I’m taking time to write about The Big Lebowski. It’s a kind of prayer or meditation, being that in times of grief, duress, and uncertainty, The Big Lebowski is one of the three key texts I turn to for consolation, the others being Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. Those two have a kind of cosmic and religious sensibility worn on the sleeve, as does Malick’s recent The Tree of Life, which will also, no doubt, serve its meditative purpose. Lebowski is the amusing odd-man-out. It was released with little fanfare in March of 1998 as Joel and Ethan Coen’s follow-up to the 1996 masterwork Fargo. Lebowski is seen as a frivolous stoner farce, with superfluous ins and outs (or “facets” as the Dude says), leading nowhere. No one changes. The story is laden with humorous set-ups and silly situations, but no punch-lines. Like a lot of viewers upon its initial release, I was smiling throughout most of The Big Lebowski, but the cathartic belly-laughs that my body anticipated were not given an outlet. I enjoyed myself, but was still hungry. The frustration of the film was the want of resolution, whether as a plot or as a comic experience. Yet nowadays, The Big Lebowski resonates as a moving and fulfilling film that works on political, cultural, and spiritual levels, with nary a dull frame. It’s a layered experience, but does not indicate what its layers are communicating, which only leads to the fun of its puzzling interpretation.
Why has The Big Lebowski become what it is today? And not just for the millions of fans who flock to “Lebowskifests” across the country, or watch and quote the picture religiously, but for me, who had that initial mixed-to-positive response, and now considers it one of the best films of its decade, probably superior to Fargo. There is meaning in The Big Lebowski, as we’ll explore, but even there I have to tread lightly and not with too much burdensome seriousness, as I think one of the objects of the Coens is to satirize academic analysis and rococo artistic seriousness. Or maybe, it’s that step of interpreting The Big Lebowski in a high-falutin' way that completes its humor. In a great big candy-colored pot of stars, the Coens stir in motifs and concepts that are the stuff of serious literature: the representative man for a time and place; the war allegory (in this case, going to war with Saddam and the Eye-raqis); a lost revolution of a bygone time, or the Vietnam nostalgia of Walter Sobchak; a class war, between the Big Lebowski and the unemployed "bum" Dude; castrating nihilists; the private dick caper, influenced by Raymond Chandler; and the religious allegory, where the Dude is a Christ figure (or some may say a Buddha figure. But though he "takes her easy" and has the Buddha's belly, the Dude is a very angsty stoner, more Western than he would care to believe). Peppering this stew are the references to avant-garde culture, showcasing the "vaginal art" of Maude Lebowski, and pretentious friends like Knox Harrington, "the video artist;" or most amusingly, the Dude's landlord Marty, who gives a dance quintet performance (“My cycle”) at a Los Angeles theatre.
From a perspective, The Big Lebowski is a parody of interpretation, a notion that the published Faber & Faber screenplay makes clear, with the Coens penning their own fictional analysis for a Film Quarterly-type publication, Cinema/Not Cinema. The esteemed British critic, Sir Anthony Forte-Bowell, who analyzes humor in films from a schematic process, writes about The Big Lebowski and tries to make meaning out of its humor, and even searches for intellectual justifications that judge whether or not it’s even funny. Beginning with the breakdown of a scene featuring The Three Stooges, Forte-Bowell writes, “All agree that these operations, or more to the point, their depictions, are ‘funny.’ What is more obscure and what even a frame-by-frame analysis of the films fails to reveal is wherein the nature of the humour resides. A similar difficulty attends analysis of the film under consideration. The Big Lebowski harks back to films of the early 1970s that dealt with certain issues attendant to a presumed Generation Gap. In them, a youth who wears bell-bottomed trousers, bead, a shirt with a primed pattern and octagonal glasses, frequently tinted, is bedeviled by an older man wearing straight-bottomed trousers, a solid shin, a tie with a printed pattern and curviform glasses, untinted, who ‘just doesn’t understand’. The more supple and intuitive intelligence of the youth is contrasted with the more linear and unimaginative intelligence of the older man, and in the end prevails over it, with the older man frequently arriving at grudging appreciation of the youth’s superior values. If the movie is of the subgenre wherein the older man will not concede the youth’s superiority, then the older man shall be revealed to be a fossilized if not corrupt representative of a doomed order. The Big Lebowski appears to be some sort of ‘spoof’ upon this genre.”
Forte-Bowell’s academic pretentions mirror the frustrations of the conditioned expectations of Lebowski’s strung-out critics who ignore the Dude’s advice and can’t “take it easy.” The critic admits that “repeated viewings of [The Big Lebowski] have failed to clarify for me the genre-relevance of bowling, physical handicap, castration and the Jewish Sabbath. But perhaps we should not dismiss the possibility that they are simply authorial mistakes. Certainly the script could not be held up as a model of artistic coherence.”
