Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Big Pendulum

When it comes to literary (or film) criticism, one can present incredible interpretations of the text in question without ever assuming that this is how the original author intended it to be interpreted. A sterling example is found in an article called 'The Return of Hobbes' by a chap named Galvin P. Chow (Google it, do I have to do everything myself?). This postulates that Hobbes from Calvin & Hobbes is somehow the same character as Tyler Durden from Fight Club. At first you think 'uh-huh, right' but then after reading some of it you realize that it's making sense, and by the end of the article, you're thinking 'damn it, that sounds downright plausible!' Chow piles on the evidence, and once you start to regard the issue correctly, the similarities become almost unavoidable.

Now, do I reckon that Bill Watterson or David Fincher really intended their works to be seen this way?

Come on.

Chow so expertly teases aspects of both works, re-moulding them according to his own wants, that he is able to convince us that there was an intended connection where in fact there must have been none (perhaps this is how conspiracy theories get started. But I am getting ahead of myself). This is a large part of how literary criticism seems to work. In school, while doing my Leaving Cert, I was often told that I could take any stance on a novel when writing an essay, as long as I backed up my idea with evidence and examples from the text. Any stance. Any text. There's a wide sargasso sea of potential stupid ideas right there.

Dipping my toes into this sea, I will begin by noting what I see as some bizarre similarities between The Big Lebowski, and the book Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco. Yeah, you know The Big Lebowski, and if you don't, boy have you come to the wrong place.

Foucault's Pendulum, on the other hand... I will understand if you don't. It's a large, complex, demanding book about Italian magazine editors who concoct a super-conspiracy theory (told you I'd get around to them) that includes every other such theory ever flaunted. All your old favourites are trotted out- the Templars, the Jesuits, the Nazis, the Rosicrucians, Count St. Germaine, etc (Tellingly, Eco is even more fond of lists than I am). It's been described as 'the thinking man's Da Vinci Code'.

To be honest, this book will probably ruin conspiracy theories for you forever. The joke is that though the book deals with every conspiracy theory ever hatched (pre David Ike) with more detail and accuracy than you'll find (or want to find) anywhere else, he still understands that it's all nonsense. The reader is drawn into the narrator's paranoid way of thinking as the characters begin to believe their own hype. They find connections between events that can only (to their fevered imaginations) be explained by a vast, all-encompassing Plan. And yet we the reader know it's applesauce. The conspiracy theorist's mind, and his reasons for believing, are examined so convincingly that you'll never be able to take another 911-truther seriously again (if you ever did anyway).

Phew. All of which is a long way from the Dude and his soiled rug. Or is it?

Consider. Both deal with three middle-aged (or nearly middle-aged) guys who hang out together because they have too much free time, and have few other meaningful relationships in their lives. In Lebowski, the trio are the Dude, Walter and Donny. Dude is the laid-back main character. Walter is an angry, offense-taking overgrown child who is obsessed with being Jewish, though his racial background suggests otherwise. Though Donny does very little, he does serve a purpose (through his death, hard cheese). The Dude and Walter do not share one scene together in which they do not fight or fail to communicate with each other. Donny's 'funeral' is one of the only scenes where we realize that they really do care for each other. And though we may have suspected it throughout the film, the lack of anybody else at this pitiful ceremony shows for sure that these three guys (now two) are the only close friends or family any of them have. It's a touching (and hilarious) scene.

In Pendulum, our trio consist of Casaubon, Belbo and Diotallevi. Though a bit younger than the others, and a dab hand with the ladies, narrator Casaubon is still rather detached from society. He drifts further and further from his girlfriend as the three become immersed in their obsessive creation, the Plan. It is clear that until meeting the other two, he has never been so challenged or stimulated intellectually. Belbo is arguably the main character- his twisted genius drives the creation of the Plan, and his cynicism makes him the most laid-back of the three (though we do eventually find out that this is a front). He has few close aquaintences besides the other two, and he seems more or less okay with this. Diotallevi is the quiet, abused one, though a direct comparison with Donny would perhaps be unfair to him. However, the kicker here is that he is obsessed with being Jewish, despite his racial background. In his own case, it stems from his being a foundling. In his need for identity, he watches his Jewish neighbours preparing for Shomor Shabbas (which Walter is also obsessed with) the night before, longing to take part. In any case, both texts deal with the friendship and need between a trio of men who, unusually for their stage in life, have no other strong relationships.

Both the Dude and Walter are obviously products of the 60's- the Dude represents the hippie generation with his take-it-easy attitude and his history of protest, sit-ins and dope-smoking. Walter represents the other side of the same coin- obsessed with rules, firearms and Vietnam, he is everything the Dude stood against at that time. But they seem to get on fine.

Similarly, Belbo and co. have their background in the student politics of the 60's. Belbo and Casaubon first meet at a student protest during this time. Back then, they chanted slogans and marched, and got chased by the police. The only difference is their cynicism to the ideals of this era. Really, they take part in this stuff because they feel it is expected of them, or because they think they will pick up girls. Still, the connection is noticeable.

There is also the film noir element. I've already mentioned that Lebowski is basically a subversion of Chandler (a few scenes and plot elements are robbed from The Big Sleep, in particular), with the Dude as a clueless stand-in for Philip Marlowe. Dirty dealings, red herrings, L.A. setting- all present and correct. In Pendulum, Casaubon actively compares himeslf to noir heroes Sam Spade and Marlowe on more than one occasion.

Perhaps the final similarity is how the plots of both texts stem from misconceptions. In both cases, events quickly spiral out of control in terms of complexity, with a conspicuous nothing at the centre. In Lebowsky, all the characters believe there has been a kidnapping, and a twisted trail of deception develops around it precisely because nobody knows what's going on (it's a pastiche of the LA-set Chandler novels). Of course, there was no kidnapping. Eventually, one of the characters (Donny) dies, arguably as a result of the stress and excitement of where their adventure finally takes them. The script could have had him shot by the nihilists, but instead points out that it was a heart attack. We'll never know if he died as a result of the events of the movie, or if it was something that might just have happened anyway.

In Pendulum, the trio at first construct the Plan as a joke, knowing it is false, but slowly become convinced of its veracity, as do several other nefarious characters. These troublemakers assume that Belbo and his friends must know something because they refuse to tell (of course there is nothing to tell, the plan is false). By the same token, Belbo figures that the Plan must be real because these people already take it seriously. In both cases there is a case of 'much ado about nothing'. Towards the end, one of the trio (again, Diotallevi, the quiet one) dies. He contracts cancer, again something which may have happened naturally, but which he in his obsession views as somehow being caused by their association with the Plan. Convinced?

Perhaps the ability to make such comparisons between such disparate works is possible because any decent book, film, or whatever that's had any modicum of thought put into it will have some deep or fascinating ideas that can be easily hijacked to grind one's own personal axe on.

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