“Nothing ever gets so bad that it can’t get worse”: this motto from Murphy’s Law seems to be a theme explored in numerous variations by the Coen Brothers. In their films, no character can ever be considered as someone who has reached the bottom of the well. There’s always a way for him to drown a little bit more, to wallow more deeply in the mire, to sink his wrecked ship even beneath the ocean’s floor. Jeff Bridges’s Dude, in The Big Lebowski, gets entangled in such a mess of chaotic events that we feel tempted to say he’s the living embodiment of Albert King’s blues “Born Under a Bad Sign”: if it wasn’t for bad luck, the Dude wouldn’t have no luck at all.
But witnessing such misadventures on the screen, we tend to smile and rejoice with jolly merriments, rather than cry in pity and depress ourselves over their wrecking failures. While some artists emphasize all that’s grim and terrible in the human condition (I’m thinking of Bergman, Von Trier, Werner Herzog, Gaspar Noé…), the Coen Brothers tend to bring into focus all that’s ridicule and absurd. They make us laugh of human catastrophes and confusions, inviting us to enjoy the laughable spectable of human folly. In a certain sense, they stand in the opposite pole of other artists who would rather focus on the tragicity of it all, thus inviting us to jump from the bridge or cut our wrists. Despite all that goes terribly wrong, they sort of invite us to keep on keeping on. At least for laughs.
In Woody Allen’s Melinda and Melinda, two writers embark on a lively discussion on the theme: is life essentially a comedy or a tragedy? When the film ends, we get the feeling, not uncommon after watching some of Allen’s ouevres, that no life is either one in the exclusion of the other: comedy and tragedy are something like siamese twins, blood brothers, bound together by natural law. Maybe that’s why great geniuses in the history of art – Shakespeare or Beethoven – are able to trip through the extremes of human experience, embracing both comedy and tragedy, laughs and tears, ecstasies and griefs. And also incluing all the diversity that lies in-between these extremes. Shakespeare wrote plays that are both marvellous tragedies and comedies: even the gloomy mood of King Lear is smoothed by the hilarious character of The Fool. And the only re-ocurring figure in his theatre is Mr Falstaff (wonderfully portrayed by Orson Welles in the big-screen [watch Chimes at Midnight]), a bufoon that never lets disgrace silence his sarcasm.
The Big Lebowski is a film of caricatures, of traits of character exaggerated for comic purposes: John Goodman’s Walter, for example, is a caricature of the American Man similar to Homer Simpson or a grown-up Eric Cartman (South Park). Bowling and guns seems to be the only passions in the life of this loudmouth bulldog. In the movie, he’s the one who’s aroused by the perspective of getting rich by taking some shortcut, even tough illegal, into big money. By describing the behaviour of this violent and short-thinking creature, who can draw a weapon in the bownling alley, and menace someone with death because of a minor sports controversy, the Coen Brothers are poking fun at one of the U.S.’s grotesque traits.
This comedy may appear, in the surface, as mere entertainmet for the masses, some king of Theathe Of The Absurd to be enjoyed with pop-corn, but there are deeper layers in which some criticism of the infamous “american-way-of-life” can be perceived. For example, a critique on the wide-spread commerce of guns, in the United States, a country that seems incapable of changing its public policies about fire-arms even after a dozen Columbines. In Lebowski, we almost witness a murder in the bownling alley because of Walter’s macho-man behaviour. Some seem to think it would be an attack on civic liberties and freedom of choice if people were forbidden to carry their own revolvers, but the tragic consequences of this obsession with the private possession of guns are there for everyone to see: with astonishing frequency, some trigger-happy psychopath goes on a killing frenzy, and many times with “guns they bought at Wal-Mart discount stores”, to quote Sheryl Crow’s song. Brazilian graphical artist Latuff has depicted the Denver killings that ocurred at the premiére of Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises:
But I’m drifting away from the Coen Brothers, who aren’t explicitly interested in political critique: their Dude (Jeff Bridges) is another caricature, a tramp-like figure that gets in a hell of a mess, but goes through it without ever losing his cool. This is certainly one of the greatest characters in Bridges career and, as the years roll by, Your Dudeness is acquiring increasing cult status. The Dude has today many disciples and the Dudelites (or Dudelinos) don’t care about much but chilling out and taking it easy, lightin’ up joints and listening to Creedence, among other “improductive activities”…
When we get acquainted with the Dude, his apartment has been invaded by thugs; his head has been forced into the toilet; and his rug has been pissed upon. But there’s no fortune to steal in the Dude’s modest home. He’s been confused with another man who shares his name, a millionaire in a wheel chair, The Big Lebowski. The Dude is not actually a bum that lives in the streets, hungry and homeless; he has his nest, even tough he doesn’t pay the rent when it’s due, and the only thrills of his life seem to be shared with his bowling chaps, Walter and Donny. The Dude is never frantic about getting rich: it’s Walter, the Vietnam veteran, one hell of a friend, that gets them in the mess they end up tangled in. The Dude isn’t greedy. The Dude just wants to take it easy and enjoy the ride. He’s not the kind of guy to waste much time crying over spilt milk. He seems satisfied enough to listen to his Creedence tapes while riding in a junky car, and wants nothing much of life besides the freedom to smoke his joints in the bathtub. He’s unemployed, and the devil knows how he gets the money to pay his rent and his bownling hours. Unwillingly, he’s pushed into the hellish mess of the Big Lebowski’s miserable existence.
Even tough he’s not a role-model or a hero, The Dude is certainly the coolest character in this galery of freaks. Because the Big Lebowski appears, in the screen, as a creature who deserves only scorn: he has married a blond lolita who’s only after his money; she “acts” in the porn industry, even tough she has no shortage of money, and greedy as hell she offers her sexual services to strangers (“I’ll suck your cock for a thousands bucks”, she says to The Dude upon their first encounter). And while the narrative progresses we get increasingly suspicious that she has kidnapped herself, trying to extort a million from her rich husband. The Coen Brothers, it seems to me, are poking fun at the ridiculousness of the rich-man’s life: he has a mansion with a big pool and fancy cars, but his life is a pile of shit, always drowned in ransom demands and people who want to rip him off. Including some “German nihilists” – another of those caricatures so absolutely un-realistic that it gets us wondering what kinds of drugs the Coen brothers are using in order to imagine such creatures.
The Coen Brothers don’t usually write narratives of triumph and glorious victory, neither they are really interested in the downfall of great leaders or figures of historical importance. The spotlight of their lenses is thrown upon a common figure: the chronical loser, the type that seems to have been born on a bad sign. Most of their anti-heroes could sing with all the force of their lungs that great Johnny Thunder punk-hymn: “Born To Lose”. The Dude goes through one hell of a mess to end up penniless, still in tramp-like condition. To crown his series of misadventures and catastrophes, instead of a Hollywoodian happy ending, he gets his face all covered with the ashes of his deceased friend. That’s a reason to laugh or to cry? For the Coen Brothers, it’s always better to laugh at tragedies and keep on tumbling down life’s absurd road, apparently ruled by Murphy’s Law iron-fist. Wise are the words that I’ve been hearing since childhood from more experienced peers: “don’t take life too seriously, you’re not getting out of it alive!”