The Coens' Effort The Big Lebowski

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2005

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0



I Prologue

II The Universe of Joel and Ethan Coen
II.1 Biography – Filmography – Philosophy
II.2 The Style of the Coen Brothers

III The Coens´ Effort The Big Lebowski
III.1 The Plot
III.2 The Characters

IV Analysis of The Big Lebowski
IV.1 References and Allusions
IV.2 Music and Dialogs
IV.3 Imagery: Symbols and Metaphors
IV.4 Postmodern Elements

V Epilogue


I Prologue

In this paper for the seminar “Outstanding Film Directors“ I want to analyze the movie The Big Lebowski (TBL) by Joel and Ethan Coen. Released in 1998 TBL is the seventh effort of the Coen brothers and – after Raising Arizona (1987) and Fargo (1996) - their third movie that deals with kidnapping.

TBL has been praised by most authors of the feature pages of newspapers and magazines. For Jan Distelmeyer, author of the magazine Spex, for example, TBL is an `extremly entertaining tasty morsel` (in The main characters´ favorite cocktail, White Russian, has become a cult drink not only among TBL -fans. While the audience for the most part enjoy the laconic irony of the Coens´ hommage to the hard-boiled classics of Raymond Chandler, some academics question the significance of the movie. R. Barton Palmer, director of the South Carolina Film Institute, believes that TBL adds only little importance to the general account of the Coens´ place within the history of the contemporary American filmmaking scene (6).

In this paper I want to introduce the Coen brothers and their typical style that is even referred to as “Coen-esque”. The indepth analysis of their effort TBL is the principal concern of this paper. After a brief introduction of the plot and the characters I will analyze the references and allusions that occur in TBL. The meaning of the music and the peculiarities of the dialogs are also being discussed. The analysis of the used imagery in TBL and some of the emerging postmodern elements are also subjects of discussion.

The Coen brothers refuse to intellectualize and stress the fact that they “simply” want to entertain their audience. With this paper I want to show that TBL is much more than 112 minutes of entertainment. It is a political statement and a perfect cinematic symbiosis of pictures, music, and dialogs.

II The Universe of Joel and Ethan Coen

II.1 Biography – Filmography – Philosophy

Born (Joel in 1954, Ethan in 1957) and raised in the St. Louis Park suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota the Coen brothers are children of academics. Their father, Edward, was an economics professor at the University of Minnesota. Their mother, Rena, taught fine arts at St. Cloud State. “The brothers, they have often confessed, found growing up in the American heartland boring.” They spent much time watching television. Uninspired by what public education had to offer in Minnesota Joel and Ethan persuaded their parents to send them to Simon´s Rock, a school in Massachusetts. “In an environment that encouraged independent study, they thrived”. After graduation Joel spent “four unhappy years” in the New York University undergraduate film program, “taking away little from the experience”. Ethan found his college years at Princeton studying philosophy “more rewarding”. After graduation Ethan joined Joel in New York City, where he was working as an editor on low-budget horror films. “Their big opportunity came when they met Sam Raimi, a young man determined like themselves to break into the industry (Palmer 6). Up to now the Coens have released eleven movies working mostly within the confines of two recognizable genres : film noir and comedy. “What matters most about the Coen brothers is that they have made some of the most provocative and engaged films to appear in the New Hollywood era” (Palmer 4).

The Coens´ first effort Blood Simple (1984) was a hit with audiences and critics at film festivals which led to a commercial distribution contract. Their next production features the two rising Hollywood stars Holly Hunter and Nicolas Cage. Raising Arizona (1987) is a “wacky comedy” about a career criminal who marries a prison guard (Palmer 7). Its successor Miller´s Crossing (1990) is “not so much a gangster movie as an extended, elaborate allusion to one” as Terence Rafferty points out (in Palmer 9). Despite the lack of financial success with their effort Barton Fink (1991) Hollywood producer Joel Silver was convinced that the Coens could achieve a breakthrough to substantial profitability (Palmer 10). But also the witty, inventive meditation on the Horatio Alger myth The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) “never found an audience”. The Coens triumphed when they returned to small-budget filmmaking. Fargo (1996) is a “masterpiece of naturalist stylization” (Palmer 11). The movie won two academy-awards and three other nominations. The film is also placed on the American Film Institute´s list of Hollywood´s top one hundred films of all time (Palmer 3). The Coens´ comedy The Big Lebowski (1998) seemed to many of their admirers an `exercise in postmodern pointlessness´ ( which will, among other issues, be discussed further on. The follow-up O Brother, Where Art Thou ? (2000) starring George Clooney is to date the most profitable film, earning more than $45 million at the U.S. box office alone (Palmer 12). The Coens´ latest efforts are the film noir The Man Who Wasn´t There (2001), the romance Intolerable Cruelty (2003), and the 50s remake The Ladykillers (2004).

The Coen brothers come as a pair (Woods 78). Officially one directs (Joel), the other produces (Ethan), but they are a team that works well together. They even end each others sentences during interviews as Annette Kilzer notices (in Kilzer / Rogall 9). The Coens both write and edit under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes because their names dominated the credits of their movies so much. For Roderick Jaynes they even came up with an outrageous curriculum vitae. The Coens have consistently refused to be public figures (Palmer 4). For his writing debut “Gates of Eden” Ethan Coen invented a hair-raisingly funny curriculum vitae for himself (Coen 253). The Coens prefer to put all their energies into making movies that are “interestingly idiosyncratic, smart, and more than a little enigmatic” (Palmer 14). The most predictable aspect of their filmmaking is its unpredictability (Palmer 5). The Coens are perfectionists who draw a “thumbnail version of the storyboards” (Joel Coen in Kilzer / Rogall 10), work in close collaboration with their cinematographer, and do not tolerate improvisation. Ethan explains: “We do not forbid practice but when the camera is on they (the actors) have to say what we wrote” (in Kilzer / Rogall 134).

