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February 14-20, 2007

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Cult Leader

Where the Dude Began: 'Cutter's Way' has a bizarre 'Lebowski' link

By Steve Palopoli


IF THERE'S one thing I know for sure about the Coen brothers, it's that you can't know anything for sure about the Coen brothers. They're nice guys, and unique filmmakers and all that, but the fact that they're also notorious pranksters means it's not always safe and sane to trust what they say about their own work. If they say it, it might not be true.

Conversely, if they don't say it, it might be true. For instance, I've never come across an instance where they go on record saying that The Big Lebowski, their 1998 film which has in the space of just a few years become the cult movie to end all cult movies, was influenced by the 1981 film Cutter's Way. It's very possible they've acknowledged it at some point, but I've never seen quotes about it from them, it's not mentioned in the very detailed The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film and it didn't come up in an interview I did with them in which they discussed many of Lebowski's references.

Still, I watch Cutter's Way and I can't imagine that Ethan and Joel Coen didn't have it very much in mind while they were putting together The Big Lebowski. At first I thought that there was just a slight connection because Ivan Passer's depressing drama is the first time as far as I can tell that Jeff Bridges gave us a glimpse of The Dude. Bridges is said to be very Dude in real life, but early in his career he was the clean-cut kid (e.g. The Last Picture Show), and even in the mid-'80s he was playing the romantic lead in Starman and the Golden Boy (albeit a possibly psycho one) in Jagged Edge. It's not just the 'stache and the scruff he's got in Cutter's Way that make him so much Duder, it's that his character Richard Bone is somewhat of a drifter operating outside the normal conventions of society. He is not an Achiever, if you know what I mean. He also has that dry sense of humor, as when his friend Alex Cutter (played by John Heard) asks him for a politically correct term when he gets himself in trouble with a group of African Americans: "What would you call them, Rich?" Bridges applies that now-familiar deadpan mumble for the answer: "I'd call them Sir if I were you."

So initially I thought Bridges' persona was the only connection to the Coens' film, as Bone could be thought of as a younger, angrier Jeffrey Lebowski, just coming out of the '70s and not yet on the road with Metallica (I still hope that someday Metallica will actually go on a "Speed of Sound" tour, where they will no doubt act like a bunch of assholes, and the prophecy shall be fulfilled).

But the more you watch Cutter's Way, the more parallels you see. Both movies are mysteries that don't concern themselves much with the actual mystery. Both have a heavy vibe of bohemian burnout, and both are set in L.A. (Cutter's Way is also set in Santa Barbara). Both feature a blackmail plot that makes little sense and goes nowhere. Both also feature Bridges' fringy character in an uncomfortable relationship with a rich patriarch throughout the entire film. Both partner Bridges' character with a crazy friend who is a Vietnam vet and won't let anyone forget it, rants constantly about nonsense and wears an eye-patch. Both include a scene in which Bridges' character argues with his crazy friend in a diner. Both also have a scene where his friend destroys a car, and then has the car he was in attacked by an infuriated neighbor.

Can this all be coincidence? Maybe. Certainly Lebowski has many significant influences. However much Bridges may be like the character, the Dude is based on the Coens' independent-film-producer friend Jeff Dowd. And the plot borrows from several noir classics (though the perfect double-bill to my mind is the 1946 version of The Big Sleep followed by The Big Lebowski).

Cutter's Way, it should also be noted, is an interesting film outside of its possible Lebowski connections. People often have a strong reaction to it either way; not surprising since the characters are so pointedly unlikable and only occasionally seem within reach of redemption. But its grungy paranoia and unexpected dip into surrealism in the finale are effectively unsettling. The doppelganger angle—Cutter represents what Bone would be if he'd gone to war instead of college—sticks with you after watching it. As for the Coens' real intentions, I wouldn't believe their answer anyway. I'm not even sure they're really brothers, to be honest with you. Come to think of it, have you ever seen them in the same room together?



Cult Leader is a weekly column about the state of cult movies and offbeat corners of pop culture. Email feedback and your favorite Lebowski influence here. To check out a previous edition of Cult Leader, click to the Cult Leader archive page.


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