"Deus Ex Machina and The Big Lebowski"
Deus ex machina – 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. [Webster’s 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. It’s 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 don’t care!"
What brought this thought on was watching Joel and Ethan Coen’s "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 Allen’s 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 you’ve got a shooting schedule to keep? I’ve 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 can, too.
When writing a story, if you don’t know where you’re 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 someone’s 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), I’d 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 it’s 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. It’s a good part for Jeff Bridges, too. He slips into the part of "Dude" like he in fact always was and is Dude. John Goodman’s one-note, loud-mouth, clichéd Vietnam vet became headache-inducing for me. This is a standard Coen Bros. comedy character – 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 Coen’s best movie), is entirely wasted in "Lebowski." Every time he attempts to speak, John Goodman tells him to "Shut the fuck up, Donny." It’s an unfunny running joke that allows the Coen brothers to not develop this character at all. To then use Donny’s demise for the film’s 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 barely that.
The best moments in the movie, other than John Turturro’s 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 is asleep.
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. It’s like the word "Original" is being misconstrued within the context of "Best Original Screenplay." It doesn’t mean, "That which is most ‘Original’." It means, "That which is not adapted from a book, play or story." I think it’s sadly just coming to mean "Quirkiest."
The Coens are the Kings of Quirkiness. It sure was quirky having Sam Elliot as a cowboy (now there’s 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 that’s what I call quirky. It’s 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 don’t speak like people, they speak like simple-minded movie characters, frequently in long, meaningless speeches. It’s 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" – stories where nothing makes any sense, yet somehow one still perceives an intelligence behind it all.
I think the Coens think they’re 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 doesn’t 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, I’m sorry to say, but your story machinery is completely broken.
Sept. 15, 1998