of the register of its predecessors. Pynchon’s best bit in the book is the foreshadowing of the internet — it’s when the whole enterprise belatedly acquires some gravitas and atmosphere. Anderson deletes it entirely — but he captures the gravitas, and enhances the atmosphere.

Zzzzzzeeb! Hataracack.



The Story Ends

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 21, 2011 by dcairns

Last week, Mark Cousins’ epic series The Story of Film ended. Next year, Mark goes on tour with it, so watch in case he comes to your neighbourhood. I wrote about the series when it started, and promised to return to it.

Much of my original review was taken up with nitpicking over the early episodes’ factual errors — apparently many of these were due to the wrong edit being transmitted, which was very unfortunate. I’m glad to report that as the show went on, these lapses lessened considerably in severity and frequency, although they didn’t completely go away. TOP GUN wasn’t edited on a computer, could not have been at that time. And THE BIG LEBOWSKI was made in 1998, NOT during the Gulf War. Saddam Hussein appears in the dream sequence because the film is a period movie, not because “the war was on and the Coen brothers wanted to reflect that.” As always, the problem isn’t so much in the mistake, but in its knock-on effects. The Coens come to seem like realists with a social conscience, anxious to inject some political commentary into their light entertainment film — in fact, they’ve always been so keen to separate their films from contemporary reality, they set their film seven years in the past for no real reason. I think that tells you a lot about them, and it’s all different stuff from what you’d infer from the erroneous line.

My biggest criticism has been the use of VO in general — Billy Wilder’s rule that you should use narration only to convey things the audience can’t see or hear otherwise would have been a good one to follow here. Instead, time and again, Cousins describes exactly what we’re looking at. Sometimes this is actually fine — it focusses us on what we’re supposed to notice for the sake of the documentary’s overall argument. But too often it’s exactly as redundant as it sounds, and it not only gets in the way of appreciating the movie clips, it takes up time which could have been spent telling us what we need to know.

There are those who don’t like the quality of the voice-over, and Mark’s voice — “He does that questioning rising intonation, but he does it in the middle of a sentence!” complained one irate friend — but it doesn’t bother me. It’s such a personal and idiosyncratic view of film history that it wouldn’t make sense for anybody else to do it. And I like the voice. (I’ve heard some good impersonations, from Stephen Fry and Adam & Joe. I can’t do the voice, I can only do the walk.)

The last couple of episodes suffered from the fact that recent cinema is much harder to gain a perspective on — LA HAINE is a good film, but is it part of a particularly important movement in modern cinema? Or is it just a good film? If so, why include it, since you can’t possibly include every good film? But there are great encounters with Sokhurov, Roy Andersson, Jane Campion. Even Ken Loach, whom I don’t much like, has a great bit on his approach to editing (remind me to talk about this sometime) — he’s rarely asked about technique, as if “realism” were just a product of pointing the camera at ugly stuff.

The best stuff is in the third quarter, the fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties. The multinational perspective offered is genuinely unique in TV history, as we get not only Hollywood and Europe, but Japan, Hong Kong, Africa, Iran, Brazil… the series’ spine is the idea of film as a bunch of memes transmitted through time and across continents, and this helps binds the disparate threads together. But what it doesn’t necessarily create is the STORY promised in the title… since it would of necessity be an open-ended story, one with an insanely long cast of characters and more major incidents than can easily be recounted, where the sensational is at constant war with the significant, crafting a story is a tall order.

Cousins’ enthusiasm is his main driving force, and sometimes it gets in the way, spilling over into unhelpful and woolly superlatives about “the brilliance of the medium,” but when he suspends judgement he’s at his best — the aforementioned critique of TOP GUN avoids the expected slams directed at the film’s right-wing inanities, and instead details, rather deftly, the actual visual and aural qualities of the thing itself.

Nothing But the Night

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2011 by dcairns

Twitter has a purpose after all and, as it turns out, it’s nothing to do with fomenting revolution in Iran. When Jon Melville, a Twitterverse friend as well as a real-life one, tweeted that he’d acquired the new Criterion Collection Blu-Ray of NIGHT OF THE HUNTER, but had no means of watching it, I invited him round for dinner with alacrity (alacrity is a special sauce popular in Scotland). I have a player than can handle discs of different countries of origin, but not many discs to watch on it.

The Criterion disc is splendid, of course, as are the extras, but enough has been said elsewhere about that. Nor am I going to regale you with details of the splendid vegetable casserole Fiona prepared, nor the mulled wine quaffed. I want to talk about the film, for several posts, but where to begin?

A dull but perhaps original thought that came to me was that, boy, the Coens have been pilfering this movie for years. I haven’t seen TRUE GRIT yet, but have heard that the score relies heavily on Leaning on the Everlasting Arm, the hymn sung by Mitchum in Laughton’s classic. Which seemed like kind of a miscalculation: there are plenty of hymns to choose from, so why use one that will forcibly remind the audience of a great film, while they’re trying to concentrate on yours? The comparison is unlikely to be flattering, and I say that as one who admires six or so Coen films, and bits of some of the others.

“He was especially hard on the little things,” says Nicholas Cage of the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse in RAISING ARIZONA. “It’s a hard world for the little things,” says Lillian Gish in NIGHT.

“The Dude abides,” says the Cowboy in THE BIG LEBOWSKI. “They abide and they endure,” says Gish.

Even the use of jingling bells on the soundtrack to make Peter Stormare’s axe attack on Steve Buscemi “more Christmassy” — a whimsical idea in FARGO, or so it seemed to sound designer Skip Lievesay, who executed it — is anticipated towards the end of NOTH, where it’s startling but completely sensible.

I’d heard that the Coens liked to screen THE CONFORMIST and THE THIRD MAN to their crews before a shoot, which made sense as a way of getting the idea of self-conscious style into everybody’s head. The specific connections never seemed obvious until MILLER’S CROSSING, which features a hit in a forest and a romantic rejection at a funeral — but most of MILLER’S CROSSING is swiped from Dashiell Hammett anyway. The NIGHT OF THE HUNTER connection makes complete sense because of the idea of a mythic or biblical resonance being infused into a story with genre elements. Think of the reconfiguring of elements of SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (chain gang, freight car, picture show) into the narrative structure of Homer’s Odyssey in O, BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? Or the dybbuk, a wraith from Jewish mysticism, who turns up in a seemingly unrelated prologue to A SIMPLE MAN. All this could stem from a love of the way Laughton’s movie, taking its cue from Davis Grubb’s novel, interlaces the mundane with the numinous.

And that influence is a good thing, and it’s nice that some modern filmmakers have attempted to take up the gauntlet flung down by Laughton. Of course, the Coens don’t tend to take their characters and themes seriously enough for this stuff to actual resonate with anything outside cinema, but that’s them. I’m just not sure I like the paraphrases, in the same way I don’t much like Paul Schrader’s swiping of the end of PICKPOCKET for his AMERICAN GIGOLO. If you happen to see the more recent film first, it is apt to interfere with your first viewing of the older classic. Does the end of PICKPOCKET seem as “transcendental”, to use Schrader’s word, if you’re struck by a powerful sense of deja vu and see Richard Gere’s face superimposed over that of Martin LaSalle?