It’s reassuring for a lot of people to be lax on the Coens’ irony, taking comfort in how The Big Lebowski is just an absurd smorgasbord of treats meant to appeal to the same kinds of rebellious youths that Forte-Bowell describes. The Coens have always anticipated criticism to their work, openly making fun of themselves in other screenplay introductions, usually courtesy of their geriatric and irritable editor, Roderick Jaynes, whose words on The Man Who Wasn’t There are, for me, comic genius. The Coens understand the quick labels of the pop cultural arena in which they will be viewed and scrutinized, and understanding this helps one more easily appreciate the dismissed films, such as Intolerable Cruelty (2003), which was seen as a big-budget rom-com sell-out (when in fact the film is clearly making light of the inherent vulgarity of big budget, Gary Marshall-type rom-coms), or The Ladykillers (2004), a remake of the Charles Crichton / Alec Guinness comedy classic, which was destined for a chilly reception but is much more hilarious than most well-reviewed comedies from either the Hollywood or indie establishment, grounded by Irma P. Hall’s infectious performance as the lady in the title’s question, and the Coens’ skillful love for language and its function. As with Lebowski’s screenplay introduction, the Coens are flipping the bird to both their highbrow rococo critics (like Forte-Bowell, whose name denotes a fellow who may be full of hot gas) and the large bulk of mainstream pundits who go whichever way the wind – or farty gas – is blowing.
“Your Revolution is Over!”
Though the present moment – August, 2011 – is not an anniversary number regarding The Big Lebowski’s release, there’s a syncretic logic to thinking about it right now. The 20th anniversary for the Dude’s story is coming upon us, just as another memorial looms. The Big Lebowski begins on September 11, 1991, an even ten years before the World Trade Center attacks, its own date of origin carries geopolitical significance, seeing as the first George Bush is speaking on the Ralph’s Supermarket check-out lane television, “This will not stand, this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” What an eerie coincidence this is, putting history into perspective with a sociopolitical dimension of The Big Lebowski that applies to 1991, 2001, and 2011 (or 1971). In 1991 and 2001, the United States military – so haunted by negative memories of Vietnam – was roused awake and set Saddam Hussein in its sights. We tie this to the day-to-day travails of an unemployed deadbeat “the square community won’t care about.” Bush’s 1991 address, in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, is echoed by the Dude (Jeff Bridges) in his own confrontation with the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston), and so immediately plays with the idea of an allegory. Is the Dude like the United States, provoked out of its slumber by Saddam Hussein peeing on the proverbial rug of Kuwait, an oil partner that ties the global room together? The Dude assumes George Bush's words to the Big Lebowski: "This will not stand, this aggression will not stand!" But in the same way the Dude can never relive the revolution of the 1960s, the military cannot relive its thirst for combat. Walter wants to go back to Vietnam, but understands that the Gulf War is a shallow affair. The Gulf War dimension remains rather peripheral, but its presence along with other elements in The Big Lebowski, when connected to the class differences between the two Lebowskis, makes the film more endearing and possibly translates as to why it has such a hold on people, however subconsciously the meaning resonates.
The Big Lebowski sends its audience on a road to nowhere, promising much but really leading to nothing but a fresh set of upright pins to be knocked down. This is the film’s style, as Roger Ebert points out in his Great Movies reevaluation. Walter (John Goodman) is right, talking about Germans, when he says, “Nothing changes.” The carpet pissing “terrorist attack” of a porn king’s thugs at the Dude’s housebroken domicile is the event that leads the mega-rich Lebowski to enlist the Dude into hazardous affairs of promised opportunity and “achievement,” echoed in counter-proposals by Lebowski’s feminist-artist daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), and the porn-king, Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). The Dude is told by Lebowski that the “trophy wife” Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid) has been kidnapped by the same men who “soiled” the Dude’s rug, “which really tied the room together.” The Dude is asked to make a ransom drop-off of $1 million for Bunny, Lebowski’s sycophant assistant Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman) repeating, “Her life is in your hands.”
But “rug peers did not do this,” suspects The Dude. Something is indeed awry, as they always are in Chandler noirs, just as they are in political grandstanding. The Vietnam vet Walter brings everything back to his own bygone war from the 1960s and 70s, which we would figure is “the great shining lie” of its generation, something of which the Dude would be very aware, considering the ironic poster of the great perpetuator of the lie, a bowling Richard Nixon, set above his private bar. But near the conclusion of Lebowski, we overhear Walter talking about the brewing Kuwait crisis. He points out how with Vietnam, at least the people were given the viable “domino effect” theory in the West’s clash with Communism; but “this [the Gulf War] is nothing but nothing but about oil.” Lebowski, aligned with the Republican Party by his photos with Nancy Reagan and Charlton Heston, to say nothing of his rhetoric of “achievement,” is doubling for the Bush Administration, which has also given the country an empty suit-case of sorts in its road-to-war rhetoric. The meaning of the mission is to keep the status quo intact: broke millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski can embezzle $1 million from “needy little urban achievers,” and blame the money’s loss on the deadbeat Dude. The rich stays rich, Dude remains the Dude, and life goes on as the pins are mechanically set back up.
Not more than two weeks after September 11, 2001, Rush Limbaugh said that Iraq was responsible for the terrorist attacks. The road returning to Saddam’s turf was injected into the national conversation, led by the second George Bush and his team of neoconservatives (it’s funny how much the Big Lebowski resembles Dick Cheney). The incident plays out once more, as the beleaguered Left understood in the days leading up to March 2003, “Rug peers did not do this.” Power structures were meanwhile kept tidily in place as common foot soldiers went off to fight in something that, once again, could be argued to be “nothing but nothing but about oil.” The Dude in all of us meanwhile suffers, dies, and finally abides. Nothing changes.
It’s also hard to not feel the same kind of Dude vibe in the economic recession of recent years, where the Lebowski class has become the new protagonist in the national narrative, the rich being victims under attack by the poor’s want of entitlements. The Big Lebowskis have only grown bigger, while the Dudes, unable to live exorbitantly (often on unemployment), have drifted farther back from the average pay. As the income gap widens and the Big Lebowskis desperately work to make sure their income taxes stay as low as they’ve ever been, those same dignified personages work to punish the 46% who don’t pay income taxes, but do have payroll taxes, in addition to having an income that has not grown in proportion to the expenses of living in a more demanding and technological time. Though we “have a rash,” like the Dude apparently does, we still don’t complain too much.
