Coen Brothers’ Phenomenon


Contemporary movie industry presents a wide variety of films that cover different topics. Action movies, superhero moves, catastrophes, dramas, horror films, and other genres meet the demands of any person regarding the variety of the effects and the originality of the plot. However, there is a special niche for ironic comedies that draws one’s attention from the first glance and holds it until the last frame. Among such movies, one can name The big Lebowski by Coen Brothers. Surprisingly, the following movie has not been accepted by the critics as positively as other pictures of the company. However, in the course of time it deserved numerous positive remarks. Despite the fact that it had not achieved a big commercial success, it has become a significant movie due to its humorous style and still gathers a lot of fans. The following paper studies the peculiarities of the movie that recreates the atmosphere, which existed in the US during late 60’s. Moreover, it analyzes the social and cultural phenomena reflected in the story.

The phenomenon of Coen Brothers has deeply rooted in a film industry as a duo of ingenious and creative movie creators. Their first movie “Blood Simple” (1984) had tested the audience and the critic’s attitude towards their future approach to the process of screen capturing. Among the key features of the film, one can mention noire, comprehensive plot with a rapid change of events based on the simple story and black humor. These were the features that could be later traced as their unique style used in the movies. Two other films as “Crimewave” (1985) and “Raising Arizona” (1985) could be regarded as an experimental deviation from their debut. The first one had been negatively met by the critics, but the second one was nominated by Young Artist Awards for the Best Family Motion Picture (IMDb). Gradually, the style of the duo has been polished; therefore, the critics and the audience were patiently waiting for every new movie. With the course of time, black humor and sarcasm has become attached to the names of these famous film makers. While reviewing the process of plot creation, it is important to mention Coen brothers’ cooperation. They work together in their office walking through the dialogues and working them out together (NPR). One may suppose that it connected with their difference in age and character, which makes the dialogues and the plot shine, impressing the viewer with ironic humor. People who have once worked with them claim that they are very friendly and easy-going people who never argue. Ethan Coen describes their cooperation as “very Japanese. You get a consensus somehow” (Harrod). Moreover, while analyzing The Big Lebowski, one may presume that the inner state of his creators is reflected through the protagonist mood. He is ironic towards the society he lives in, and he is free to communicate with everyone in extremely friendly manner. In one of his interviews, Philipp Seymour Hoffman recollects his pleasure to work with Coen brothers “I really loved them as directors, and a team. I wasn’t thinking about the success, but more about being part of something that would be well done and that funny” (Greene). So, who is he, this Mr. Lebowski? Why is there such cult around this person?

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Who is Mr. Lebowski?

Coen brother’s movie discussed in the paper describes the life of the Dude. The Dude seems to be one of the happiest people on the planet. His aims in life are neither big, nor small; he is just happy with what he has. Among his primary interest throughout the story are weed, bowling, the carpet, his cassette player and “White Russian” cocktail. Once being called “Mr. Lebowski” he deliberately attempts to eliminate all the titles and other marks of respect. He is “the Dude” that wears pajamas or other casual clothes and does not pay attention to someone’s social position. Being a retired hippie, he is claimed to be “excused from the tired, vain, arbitrary business of being a man… he can concentrate on being human” (Jacobs). Moreover, this is one of the most important features of his character that possibly has influenced the emergence of a counter religion “Dudaism”. Despite any conditions, he acts like a human, being opposed to the surrounding people that strive for money, wealth, recognition, or actively reject the society. Lebowski just flows in the river of his destiny without any attempt to swim or fight with those who attempt to drown him. However, he always follows the basic presumptions about right and wrong actions. If his carpet is stolen, he is ready to get a refund. If he is given the money to pass to the kidnappers, he refuses to take the money and escapes. He plays bowling, but he has been never shown throwing a ball. It seems that even bowling is not his hobby, but it is more a way to escape from the daily routine. Moreover, his life philosophy is the basis of his charisma that is revealed in various situations. The unity of the Dude’s easy-mannered actions, speech, clothes and the way of thoughts are claimed to raise a particular “discourse of Dudes” (McRobbie). By this means one can explain such late emergence of a fan culture around the movie. When a person watches the film for the first time, it might seem a puzzle, where all the parts are mixed and bound in ridiculous and unusual way. Furthermore, with every next review of a film one finds more details that draws the attention and engages a viewer in the discourse of the motion picture.

The Vietnam War and the American Society

One of the heroes that greatly add to The Big Lebowski is the Dude’s friend Walter Sobchak. He might be considered as a unique personality. He is a Vietnam War veteran, which becomes known to a viewer in the most annoying and comic way. In other words, the Vietnam War has probably left so deep scars in his mind that he tends to blame everybody for his sufferings. In the some cases, he uses his pistol as a way to be more persuasive. Walter is a massive owner of a gun shop having both serious and funny appearance. He is a Polish immigrant that had adopted Judaism. Moreover, Walter claims to be religious despite the fact that he is not aware of the religion he had adopted. He has a strong need for being a part of the team, which is revealed through his attitude to bowling. Unlike the Dude, he seriously wishes to win and becomes enraged when the team faces the opposite. Moreover, he is in the constant search of adventure. Being an impulsive person, he cares about his friends, unlike the Dude. However, his care brings more troubles than one can expect. The tandem and the relations of the Dude and Walter can be considered the basis of the story. Their relations are explained by Joel Coen as a “relations when you’re very close to each other but they can drive you nuts. It’s definitely a yin-yang thing. In a way, the movie is about how these two interact” (Belth).

