A new website takes a deep dive into ‘The Big Lebowski’
Would the Dude be Mac or PC? Chrome or Firefox? Google or Bing? Well, that last one’s easy enough to answer. It’s also safe to assume where he’d store his files, such as they are. That would be in the cloud. Cloud computing, now that’s something the Dude could get behind. If only there were cloud bowling, too. He’d drink to that. Gary, pour that man another Caucasian, please.
Jeff Lebowski, a.k.a. the Dude, is, of course, the title character in the Coen brothers’ stoner classic, “The Big Lebowski” (1998). As the Dude, Jeff Bridges is the height of unflappable Dude-ness. How to do justice to the movie that (barely) contains him, to its up-in-smoke sensibility, its even smokier plot? Imagine that a middle-aged Jeff Spicoli wanders into a Raymond Chandler novel and becomes Philip Marlowe. Oh, and he bowls.
The Dude’s bowling buddy Walter Sobchak, as sublimely incarnated in John Goodman, is to anger management as being is to nothingness. Steve Buscemi plays Donny, another bowling buddy. Maybe the best way to convey the true strangeness of “The Big Lebowski” is to point out that it may be the only movie ever in which Buscemi plays the most normal character.
Conveying is one thing. Understanding is another. Last fall, help arrived in the form of a website, A Visual Guide to “The Big Lebowski” at www.stevengbraun.com/dev/big-lebowski. (Admit it, you were wondering what all that computer stuff was about at the beginning.) Northeastern University’s Matthew McDonald and Steven Braun created it. McDonald, 45, is an associate professor of music. Braun, 29, is a data analytics and visualization specialist.
The site, which was shortlisted for a 2018 Kantar Information is Beautiful Award, weaves together McDonald’s commentary and analysis with Braun’s visual renderings. Plot structure, cyclical structure (there’s a difference), at what location various songs on the highly various soundtrack are heard: All are dealt with.
Like the Coens, McDonald and Braun hail from Minnesota. “It has nothing to do with our meeting,” McDonald notes, nor does his working on a book about the brothers’ films. The book is the origin of the website.
“Lebowski” isn’t McDonald’s favorite Coens’ movie. That would be “A Serious Man” (2009). The attraction “Lebowski” held was its narrative complexity. “Of all their movies,” he says, “it was the hardest one to map out, because it is so meandering. I thought that would make for a really interesting challenge.”
Braun hadn’t seen “Lebowski” when he signed on to the project. “The funny thing is, I really don’t like this movie,” he says. “But I find it very interesting structurally, especially due to Matthew’s analysis.” Braun did watch it a second time, for research purposes. By contrast, McDonald has seen it about a dozen times.
The website is well timed. “Lebowski” isn’t making a comeback, since it’s never been away. Let’s say it’s having a resurgence. Last year was the 20th anniversary of its release. John Turturro is set to reappear as the “Lebowski” character Jesus Quintana later this year, in “Going Places.” If Donny is the most normal person in the movie, Jesus is likely the weirdest, which is really saying something. Bridges made an appearance as the Dude in a Stella Artois ad during the Super Bowl. “I’m sure a lot of ‘Lebowski’ fans saw that and went, ‘Aargh,’” McDonald suggests, “not that a lot of ‘Lebowski’ fans likely watched the Super Bowl.”
Those fans are not necessarily the website’s intended audience, McDonald says. The idea was more for “it to be an entry point for people who have seen it once or even, potentially, not at all.”
Braun agrees. “I feel that would have been true of me. If someone else had made this [website], and I had gone to look at it I would have maybe been inspired to watch the movie.”
“And regretted it,” McDonald says. They both laugh.
Gary, how about Caucasians for these gentlemen?