A Tale of Two West Side Stories

I famously “hate musicals”, but I know I’m wrong. Both in live theater and in film, musicals carry massive cultural import that are beloved by millions, so the problem is most likely me. Perhaps some are indeed simply bad, but I don’t yet have the vocabulary to identify which ones and explain why.

A friend of mine who is literate in both film and musical theater suggested that it would be a useful exercise to watch the 1961 version of West Side Story and compare it to Steven Spielberg’s newly-released remake version.

I needed to develop a working theory of how musicals should be read or judged. I heard someone on a podcast say that one feature of the musical is that it is meant to be understood by people who don’t speak the language it’s performed in. Even if you don’t know the plot details, you should know from the songs how the characters feel. This might be more true of Opera than the modern musical, but the insight formalized a crucial piece of understanding: the songs in musicals are meant to convey the emotional content of the story. This is the lens through which I’ll attempt judge Spielberg’s effort to update West Side Story. In doing so, I’m hoping that I can knock loose a better appreciation of the form.


West Side Story (1961) worked surprisingly well for me on an emotional level. The most prevalent cultural joke, and implicit critique, related to this film is how silly it is that the Jets and the Sharks dance and sing in a manner unbefitting the gangster personas that they are meant to embody. Yes, it takes a minute to acclimate to this — West Side Story is significantly more stagey than what I’m used to viewing. But the biggest ask in terms of suspension of disbelief is not the neighborhood toughs doing ballet twirls, it’s the central relationship. We have to believe in the love between Tony and Maria. If we don’t, the whole plot is inherently pretty ridiculous, because she sticks with the guy even after he murders her own brother in cold blood.

West Side Story (1961) accomplishes this not through the facts of the narrative, but by the charisma of its leads (Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer) and with the emotional impact of the songs. And the songs, to put it bluntly, are bangers. To my (untrained) ears they’re more melodic than what I’m used to hearing from modern musicals, and express the characters’ feelings in the moment instead of just being dialogue in song form. According to my friend, this is Leonard Bernstein’s super power.

By my estimation, Somewhere is the emotional centerpiece of West Side Story.

When you hear this song and see it performed by these leads, you understand that their relationship is not just what they see in each other after a very brief amount of time, but the potential to escape the conflict that they’ve been born into. Do they fall in love suddenly without knowing each other? Yes. But this song gives us reasonable clues as to why. The emotion carried by the melody itself brings us the rest of the way there.


So why did West Side Story need an update? Well, per Spielberg:

“Divisions between un-likeminded people is as old as time itself. … And the divisions between the Sharks and the Jets in 1957, which inspired the musical, were profound. But not as divided as we find ourselves today. It turned out in the middle of the development of the script, things widened, which I think in a sense, sadly, made the story of those racial divides – not just territorial divides – more relevant to today’s audience than perhaps it even was in 1957.”

I don’t think that structural white supremacy is the same thing as “divisions between un-likeminded people”, so this pitch is hard to get behind. It’s also framed more as a mid-production realization than a fundamental reason for the remake. I think this movie exists mostly because Spielberg has done everything else in his career and thought filming his favorite musical would be fun. That’s fine, I guess. Let’s dive into what’s different.

As cinematic techniques gain sophistication over time, there’s a natural and perhaps unavoidable movement towards realism in films. We could almost take it as a given that Spielberg’s West Side Story would be less stagey and more grounded than its antecedent. It’s stunning to look at, richly textured and masterfully filmed with a kineticism that tracks with equally great choreography. At a base level, this is all-time great filmmaker with a huge budget. That alone is worth showing up for.

An increase in visual realism arguably demands a commensurate increase in narrative realism. Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner definitely seem to believe this: in the opening seconds, we’re given a socioeconomic context for the conflict between the Jets and the Sharks. Both gangs are feeling the pressure of eviction as the city plans a slum clearance and construction of high-end apartments in their contested territory.

Some characters are given more detailed backstories: Tony (Ansel Elgort) has recently been released from prison after nearly beating a Shark to death, which is the reason for his reformation and reluctance to participate in the Jets/Shark conflict. He’s “scared of himself”. Also he’s on parole.

Other characters are simply made to explain themselves with more words. Riff (Mike Faist) opines:

“I don’t know who I am, and who cares who I am? Nobody, including me. I know that this dust that’s covering everything now, that’s the four-story buildings that was standing here when you went upstate a year ago. I wake up to everything I know either getting sold or wrecked or being taken over by people that I don’t like. And they don’t like me. Know what’s left outta all of that? The Jets. My guys. My guys who’re just like me.”

Reading this back, it almost feels like an attempt to make the Jets’ racism seem relatable or understandable. Or sorry, their “divisions between un-likeminded people”.

In many cases, plot points and thematic elements that were implicit in the original are made explicit. The Jets’ attempted rape of Anita is called what it is. Anybody’s, a queer-coded but textually female character in the 1961 version, is portrayed as unambiguously transmasculine.

Fundamentally, Spielberg has given us a more information-rich version of West Side Story. Mercifully and impressively, this only results in about five extra minutes of runtime. But does all of this information serve the movie’s function as a musical? Again, I am focusing on how the film conveys emotional beats via the songs.

The songs themselves are still the songs: bangers. Their performances are mostly beautifully executed, in some cases exhilaratingly so. However, more realism and context around them adds little to their emotional function.

One song-related choice that baffled me was the displacement of Somewhere to the end of the story, where it is sung by Rita Moreno’s shopkeeper character over a montage. Arguably this version broadens the song’s meaning to be about a community rather than two people, but that sacrifices its vital contribution to our investment in the Tony/Maria relationship.

But even a great performance of Somewhere wouldn’t have salvaged the love story: I did not buy it here, mostly due to the complete mishandling of Tony. The changes to the character in the script combined with Ansel Elgort’s oafish screen presence make him come off as dumb and desperate, a far cry from the bright-eyed dreamer Richard Beymer portrayed in 1961. Newcomer Rachel Zegler does what she can opposite him, but at times it’s not clear why she even likes Tony, let alone loves him. I expected Spielberg and Kushner to slow-burn the romance a bit to make it easier to believe, but Tony and Maria’s connection is if anything even more sudden and aggressive than in the original. More backstory didn’t help at all.

