That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

Watch me pull a rabbit outta my hat!

All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #10: He fixes the cable?

Posted by kozemp on November 20, 2012

I have mentioned before – repeatedly, I believe, but I am too lazy to check – that I tend to consume entertainment in a slightly hooverish way. That is, to say, that when I discover something new I will tend to immediately seek out and devour all of it in as short a time frame as possible. Earlier in the countdown I mentioned how I blew through all of Ian Fleming over the course of a spring. When I was… I dunno, about 12 or 13, I guess, I tore through the collected works of Michael Crichton in the same way.

This sort of thing was actually slightly difficult back then; you had to rely on libraries, or the old ordering coupons in the back of books just to find out what an author’s complete collected works WERE, and once you had that you still had to haul your ass around back to the same libraries or to bookstores to actually get them. To say that the internet age has made this kind of massive literary vacuuming easier is to say the sun is hotter than the earth. Now, when you discover a new author, it’s Amazon – type – type – click – click – click and 2 days later you own every single word they’ve ever written without ever getting up from your chair.

To say I prefer the new way is, again, a massive understatement.

I don’t have solid historical data to back myself up on this, but I’m pretty sure that the first time I ever did it the new way; i.e. with the internet and not my mom repeatedly driving me to the Waldenbooks in Ocean County Mall, was when I was about 20 years old and discovered the work of Dashiell Hammett. I had heard of such things, of course, but never actually come across it until…

Fucking hell, I actually can’t remember what the inciting event was, or how I ended up doing so, but I read The Maltese Falcon and was like MUST HAVE MOOOOOORRRRRRRRE! I devoured all of Hammett pretty quickly – there isn’t that much, after all – and moved on to Chandler quickly thereafter. I do remember the contrast of Hammett and Chandler being the first time I recognized, “this one is better to read… but this one is just BETTER.” (You can likely guess which was which.)

I read some other detective books but didn’t love much of it until I got to Dennis Lehane – other than maybe pure fantasy, there are no genres where gulf between the very top and everyone else is as vast as it is in detective fiction. And, needless to say, I gorged myself on old noir movies. All the Marlowe movies (even the awful Altman Long Goodbye), The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, the whole whack. I was, famously, the person in one of my film classes talking about how Dick Powell in Murder My Sweet was SO OBVIOUSLY the best screen Marlowe. (Yeah, I was that kid in film class.)

But suffice it to say that when The Big Lebowski came out and whoever it was I saw it with at the old Woodhaven theatre (can’t believe I remember where) was profoundly mystified by whatever the fuck the movie was, I said, simply, “what, it’s an old detective noir movie. Isn’t that obvious?”

Apparently, if you are not a 20 year old drunken movie snob steeped in the film and literature of the late 1940s, it is actually NOT that obvious.

There was a thing for a while where the Coen Brothers – who by and large I am actually not particular fans of – talked about the weird flaws at the core of their movies. Fargo was based on a true story – that they made up. O Brother was based on the Odyssey – which they hadn’t read. And The Big Lebowski was based on the classic detective noir films and books of the 40s and 50s – except with, as they put it, the most incompetent main character they could devise.

I actually don’t have a ton to say on the relative merits or qualities of The Big Lebowski – it is too deeply ingrained in my psyche and, frankly, even with how much I love it (a lot) I still find the filmmaking of the Coen Brothers to be pretty impenetrable. But let me at least say that part of the genius of this movie is that with all the bizarre changes they bring to it – the updated settings, and circumstances, and characters – it’s amazing that the film still manages to hit Every Single Noir Trope known to man. The scene with Jackie Treehorn seems like a bizarre non sequitur until you realize that it’s in every old black and white detective movie you’ve ever seen. It’s Sam Spade meeting Kaspar Gutman. It’s Philip Marlowe getting beat up by Manny Menendez. All of this has happened before, and it will all happen again. The Big Lebowski is actually most like Memento in that respect (another movie that came thisthisthisthis close to making this list); inasmuch as despite all the alterations to it the movie still hits all the notes it would hit were it “normally” made.

Without much analysis to dazzle you with this time, I will close with a story, specifically the story of how The Big Lebowski played a central role in what was the greatest Christmas present scam of all time.

As you may know, for a long time there I used to have this obsessive ritual that I performed as regards the buying of Christmas gifts. It doesn’t happen any more (thank the old gods and the new), but back in the day, friends of mine would occasionally join me for part of the festivities/ordeal (to my knowledge no one else ever actually went through the whole thing). One year, my friend Matthew joined me. Now Matthew and I are both extraordinarily large fans of The Big Lebowski – so much so, that if you put the two of us together, we can actually recite the entire screenplay from start to finish, though I admit this has not been attempted in many years.

In this particular year, a very nice DVD Special Edition of The Big Lebowski had been released, and I had determined that it would make the perfect Christmas gift for Matthew. The problem was, Matthew would be with me. How could I buy Matt’s present with him right there in front of me?

I came up with what I thought was a brilliant solution: I would simply lie right to his face about it.

We eventually got to the FYE on the first floor at Willow Grove, and I pulled down the Big Lebowski SE from the shelf – thankfully and luckily the last copy.

“Hey,” Matthew said. “That’s pretty snazzy.”

I said, “I know, right?”

“Who’s that for?” Matthew asked.

“A buddy of mine ,” I said. “He’s a big fan.”

“Well,” Matthew said. “He must be a pretty solid citizen, if he’s a fan of The Big Lebowski.”

Opportunities like this present themselves so rarely that when they do appear one must charge at them with as much gusto as one can possibly muster.

“Actually,” I said, looking up at Matthew – he’s about five inches taller than me – “he’s kind of an enormous jackass.”

“He can’t be THAT much of a jackass, with fine movie taste like this,” Matthew said, pointing at the box.

I summoned every snippet of acting training I’d ever had and pressed every erg of willpower in my body into service to maintain a straight face and said, “you’d be surprised how much of a jackass he can be.” I paused for a moment. “Dumb as a brick, too.”

I held up the box like a spokesmodel on the Price is Right.

“Ah well, either way,” I said. “Let’s go get in line.”

To this day I still don’t know what was better – the look on his face a few days later when he opened it, or the look on his face then, staring at it, uncomprehending, me realizing I had pulled off the greatest con in history.



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