Friday, March 23, 2018

The First Edition – "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" (1968)

I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole
And then I followed it in

At the end of The Big Lebowski, the Sam Elliott cowboy-narrator character offers this pithy review of the movie:  “It was a purty good story, don't you think?  Made me laugh to beat the band.  Parts, anyway.” 

Jeff Bridges and Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski
There’s been a lot of hoorah recently about The Big Lebowski because it turned 20 years old this month.  As a result of that hoorah, I checked the DVD out of the public library and watched the movie in its entirety for the first time.

Like Sam Elliott, it made me laugh to beat the band, too.  Parts, anyway.  

Other parts, not so much.

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The lead character in The Big Lebowski – his name is Jeff Lebowski, but he is usually called “the Dude” – is portrayed by Jeff Bridges at his shaggy-doggiest.  

The Bridges character was inspired by a friend of the Coen brothers – who wrote and directed the movie – whom they obviously found incredibly amusing.  

I guess you had to be there.  To me, the Dude is just another unemployed, long-haired, dope-smoking sixties burnout.  

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The other cast members of The Big Lebowski include a number of actors who appear at least semi-regularly in Joel and Ethan Coen’s movies – including the late Jon Polito, John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, and John Goodman.

The Coen brothers have said that they had those actors in mind when they wrote the parts for the characters they played.  

Polito appears in only one scene – a scene which has no apparent reason for existing.  It adds two minutes to the length of the movie but accomplishes nothing else.

Turturro absolutely kills with his over-the-top portrayal of a swishy Hispanic bowler named Jesus:

It’s a small role, but Jesus is as vivid and unforgettable as anything in the movie.  (I don’t think this character would fly today – he’s not only a gay stereotype, but a child-molester as well – but I guess that didn’t bother anyone in 1998.) 

Buscemi’s role is just the opposite: inoffensive and exceptionally forgettable.  You could cut his character out of the movie and not miss a thing.  What a waste of a great character actor.

Goodman’s character is a cliché, and an unfunny one at that.  He swears and threatens and blusters and pontificates, and generally makes you wish 90% or so of his lines had been cut.  (Perhaps the dumbest idea the Coens had was to make Goodman’s character a very observant converted Jew who refuses to bowl on the Shabbos.)

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In an interview that’s included on the DVD of the movie, the Coens explain that The Big Lebowski was inspired by The Big Sleep, another LA-based private-eye flick with a notoriously incoherent plot.  (The story goes that neither the screenwriters – one of whom was William Faulkner – nor the director were sure whether one of the characters had killed himself or been murdered.)

There are some similarities between those two movies.  For example, The Big Lebowski’s Bunny Lebowski character a lubricious trophy wife and part-time porn star played by Tara Reid, who couldn’t have been cuter if she tried – is an X-rated version of The Big Sleep’s Carmen Sternwood.  

Carmen’s come-on line to The Big Sleep’s male star, Humphrey Bogart, is “You’re cute.”  Bunny’s come-on line to Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski is a tad more explicit:

The movie that the Coen brothers stole the most from was not The Big Sleep, but Robert Altman’s 1973 flick, The Long Goodbye – which was, like The Big Sleep, based on a Raymond Chandler novel.  

The Big Lebowski is not nearly as good as The Long Goodbye, an eccentric film that also lulls you into a state of bemused confusion but then surprises you with the most shockingly violent scene I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The Busby Berkeleyesque “Gutterballs” dream sequence in The Big Lebowski is like nothing in either The Big Sleep or The Long Goodbye.  It’s a hot mess that’s redeemed only by its use of today’s featured song:

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The Big Lebowski is the movie equivalent of side two of Abbey Road – it has its moments, but few of those moments have anything to do with one another.  The whole is less than the sum of its parts, and the sum of its parts isn’t anything to write home about.

You can say the same about the movie’s soundtrack.  Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me” is not one of his better efforts, but it’s prominently featured on that soundtrack, as are several campy selections that were chosen with tongue firmly in cheek – like “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” “Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By),” and “Viva Las Vegas” (two non-Elvis versions).

But kudos to the Coens for making the Dude a devotee of Creedence Clearwater Revival rather than the Grateful Dead or the Eagles.

And for using the Townes Van Zandt cover of “Dead Flowers” over the closing credits.

And especially for choosing the truly fabulous 1968 Kenny Rogers and the First Edition hit, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” to accompany the aforementioned “Gutterballs” dream sequence.  BEST SONG EVER!

Here’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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