The characters in the original West Side story were by nature more symbolic and archetypical than they were grounded and layered. By attempting to make them more of the latter, it’s possible that Spielberg and Kushner only succeeded in undercutting the emotional punch of the entire story.

Bernardo is super hot, though!

The Power of the Dog

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer.


I watched my first Jane Campion film, The Piano, last year out of respect for the G.O.A.T. Holly Hunter (bless her name). I enjoyed it, but seeing The Power of the Dog cemented Campion in my mind as a rare filmmaker who leverages the medium in specifically innovative ways. This is what I’m always chasing as a viewer: what can cinema do that other forms of storytelling can’t?

I would argue that what Campion does in The Power of the Dog is a more subtle version of what Christopher Nolan does in many of his films: she creates a puzzle for the viewer. Most won’t see the whole picture of the story until the very end, and even then it could take some pondering or even a rewatch before things come clearly into focus.

How is this puzzle set up? On the surface, the events of the film are straightforward and by themselves don’t really comprise a story. Here’s what technically happens in The Power of the Dog:

– A man (Phil) bullies a woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Phil befriends Peter
– Phil dies from an infected wound

But in the end, we realize there’s an entire sub-narrative happening between these beats that is conveyed with hints from visuals, performance, and subtext. This is the story:

– A man (Phil) bullies woman and her son (Peter)
– Phil’s brother marries woman
– Peter discovers Phil’s weaknesses
– Peter gains Phil’s trust
– Peter kills Phil

It’s a revenge story. Peter repays the trauma that Phil inflicted on his mother, but it’s almost as hidden from us as it is from Phil. Campion is asking us to put this sub-narrative together ourselves. The characters themselves don’t necessarily arc, but if we solve the puzzle, our perception of them changes drastically.

Maybe the most brilliant hint is the rabbit sequences. As viewers, the second a cute little animal appears in a darker drama we just know it’s not long for this world. Popular film language tells us that it’ll be killed to demonstrate the monstrousness of the villain, who we assume is Phil. When the timid and frail Peter ends up calmly dissecting the animal, we’re initially confused, but we’re being shown who the monster actually is. Campion subverts our expectation and then reverts it when we finally understand what was going on all along.

Learned: Get your viewers to connect the dots themselves, making them an active participant in the storytelling. This is a pretty advanced technique for a n00b writer like myself, but it’s something to aspire to.

Quick Takes October/November

If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film.

October was the Month of Television with me as I blazed through an unprecedented three series, two of which I will comment on here (my head is still spinning re: Succession). And of course, If you know me, you know why I am morally obligated to weigh in on a new James Bond film. Let’s goooooooo!


Midnight Mass

I went into Midnight Mass with absolutely no information other than the title and the fact that Hamish Linklater plays a creepy-looking priest. All The Big Short alums instantly earn my attention, so I hit play in hopes of some sPoooKy fun.

Fun is not what occurs in Midnight Mass. The show’s lack of commitment to any genre makes the first three or so episodes difficult to get through: we’re not sure if we’re watching a small-town drama, a religious thriller, or a supernatural horror series. We receive enough hints of the latter two options to keep us going, but at the cost of a lot of extremely talky and slow-moving sequences of sad-sack Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford) awkwardly existing in his Stephen King-sian island home town and re-connecting with high school crush and sweater-wearer Erin Greene (Kate Siegel).

In terms of identifiable screenwriting issues, this protagonist is extraordinarily inactive. Riley is not at home for any perceptible necessity, and is not trying to do anything in particular. This lack of causal fulcrum makes the show frustratingly meandering until the vampires show up.

Oh yeah! The vampires!

The appearance of a blood-sucking flying monster brings much-needed action but also a head-scratching layer of incoherence to the proceedings, especially given the religious ideas that the show has dealt with so far. So are angels actually vampires? Vampires actually angels?

The show also wants us to think (or at least consider) that vampirism just a scientifically explainable disease. So is the big vampire is just in the latest stages of that disease? If so, why the claw-ed wings and the ability to fly? We don’t know, and the show isn’t interested in letting us find out. But finding out is usually the most compelling part of a show of this type.

Thematic incoherence follows logical incoherence: we don’t know if the town’s religious hysteria is directed at anything real, so we don’t know how to view it in context of what the show is trying to say about human nature, or belief, or anything.

I wasn’t familiar with Mike Flanagan’s work before the show, but apparently he has a penchant for monologuing, which is absolutely out of control here. Show don’t tell? Yeah right, not in Mike’s world. Why show a story beat in two shots when you can accomplish the same thing in a three-minute anecdote about something tangentially related to the story beat?

Learned: Since Midnight Mass has been described as Mike Flanagan’s “passion project”, I think the best takeaway might be to never make a passion project. Kill you passions before they become boring television that only makes sense to you.

Squid Game

What can I really say about the global phenomenon that hasn’t been said? It’s brilliant, inventive, weird, messy, disappointing, and thrilling.

It might be worth just talking about the ways in which squid game inspired me personally, and the (smaller) ways in which it didn’t.

The first thing that hit me about Squid game was the sheer inventiveness of the concept, which is interesting because taking a step back, it isn’t at all new. The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Saw, and plenty of others have all done different takes on the compete-for-your life subgenre.

So what made Squid game feel so fresh? I think it has to do with the details of the execution, especially in the design of the games themselves and the whole system that surrounds them. We understand early on that there will be games and the losers will die. The suspense comes from how specifically that will play out, and in what decisions that the characters will be forced to to make.

Maybe the best example of this is the Dalgona candy sequence, in which the characters are given a seemingly innocuous choice of four different simple shapes. We have no clue what these shapes will mean, but one character, Sang-Woo (Park Hae-soo) does. With this knowledge, he must decide whether to help his fellow players, or let them make a mistake that could kill them.

Squid Game gives us characters that we like and understand, and then pushes them to the absolute brink to show us who they really are. To tie it into my favorite Coen Brothers quote: “We get you invested, then shake the floor”.

Where the show broke down a bit for me was its need to give us a couple of last-episode reveals that if anything undercut the strong character work that was built up. I couldn’t come up with with a thematic point that the reveals underlined — they seemed to be there just for the sake of surprise. The show had so much dramatic power in its central engine that the gotchas felt cheap and meaningless, and also not the best setup for a second season.