To hold out or make demands on the Big Lebowskis of the world, just as the Dude demands a replacement rug, leads to coded terms like “Class Warfare,” which I heard voiced back-to-back-to-back by right wing politicians and pundits following the Minnesota state shutdown in July. The speculation and actions of the very wealthy on Wall Street led to the widespread suffering among the nation’s disadvantaged, who were without a safety net to tie their proverbial rugs – or lives – together, unlike the Big Lebowskis, who can somehow bail themselves out. “So you know that they were trying to piss on your rug,” the Dude truth-tells Lebowski, which is deflected by the same concrete and clever semantics we hear in the political arena. “Did I urinate on your rug?” “You mean, did you personally come and pee on my rug?” “Hello! Do you speak English, sir? Parla usted ingles?...I just want to understand this, sir. Every time a rug is micturated upon in this fair city, I have to compensate the person?” For the rich Lebowski, the Dude is just “looking for a handout” like every other bum who wants those government entitlements. “Every bum’s lot in life is his own responsibility,” Lebowski proclaims, “regardless of whom he chooses to blame!” The Dude’s request for a fair compensation is bluntly derided as left wing rabble-rousing Marxism, revealing the true source of polarization here: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! Condolences! The bums lost!”
And in 1991, the bums were universally acknowledged as “having lost.” Lebowski is an archetype of the Reagan 1980s, when the revolution at home was finished, and by the turn of the decade was also finished overseas with the fall of the Iron Curtain. “Prosperity” and “Achievement” had won. The bums had lost to the extent that the words “class warfare,” which the present moment demands to be uttered, are anathema, and even though the decadent Big Lebowskis of the world have run us into the ground, they are still vertically integrated to the point where Ayn Rand became a bigger bestseller after it was apparent that deregulation had left us bereft of our own dirty undies, or “the whites,” as Walter deliciously calls his ringer.
The “bums” are losers, judged by Lebowski and a mortician offering “our most modestly priced receptacle” at a price which is still unreasonable. And the Big Lebowski is right. The bums will always lose. The Dude and his bowling partners, whether it's Donny (Steve Buscemi) or rival bowlers like Smokie (played by the musician Jimmy Ray Gilmore), are like ghosts of the lost revolution's ideals, "conscientious objectors" and "pacifists." Or Walter, who had buddies "die face down in the mud" for our "basic freedoms," when the real world just doesn't care anymore. Those dreams are replaced by the crass, right-wing materialism of the Big Lebowski, or the vapid and posh rococo smug artiness of Maude Lebowski and Knox Herrington (David Thewlis in an impressive cameo), or loan-shark gangsters like Jackie Treehorn, a pornographer who tells the Dude about his plans to ride the wave of the future, creating "erotic software" that will make sex "100% electronic." People here are trapped in the mass-produced forms of their published entertainments (like Branded, the television show written by Arthur Digby Sellers), doomed to relive a constant simulation. Such is the structure of The Big Lebowski, which is both a Western and a film noir, and follows tropes of the genres. There are then, amidst all this, the Nihilists, demons of that "100% electronic wave of the future," led by Uli Kunkel aka Karl Hungus (Peter Storemare), who act in Treehorn's porn films and create electronic techno pop (the German band Autobahn, based on Kraftwerk). All this electricity points to Nothing and a belief in Nothing, a theme the Coens will explore in their Information Age satire, Burn After Reading.
The Dude is a remnant of a lost humanist revolution, and he understands the concepts of power (what “the issue is”) – which is why he points out how “rug peers did not do this.” He quotes Lenin. “It’s like Lenin said. You look for the person who will benefit, and uh, you know, you’ll, uh, you know what I’m trying to say?” Said like a true casual 60s revolutionary (and “casualness runs deep in the Dude, according to the Coens’ screenplay). The problem with revolution – whether in 1970, 1991, or 2011 – is the superficial pop-cultural dimension, which soaks up the potency of content and replaces it with fond novelty. Donny confuses “Lenin” with “Lennon,” and tries to finish the Dude’s quote, “I Am the Walrus.” The tragedy of the lost revolution is its inherent hopelessness, which has since become a mere culture of complaint for the common folk like the Dude, Donny, or Walter. The Dude and his cronies, themselves nowadays the stuff of t-shirts, prefigure the chic of Che Guevara, and this is where The Big Lebowski retains a lot of its soft-heartedness and soul. The characters here are too passive to have much hope (Walter’s unwarranted enthusiasm doesn’t even believe itself – “Who’s sitting on a fucking million fucking dollars?!” etc, forgetting about his whites along the way), but The Big Lebowski is about the haunting of that hope, lingering faintly like the bowling alley marquee stars do as Roger Deakins’ lights fade out on Walter aiding Donny after the climactic Nihilist assault, Walter telling his dying buddy that “choppers” are coming in.
