The neo-noir has always had an affinity with marijuana. And close kin with the stoner caper: the first Cheech and Chong movie, Up in Smoke, shares with The Long Goodbye a plot concerning smuggling people into Tijuana, and like Gould’s Marlowe the central pair are equally pestered by cops and organized criminals. Likewise, the animated stoner movie Fritz the Cat (1972) shares with The Long Goodbye a mumbly urban soundscape in which the speaking mouths are never seen––in the opening sequence, three working joes are speaking an apparently documentary dialogue, and the animation jump cuts to reveal that these are cartoon animals, sitting on a girder. The visual field has been crafted to the specifications of the audio track, not just in the sense that the cartoon characters are moving their mouths along to pre-recorded audio, but in a more capacious sense: in order to illustrate the sense of quotidian, Manhattan hubbub that the apparently found audio footage conveys, one of these animals is struggling to squeeze his sandwich, ballooning over with meat and lettuce, into his expanding mouth. The object and his body concertina in scale in wobbly dance: it’s a stoned association, suspending the laws of physics and replacing them with mere scuzzy, fungible congruence. Later on, a group of hippie animals smoke weed and play with each other’s bodies in a bath: a bunny (after the Playboy Club waitresses, presumably) moans “I’m there, I’m there!,” and could mean either that she is stoned or that she is coming; the two merge.
––––Ralph Bakshi, Fritz the Cat (1972).
The motif of stoned, hippie sexual community recurs in The Long Goodbye, with the girls getting high with their boobs out on the balcony opposite Marlowe’s apartment. “A melon party. Melon party!,” he mumbles, rounding the corner. What makes this scene especially striking is the lack of visual interest that the camera extracts from the nymphets in blue jeans: their circle is closed, and Altman seems (typically, perhaps) happy to observe, rather than to penetrate, the social connections he depicts. The shot spreads open the landscape of Hollywood Heights––the apartment building scenes were shot at 2178 High Tower Drive––as if displacing from the bodies onto the landscape the possibility of exploration, incursion, escalation. Gross argues that the erotic energies of the neo-noir hero are “all but extinguished,” but it would be premature to conclude that the universes of these movies are themselves anerotic. Rather, the frazzled libido in neo-noir is no longer focalized through characters, but displaced onto closed communities of blissed-out stoner girls, nature-chicks whose oneness with the landscape is a sexual, and not merely aspirational, fact.
––––Robert Altman, The Long Goodbye (1973).
If the ecological embrace of the landscape insures Altman’s dick against the potentially castrating closure of the group of girls, the embrace of mother earth makes use of the particular landscape of Los Angeles, terracotta roofs smeared over canyons and hills. At stake in this embrace is the scalability of pastoral: an urban site depicted as the oversaturation of space by the pleasures of space, greenery, and the “colonial style.” Gould’s shuffling but unfazed Marlowe acts as gofer for the girls––his first action is to head to the supermarket, and he agrees to pick them up some brownie mix, to ferry goods between the green world and that of shoddy commercialism. (Gould’s Marlowe is above all a mule: he conveys brownie mix to the girls, Terry Lennox to Tijuana, and Roger Wade back to his cheating wife.) Weed, the part of the green world that the girls take into their bodies, cannot be obtained at the supermarket. Chinatown’s green worlds are entirely hypothetical, the film’s title naming the Los Angeles that negates that green world altogether, and the patches of green in which Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) fantasizes her safety, are themselves evidence of the villainy of her father Noah Cross. At an individual scale, because the salt water from the Mulwray lawn proves that Cross killed Hollis Mulwray, but globally, because his plan has been to irrigate (and therefore greenify) and then incorporate the San Gabriel Valley is the motive behind his murderous and megalomaniacal plot.
Although neo-noir always possessed this affinity with marijuana, with its attendant oscillations between natural/synthetic, urban modern/rural pastoral, paranoia/imaginativeness, torpor/spontaneity, it was not until the late 1990s revival of the genre that it moved, seemingly, to incorporate the ethos of stonerdom altogether, in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998),the Coen Brothers The Big Lebowski (1998), and then later in Pineapple Express (2008), Thomas Pynchon’s novel Inherent Vice (2009, which Paul Thomas Anderson adapted into a movie released in 2014), and Under the Silver Lake (2018). L. A. Confidential (1997), a pastiche of a noir movie of the Otto Preminger type, rather than a neo-noir, had turned marijuana into an important element of the plot, but the movie itself didn’t feel stoned, and its method of reasoning was essentially distinct: it is his unexpected retreat to traditional shoe-leather detection that gets Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) to the truth, and killed; Ed Exley (Guy Pearce) gets there through archival work, and due to the villain’s saying a shibboleth––“Rollo Tomasi”––that revealed he was Jack’s killer. The movie contains none of the verbal or visual signs of deductiveness: the liquid-furrowed forehead melting, druggily, over the brow of crossed eyes; the stuttering dick’s comically inarticulate attempt to persuade one of the str8s that he’s on top of the facts.