Learned: Character is built by decisions made until pressure. Shake the floor hard.

No Time to Die

In February of 2020, my friend Laura and I came to the sad realization that pragmatically, we would probably never get around to watching every single James Bond movie.

Unless… we dared each other to watch one every single day for 24 days. We threw in the two non-canonical Bond movies for good measure, topped the month off with Austin Powers, and the 29 days of Bond February was born. It was a true test of endurance and sanity, but we came out on the other side with priceless confidence in the knowledge that NO ONE has seen more Bond than us.

Therefore it was with great anticipation that I approached the long-delayed No Time to Die, since I am now a leading authority on the subject.

I could easily nit-pick the film, but I had fun watching it and was engaged for all of its (very long) runtime. Fun set pieces, entertaining new characters (Ana De Armas and Lashana Lynch), and a third act that was one big callback to Dr. No made this a worthy conclusion to the comparatively outstanding Daniel Craig entries of the series.

This got me thinking about how the franchise could logically move forward, which I think boils down to one important question: what is the dramatic engine of James Bond?

While you can change his external features, Bond’s nucleus has to remain intact: he’s fundamentally a hardened killer who does not allow personal matters to get in the way of his job. Because of this, there’s really only one way for any semblance of an arc to be introduced into a Bond film: give him someone to care about against his better judgement, and then take that person away from him, either by their death or betrayal (or, in Casino Royale, both simultaneously). This breaks down his hard exterior and reveals a human man underneath. No Time to Die repeats the betrayal beat (then takes it back), which might be a bit predictable, but again, there’s not many other things to do with him.

Then my thought experiment became the following: what would happen if you reversed that dramatic arrow, starting with Bond as human and then showing how he loses that? Would it still be a Bond Movie? Just a thought, I dunno.

However I do have a pitch for the next Bond: Make James Bond Kinda Lame Again. We all fell in love with the super cool, super buff, super not embarrassing Craig Bond, but what if we headed back into Roger Moore territory of corny uncoolness? I think this is what we need to breathe life into the franchise, and there’s only one actor for the job:

Yes, big-eared softboi and The Crown‘s Prince Charles, Josh O’Connor. Unfortunately, googling “Josh O’Connor Bond” only yields the result of Josh O’Connor stating in an interview “I will not do Bond”, but let me dream, OK???

Learned: The distinctive core of a franchise character can limit the narrative choices that you can make, but that limitation must actually make for a really interesting writing challenge.

Last Night in Soho

LNIS_FP_005_R2 Thomasin McKenzie stars as Eloise and Anya Taylor-Joy as Sandie in Edgar Wright’s LAST NIGHT IN SOHO, a Focus Features release. Credit: Courtesy of Focus Features / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Last Night in Soho marks the arrival of Edgar Wright as a true auteur — i.e. a director who is successful to the point that everyone is afraid to tell him his script is a complete mess with nothing coherent to say. You can tell that meaningful notes were not sought out or given during the writing process, because Last Night in Soho is full of first draft problems.

Last Night in Soho is about Eloise (Thomasin McKenzie), an aspiring fashion designer who leaves her home in the British countryside for London.

What happens next is as hard to explain as it is to comprehend while watching: Eloise has vivid waking (and not waking) dreams even before she arrives in London, but when she gets there, her apartment is also perhaps haunted. The dreams/hallucinations take an intense turn, with Eloise inhabiting the persona a woman who was possibly murdered there in the 1960s every time she goes to sleep. Here’s the first first-draft problem: Wright should have chosen either the hallucinations or the ghosts, or at least make it more clear how or if they are interacting with each other. As written, it’s incredibly confusing.

Last Night in Soho is on its surface meant to be a film about nostalgia: Eloise’s fascination with the 1960s is emphasized well, emphatically. However, that thematic line is not played out in any coherent way. The film fails to draw a meaningful distinction between the SoHo of the past and the SoHo of today, with both portrayed as a relentless hellscape for women with lots of colorful and moody lighting. Despite her discovery that the past is pretty scary, Eloise finds success and praise for her retro dress designs at the end of the film. Has her relationship with the past changed at all? If this is meant to be an indictment of nostalgia, it isn’t a very strong or clear one.

Edgar Wright’s approach to the experience of being a women is a predictable brand of nice-guy condescension. It’s implied that Eloise had never been harassed by random men before coming to the BIG CITY, as though seedy urban environments are really the problem, not, you know, men. Eloise is also given a saintly male love interest who is designed to make Scott Pilgrim fanboys comfortable. They can point and declare that they are like that guy: Nice To Women!

This note COULD be a nit-pick if the rest of the script was written better, but it’s actually worth pointing out that the entire plot, including the “twist”, hinges on the fact that the old actors do not look like their younger counterparts. This feels like a cheat because in any kind of realistic context knowing who the villain is would just be an observational no-brainer.

Learned: No one is so good that their first draft works.

The Coen Project Part 16: Inside Llewyn Davis

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film.

In 2005, the late Blake Snyder published Save the Cat, a screenwriting guide that Hollywood has since embraced a little too wholeheartedly. If the major blockbusters of the past decade have all appeared to be cribbed from the same template, it’s because they were: Snyder’s book breaks down screenplay structure into a series of “beats”, which it claims are the key to a successful script. It even specifies on which page these beats should occur. The titular piece of advice is that in order to make a protagonist likeable, they should be made do a good deed of some sort early in the first act, i.e. saving a cat.

In the Coen’s 2013 release Inside Llewyn Davis the protagonist, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), is a folk singer couchsurfing his way through 1960’s Greenwich Village. He literally saves a runaway cat within the first ten minutes. If anyone else had made this movie, I would have read this moment as either a hilariously literal implementation of Snyder’s formula or an unfortunate coincidence. But since we’re talking about the Coens, I have to wonder if it’s a deliberate jab at the Hollywood trope.

This “Save the Cat” moment actually functions the way that Snyder intended, at least initially. Llewyn is not an immediately likeable character — he’s surly, condescending and most often passive. Despite his bad luck, we get the sense that this guy could make a success out of his life if he would just change his attitude.

