Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Big Lebowski (1998)

WHO: Joel & Ethan Coen wrote, directed, co-produced and co-edited (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) this picture.

WHAT: I first saw The Big Lebowski the way most people I know did: on home video. I remember renting the videocassette fifteen years ago and thinking, "hey that's better than most Coen Brothers movies" and then thinking little of it for quite some time. Until this weekend I had not seen it on the big screen.

But this film slowly and surely developed a following like few other films of its era. I'm pretty sure it's the only Coen Brothers film that has inspired its own religion (founded by an old acquaintance of mine, no less), and probably the one that has inspired more DVD editions (including one worked on by another friend) and more books than any other, as well.

Even Josh Levine, who published a book about the Coens in 2000 (when The Big Lebowski was their newest completed film), seems oblivious that it might be the one that would develop the most cultish fan attention, focusing his chapter on the film's preparation, and when talking about its reception limiting his observations to that of the critical consensus, and to the fact of its box-office disappointment in the wake of Fargo. But he does, in his final chapter, put his finger on why The Big Lebowski may be different from the other Coen works, calling it an exception to the rule that "every one of their films leaves the viewer feeling distinctly uneasy ... Even the comic Raising Arizona has a nightmarish quality, and the hero and heroine may have had their lives ruined by their own uncontrollable impulses."

WHERE/WHEN: Tonight only at the Clay Theatre at 11:55 PM.

WHY: The Clay is set to replace its 35mm projection equipment with DCP next Friday. They already have a lower-quality digital projector in place, which is being used to show this week's regular booking, the biopic Renoir, about the great French filmmaker's famous father. This means that tonight's midnight screening of The Big Lebowski will be the last time 35mm reels will be shown publicly at the venue.

The Clay is one of San Francisco's oldest movie houses, and has been projecting 35mm prints from all over the world for over a hundred years. In the 1930s, it showed a great many French imports; just just the widely-known ones by Renoir but still-relatively-obscure titles like Anatole Litvak's Mayerling, Sascha Guitry's Pearls of the Crown and Robert Siodmak's Personal Column. It also showed films from countries such as (for example) Russia, Sweden, Austria, China, and the U.K.

Though keeping its reputation for foreign film exhibition through the following decades, in the 1970s the Clay became a stop on the burgeoning midnight-movie circuit, screening fare like John Waters's Pink Flamingos to a late-movie-hungry crowd in an age before home video and widespread cable television. The Rocky Horror Picture did not make its original local debut at the Clay but, according to Gary Meyer, the Metro II, before moving to the Powell as a midnight movie. Now it screens monthly at the Clay, along with other periodic midnight screenings such as The Room, The Big Lebowski, etc. I've seen 35mm midnight shows of films from The Shining to Johnnie To's The Mission to Donnie Darko over the past ten years or so. 

But now it's time for the Clay to go "on hundred per cent electronic" as Jackie Treehorn might say. It's unfortunate that  the DCP industry has figured out a way to strong-arm most theatres to adopt a "no turning back" policy, removing 35mm projection equipment even from booths with the room to accommodate both. For a theatre like the Clay, the philosophy seems to be "adapt or die". For a 103-year-old movie house which has survived plenty of closure scares over the years, maybe it's good news as it seems to reflect confidence in future survival of the venue to invest in new technology for it. Hopefully it will mean the Clay can continue to show an increasingly diverse selection of midnight movies and foreign films to appreciative crowds for some time to come.

It seems a good time to mention the final three 35mm screenings happening at SFMoMA before their closure in just over a month, since they all seem to connect to The Big Lebowski in some (perhaps oblique) way. The museum's final 35mm showing will be May 23's The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman's Raymond Chandler adaptation that seems to have held more influence on the Coens' approach to reinterpreting that author than other films by Howard Hawks, etc. May 16 they screen Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show, the film that essentially launched Lebowski lead Jeff Bridges's stardom. And on May 9th SFMoMA screens The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese's documentary record of The Band's farewell concert, an event that Jeff "The Dude" Lebowski might well have attended a good decade or so before his days as a roadie for Metallica. No, no members of The Eagles are invited.

HOW: The Big Lebowski will screen from an excellent if not pristine 35mm print, accompanied by an assortment of rare, vintage trailers and other odds and ends prepared by the Clay projectionist to run through the gate one last time.

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