The Coen brothers are widely considered the “most visionary and idiosyncratic filmmakers of the late 20th century“ ( They share a private cinematic language which makes their films self-contained, almost hermetic alternative universes ( For Ian Nathan the Coens make “the cleverest, most distinctive and most uncategorisable movies in town.” But with “Hitchcockian candor” they will deny all knowledge of trickery (in Woods 5). Allegedly the Coens “simply” want to entertain their audience, and refuse to intellectualize (Woods 16). As Joel tersely puts it: “If somebody goes out to make a movie that isn´t designed mainly to entertain people, then I don´t know what the fuck they are doing” (in Kilzer / Rogall 40).

II.2 The Style of the Coen Brothers

The Coen brothers are considered to be `the stars on the American independent sky` and the `leading stylists of US cinema`. Their movies are a unique mixture of bizarre or morbid humor, cutting irony, surreal narration, and striking lacony with `ingenious, strictly composed images` (Kilzer / Rogall 7).

“In order to paint their disenchanted picture of America, the Coen brothers have developed a personal style that introduces innovations into the traditional imagery of cinema. They call on cinematic culture while subverting genre films and their long-standing relationship with the memory” (Woods 178).

The “Film Buffs“ (Bock 96) have become famous for their unexpected changes of styles. “From the film noir to the contemporary police film, from Capra-esque comedy to the gangster film, the Coen brothers explode traditional genres” (Woods 179). The Coens´ movies are a bow to the classical Hollywood genres and contemporary American cinema to the highest perfection (Kilzer / Rogall 7). Continuity is very important for the Coens. For years they have been working together with the same actors (e.g. Steve Buscemi, John Goodman, John Turtorro), the same cinematographers (Barry Sonnenfeld and Roger Deakins), the same composers and set designers (Kilzer / Rogall 7).

Their movies present complex stories that demand the undivided attention of the audience. Frank Schnelle argues that often narrating seems to be more important than the narration itself (in Kilzer / Rogall 14). “Once the audience are set on their narrative path, however, the brothers like to throw ´em a bum steer and make ´em pay attention with an unexpected change of pace” (Woods 15). Each film takes place in a “quirky, hermetically-sealed universe” (Woods 16) and tells the story of the impossibility of overcoming a destiny which the characters unintentionally chose (Kilzer / Rogall 7).

“Each film studies a type of imprisonment and a quest for specific freedom, of characters struggling to both keep their self-control and give a personal meaning to their lives” (Woods 178). Ethan and Joel Coen strive to make characters geographically or sociologically or ethnically as specific as they possibly can (Woods 162). Joel explains why most of the characters in their movies are pretty unpleasant “losers or lunkheads, or both”: “We are not interested in burly superhero types” (in Woods 164). The Coens´ characters are not perfect in any sense. At the end of their story they do not look matured and more reasonable in their future and also do not understand how to use the experience (Kilzer / Rogall 28). The Coens observe the wrong tracks of their characters until the bitter end. That is why Joel Coen uses the term “clinical observation“ (in Kilzer / Rogall 29).

Sascha Bregenhorn even speaks about the special genre “Coen brother“ because he believes that the Coens´ efforts belong in `a category all on their own` ( The Coens´ films impress not only with detail in story and set design but also with extremely odd characters. The Coens´ 1998 effort The Big Lebowksi (TBL), which will be discussed in detail further on, offers a laid-back pothead who refers to himself as “The Dude”, a choleric Vietnam veteran, a feminist Fluxux artist, a wheelchair-bound millionaire, a strike-scoring pederast, a Cowboy, and German nihilists, to mention only some of the odd characters the Coens came up with. Some examples for the Coens´ predilection for details are also taken from TBL. The wallpaper in The Dude´s bathroom is patterned with colorful balloons which indicates that he probably has moved in the bungalow without changing much. A reprint of Van Gogh´s “Sunflowers” decorates the corridor in the Sellers´ house. That becomes an interesting detail when Walter later on bites off the ear of one of the German nihilists. The Coen brothers do not take away the horror of violence but display its absurdity, awkwardness, and uncontrollability. Thus they develop an unexpected humor which is bizarre and morbid (Kilzer / Rogall 26).

One of the gags in TBL is that The Dude is “involved in a private eye adventure, while he´s the antithesis of that”, explains Joel Coen (in Woods 167). Another very bizarre situation evolves when The Dude and his friend Walter ask the director of the funeral institute if it is possible to “rent an urn” for the ashes of their buddy Donny. The handling of political issues is also “sharply pointed if humorous”, which can be illustrated by the appearance of a Saddam Hussein lookalike in front of a huge shelf with stinking bowling shoes (Palmer 5).


Excerpt out of 23 pages


The Coens' Effort The Big Lebowski
Dresden Technical University  (Institut für Anglistik / Amerikanistik)
Hauptseminar 'Outstanding Film Directors'
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
549 KB
This paper is a film analysis focussing on references, allusions, the use of music, dialogs, and imagery in the Coen brothers´ 1998 effort "The Big Lebowski".
Coens, Effort, Lebowski, Hauptseminar, Film, Directors“
Quote paper
Anne Lehwald (Author), 2005, The Coens' Effort The Big Lebowski, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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