But the cat sticks around for more than just a first-act beat — Llewyn ends up carrying the animal throughout most of the film. He loses him, finds him again, and eventually leaves him in a car on the side of the highway, reversing his good deed from the beginning of the film. This subversion of Snyder’s formula mirrors the character’s inability to change or grow significantly, an anti-arc that would typically be frowned upon by Save The Cat apologists.

With the cat, the Coens again dare us to discern some deep significance in what seems like a really obvious symbol. There are even “clues” in the dialog: Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean (Carrie Mulligan) screams “EXPLAIN THE CAT”, when she finds it deposited in her own apartment. When Llewyn calls the cat’s owner, the secretary on the other end mishears him say “Llewyn is the cat”. I don’t think it matters what the cat symbolizes. It’s Llewyn, it’s the pain he’s carrying, it’s his dwindling musical ambition, pick your poison. But as we find out late in the film, it’s not even the same cat that he started with — the symbol itself is a fraud.

What’s not as obvious is that Inside Llewyn Davis is a film about dealing with death. Although it’s only directly addressed later in the story, Llewyn has just lost his friend and musical partner Mike to suicide. The revelation of Mike’s death reframes the central struggle of the story: It’s not that Llewyn doesn’t have the strength to make it as a folk singer, it’s that he’s not sure how to move forward in his life at all without his best friend.

This pain bubbles to the surface when Llewyn blows up at the same couple that hosted him previously, screaming at the wife for attempting to sing Mike’s part of a song that she requested Llewyn sing at a dinner party. At this moment, we understand that Llewyn’s bad behavior and ennui has been largely the result of his grief, invisible but omnipresent.

Even though Inside Llewyn Davis is a period piece, it feels like a sharp reflection of the moment of its creation, more than any prior Coen film. We can strongly feel that Llewyn is a part of a movement of young people at odds with the values of the rest of society and its encompassing economic system. Llewyn struggles to make money, but money is not the goal — the goal is to make meaningful music. He clashes with his older sister, who has embraced a more conventionally stable life path.  He’s literally unable to communicate with his father, whose senility reads as a stand-in for intergenerational lack of understanding, impenetrable even by the universal language of music.

I have to caveat this with the fact that generational labels are made up and not-very-useful ways to describe huge swaths of the population, but it’s hard to watch this and not feel the similarities to my own “generation”, one that has been broadly marked by a desire to pursue lives of meaning over lives of economic gain. This pursuit of meaning often comes with an embrace of the past — Llewyn and his Greenwich Villiage colleagues are reviving a form of music that was last popular before they were born, playing songs that are over a hundred years old. Connecting to the past in this way has its dangers — at worst, a person’s life can turn into a pastiche of a life past, centered around traditions and art forms that the person can’t really take meaningful ownership of. This is why we make fun of “Millenials” with old-timey sailor tattoos and other anachronistic affectations — their quest for authenticity has made them glaringly inauthentic.

Llewyn’s inability to break with the values of authenticity that he lives by ensures that he won’t be commercially successful. Refusing to give in, Llewyn thinks he’s a martyr for his art. Maybe he is. What he’s preserving is inarguably good and beautiful, but he’s preventing himself from discovering new meaning of his own. Would Bob Dylan be as revered today if he had never pulled out an electric guitar at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival? What seemed like a betrayal then is seen now as an act of artistic courage.

To close out, let’s go through some of these amazing music scenes that are available as clips. Justin Timberlake was an inspired casting choice as Jim, the clueless husband to Llewyn’s ex-girlfriend Jean. In addition to the sheer joy of watching Timberlake perform folk music, the character adds much needed lightness to what would otherwise be an almost unbearably dour film. Even in terms of color language, Jim’s sweaters are the only bright spots in the relentlessly desaturated color palette. I have watched this clip probably forty times:

Next, In a prophetic coincidence, Adam Driver makes a cameo as baritone country singer Al Cody, who along with Llewyn assists in Jim’s ridiculous space-themed pop-folk number. Everything about this is great:

And lastly, Llewyn’s performance of The Death of Queen Jane for a Chicago music manager. This scene illustrates how crucial Oscar Isaac’s casting was. In order for this scene to work the musical performance has to obviously great, so that the rejection at the end lands as a purely money-driven decision. Isaac pulls of both the music and the acting with incredible subtlety.

The Coen Project Part 15: True Grit

While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

I’ll admit that I was dragging my feet a little bit getting myself to re-watch and think about True Grit (again, I really want to get to Hail Caesar), which if memory serves I saw for the first time in theaters my senior year of high school. I remember little of my reaction, but it was likely the perfect Coen film for that time in my life. While the Coen version of True Grit is structurally a straightforward Western, on a deeper level it engages with a type of narrative that the directors had never attempted before — the coming-of-age story.

A well-known version of True Grit was released in 1969, starring John Wayne and helmed by prolific genre director Henry Hathaway, but it would be a mistake to categorize the Coens’ 2010 release as a remake. In an interview, Ethan stated that they hadn’t seen the prior film since its release when they were kids, and that its existence was “kind of an irrelevancy” to their desire to adapt Charles Portis’ original novel. This is a statement that only Joel or Ethan Coen could make without coming off as a total asshole.


Their writing approach for True Grit was similar to their adaptation method for No Country for Old Men — faithful to the story that they loved on the page. They adhered closer to the novel than Hathaway’s version, bringing the story’s point of view back to the young woman who seeks revenge for her father’s death.

Critics at the time seemed almost baffled by True Grit’s straightforwardness: Roger Ebert noted that it wasn’t ”eccentric, quirky, wry or flaky”. I have no idea what it means for a movie to be “flaky”, but he’s correct in that True Grit is the Coens’ most unsubverted genre exercise. It proves beyond any doubt that the directors don’t rely on any of their genre-morphing weirdness to make their movies entertaining. They’re just that good.

The setup is simple: fourteen-year-old Mattie Ross’s father has been killed by a man in his employ, Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin). Local law enforcement in Fort Smith, Arkansas has made no effort to accost the murderer, so Mattie takes matters into her own hands, enlisting the services of an old and drunk U.S. Marshall named Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to help her find Chaney. Already on the hunt is Texas Ranger LaBeouf (Matt Damon), who is attempting to track down and arrest Chaney for prior crimes in his jurisdiction.

