Jamie Bircoll: Tying the room together

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 - 4:12pm

“That condo was my life, OK? I loved every stick of furniture in that place. That was not just a bunch of stuff that got destroyed, it was me!”

Edward Norton’s narrator goes on to thank the Academy for a harrowed performance as someone who actually cares about his IKEA furniture. “Fight Club” reprimands the materialist society that defines itself by the things one owns: “You are not how much money you have in the bank. You are not your fucking khakis.” And maybe that’s true about people, but in a movie, it’s kind of important. In fact, the very essence of a film is defined by the “stuff” that occupies the frame. No matter how mundane or trivial something seems, the director and set designer have specifically chosen that object to exist in their film. And the effects can be incredibly rewarding.

Take this scene from “The Godfather Part II:” the slant of Fredo’s chair prevents him from sitting all the way up. In the first shot of him, his neck in a double-chin effect compared to the cut, defined features of Michael. And when Fredo does try to sit up to express his anger, the chair pulls him back down; Fredo comes off as weak and squirmy. He’s trying to exert his power over Michael, but the chair deprives him of any shred of influence that might stem from his seniority. And, yes, Copolla could have achieved the same effect without the chair, relying only on his actors. However, the chair adds a visual representation that words alone simply could not express.

Sometimes the object captures the essence of a movie’s message, rather than simply emphasizes the desired effect. The last scene of “Inception” created much debate over whether the top fell over, whether Cobb had entered reality or remained in the dream world. But, the top itself is an act of deception because it doesn’t really matter. The top was not Cobb’s totem to use to distinguish between the dream and real worlds but his wife’s. Cobb’s totem goes unnamed (though it’s probably his wedding ring), and Cobb’s using his wife's totem is a clear violation of the rules and advice he gives to every other character in the film. Why? Because for Cobb, the ability to see his kids again, thereby achieving the happiness he has so longed for, supersedes whether it or not that feeling derives from reality.

Taking it further, one can view “Inception” as a metaphor for the creation of a film: dreams are the movie itself, Cobb is the director, Ariadne is the writer, Eames the actor, etc. Read in this context, the film concludes the realizations and feelings we have when watching movies; these dreams are as real and as important as anything we might experience outside the theater. The spinning top — this tiny black piece of round plastic — has been the focus of your attention, but you should have been watching everything that happens around it.

And why this interest in objects, you might ask? Why am I not concerned with characters and camera angles? Because, dudes, I watched “The Big Lebowski” last night. And “Lebowski,” more than most films I’ve seen, takes great pride in the things that occupy its space, none more so than the Dude’s rug. You know, the one that really tied the room together.

I watched “The Big Lebowski” for the first time years ago, before I knew what drugs were, before I stopped using the bumpers when I went bowling, before I understood the Gulf War. But this time, I got it. I got “The Big Lebowski.”

And no, it’s not a straight genre picture as you might think. It’s not a western, as the opening shot of tumbleweed strolling from the outskirts of the desert into the middle of LA or Sam Elliot’s The Stranger in full cowboy garb might insinuate. It’s not a reimagining of the film noir, with its mistaken identity plot line complete with a femme fatale, as many critics have stated. And it’s not a stoner cult comedy as it has come to be considered. Yes, there are strands of all of these genres (and musicals and screwball comedy and political satire), but they are not what the film is about.

I had this realization when the German nihilists (“say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, but at least it’s an ethos”) break into the Dude’s house, sans rug, smash some of his stuff and drop a ferret into the bathtub with the Dude. After the nihilists left and I regained my composure, it hit me: this movie is really about just how wrecked this one dude’s house can get. It’s a test of one man’s will.

The Dude is subjected to countless beatings, various events of bludgeoning of his car, kidnappings and drugging. He is used for sex for the sole purpose of obtaining his seed, and innocent, crazy-eyed Steve Buscemi dies. And on top of it all, his house is destroyed. And it’s important that the Dude be the recipient of this insanity rather than the instigator of it. He’s a human punching bag, a modern Job, his house the plaything of porn star kingpins, thugs and nihilists (read: writers/directors Joel and Ethan Cohen). And it all happens because of a soiled rug — a rug that tied the room together, kept his life together. Without the rug, it all falls apart.

This rug is something of a holy grail, and it leads the Dude on a path of deceit and occasional death and destruction. And it’s a difficult path, a painfully funny path and sometimes a sad path, but, through it all, the Dude never drops his moral compass. He never forgets that lives are on the line, nor does he let cruelty go without at least calling it out first (I’m sure he’d stop it if he could. But he can’t, because of pacifism, man). He demands integrity and compensation, but never overstays his welcome.

The rug represents this: something unattainable that challenges the protagonist. The Dude is constantly given the opportunity to veer from the path, to make a wrong decision, to be immoral or inconsiderate, but he never does. Such is the power of the Dude’s rug, and the power of objects in film.

And if you say that I’m reading too much into it — well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. 

Bircoll probably got an A in his SAC class. To ask him for tutoring rates, email jbircoll@umich.edu