The lost revolution ties into the melancholy loss of time these characters are experiencing (and Walter is even talking about “the problem of age” in regards to something in the 14th century, just before the final Nihilist attack). They are all burrowing into their middle age with unrealized dreams, but I think we feel compassion for them because they won’t give up on the past, which in most stories is something derided and seen as foolish. But The Big Lebowski carries no such judgment with its melancholy. The Dude harshly criticizes Walter and his obsessions, whether it relates to Vietnam (“What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam?!”) or his appropriated Judaism, which has much to do with his ex-wife, Cynthia. “It’s all a part of your sick Cynthia thing. Taking care of her fucking dog, going to her fucking synagogue. You’re living in the fucking past.” And Walter, in reply, affirms this: “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!” Walter, in part based on Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn creator John Milius, is deluded by nostalgia, as we see when he hijacks the Dude’s money drop-off, packing an Uzi along with his ringer suitcase. But so is everyone here, if we look at their clothes and surroundings. The past is all they have. We see the same commitment in the pacifist Smokie, the wannabe private dick Da Fino (Jon Polito), and the dance performance artist landlord Marty (Jack Kehler), all middle-aged men once filled with ideals and promise who are rendered as jokes – “funny stuff” – by time.
The Dude is also adrift in time. He seems to have deliberately chosen not to grow up, listening to CCR’s Cosmo’s Factory decades after its initial release with the same devotion of a teenaged fan. He wallows at home, not looking for work but listening to old tape recordings of bowling matches from years ago, preparing for the semifinals. It’s incorrect to dismiss the Dude as a slacker adolescent and nothing more; he is not of the same ilk of Jay and Silent Bob, Harold and Kumar, South Park’s Towelie, Dave Chapelle, or so many other trendy stoner icons. He’s more complicated than that, as a drafter of the “original Port Huron statement” and a member of the “Seattle Seven.” Though a rebel (he puts on his sunglasses when The Man gets on his case), it’s hard not to believe he’s just a little insecure about writing that .69 check at Ralph’s for his cream. The Dude, like Walter and Donny, has a tragic loneliness – if a blissful one. He dances home from Ralph’s, the same way a ne’er-do-well bachelor might with his newly bought frozen pizza, preparing to settle in for the evening. He has no family ties and so no pressing responsibilities other than bills (which he conveniently puts off; his rent is ten days late). He can best “take it easy” in the pleasure of his own company. Walter and Donny seem to be in similar social glitches. Few people bring up how sad Donny’s funeral is, where the only attendees are the Dude and Walter. Indeed, all these characters are held apart from the comfortable mainstream “square” community, though Walter, a business owner (Sobchak Security) and divorced man who had “buddies die in the mud,” may have been the closest to normality. The Dude’s pillow-talk with Maude also outlines a social life as a college student with many potentialities that never really came to an acceptable fruition.
This is why the musical bookends for The Big Lebowski perfectly plug into an emotional wavelength that is transmuted to viewers. The Big Lebowski begins with Bob Dylan’s “The Man in Me,” and ends with Townes Van Zandt’s stirring cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers,” both of which have lyrics that appear to be about lonely and unreachable men longing for a particular person’s companionship. The bowling alley, the sanctuary of comfort and community afforded to the Dude, Walter, and Donny, is seen through a montage of overweight and aging regulars as Dylan sings over the opening credits, the effect being an odd sense of closeness with other people (“Oh what a wonderful feeling, just to know that you are near”). “Dead Flowers” follows a class distinction of a man in “ragged company” held apart from a woman mingling with the beautiful people of a more well-adjusted sphere. This may perfectly describe the Dude, Walter, and Donny, and so many more like them, lingering in bowling alleys, growing older as their dreams grow more impractical with time, so different from (or so similar to) the multiplex movie audience watching their story (The Big Lebowski was a wide release originally, and not a specialty house offering). For detractors of The Big Lebowski, it’s easy to dismiss its characters as “deadbeat bums” just as the millionaire Lebowski does. And yet the folksiness of Lebowski is its prime agency for mass identification in our times of a wobbly middle class with more people struggling to hang on to themselves.
“Taking It Easy For All Us Sinners”
Regardless of his own adrift-ness, delusions, or inherent laziness, The Dude remains the essential hero for the Wasteland depicted in The Big Lebowski and our strung-out times. Imbued throughout the film is the clear indication that Duder follows the familiar literary path of the “Christ Figure,” the redeemer and savior of the world. Another film that has garnered increased status since its release (though it was still a critical and box office success, unlike Lebowski) is Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, where the interesting plot set-up of a vain weatherman (Bill Murray) blessed – or damned – to repeat one day in time ad infinitum, February 2, has since become an object of religious speculation and interpretation, some writers alleging that Groundhog Day is even the most spiritual film ever made, finding a receptive audience among Jews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and Humanists alike.
The Big Lebowski is no less a triumph, if perhaps a more deliberate one considering the intellectual breadth and ironies the Coens incorporate into all their work, though the deeper meanings and questions are secondary to a viewer’s delight. The Big Lebowski has a religious aura, which I believe has subconsciously connected with many viewers and is why it’s such a comforting, even transcendent, experience. The Dude is a modern Aion, an archetype of our collective unconscious representing the Self. And this may be just like my opinion, man, but I’m fairly certain that this is a deliberate allusion on the Coens’ part.