Like many coming-of-age films, True Grit’s success hinges on the performance of a very young actress, in this case Hailee Steinfeld, who at thirteen was about the same age her character during filming. The Coens are lucky that their nationwide search for such a precocious kid payed off — Steinfeld is able to play Mattie as smart and determined without coming off as an neurotic do-gooder. A slightly lesser actress could have made the film work as a Western, but it’s Steinfeld’s subtlety that makes True Grit work as a coming-of-age story and nabbed her a best supporting actress nomination in the process.

I think that there are essentially two types of coming-of-age stories: one having to do with sexuality and one having to do with mortality. The ones about mortality are less common, and when done well are in my opinion the more universal and impactful version. While it wraps its coming-of-age narrative in a standard Western revenge plot, the emotional core of the Coens’ True Grit is comprised of Mattie’s journey towards an understanding of death.

Most mortality coming-of-age stories lead up to an experience of death towards the end, but in True Grit the pivotal death happens upfront. For someone who has just lost a parent at a young age, Mattie is oddly devoid of emotion. She goes about the arrangements for her father’s avengement with a strange sense of ruthless enjoyment, manipulating everyone in her path to her advantage. She’s driven not by grief or even anger, but by obligation — killing your father’s murderer is just the done thing in 1870’s Arkansas. Her behavior isn’t really stoicism, it’s a lack of understanding of what has just happened to her.

The harrowing finality of death isn’t real to Mattie until she’s tasked with cutting a hanged man down from a tree along the trail that she and Rooster are traveling. The man’s face is decayed beyond recognition. She cuts the rope suspending the corpse and watches as it slams unceremoniously onto the ground below. Before Mattie can come down from the tree, Rooster has sold off the body to a passing horseman. When Mattie asks what happened, Rooster explains that neither he nor the horseman knew the dead man, but that “it is a dead body, possibly worth something in trade”.  The incident doesn’t have a major plot significance, but we can see the wheels turning in Mattie’s head — life is fragile, death is anonymizing. Again, Steinfeld’s performance is what makes this scene’s emotional content land.


Killing soon loses its glamour, too. When Mattie finally comes face-to-face with Chaney, she has the jarring realization that the man who killed her father is a human being. He has plenty of his own problems, only one of which is Mattie. “Everything is against me. Now I am shot by a child,” he laments. This is not exactly the face of evil that Mattie was looking forward to courageously defeating. Doling out death is only palatable when you’re able to dehumanize your victim, and in a stark contrast to No Country’s villainous Anton Chigurh, Chaney is about as human as they come. 

Mattie does ultimately kill Chaney, but nearly at the cost of her own life.  The kick of the rifle knocks her into a rocky pit where she’s bitten by a poisonous snake. With death all around her and the value of life seeming less and less significant, the lengths to which Rooster goes to save her humbles Mattie, striking the final blow to her former flippancy in the face of mortality. More death doesn’t fix death — only love can do that. 

Stray Observations:

  • The pronunciation of LaBeouf’s name, LaBeef, cracked me up every single time it was spoken.
  • Side note — If  I hear one more critic refer to a modern genre film, especially a Western, as “gritty” I will fully lose my mind.


The Coen Project Part 13: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.

Around the same time that they were adapting Cormac McCarthy’s novel into the screenplay for No Country for Old Men, Joel and Ethan were kicking around another idea. As an exercise, they wrote characters for some of their favorite actors: George Clooney, John Malkovich, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand (who also happens to be Joel’s wife). All of the characters that they came up with were uniquely stupid, delusional, and/or narcissistic.

To give their pack of idiots a playground, the Coens constructed a spy thriller plot — “mostly because we’d never done one before”. The resulting script became Burn After Reading, released in 2008. As with many of their films (The Big Lebowski, Fargo), Burn After Reading uses the narrative framework of a serious genre but populates it with characters that you don’t normally see in that genre, creating humorous juxtapositions.

Burn After Reading mirrors No Country’s pessimism, presenting inevitable suffering, failure and death in a farcical rather than purely dramatic context. The thematic parallels allow the films to work companion pieces, similarly to the complementary pairing of Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink.

The story begins with the rage of Osbourne Cox (John Malcovich), a low-level CIA analyst who is fired from his job for being an alcoholic. Convinced that his dismissal was a political “crucifixion,” Cox tells everyone that he quit, and decides to shore up his self-worth by writing a “memoir”. Cox’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) takes the firing as an opportunity to divorce Cox and continue to sleep with Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), a clueless deputy U.S. Marshall. She gives her divorce lawyer a CD containing Cox’s personal financial information, and incidentally, a copy of his in-progress memoir. The divorce lawyer’s assistant abandons the CD in the ladies locker room of Hardbodies, a local gym. It’s picked up by Linda Litsky, a self-obsessed gym manager, and her dim-witted but endlessly positive associate, Chad Feldheimer. The pair mistake the innane contents of the CD for government secrets, and plot a blackmail scheme to extort Osbourne Cox and get rich, mostly so that Linda can pay for a slate of cosmetic procedures.

Events spiral in typical anarchic Coen fashion, with each character making their respective situation worse with their delusions and paranoia about what’s actually happening. Cox is convinced that he’s actually being blackmailed, which he isn’t, and Chad and Linda believe they’re actually blackmailing him, which they’re not. They’re children playing make-believe, but with real death as the consequence of their shenanigans.


On the surface, Burn After Reading isn’t exactly groundbreaking in terms of characterization — writing morons is kind of the Coens’ brand. But never has the pathology of idiocy come into sharper relief than they are here. The problem isn’t just that these people are stupid — stupid people are able to not kill anyone and go about their lives just fine. The real problem here is narcissism, coupled with an utter lack of self-awareness.

John Malcovich’s Osbourne Cox provides the key example, as his delusional and selfish behavior is what drives the plot forward. He’s so privileged that he’s lost all grasp on reality. Despite his Princeton education, he’s the stupidest person because he actively believes that he’s very smart and that he’s fighting against stupidity.

Cox’s belief in his intelligence is so central to his identity that he’ll literally kill to protect it. The other characters have beliefs that they cling to similarly — Linda that her body is the most important thing about her, Harry that he’s loved and desired by every woman in his life, even the one he’s cheating on. Their blind adherence to these beliefs is what makes them so stupid.