––––The Dude (Jeff Bridges), in Joel Coen, dir., The Big Lebowski (1997).
These signs are all exhibited in The Big Lebowski, which has generated enough scholarly attention to fill a volume jovially entitled The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, which compiles essays exploring the resonances of the Coen Brothers’ movie with high-cultural touchstones as far apart as the Fluxus movement, the Grail quest, and the New Left. The film’s appeal as a switchpoint for various genres and apparently diverse lines of cultural influence has obscured, however, the degree to which The Big Lebowski so perfectly encapsulates the genre in which it does its own work: the stoner neo-noir. To stipulate three of the more emphatically realized of these effects:
(1) circular bathos: in the scene at his mid-century mansion, the pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) takes a call (on an anachronistic phone), writes something invisible to the camera on a pad of paper, rips off the top leaf, and then walks out of the frame. Our hero the Dude (Jeff Bridges), perhaps remembering Cary Grant in North By Northwest, heads over to the phone, and rubs a pencil over the palimpsest, to reveal what perhaps might be a secret message, but in fact turns out to be a doodle of a male figure masturbating an enormous phallus. The joke is a little more complicated than it might appear: what the Dude realizes, when he sees the doodle, is that the cinematic genre whose conventions he was mimicking was, after all, no more capable of disclosing plot or assigning meaning than he could juice from his own posture of speculative, stoned immobility. It is like learning that the grown-up genres smoke weed too, and that the taste not merely for the sexual, but for the dumbly sexual, is a vector of continuity between the stoner counterculture and the rich str8 folks in the hills. The moment thus recapitulates visually the logic of the Dude’s conscious, but equally failed, attempt at bathos a minute earlier:
JACKIE TREEHORN: The new technology permits us to do exciting things with interactive erotic software. Wave of the future, Dude. 100% electronic.
THE DUDE: Uh-huh. Well, I still jerk off manually.
JACKIE TREEHORN: Of course you do. I can see you’re anxious to get to the point.
It is clear that the Dude’s attempt to knock Treehorn off his future-surfboard has failed, but less clear precisely what Treehorn’s withering response is supposed to indicate: that the Dude is an analogue masturbator in a digital world (which, then, might position Treehorn’s doodle as something of a defeat)? Or, with a more sadistic bent, that while he did not expect the Dude to have any opinion on “interactive erotic software” worth hearing, he is nonetheless disappointed by the sheer witlessness of his failure to play along (which might then exempt the character from the exposure of generic vacuity with the doodle)?
(2) stickiness: The language of The Big Lebowski is like that sticky icky––dank, and difficult to dislodge. The stoner mind absorbs phrases from the str8 world, and disgorges them back into it elsewhere. First, he hears George Bush is on the television telling Saddam Hussein “this aggression into Kuwait will not stand,” and then later he spits it back at the titular Lebowski: “This will not stand, man. If your wife owes money––” Or, when the hifalutin Maude Lebowski (Julianne Moore), herself mimicking speech she considers beneath her, says that her father’s wife “has been banging Jackie Treehorn, to use the parlance of our times,” the phatic phrase reappears, once more in the face of the big Lebowski (David Huddleston), when the Dude calls refers to a “young trophy wife, I mean, in the parlance of our times.” Yet here, Jeff Bridges’ enunciation reveals that the character hasn’t fully understood Maude’s usage, and seems to think the phrase means something like ‘nowadays, when things are so precarious.’
(3) “new shit”: The spectacle of stoned deductiveness requires the exhibition of conspicuous thought, of the exertive application of effort. The stoner hero is not a dick, exactly, since the dick (like Da Fino, a “brother shamus”) is a schmo, and the stoner is nobody’s fool but fortune’s. So the labor of the non-dick stoner is to produce not a solution to the case, but the appearance of working on the case, without forgetting that everything is, in reality, out of his control. His performance of reasoning is not persuasive (“new shit has come to light and––shit, man! she kidnapped herself!”), but nor, exactly, is it intended to persuade, since it would be just as useful from the Dude’s perspective that the big Lebowski think him an earnest idiot, as that he think him a credible detective.
There are more, obviously.