Screen Studies
Introduction: Lebowski Yes and No

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Introduction: Lebowski Yes and No

The script for The Big Lebowski was the winner of the 1998 Bar Kochba Award, honouring achievement in the arts that defy racial and religious stereotyping and promote appreciation for the multiplicity of man. Rabbi Emmanuel Lev-Tov, the director of the Bar Kochba, is the editor of the quarterly T’keyah and author of the memoir You with the Schnozz. Upon delivering the award Rabbi Lev-Tov commended the script for its ‘charming depiction of a friendship between gentile and Jew’. Praise for the script has not been universal, however. The following is excerpted from But Is It Funny?, an analysis of The Big Lebowski by Sir Anthony Forte-Bowell. Forte-Bowell is the editor of Cinema/Not Cinema, a journal of movie semiotics, where this essay first appeared.

Humor may also derive from the distribution of pain among characters whose buffoonery precludes the viewer’s, reader’s or listener’s identification. To cite a familiar example, Moe raises two fingers in a horizontal V-shape and impels them toward the eye-sockets of Curly, who interposes his upraised hand and catches the V at its apex, thereby inhibiting the fingers from achieving their end. After expressing his satisfaction through the repeated utterance of a laugh-syllable commonly rendered ‘nyuk’, the attention of Curly is diverted by the right hand of Moe as it flutters up to and above eye-level while the audience, though presumably not Curly, hears a high-pitched tweeting sound. While thus distracting Curly with one hand, Moe strikes him sharply in the abdomen with the other, at which the audience, though presumably not Curly, hears a strike upon a tympanum. The final ‘nyuk’ of Curly is thus interrupted so that he may retrieve his forcibly ejected breath, and this new breath’s more gradual expulsion is so operated upon by his larynx as to form the sound commonly rendered ‘ooo’. When Curly meanwhile drops the hand formerly used to parry the assault upon his eyes in order to massage his insulted midriff, Moe avails himself of the opportunity to renew his digital attack upon the unprotected eyes, and succeeds in poking them, upon which success the audience, though presumably not Curly, hears a sound commonly associated with the release of a bent-back spring and usually rendered either ‘doing’ or ‘ba-doing’ (which sound, curiously, bears no relation to the sound that eyeballs actually give out upon being forcibly compressed). Moe will in some cases, if sufficiently angered either by Curly’s smugness or by some previous evasion of a punishment deemed appropriate by Moe, so far press his advantages as to quickly and repeatedly slap both of Curly’s cheeks, alternately forehand and backhand, while the audience and perhaps in this instance Curly himself (the convention here being ambiguous) hears the slapping sound amplified to an unnatural degree.

The pulling of Larry’s hair will not be considered here.

I will pause to note, however, the whimsy implicit in the very name given Curly either in wry acknowledgement or in absurd refusal to acknowledge what is striking about his physical appearance, videlicet his want of hair, et ergo a fortiori his want of curly hair. Analysis reveals no comparable whimsy at work in the assignment of names to Larry and Moe, and an historian might here note that Lawrence and Morris were the given names of the actors by whom they were respectively depicted.

All agree that these operations, or, more to the point, their depictions, are ‘funny’. What is more obscure and what even a frame-by-frame analysis of the films fails to reveal is wherein the nature of the humour resides. A similar difficulty attends analysis of the film under consideration. The Big Lebowski clearly harks back to films of the early 1970s that dealt with certain issues attendant to a presumed Generation Gap. In them, a youth who wears bell-bottomed trousers, beads, a shirt with a printed pattern and octagonal glasses, frequently tinted, is bedeviled by an older man wearing straight-bottomed trousers, a solid shirt, a tie with a printed pattern and curviform glasses, untinted, who ‘just doesn’t understand’. The more supple and intuitive intelligence of the youth is contrasted with the more linear and unimaginative intelligence of the older man, and in the end prevails over it, with the older man frequently arriving at a grudging appreciation of the youth’s superior values. If the movie is of the subgenre wherein the older man will not concede the youth’s superiority, then the older man shall be revealed to be a fossilized if not corrupt representative of a doomed order. The Big Lebowski appears to be some sort of ‘spoof’ upon this genre.

Repeated viewings of the movie have failed to clarify for me the genre-relevance of the themes of bowling, physical handicap, castration and the Jewish Sabbath. But perhaps we should not dismiss the possibility that they are simply authorial mistakes. Certainly the script could not be held up as a model of artistic coherence.

From Cinema/Not Cinema, April 1998. By permission