The only characters who aren’t obsessed with their own perceived identities are Brad Pitt’s Chad and Richard Jenkins’ Ted, both of whom are devoted to Linda and both of whom end up dead.

The film offers an effective and hilarious framing device in the form of meetings between Osbourne’s ex-boss Palmer (David Rache) and the boss’s unnamed director (J.K. Simmons). The pair’s nonplussed bafflement as they try to track the insane series of events serve to punctuate the themes that Burn After Reading shares with No Country For Old Men.

“We don’t really know what anyone is after.”

“Not really, sir.”

Osbourne, Harry, Linda and Chad all believe that their pursuits have meaning, but when viewed from this outside perspective, it’s easy to see that the results of their combined actions form a morass of destructive chaos.

“Report back to me when, uh… I dunno. When it makes sense.” 

The second meeting between Palmer and the director brings the film to an abrupt end that resembles the closing scene of No Country, where Ed Tom Bell reflects on his retirement from police work after failing to defeat or understand Anton Chigurh. It’s a lot funnier, but it leaves us with a remarkably similar sense of irresolution:

J.K. Simmons’ character is clearly used to dealing with crime, but what he witnessed here is so random and pointless he can’t point to any salient takeaway from the experience:

“What did we learn, Palmer?”

“I don’t know, sir.”

Sometimes things just happen. No one gets what they want, no one gets what they deserve, and no one learns a lesson.

Stray Observations:

  • Best John Malcovich moment: emphatic cruciform arm gestures while screaming “THIS is a CRUCIFIXION!”.
  • Related John Malcovich moment: “F*ck you, Peck, you’re a Mormon! Next to you, we ALL have a drinking problem”.
  • Can’t forget to mention — John Malcovich’s pronunciation of the word “memoir” as “memoiah”.
  • Best Tilda Swinton moment: while hammering on a table, “I DON’T HAMMER”.
  • Best Brad Pitt moment – “You think it’s a Schwinn!!!”
  • Best George Clooney quirk: his interest in flooring. “What is this, pine?”
  • He’s never referred to by name in the dialogue, but J.K. Simmons’ character is called “Gardner Chubb” in the script.


The Coen Project Part 10: Intolerable Cruelty

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship.

Intolerable Cruelty is the first Coen Brothers movie that isn’t entirely a Coen Brothers movie — it’s based on a concept by John Romano, which was adapted into a screenplay by the writing team of Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone. Joel and Ethan were brought in to do a re-write pass on the script, their first gig as writers-for-hire. After the project had bounced around in development for years with a handful of directors (including Ron Howard) attached to it, the Coens were given the opportunity to take it to production. With their ambitious planned adaptation of the World War II novel To the White Sea recently cancelled due to budgeting issues, they jumped on Intolerable Cruelty, a chance to put their spin on a forties-style screwball romantic comedy. And if you’re going to make a screwball comedy, you’d be insane not to cast George Clooney.

Clooney plays Miles Massey, an ace Los Angeles divorce attorney and author of the Massey pre-nup, the most financially iron-clad contract in the game. Get a Massey pre-nup, and you can be assured that both parties are in the union for love only. Miles takes the case of the wealthy Rex Rexroth (Edward Hermann), whose wife Marylin (Catherine Zeta-Jones) has finally caught him cheating and intends to “nail his ass” in the divorce proceedings. Turns out divorcing rich and stupid men is basically Marylin’s job, and Miles sets out to expose her serial gold-digging. But of course, things get complicated. In the course of the twists and turns that follow love is declared, murder is attempted, and a Massey prenup gets dramatically ripped apart no less than three times.

As far as rom-coms go, it’s a lot more com than rom. This is partly by design; the Coens are more interesting in playing with screwball and noir elements and crafting rapid-fire dialogue than they are in portraying an actual romantic relationship. The two leads also don’t have the best chemistry — Catherine Zeta-Jones in particular doesn’t contribute any warmth to the pairing. 

Despite the possible miscast of Zeta-Jones, the rest of the players bring their comedic A-game to the script. In a hilarious and probably intentional contrast to his role as the dead silent Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There, Billy Bob Thorton plays another of Marilyn’s dupe husbands, an oil tycoon who won’t shut up. Richard Jenkins is in his  exasperated wheelhouse as Marylin’s outgunned attorney, who has a penchant for yelling “objection!” before thinking through what he’s objecting to. And having only previously known the late Edward Herrmann as the grandpa from Gilmore Girls, it was fun to see him go full-on gross old man as Rexroth. 

Since they didn’t originate the script, It’s impossible to know for certain how much of the dialogue is the Coens’ writing, but nearly all of it bears their unmistakable smart-yet-stupid signature. They clearly had way too much fun with the latitude afforded by the genre, resulting in exchanges such as the following:

Rex Rexroth: Have you sat before her before?

Miles Massey: No. No, the judge sits first. Then we sit.

Rex Rexroth: Well, have you sat after her before?

Wrigley: Sat after her before? You mean, have we argued before her before?

Miles Massey: The judge sits in judgment. The counsel argues before the judge.

Rex Rexroth: So, have you argued before her before?

Wrigley: Before her before, or before she sat before?

I’m willing to guess that the Coens also added much of the funny physical business that adds to the characters, most notably Miles Massey’s habit of whitening his teeth at every opportunity. It’s impressive how completely they were able to make the film their own, despite it not being their original story. Intolerable Cruelty fits into the Coen-verse seamlessly.

In the climactic scene, Miles throws away his script during the keynote address at a Las Vegas divorce law conference and instead launches into a heartfelt speech about the value of love and the poison of cynicism:

“Now I am of course aware that these remarks will be received here with cynicism – cynicism; that cloak that advertises our indifference and hides all human feeling. Well I’m here to tell you that that cynicism, which we think protects us in fact destroys – destroys love, destroys our clients and ultimately destroys ourselves.”

My initial read on this monologue was that the Coens were using the character’s words to address the repetitive and unfounded criticism that their work is cynical. But knowing them, it’s probably meant as more of a send-up than a refutation of their critics. And since there isn’t a lot of warmth in this film otherwise (Miles and Marilyn are no Marge and Norm) it’s highly likely that they’re just messing with us. You want sincerity? Oh, here you go.