Religion is one of the Coens’ primary interests, being an important component elsewhere in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, The Ladykillers, A Serious Man, True Grit, and possibly No Country for Old Men. And even though it’s safe to assume the Coens come from an agnostic perspective (evidenced by their parodies of orthodoxy in A Serious Man), I think that they nevertheless hold a kind of detached, though spritely humored, reverence for the religious dimension. For them, the universe is always unjust and unevenly distributed, however much human beings are obsessed with “the rules” (see Walter in Lebowski, who constantly addresses rules, whether in bowling or Jewish orthodoxy) or fairness. In The Big Lebowski, even the Nihilists lament how things aren’t “fair.” There are just causal consequences for actions, and there are sometimes unjust consequences. The Angel of Death and Judgment, manifested by Anton Chigurh in No Country, Randall “Tex” Cobb in Raising Arizona, the pursuing Poseidon-like lawman in O Brother, or Hashem in A Serious Man, comes for all without mercy and sometimes without warning and logic. The Coens’ world is not a godless one, as we see in other existentialists, but is the Hebrew School terrain of the jealous and unpredictable Yahweh.
Though A Serious Man (a contender with Lebowski in being my favorite of the Coens’ films) is the most blatantly philosophical religious film they’ve made, The Big Lebowski may cut the deepest to a spiritual sensibility because of my aforementioned consolations. It has a sense of mercy that makes it a little more New Testament than Old. It accepts the ineffable grace of things in a more peaceable way than A Serious Man, No Country, or the ambiguities that conclude with Raising Arizona, Fargo, or True Grit, or the sardonic farce of The Ladykillers. In True Grit, Mattie gets her revenge on Tom Chaney, but at the unequal cost of losing her arm, her beloved horse Little Blackie, her hired hands suffering injuries, and the sight of several corpses, many of whom would still be alive had she not been so resolute in having her vengeance (and when we finally meet the half-wit Chaney, the audience is meant to ask, “We’ve come all this way for this guy?”)
But then there’s The Dude and the Zen of Lebowski. Bearded with long hair, the Dude’s appearance immediately points to an iconographic Christ quality which many of us may unwittingly project onto him, aided by the film’s subtexts. To be sure, The Big Lebowski is as inspiring to quote for its own fans as the Gospels are at a Northwestern Bookstore. The Stranger (Sam Eliot) wants us to go home comforted with the simple truth, “The Dude abides,” noting, “I take comfort in that. The Dude. Taking it easy for all us sinners.” This rather explicitly ties the Christ allusion together. In times of peril we pray and lean on the everlasting arms, and those “everlasting” arms here are those of the Dude, who takes her easy as the world titters on an unsteady beam of possible catastrophe, preparing to drink his White Russians as he listens to George Bush’s grave warning, “This will not stand, this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” He’s ten days late on his rent, but still “takes her easy.”
The challenge of religion and art is to find meaning within the aggression of nothingness and crass materialism, and in portraying the faint flickers of compassion between its lonely losers, this is what The Big Lebowski achieves. The film is set in a spiritually-starved wasteland, echoing Sodom and Gomorrah Biblical myth or Arthurian romance. The Stranger’s opening lines identify the setting as Los Angeles, and how “they call it the city of angels,” but adding, “I didn’t find it to be that exactly.” It’s a spiritual ghost town, glimmering in electric lights, money, and flesh, but otherwise shallow, synthesized, and malnourished. It’s a garden of lost hopes, where the angels aren’t “exactly” angels, and Jesus is not a Christ of compassion, but the pederast bowler, Jesus Quintana (John Turturro, in the film’s most legendary cameo). The labels are the opposite of their true nature, just as the Big Lebowski is not an honest man who has achieved much, but is an embezzler living on an allowance. Jesus Quintana is the Dude’s double in vying to be a Christ-figure, referring to himself in the third person (The Dude, The Jesus), but instead of exhibiting easy-going grace, he is an aggressor who wants to – pardon “the parlance of our times” – “fuck you in the ass.”
We hear this phrase elsewhere through the movie – “fuck you in the ass” – and it is a reference to achieving power over other people. The Nihilists say it repeatedly (“I fuck you! I fuck you in the ass!”), and Walter accosts rich 12-year-old “brat” Larry Sellers, whom he believes has done something similar to him (or “them,” being that Walter always seems to make the Dude’s problems – and goods – their problems and goods): “Do you see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!!!???” The demonic figures of Lebowski have an aggressive and assaulting sexuality, unlike the film’s protagonists. When the Dude, afraid of the Nihilists’ castrating threats, laments that he doesn’t need sympathy but that he needs his “johnson,” Donny innocently asks, “What do you need that for, Dude?” In this city of lost angels, there are "compulsive fornicators" who engage in sex all the time "but without joy." The Big Lebowski, himself impotent, lacks "a pair of testicles" that would make him a man; he sublimates his frustration in taking more than his fair share, including a nympho trophy wife. One could argue that Walter is a violent force, though his aggression (“We’re talking about unchecked aggression here”) is a logical response in relation to “the rules” (“Smokie, this is not Nam, it’s bowling. There are rules,” he says to his bowling rival shortly before pulling out a piece). He is not at all like Jesus Quintana or the Nihilists who are power-bent in their rampant lust. For whereas Walter’s warnings of “entering a world of pain” relate to keeping the rules in check so that our freedoms can be maintained, the Nihilists’ Autobahn album - Nagelbett, or "Bed of Nails - features rapey song titles like “Saturation,” “Hit and Run,” “Violate U Blue,” “Beg Me,” and “Take It In.” The electro-pornographer Treehorn, meanwhile, sketches inexplicable drawings of figures with enormous erections. There is no explanation: fucking is arbitrary but ubiquitous. It is nihilistic.
