Things that won’t leave us alone

One thing that a lot of actors have to face is getting known for only one role, despite their ability to do other things. Mark Hamill, anyone? But it doesn’t only happen to actors. In my case, I seem to have become known for three things, depending upon whom you’re asking.

One is my first-ever produced full-length play, and I like to joke that I started at the top and failed downward since that play, Noah Johnson had a Whore…, was produced at South Coast Rep. It had a subsequent production in San Jose, but also got me a TV writing gig, and there are apparently plenty of people who remember it.

Second is a quote I gave to a reporter almost sixteen years ago, ironically while in rehearsal for a play of mine that didn’t happen then, but which is going to this coming April. Ronald Reagan had just died, the L.A. Times sent reporters out into various communities for comment and, since we were rehearsing in a storefront in West Hollywood, this reporter waltzed in to get a reaction from the gay community. I happened to get quoted, and expressed my displeasure. I’m happy to report that the conservative media almost immediately tried to claim that the facts I stated were bullshit, which I consider a feather in my cap.

But the most weirdly persistent one is an analysis of the film The Big Lebowski that I wrote back in 2000. Not so much a review as a deep-dive into its themes, this one has gotten me fan mail and comments galore, and has taken on a life of its own. It’s been anthologized in the book Lebowski 101, quoted in various film blogs, included in critic’s lists, and even cited as an authoritative source by AI-driven college essay generators, even if one of them feels like it just simulated a stroke, although I take the mention as a high compliment. It must mean that the original is back-linked all over the place.

The intro to the piece is probably worth quoting here, but if you want to read the whole thing, follow one of the links above.

I missed The Big Lebowski in its original theatrical run because it wasn’t around long enough to catch. Grossing less than eighteen million dollars, a critical gutter ball, it was a big comedown from two years earlier, when the Coen Brothers’ Fargo was drowned in praise, nominated for seven Oscars, and awarded two. In my opinion, The Big Lebowski is as good a film as Fargo. So, what happened? People didn’t get it. They were expecting a simple comedy about a stoner who bowls, got something more like Raymond Chandler on Ecstasy, then missed the metaphor anyway.

Many of the Coen Brothers’ movies travel in the guise of genre films while being something entirely different. They even played with this idea in Barton Fink, in which the titular Clifford Odets-esque playwright is brought to Hollywood to write a “Wallace Beery wrestling picture.” Fink recycles his Broadway hit into the form, but his wrestling picture is about man’s existential struggle. In Fink, the befuddled producer, who is only interested in meaningless genre crap, is a stand-in for those moguls and critics who don’t understand great art and so pee all over it. Or, worse, they stifle the artist, silencing him because he doesn’t play by the commercial rules.

The Coen Brothers are not big on genre rules. They pretend to be, then run off in more interesting directions. The joy of watching their films comes from seeing expectations waylaid and getting whisked along with them to much more interesting places. The Big Lebowski pretends to be a modern day Philip Marlowe style kidnapped girl in distress story with a hippie burnout bowler standing in for Raymond Chandler’s private dick. All of the conventions of the genre are there — the mysterious threat to the detective, the assignment that isn’t what it seems, the double and triple dealing and the hero caught in the middle of multiple counter-plots that don’t concern him. At the same time, this classic detective noir plot is perpetrated on the sunny streets of L.A. or in brightly-lit interiors. There’s nothing noir about the look of the film at all. Call it film blanc.

That’s the framework. The walls and ceiling of The Big Lebowski are something else altogether, and it wasn’t until almost the last scene of the film that what the Coens were getting at hit me. But, hit me it did, like a bowling ball in the solar plexus, and everything that came before suddenly made perfect sense. The plot went from being as narrow as a bowling alley lane to being as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That’s a rare trick, when a filmmaker can turn on the lights exactly when they want to and what you’ve been watching snaps into absolute focus…

Yeah, that and another 2,210 words somehow got me published. Go figure.

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