Stray Observations:

  • Film nerd reference: the movie playing during Rex Rexroth’s bed-bouncing demise is Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, which appropriately is about a murderous railroad engineer.
  • Best grounds for objection: poetry recitation, strangling the witness.

Christine VS 80’s Round 4: Horror Edition

I didn’t grow up watching horror movies, and until recently never thought I was missing out on anything. Horror is the only genre that seems acceptable to completely opt out of — people don’t say they never watch action films, or never watch period dramas, but I have plenty of friends who categorically refuse to go to scary movies. Horror is different because it aims to induce a visceral reaction in the viewer in addition to presenting a narrative. Because of this, many commercial horror films seem content to be effectively horrifying but narratively lazy, like a poorly designed roller coaster that’s still going to go fast and jerk you around. This tendency has always made it difficult for me to parse through what’s good in bad in the genre.

Although I would love to roast some of the more absurd specimens of 80’s horror, I think I should first look at some good examples to give myself a baseline. To cover two of horror’s major subcategories, slasher and supernatural, I’m going to start with Nightmare on Elm Street and Poltergeist.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

By 1982, college English professor turned writer/director Wes Craven already had a handful of horror film under his belt, most notably The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, and less notably Deadly Blessing and Swamp Thing. While taking a break from directing, he met Bob Shaye, founder of the now uber-succesful but then struggling New Line Cinemas. Shaye scraped together enough funding for a low-budget production while Craven penned the script for Nightmare on Elm Street.

Nightmare’s premise was groundbreaking for a slasher because it blurred the lines between reality and imagination. Four teenagers all have similar nightmares involving a grinning burn victim in a red and green sweater with knives for fingers, later revealed to be dead-ish child murderer Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund). When one of them is actually killed by Freddy from within their dream, survivors Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) and Glen (a very young Johnny Depp) attempt to figure out how to get rid of their attacker (mostly Nancy does this), while avoiding death by staying awake (Glen is less successful at this).

If all horror movies in some way mirror real-life traumas, Nightmare is focused on losing reliance on one’s parents in late adolescence. Nancy’s mom is a drunk and her dad is distracted and condescending, overprotective but simultaneously unable to protect her from the real danger of Freddy. While she’s still very emotionally attached to her parents, she has to let go of her trust in them to face the danger herself.

The vanquishing of Freddy by means of Nancy’s smarts and bravery is undercut by a goofy tacked-on dream sequence in which the kids are trapped in a Freddy-colored car (apparently an imposition from Shaye, who had some misguided directorial ambitions).


The car is Freddy I guess? 

Nightmare is an old-school monster movie as much as it’s a slasher — Freddy Kreuger’s simple and instantly recognizable design calls back to iconic creature feature villains of the thirties and forties. Of course you can’t just make one monster movie: Nightmare spawned eight sequels and remakes starring Freddy. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) was the only one written and directed by Craven himself — a meta-narrative in which the fictional Freddy invades the real world. The 2010 reboot Nightmare on Elm Street apparently put the nail in the franchise’s coffin, attempting to make Freddy dark and gritty by exploring the peodophilic implications of the character’s backstory. Fun!

Watchability: 3/5. The lack of budget shows, and Nancy is the only fully fleshed-out character.

Scariness: 3/5 for me. Freddy’s persona is so pre-engrained that I wasn’t terribly surprised by anything he did.

Stranger Things Callbacks: A tough high schooler named Nancy, hands stretching through walls, booby-trapping a house before summoning an inter-dimensional monster, parents who just don’t get it.

Poltergeist (1982)

I’ve always thought of Poltergeist as that Speilberg movie I’ve never seen, but it was officially directed by Tobe Hooper, a horror guy known for Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Accounts of the film’s directorial authorship vary, with many cast members claiming that Spielberg was calling most of the shots on set. I’ve never seen anything else by Hooper, but visually, Poltergeist feels like Speilberg’s work.

True to Speilbergian form, Poltergeist focuses on suburban family, featuring Craig T. Robinson and JoBeth Williams as mom (Diane) and dad (Steve) to two little kids and a teenager. They’ve just moved into a new planned community where Steve is a real estate developer. Because the title of the film is Poltergeist, we can reasonably guess that their new house contains a poltergeist. It does.

Compared to Nightmare on Elm Street, Poltergeist is a more fully-formed movie underneath its horror premise — Speilberg’s aim was clearly to elevate the genre with believable character work. To this end, the film has a lengthy build up, focusing heavily on defining the family relationships before anything strange happens — including a scene where the parents casually smoke weed in their bedroom, feet away from their sleeping children.

The initial ghost activity, which includes rearranging chairs and sliding stuff across the floor, is kind of benign and charming, but things get real when the little girl is sucked into the television. From there Steve and Diane have to figure out how to communicate with their daughter and extract her from the limbo-like state she’s trapped in.


The creepiest thing about this movie is Tagina, a tiny clairvoyant lady hired to help retrieve the child and expel the ghosts from the house. While the dialog in Poltergeist is generally great, she gives us this hilariously dubious exchange at the edge of the ghost-portal:

Tagina: I’m going in after her!

Diane: She won’t come to you! Let me go!

Tagina: You’ve never done this before!

Diane: Neither have you!

Tagina: ….You’re right, you go.

I expected to see only standard ghost stuff, but Poltergeist treats us to a full gamut of awesome practical horror effects, including a kid being consumed by a possessed tree, a guy ripping his face apart, and an entire house imploding. The ending is definitive, avoiding the horror trope of obviously telegraphing a sequel in the final seconds (not that they didn’t make a sequel).

Watchability: 4/5, easily the best supernatural horror film I’ve seen (granted I have not seen many).

Scariness: 3.5/5. Lots of unexpected scares.

Stranger Things Callbacks: Mom trying to communicate with child trapped in other dimension, using a rope as a tether while entering said other dimension, coming back from said other dimension covered in stringy goo.

The Coen Project Part 7: The Big Lebowski

I haven’t officially signed up for the church of Dudeism, but I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Lebowski fanatic. I’ve spent more time than anyone should trying to figure out what books the Dude has on his coffee table, and I own an (almost) exact replica of the Dude’s Pendleton sweater. Despite these patterns of behavior, I’m uncomfortable with The Big Lebowski’s status as a “cult classic”. It’s hard to specify exactly what makes a cult film, but most are defined by something other than their quality as a movie. While it has inarguably developed a cult following in the years since its release, The Big Lebowski is and always was just a great film.