Also note the music playing behind Jesus Quintana. It’s a Gipsy Kings cover of the Eagles' "Hotel California," a song which is - according to lyric-interpreting legend - set in Hell, though it is confused for Heaven, much like the film’s introduction of Los Angeles (“This could be heaven or this could be hell.”) Jesus Quintana is the Anti-Christ, or damned Satan of the wasteland (like Milton's Satan, he has been condemned for his assaulting pederast crimes, having to go door-to-door, a prisoner in hell much like the protagonist of "Hotel California"). And of course, the Eagles have a dual connotation for the Dude, as we hear him drunkenly tell his cab driver, whom we can assume is a Don Henley and Glen Frey fan, "Man, I've had a rough night and I hate the fucking Eagles!" even though the Dude’s credo is the title of another Eagles’ song, “Take It Easy.” The irreligious irony of Jesus Quintana's name is reinforced when he yells at Walter, an observant Jew, for demanding that a semifinal bowling match be rescheduled because of Shabbos: "What's this ‘day of rest’ shit!? It don't matter to Jesus!" Perhaps Jesus Quintana is representative of an orthodox kind of religion that has no final interest in the serious and humble reflection on religion's concepts, which is the theme of A Serious Man where the man socially labeled the “serious man” (Sy Abelman, probably cinema's greatest douchebag in years) is anything but “serious” when compared to the “frivolous” Larry Gopnik.
The real Jesus is the Dude, who like Christ has stepped out of his rooted, earthly function to assume a transcendent one. As Paul says about Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, "He was not the son of Mary and Joseph, he was the son of God." Similarly, the Stranger explains the Dude as someone who never had a use for the name his parents gave him (“Jeff Lebowski”). Instead of assuming the position of Jesus Christ he is Jesus Dude. He insists that he's not Jeffrey Lebowski: "I'm the Dude! You know, so that's what you call me. You know, that or His Dudeness, or Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing." (This is curious when we relate the Dude to Walter, who has also rejected his origins as a Polish Catholic and identified himself as an observant Jew – one of the major religions that has no interest in conversion being that it’s a system one is born into; Walter too has some transcendent function, flying above his earthly roots as a spiritual individual). And though the Stranger says the Dude "takes it easy" for all us sinners, he often suffers for the sins of others. The Big Lebowski opens with the Dude being accosted by two Treehorn'thugs (baptized if you will, as he's dunked into a toilet) looking for the millionaire Lebowski, whose wife owes Treehorn a “sizeable debt.” Duder's rug, his Zen (it ties the room together), is peed on by the thugs. That happening - his Zen peed on - he, like Jesus, must participate and suffer in the world of men. The Dude's hallucination of flying reflects his daily disposition, chasing the mysterious Maude on her floating carpet over Los Angeles. Bowling represents the never-ending cycle of pins falling and rising, so it fits that the heavy bowling ball that emerges in the Dude's grip should plummet him back to the world of men.
As we see the Dude suffering for the sins of others, whether it's Walter's idiocy, the machinations of the Big Lebowski, the trophy wife Bunny, Maude, Treehorn, Larry Sellers, etc, we observe how the world is unjust. We hear the phrase: "Do you see what happens?” It's what the carpet pissers tell the Dude when they accuse his wife of owing money. The Dude is so clueless that when he says, "My wife? Do you see a wedding ring?" he is lifting up the wrong hand. "Do you see what happens?" is much more memorably repeated over and over when Walter loses his cool with Larry Sellers, who stole the Dude's car and Lebowski’s money – and has bought a Corvette with it. "Do you see what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!?" yells Walter, taking a crowbar to the Corvette with Larry and the Dude looking on. But it turns out the Corvette belongs to an unfortunate fat man who lives next door. "I just bought the fucking car last week! My baby!" he cries, taking Walter's crowbar to the Dude's junker. "I kill your fucking car!" he yells, this being another one of the film’s very uneven exchanges. The Dude – and his car – becomes a victim once again (his car is his own gas guzzling double: it crashes, it’s shot, it's stolen, it's slept in and crapped in by a vagrant, it crashes again, and finally the Nihilists burn it up). Later, the Nihilists complain that "it's not fair," when they can't collect their ransom money after sacrificing the toe of a girlfriend (another cameo, Aimee Mann) to double as Bunny’s. Even the prophets of nothingness and absurdity can't wrap their heads around an unfair universe where causality doesn't cleanly work out. "Do you see what happens?" becomes a tidy Coen joke of retribution repeated in its various degrees and rationalities in Raising Arizona, O Brother, No Country, The Man Who Wasn't There, The Ladykillers, A Serious Man, and True Grit.
The Coens told their collaborators in the art department that the Treehorn sequence was to have a "sacrificial" holy rite atmosphere. The Dude’s meeting with Treehorn is like the mythological hero's descent into the lower depths of Hell, confronting the devil, a weaver of electronic media’s pornographic entertainment and dehumanization (the Dude, on the other hand, "still jerks off manually.") It's the dark night of the soul, where a spiked drink leads the Dude to pass out and have an acid flashback. "There was no bottom," the Stranger narrates about this scene, indicating that this is the deep vortex of the unconscious, the Mind (such as Kenny Rogers will sing about, and such as Jackie Treehorn wishes to control with nihilistic electricity). We see the famous Gutterballs fantasy, where "the Passion of the Dude" simulates as a Treehorn-produced pornographic Busby Berkeley musical number incorporating bowling, German goddesses (Maude's costume, which ties her to the German Nihilists and Walter's dislike for the "fucking Germans/Nazis"), the Gulf War (Saddam Hussein hands out the bowling shoes on a kind of Jacob's Ladder cabinet), and Kenny Rogers' "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)", an ironic musical selection which plays fantastically to the images, though a true stoner ideologue like the Dude would probably see it as plastic drug music (I doubt the Dude’s a Kenny Rogers fan). The fantasy seems to end in erotic fulfillment – of the Dude variety, I guess – where he "becomes the ball" that he throws with Goddess Maude, having a wonderful underskirt view of the plethora of female dancers lined up on a cosmic bowling lane. Unfortunately, beyond the pins are the Nihilists, utter nothingness, with their giant castrating scissors and electronic consciousness, opposed to the richness and “life of the mind,” borrowing a phrase from Barton Fink, and which is a concept of Spinoza proportions used for exploring God, the human body, and human consciousness in A Serious Man.
