Welcome to Framed, a new column at Cinematical that celebrates the artistry of cinema -- one frame at a time. You can check out last week's post for Steve McQueen's film, Hunger, over here.
The Coen Brothers have a filmography filled with amazing movies -- from Miller's Crossing through to No Country for Old Men, essentially every title they've ever made has been marked not only be great performances and amazing writing, but the keen eye for interesting visuals the duo possess in abundance. Every Coen Brothers' film is filled with fantastic visuals, but I thought outside the box for this article, choosing to go with their cult classic 1998 comedy The Big Lebowski.
The film -- which was loosely inspired by the work of Raymond Chandler and has been described as both a modern Holy Grail quest story and a political commentary piece -- revolves around Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski (Jeff Bridges). The Dude is a slacker who lives to bowl, smoke pot, and drink White Russians. His idyllic existence gets complicated when he's mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski -- a rich, elderly man whose trophy wife owes money to pornographer Jackie Treehorn. When thugs come to collect the debt and urinate on his rug -- a rug that "really tied the room together ... " -- The Dude, his temperamental friend Walter (John Goodman), and their hyper bowling teammate Donny (Steve Buscemi) become caught up in a complicated kidnapping plot where nothing is exactly as it seems. (spoilers ahead)
Comedies are widely judged on their humor. Are the characters funny? Is the writing sharp? What often gets lost in those examinations is that truly great comedies are also well shot. While writing and performances are certainly key components of the successful comedy film, a smart filmmaker can add another level to his creation through the imagery he or she chooses to employ. This is particularly true in the case of Lebowski -- the writing and performances are top notch, but the work of the Coens and cinematographer Roger Deakins gives the film one more layer of depth. In some scenes, visuals are used to enhance the humor. In others, they divulge details about the situation or the characters. The still I've chosen from this film does the latter.
The most obvious thing is happening right in the foreground. Deakins and the Coens have not only put the three "heroes" of their film in this one shot, but the positioning and body language is absolutely perfect for showing the audience what each character's personality is and how they fit into their group dynamic. Goodman's Walter is a fiery guy, prone to pulling pistols over bowling rule infractions ("This is not 'Nam, this is bowling -- there are rules."), and it shows perfectly here. You can tell he's wound up, and even better, he's holding his left hand like it's a gun as he emphasizes his point to Donny. The Dude, meanwhile, is the laid back guy who just wants to take the path of least resistance through life. You can see that here, as well -- he's leaning back in this seat, looking mellow, not paying much attention to Walter's outburst. Donny is the confused member of the trio -- the one prone to missing half the story then interrupting for clarification. He's a background character for the entirety of Lebowski. You can tell both things from his positioning and expression in this frame -- Donny looks confused, and he's in the background of the shot, behind the two other characters.
If that were all that was going on in this frame, it would be a great shot, but the Coens and their cinematographer have added even more nuance to it. Lebowski embodies retro L.A., even though it's clearly set during the early 1990's. The film's set design is fantastic, right down to the décor of the bowling alley, with its garish orange furniture and old fashioned scorer's table. The "Hit the Head" bathroom sign and neon stars (on the walls both inside and out) also give the film an anachronistic feel, but like many little details in the film make use of some clever word play (a bowling ball in another scene reads "Holly Star"). The Coens capture that feeling of displaced time by making sure to get the color clashes and retro aesthetics in the background of their shot. The stars, meanwhile, serve as a recurring motif throughout the film -- turning up in key scenes and the dream sequences (something that would have been too easy to gush over in this post).
Walter, Donny and The Dude are three of my favorite movie characters and I love all the shots in The Big Lebowski that manage to get them into one frame. Those scenes are special because of the affinity I feel for these guys and their adventure, which makes this frame less like a still from a movie and more like a photo of old friends hanging out -- but the truly amazing thing about it is the way the Coen Brothers have filled the image with so much visual information for the viewer. This is what writing and film instructors mean when they tell students "Show, don't tell." Whether we consciously realize it or not, this frame is showing us countless little things about the story and its setting. The dialogue of the full scene drives that point home, but the Coens and Deakins don't rely on it alone -- they've taken the time to reinforce everything that's being said through the composition of every scene. That's great filmmaking.