According to Ethan Coen, the goal in writing The Big Lebowski was to create a Los Angeles noir story in the vein of Raymond Chandler’s dark, labyrinthine novels. This influence is the basis for the film’s structure, but in a classically Coen-esque subversion, it’s populated with distinctly un-noirish characters. The typical hard-boiled detective protagonist is traded in for an easy-going stoned bowling enthusiast, Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski, a role written for Jeff Bridges.

The Dude bowls, drinks white russians, and hangs out with his friends, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). One evening he is accosted in his apartment by two men who shove his face in the toilet and demand money. It’s a case of mistaken identity — they have the wrong Jefferey Lebowski. The intruders leave, but not before one of them urinates on the rug. Bummed by the destruction of his property, The Dude seeks out the other Jefferey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a paraplegic millionaire, to right the wrong. All he wants is a rug, but he gets conned into participating in a kidnapping scheme that spirals into a convoluted mess.

The plot of the Big Lebowski surprises me every time I watch it because it’s so complicated, yet so extraneous to an understanding of the film. Who the are the Knudsens? Whose toe is that? Where is the money, exactly? These narrative details are fun, but they’re largely decorative: the meat of the film is in the characterization, most importantly of the two men named Jeffery Lebowski, along with John Goodman’s compulsively aggresive Vietnam war vet Walter Sobchak.

In my notes on Fargo I talked about the Coens’ commentary on American manhood in the form of the contrasting characters of Jerry and Norm. In Lebowski, the filmmakers build on this theme more deliberately. This is evident from the Dude’s introduction, coupled with a narration by Sam Eliot’s The Stranger, speaking in a deep Western drawl (emphasis is mine):

Now this here story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early nineties — just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. I only mention it ’cause sometimes there’s a man — I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? — but sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.

We get two major themes up front: conflict and manhood. Even before this, the focus on masculinity is previewed by the opening credits song, Bob Dylan’s The Man in Me.

The Dude and the millionaire he calls the Big Lebowski represent warring visions of what an American man should be. The fact that they have the same name is more than a plot device — it makes the contrast and conflict between them explicit. In their first scene together, the Dude walks into the Big Lebowski’s ornate office in his sandals and hoodie with a simple request — some form of compensation for his peed-upon rug. He instead gets subjected to a self-righteous tirade. (Note the opening shot of the Dude in the Man of the Year mirror.)

The rant has nothing to do with the rug. Big Lebowski is affronted by the Dude’s very existence, livid that anyone, much less a man, could live with that little regard to societal norms. Any suggestion that his twentieth century values of male achievement and status don’t apply to everyone must be aggressively shouted down. Big Lebowski smugly believes that he’s won the encounter, while the Dude never even wanted to pick a fight. It’s important that Big Lebowski’s “achievements” turn out to be fraudulent. His version of manhood was literally a performance.

Walter Sobchak has no slavish notions about masculinity per se — he gladly carries around his ex-wife’s tiny dog. Where he contrasts with the Dude most starkly is how he handles conflict. When anyone crosses a line (literal or figurative) he reacts immediately and forcefully. Walter isn’t mindlessly violent — he has airtight logic justifying all of his outbursts. “Am I wrong?” is his mantra. To this the Dude responds with the film’s thesis in regards to conflict:  “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole”. The reasons for being violent don’t matter. It’s always an asshole way to be.

I want to talk about Sam Eliot’s mysterious cowboy character The Stranger, because I think he’s more than a narrator or an audience surrogate. I’ve always thought of The Stranger as the Dude’s guardian angel. This used to be just a pet theory of mine with little textual justification, but it actually fits in pretty well thematically. When the Stranger tells the Dude that he likes his style, he isn’t talking about his clothes — it’s a moral validation. He likes the Dude’s way of living, his commitment to peacefulness in a world that keeps on pummeling him.

The Big Lebowski was intended to be produced and released before Fargo, but due to scheduling issues with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman had to be delayed. This was a stroke of luck: Lebowski’s reception was lukewarm, barely making back its fifteen million dollar budget. Had it been released first, the Coens’ careers would have been on shaky ground.  Why did Lebowski resonate to such greater degree in the 2000’s than in the late 1990’s? It’s likely that pre-911 America wasn’t as interested in the film’s focus on conflict, violence, and pacifism. In the (George W) Bush era, these issues were in the forefront of American life. It probably also didn’t hurt that The Big Lebowski looks a lot like Dick Cheney.

While it’s their second film set in Los Angeles, Lebowski is the Coens’ first true LA movie. Los Angeles is unique because there is no way to experience it holistically — it’s so decentralized that everyone lives in a different version of the city. Each individual will know a handful of places intimately, but the rest is an amorphous landscape that’s never fully comprehensible. This can be difficult to capture cinematically — one of the major failures of La La Land is that Damien Chazelle tried to film Los Angeles as though it were New York, ending up with a touristy, Instagram-filtered version of the city that bears no resemblance to the experience of those who live here. The Coens, however, aren’t interested in landmarks — they only show us the version of Los Angeles that’s relevant to the characters in the story. 

Stray Observations

  • I love how the Dude repeats words and phrases that he learns in previous scenes, first with “This agression will not stand, man”, after he hears Bush Senior say it on TV, then “johnson” after he learns it from Maude.
  • I’ve always been bothered that the cups Donny and Walter hold after they get In-n-Out aren’t In-n-Out cups. But I have to imagine that the company wouldn’t allow their products onscreen — It would be a big detail for the filmmakers to overlook. Also, I have been to that particular In-N-Out in North Hollywood. It is indeed near Radford.
  • John Turturro uses every second of screentime to the fullest in his performance as the bombastic Jesus. Dios Mio, man. Also, what’s the deal with his silent pal Liam?
  • I just now realized that the title of this movie is a reference to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Wow.
  • The Stranger does have a nit-pick about the Dude’s character — his use of “cuss words”. This is the line that I always point to in defense of my theory. Who else but a guardian angel would care about that?