There are strictures, borders, cliques, etc in the god-forsaken world of lost angels and walking ghosts with dreams as faded as their bowling clothes. The Big Lebowskis with their halls of achievement will always be taken care of, embezzling money when they can’t afford their trophy wives anymore. The Maude Lebowskis of the world are just as hollow, art-snobs committed to the snide form of their presentation instead of the human content of symbolic communication and sympathy. Though cultured, Maude lacks any of the enthusiasm that the Dude still has for his CCR tapes. The same gigantic scissors the Nihilists hold in Gutterballs are seen in Maude’s art, indicating that her art has a similar castrating – or sterile – function. The electrically streamlined Los Angeles, so far from Bunny's innocent origins on a “farm outside of Moorhead, Minnesota,” manufactures images and music that the masses will consume and re-simulate, like the acid-flashback production of Gutterballs.
Whether the manufacturer is Jackie Treehorn (“wave the future, 100% electronic erotic software”) or is Branded writer Arthur Digby Sellers (who is more machine than man in his iron lung), the entertainment producers signify something post-human and technological, estranged from any manual or analog function. An offer for a Bunny Lebowski blow-job is a purely economic matter for the porn-star ("I'll suck your cock for a thousand dollars"), which leads the Dude to contemplate going to a "cash machine." Nihilism is the synthesized electricity in entertainment production. Interestingly, in Logjammin, Karl Hungus – the key Nihilist – has the function of “fixing the cable.” Compare this joylessness to the Dude's rejuvenation after seeing the "good and thorough" doctor of Maude, who must have a good report on Duder's potency and venereal health. Driving exuberantly home to CCR's "Looking Out My Back Door" after his good doctor's office visit, a lot of viewers may find affinity with the Dude. We can understand why he'd be so protective of his healthy johnson, which almost gets singed by the Dude's lit joint, extinguished by his celebratory beverage.
“Someone the Square Community Won’t Give a Shit About”
The Big Lebowski is then, if about so many other damned things, interested in the simulacrum of culture, and beings existing and identifying themselves within that simulacrum. This is also what the response to The Big Lebowski is about. Some viewers who dislike the film and scoff at its posthumous success credit the 19 and 20-year-old collegiate male pot-heads, surely so much like the Dude whenever he drafted the original Port Huron Statement. We can therefore conveniently deride The Big Lebowski as being little more than a “stoner” cult film, and if not that, a silly R-rated comedy like Caddyshack or Animal House, and therefore we can steal away any sense of meaningful subtext in the film.
But we know the film has a much more diversified fanbase than its smug critics, would like to admit, though the potheads are admittedly there. Fan bases are always more disagreeable than the merits of whatever work is in question. The Godfather films are the favorite of both Ayn Randian businessmen and imperial neocons, who have no inclination of private enterprise's tragedy that Coppola and Puzo are depicting; whiny goths love Blue Velvet for its dark curves only, seeing small-town satire but completely missing the multiplicity of David Lynch’s life affirming hues; A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, and Pulp Fiction all have an immense base of impassioned if undesirable viewers (some even political assassins) emulating the heroes’ isolation, and in love with cool wickedness and far-out post-modern posturing, to say nothing of extreme portrayals of sex and violence; GoodFellas has a lot of love from fraternity douchebags who are delighted by portrayals of male aggression; Scarface and The Godfather are adored by violent drug dealers and gang members; The Conformist is adulated by stuffy and snobby cocktail-party walking mannequins and social butterflies, not unlike Maude Lebowski and Knox Harrington; and Citizen Kane is the default favorite movie of fuddy-duddys who tiresomely rail bullshit like “they don’t make’em like they used to.” Personally, all of these films – The Godfather trilogy, Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction, GoodFellas, The Conformist, Citizen Kane (and in a guilty way, Scarface) – rank among my favorites, and I’ve probably had friends in each listed category of hard-to-like social types (aside from the violent gangsters or political assassins) – all of whom are portrayed to some degree within The Big Lebowski, attesting to how vibrantly the Coens capture the multiplicity of pop culture and consumption. And though I’ve had my own frustrations with high-as-a-kite “goddamned hippies,” as Eric Cartman calls them on South Park, I’d rather spend some hours with these folks than the ones I’ve just listed. Like the Dude, they often take her easy, and aren’t so quick to judge.
