"Deus Ex Machina and The Big Lebowski"
Deus ex machina Ė A God out
of the machine; a deity introduced to bring about the denouement of
a drama; referring to the machinery and practice of the Greek and Roman
stage. [Websterís New 20th Century Unabridged Dictionary].
The basic concept of
deus ex machina is the intrusion of the author (the creator)
into the machinery of the story, to keep the story going or to end it.
Itís a cross between coincidence and melodrama. It is the cry of the
weak, apathetic, unimaginative author throwing up his or her hands in
despair and proclaiming to heaven, "I donít care!"
What brought this thought
on was watching Joel and Ethan Coenís "The Big Lebowski," which just
came out on tape. I would say this is neither their best nor their worst
movie, falling smack in the middle of their ever-growing oeuvre,
which has become as regular and incessant as Woody Allenís annual offerings.
I sit here and wonder
sometimes, in an utterly envious way, what it must be like to be in
the always finance-able, constant green-light position of filmmakers
like Woody Allen and the Coens. Why bother doing any re-writes or even
finishing your script when youíve got a shooting schedule to keep? Iíve
heard stories and totally believe that Woody Allen and his team can
get a movie up and shooting faster than anyone around. I bet the Coens
When writing a story,
if you donít know where youíre going or why, deus ex machina becomes
the only way to motivate things. A perfect example is from "Raising
Arizona" in the baby abduction scene. In the world I live in, if, God
forbid, I wanted to steal someoneís baby, and went to the trouble of
climbing a ladder at night and sneaking through the window of the nursery
only to find myself presented with a bassinet full of babies (sextuplets,
or whatever it was), Iíd grab one and get the hell out of there. But
no! Instead, all the babies are taken out of the bassinet and let loose
crawling around, strictly so that the director (the creator; God) can
do cool, low-angle steadi-cam shots following the babies around. And
just by the way, what on Earth has Randall "Tex" Cobb as the Biker From
Hell got to do with the price of beans?
I must say I did laugh
four or five times at "Lebowski," entirely because itís filled with
top-notch performers, particularly John Turturro as Jesus the bowler,
who never pays off as a character and has no resonance; nevertheless
Turturro is great. Itís a good part for Jeff Bridges, too. He slips
into the part of "Dude" like he in fact always was and is Dude. John
Goodmanís one-note, loud-mouth, clichéd Vietnam vet became headache-inducing
for me. This is a standard Coen Bros. comedy character Ė someone who
yells all the time. Luckily, Dude is too stoned, drunk and laid-back
to yell too much. Steve Buscemi, who was terrific in "Fargo" (the Coenís
best movie), is entirely wasted in "Lebowski." Every time he attempts
to speak, John Goodman tells him to "Shut the fuck up, Donny." Itís
an unfunny running joke that allows the Coen brothers to not develop
this character at all. To then use Donnyís demise for the filmís finale
(sorry) is completely and totally empty, just like the rest of the film.
It is all in regard to nothing. A dog chasing its tail. A trifle, and
The best moments in
the movie, other than John Turturroís two scenes, are when Dude is unconscious,
which occurs three times if I recall correctly. There is a particularly
good cut going into the first unconscious scene, with a fist coming
into the lens cutting to fireworks exploding. It seems the only time
the Coens are in control of the narrative is when their lead character
The Coens recently won
the Academy Award for "Fargo" for "Best Original Screenplay," a category
that of late I find particularly creepy. Other recent winners are: "Pulp
Fiction," "The Crying Game" (over "Unforgiven"), "Thelma & Louise,"
"The Usual Suspects," and most recently, "Good Will Hunting." There
is a similar contemporary falseness about these films to me. Itís like
the word "Original" is being misconstrued within the context of "Best
Original Screenplay." It doesnít mean, "That which is most ĎOriginalí."
It means, "That which is not adapted from a book, play or story." I
think itís sadly just coming to mean "Quirkiest."
The Coens are the Kings
of Quirkiness. It sure was quirky having Sam Elliot as a cowboy (now
thereís interesting casting) narrating the story. And how about Julianne
Moore (who seems to be in everything these days) flying around naked
on a wire-rig painting a picture? Now thatís what I call quirky.
Itís random oddness posing as humor. The remainder of the film is simply
a pastiche of clichés.
The Coens seem to be
fascinated by clichés and use them like Leggo pieces to create
an ersatz plot. People donít speak like people, they speak like simple-minded
movie characters, frequently in long, meaningless speeches. Itís as
if Paddy Chayefsky forgot to use his seat-belt and put his head through
the windshield, then, when he regained the use of his hands, wrote scripts
like "The Big Lebowski" or "Barton Fink" Ė stories where nothing makes
any sense, yet somehow one still perceives an intelligence behind it
I think the Coens think
theyíre like Luis Bunuel, squared. Double the pleasure, double the fun,
double the quirkiness. But Bunuel could make "Los Olvidados," about
vicious street kids in Mexico City who terrorize cripples, then juggle
that with the quirky lunacy of "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeois."
Comedy or drama, there was weight to every story Bunuel told. The Coen
brothers' stories are nothing more than a handful of colorful confetti
tossed in the air, held together for a tiny brief moment before floating
down to the floor in separate pieces, only to be lost in a vast sea
of colorful confetti.
If nothing really matters
and there is no point, then it doesnít really matter if your story is
narrated by a cowboy or an Indian. If the natural laws of the universe
can be suspended at will, if people can jump out 50-story windows and
stop in mid-air, as in "The Hudsucker Proxy," then have conversations
with angels, well, Iím sorry to say, but your story machinery is completely
Sept. 15, 1998