I enjoyed a recent New York Times piece on the publishing of a book called The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies, a collection of scholarly essays on the 1998 cult film The Big Lebowski written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. The film has spawned a remarkable body of fan literature in the last ten years, but absent from my, (admittedly limited), readings has been at least one important parallel.
The Coen Brothers said in their Oscar acceptance speech that perhaps their success with adaptations was due to their pickiness in material saying they'd only adapted Cormac McCarthy and Homer. But that didn't ring true to me.
They've made no bones about their fondness for James M. Cain and the direct influence his writing had on The Man Who Wasn't There and I think some pretty interesting parallels could be drawn between Miller's Crossing and Cain's Love's Lovely Counterfeit, but I'm thinking of The Big Lebowski. "Ah" you'll say, "but Lebowski was mere homage to Raymond Chandler." And there may be something to that, but it's not Chandler I'm referring to.
In 1976 Newton Thornburg published an atomic sour-ball of a thriller called Cutter and Bone. Set in its own time, it depicted a post-Vietnam America succumbing to rot from all directions. At the center of the story is Richard Bone, a former husband and father, now California beach bum, societal dropout scraping by as a handyman gigolo. His best friend is Alex Cutter, a bitter, damaged veteran who has sacrificed various parts of his body and mind and crucial parts of his humanity for his country.
One night Bone witnesses the body of a young girl being dumped in a trashcan and after telling the police he could not identify the dumper, makes the mistake of musing to Cutter the possibility that it was a wealthy businessman he saw do the dumping. And they're off. Bone wants to forget he said anything the minute it leaves his mouth. He just wants to get back to the easy dope haze he calls home, but Cutter will not let go and drags him into a wild investigation of "the man" who stands for everything wrong with the world that can't be pointed to in their own example.
The book is strong, hard stuff and was made into the movie Cutter's Way in 1981. The film is pretty good on its own terms, but doesn’t pack the same punch delivered by the book.
In both films, Jeff Bridges plays the lead which could be the same character aged in real time. Both Lebowski and Bone are laid back societal dropouts drifting aimlessly through their lives until coincidence railroads them into intrigue and their unstable veteran best friends take over from there.
Watch Cutter's Way and The Big Lebowski back to back and try not to see the parallels. Is Lebowski a sequel? Or a remake, (Of the film Cutter’s Way - I should say – Not the book Cutter and Bone)? I think it goes way beyond homage. The Dude and Walter are far less tragic than Bone and Cutter, but they carry the faint echo into the 1990's of the original 1970's scream.
I don't think the Coens will ever comment on it, but the glazed smirk of Jeff Bridges' Lebowski says it all. A wink's as good as a nod, Dude.