In the wake of the Oscars and the multiple achievements of “No Country for Old Men,” I’ve been thinking about the Coen Brothers a lot lately. Especially about what good writers they are. They do all kinds of things with dialogue and structure and symbolism that really shouldn’t work, but because they’re really good literary craftsmen, they pull them off with aplomb.
Over at Ken Levine’s blog, screenwriter Bob “Back to the Future” Gale instigated a brouhaha with a post about all the perceived lapses in logic in “No Country.” Some of the nitpicks I can agree with, but I think Gale is really misreading the movie. “No Country” only looks like a conventional cat-and-mouse thriller. Worrying about why Anton Chigurh chooses to carry around that cattle gun is like wondering why the eponymous protagonist of “Barton Fink” isn’t at all concerned about the inferno raging in the hallway outside his hotel room at that movie’s climax. There are bigger issues at hand.
If I had to choose a favorite Coen Brothers movie, I think I’d have to select “The Big Lewbowski.” For me, it delivers the highest ratio of laughs to lines of most movies I can recall. It’s a film that truly improves with each viewing.
I recently picked up “I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski: Life, The Big Lebowski and What-Have-You,” a book by the guys who organize LebowskiFest. It contains interviews with members of the cast, bits of trivia, a glossary of Lebowski-speak. It gets a little repetitive, but like the Dude himself, its heart is in the right place.
The best part of the book, however, speaks to why the Coens are such smart writers and where they find their inspiration. The authors investigate the origins of one of the movie’s signature sequences, when Walter (John Goodman) and the Dude (Jeff Bridges) interrogate Larry, a silent junior high school student, about a piece of homework found in the Dude’s car, which had been stolen and recently recovered. I can’t do justice to it in summary, but the scene starts in a suburban living room containing a man in an iron lung and ends with Walter destroying a sports car with a tire iron while screaming, “This is what happens when you f* a stranger in the a*!!!!” (Or as the censored version on Comedy Central would have it, “This is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps!!!”)
It’s hilarious. Trust me.
What’s great, though, is that this scene is based on a true incident, at least according to “I’m a Lebowski…” Twenty-odd years ago, USC film professor Peter Exline had his car stolen, got it back and found some fast food wrappers and a kid’s homework assignment in it. He and a friend, private detective “Big” Lew Abernathy, tracked the kid down, visited him at home one night and tried to get him to confess. Just like in the movie. There was even an old man confined to a hospital bed in the living room, the boy’s father, elderly screenwriter Everett Freeman, author of “Larceny, Inc.” and “The Glass Bottom Boat.”
The Coens heard this story from Exline and, without telling him, vowed to use it someday in a movie.
The ultimate kicker is that the authors of “I’m a Lebowski…” contacted the “real Little Larry,” who was not a joy-riding delinquent and did not learn what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps. And as they report, “…until we called, he had no idea that the day in his living room when two strange men arrived with his homework in a baggie had been a pivotal inspiration for ‘The Big Lebowski.’” The interview with 32-year-old Jaik Freeman proves to be one of the book’s highlights.
I don’t know why this convoluted anecdote told from multiple perspectives tickles me so. I guess I just like the sheer improbability of it, the way the most absurd aspects of real life can be transmuted into — wait for it — art. With the Coens, there’s no use looking for logic, because what you’ll find in its place is a whole lot more interesting.