While analyzing the movie, one may notice the fact that the relations of the Dude and Walter are more than those of two people. This is mainly the clash of two philosophies, where one is calm and resilient, in a constant struggle with another that is chronically active. Moreover, the appearance of Walter raises the question of impact of a Vietnam War on the American society. While providing numerous quotes, he raises both politics and war subjects discussing the Gulf War, the Cold War, and the Viet Cong. The irony of the movie is that Walter uses his quotes about the war in the situations, which are not connected with the military actions. Finally, it becomes clear that he sees the civil life through the glasses of Vietnam (Haglund). It remains only a joke, but Coen brothers also raise the question of an impact of the Vietnam War on the American society. Walter’s attitude directly reflects the psychological state of veterans, though with some irony. One cannot argue that the military confrontation has been left behind. However, the former soldiers still remain enclosed in their own world of war recollections and memories. In this case, it is extremely difficult for a previously military person to fit the civil life again.

Nihilism and the Society

One cannot deny the fact that The Big Lebowski reveals the traits of the society through its heroes. One group of them, the nihilists, is viewed bizarre even in the context of this movie. The nihilist community is depicted through three German actors and musicians. Despite their weird behavior and clothes, their strongest position in the movie is rejection of the mass culture. The word “nihilism” comes from the Latin “nihil”, which implies “nothing”. It is a belief that all values are senseless and nothing can be known. Main nihilistic themes are destruction of values and cosmic purposelessness (Pratt). In addition to the visual representation, the Nihilists trio is involved in a production of techno music, which highlights their impact on the viewer. While paying attention to German philosophers Jacobi and Nietzsche, the authors of the movie imprint their ideas into German immigrants. Rejecting any values or standards, German nihilists live according to their individual life patters, acting in porn movies, making music and from time to time rushing into the Dude’s apartment accompanied with tamed ferret. Despite their ridiculous look, they share Lebowski’s views on life; however, their nihilism turns out to be opposed to the Dude’s. Sheeler stresses that opposing to “pure” German nihilists, the Dude represents a form of a “Passive Nihilism or Western Buddhism” (Sheeler). American mass culture of consuming and materialism is rejected by Lebowski because there are no human values there. Comparing his philosophy to Buddhism, the critic argues that the Dude’s role of a passive spectator of events resembles the Zen master.

Moreover, even being involved into the strange course of events, he attempts to preserve his joy and inertness of thought. He wants to be left as he is living on jobless benefit, visiting a bowling club with friends, and using alcohol and drugs. His aspirations of saving the Big Lebowski’s missed wife and a wish to receive a just refund for a spoiled carped make the Dude even more closer to Buddhism. He attempts to be disconnected from the reality, however preserving his human values. Moreover, Sheeler argues that the Big Lebowski also represents nihilism in the movie. However, while the Dude is a passive nihilist, the Big Lebowski is an active one, or a Superhuman (Sheeler). With the reference to American material values, the Big Lebowski seems to have power and money. Due to this disability, he seems even more special, resembling a person floating over the ground. However, one should notice that his nihilism has a taste of fraud. The latter is shown in the end of the Picture, when the Vietnam War veteran replaces him on the “throne”. Thus, a Superhuman becomes a helpless worm. This event highlights the meaning of the American values. In case there are only material values that direct a person in his life, he is abashed by those who reject consuming culture and the money.

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One more nihilist in this story is Maud. Her nihilism is of pure artistic nature, following the postmodernist conceptions of the denial in arts. The denial of any meaning or purpose in existence unites postmodernism and nihilism in this sense. Moreover, it rejects the existence of any permanent ethical order (Slocombe, Aberystwyth 134). Thus, Maud’s art is provocative and seems senseless as if highlighting the absurd of contemporary art. While supporting this idea, Sheeler claims that “instead of creating beautiful ideals for one’s culture to imbue life with meaning, art has become the preserve of a snobbish, cynical elite, which looks down with disdain upon the ignorant (religious) masses” (Sheeler). Thus, one comes to conclusion that The Big Lebowski can be regarded as a movie that reveals the conflict of nihilism and mass culture in a provocative manner. This idea might explain the growing positive reaction of the society towards it. An average person needs time to recognize, encrypt, and review the messages left by Coen brothers.


Summarizing the presented information, it may be concluded that The Big Lebowski is a unique movie. Being a comedy, it has a lot of encrypted messages and sarcasm towards the American way of life. It is worth noting that the protagonist of the story represents a controversial image of a passive nihilist possessing the strong feeling of the moral values. Acting in tandem with the Vietnam War veteran, he attempts to preserve his way of life. Moreover, it is the Dude’s inertness that reveals all the other heroes around him as a contrast to Buddhist’s patience. Being vulnerable and exposed to various threats, the protagonist, however, copes with all the controversial problems and stays alive. With the help of The Big Lebowski Coen brothers gave the audience an attempt to watch themselves from the side revealing consumer mass culture, greed, lies, and deviant arts. It is not a surprising fact that the movie has got numerous fans around the world. However, the people required considerable time in order to encrypt the messages left by the ingenious scriptwriters and film directors.

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