Popular Culture is all about judgments, however, and we have those fixed ideas of what constitutes good art and design. Fargo, for its eccentricities, still had the pedigree of a major “Academy Award Nominee,” while The Big Lebowski seemed to not. This kind thinking inevitably leads to films like The King’s Speech, Dances With Wolves, Forrest Gump, Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, etc, winning major awards, while one could argue that the mise-en-scene of The Big Lebowski is vastly more complex. Pay close attention to the art direction, costumes, cinematography, and music, all of which are excellent. Dismissers of The Big Lebowski aren’t so different from the title character, who is probably hostile to the Dude because of his appearance (had the Dude been a presentable and successful citizen, I think Jeffrey Lebowski would have compensated him, which is the bizarre logic of the world), or Maude, who is at first interested to learn that the Dude had a brief stint in the music business, but then passes judgment on him when he explains that he was “a roadie for Metallica.”
The Coens are quick to social identities, which is why they take delight in anticipating criticism in their screenplay introductions by fabricated film scholars and the cantankerous Roderick Jaynes, and other instances where they give readers fake interviews and biographies. The special edition DVDs of Blood Simple and The Big Lebowski have introductions by an invented film restorer, Mortimer Young, who is approaching senility, the former DVD even having a full-length commentary by a pompous Forte-Bowell type critic. Critics who aren’t hip to the Coens reflexivity are then put-off when they encounter entertainers who are Academy Award winners that don’t shy away from sophomoric jokes involving “soggy bottom boys” (O Brother) irritable bowel syndrome (J.K. Simmons’ tragic affliction in The Ladykillers), or my favorite, a mouth-breathing kid scrawling the word “FART” in crayon on the McDonoughs’ wall (Raising Arizona).
All cultural labels are just noise, and so there’s something more commendable to Walter’s Vietnam nostalgia, the Dude’s perpetual adolescence, or Marty’s dance routine than to Maude’s abstract art for art’s sake, which seems so distant from real life. Unlike Marty's quintet, Maude's art lacks passion. Sure, she enjoys sex – but it’s just “a natural zesty enterprise,” or something done just for conception (“What did you think this was about? Fun and games?”) This explains how I see a lot of people in the hip art world experiencing art. The Dude and company remain outsiders, strikes and gutters abound, sometimes eating the bear (“bar”) and sometimes the bear eating them. The pins are once again set up to be toppled, perpetually without end.
The Big Lebowski, through all of its suffering, uncertainty, unfairness, and dismembered toes, is about friendship (made delicious by “funny stuff,” as the Nihilists say). Walter, the Dude, and Donny don't really have sentimental warm moments and insult each other in a hierarchy (The Dude yells at Walter; Walter is abusive to Donny; Donny doesn’t say much of anything). Donny’s unfortunate death by heart attack leads to the poignantly hilarious scene when Walter scatters the ashes, held in a Folger's coffee can (the mortuary urn was too expensive). We finally hear the only biographical details of this perpetually silenced character (“Shut the fuck up, Donny!”) We learn that he was once a surfer who loved the outdoors – “and bowling” – which further connects Walter to John Milius, himself a surfing enthusiast, as we see in Apocalypse Now. Both Walter and Donny have California surfer accents, making us think about how physically robust, promising, and carefree they probably were in their youth. And now Donny returns to the shores of the Pacific Ocean, which he “loved so well.” The Big Lebowski is the presentation of a life cycle, like the one that the landlord Marty performs as the Pictures at the Exhibition dance quintet. The tragicomic lives shown in the film make us recall the placard at the mortuary, quoting Psalms 103.15-17: "As for man, his days are as grass / As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth / For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone."
And also like Marty’s cycle, there’s room for absurdity. Walter eulogizes Donny, but makes it a eulogy for his own lost past, bringing his buddy’s death back to Vietnam. “These young men gave their lives,” he says proudly of his buddies before bringing the eulogy back to Donny. "Goodnight sweet prince,” he says, emptying the coffee can. The wind carries the ashes away from the Pacific and straight onto the bemused Dude. He calls Walter a "fucking travesty" and an asshole, but he surrenders to an embrace, as Walter meekly apologizes, holding the Dude close. We understand that these two men might only have each other. "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling."
There's virtually no cheap sappiness between the characters, and yet The Big Lebowski conveys great tenderness. The audience has grown familiar and warm to these characters over time. Like Shakespeare’s concoctions, or Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the Dude and Walter have assumed their own identities beyond the text. Few fictional creations are as alive. There's a beautiful familiarity to The Big Lebowski, as a movie about common people living day to day, paycheck to paycheck, often late on their rent, spending time in bowling alleys, seeing their friends' concerts, smoking up occasionally, having a drink, listening to and disappearing in music, and just trying to get their own little piece of the pie in a world where the goods are too unevenly distributed, while their dreams have passed by. We're all Lebowskis ("I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski..."), and even the Big Lebowski, after his evil schemes have been uncovered, is afforded a moment of pity, as Walter's dog licks the old man's weeping face.
We all suffer, some of us more than others, but there's still an inexpressible thing to our experience of life in friendship, leisure, and sacrifice. The Dude abides. Townes Van Zandt's cover of "Dead Flowers" is the perfect ending for the picture, where the singer paints two worlds, one rich (“silk upholstered chair, talking to some rich folks that you know”) and one poor ("ragged company"), where the poor guy asks only for dead flowers, and in exchange will still lay roses on the rich girl's grave: an absurd gesture of uneven distribution. But that's the Dude, our representative man taking it easy and reminding us that the whole human comedy, in all of its absurdity, death, and rebirth, will perpetuate and roll on like the tumbling tumbleweed, in spite of wars, disastrous upheaval, and disappointed dreams. The Big Lebowski is a subtle expression of how we may catch brief glimpses of feeling sympathy and love for one another, referring to a cycle of unjust destruction where maybe there’s still something everlasting and steadfast.