The Big Lebowski
by Jon Bastian
In which the Brothers Coen bowl us over with subtlety.
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OBLIGATORY WARNING PARAGRAPH: This isn’t so much a review of “The Big Lebowski” as it is an analysis of its themes. As such, the following is spoiler riddled. If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what happens in it, don’t read this article.
If you proceed beyond this point anyway, and find out something you don’t want to, don’t blame me.
I missed The Big Lebowski in its original theatrical run because it wasn’t around long enough to catch. Grossing less than eighteen million dollars, a critical gutter ball, it was a big comedown from two years earlier, when the Coen Brothers’ Fargo was drowned in praise, nominated for seven Oscars and awarded two. In my opinion, The Big Lebowski is as good a film as Fargo. So, what happened? People didn’t get it. They were expecting a simple comedy about a stoner who bowls, got something more like Raymond Chandler on Ecstasy, then missed the metaphor anyway.
Many of the Coen Brothers’ movies travel in the guise of genre films while being something entirely different. They even played with this idea in Barton Fink, in which the titular Clifford Odets-esque playwright is brought to Hollywood to write a “Wallace Beery wrestling picture.” Fink recycles his Broadway hit into the form, but his wrestling picture is about man’s existential struggle. In Fink, the befuddled producer, who is only interested in meaningless genre crap, is a stand-in for those moguls and critics who don’t understand great art and so pee all over it. Or, worse, they stifle the artist, silencing him because he doesn’t play by the commercial rules.
The Coen Brothers are not big on genre rules. They pretend to be, then run off in more interesting directions. The joy of watching their films comes from seeing expectations waylaid and getting whisked along with them to much more interesting places. The Big Lebowski pretends to be a modern day Philip Marlowe style kidnapped girl in distress story with a hippie burnout bowler standing in for Raymond Chandler’s private dick. All of the conventions of the genre are there — the mysterious threat to the detective, the assignment that isn’t what it seems, the double and triple dealing and the hero caught in the middle of multiple counter-plots that don’t concern him. At the same time, this classic detective noir plot is perpetrated on the sunny streets of LA or in brightly-lit interiors. There’s nothing noir about the look of the film at all. Call it film blanc.
That’s the framework. The walls and ceiling of Big Lebowski are something else altogether, and it wasn’t until almost the last scene of the film that what the Coens were getting at hit me. But, hit me it did, like a bowling ball in the solar plexus, and everything that came before suddenly made perfect sense. The plot went from being as narrow as a bowling alley lane to being as deep as the Pacific Ocean. That’s a rare trick, when a filmmaker can turn on the lights exactly when they want to and what you’ve been watching snaps into absolute focus.
Every single thing in The Big Lebowski is about how one generation (mis)treats and (ab)uses another, particularly the generations of the nineteen fifties through eighties. And when I say everything, I mean everything — there isn’t a character or a relationship or a story element in the film that doesn’t play into this theme.
The story in a nutshell is this. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, a man given to writing checks for sixty six cents at the local Ralphs, is assaulted in his house one day by two men demanding money owed by Lebowski’s wife. Trouble is, The Dude isn’t married. The thugs figure out the mistaken identity, but not before one of them pisses on The Dude’s living room rug. This indignity drives the rest of the plot. The Dude’s Vietnam vet friend, Walter (John Goodman), convinces him that the real Jeff Lebowski (David Huddleston) owes him a new rug, so The Dude drops in on his multi-millionaire namesake, only to have his request for a new rug refused. This doesn’t stop The Dude from talking Lebowski’s flack, Brandt (Philip Seymour Hoffman), out of one of the mansion’s exotic carpets anyway. The Dude also meets Lebowski’s wife, Bunny (Tara Reid), who casually offers him a little Lewinsky for a thousand dollars — an offer he can’t possibly afford. Soon thereafter, Lebowski hires The Dude as the go-between when Bunny is kidnapped, entrusted to deliver a million dollars to the kidnappers.
It turns out that the rug The Dude appropriates belongs to Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), a feminist, new age artist given to creating action paintings by flinging pigment while flying nude across the room in a harness. Her first conversation with The Dude, in which she says her art is described as “very vaginal,” is howlingly funny and completely askew — as is most of the movie.
The more The Dude gets involved in the kidnapping plot, the more fishy he thinks the whole thing is, but his explanations to all parties make no difference. None of them care because they all have their own agendas. It isn’t long before The Dude is getting batted around like a shuttlecock in a tangled plot between Lebowski, Bunny, Maude, porno producer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara) and a pack of demented German Nihilists who have a thing for lingonberry pancakes. Eventually, The Dude and Walter have to face off the Nihilists. They win, but not without losing their friend, Donny (Steve Buscemi).
It sounds like a random bunch of unrelated bits, but everything fits into the theme. Let’s start with the bowling. The Dude is a bowler, on a team with Walter and Donny. The art of bowling is played as highly stylized ritual here, and several dream/acid flashback sequences center around the game. It’s a professional sport, yet anyone can go down to their local lanes and do it for about five bucks a pop — the ultimate blue-collar hobby. But bowling as a unifying device in the film is an intentional artifact of the 1950’s, the fun for the whole family entertainment that has changed very little. Metaphorically, the characters we meet may be from different generations, but all of those generations are founded on the same shiny wooden base of the 1950’s postwar boom times.
Then there’s The Dude himself, a product of the 60’s and still stuck there. He’s a bearded, long-haired, pot smoking, unemployed Captain Trips kind of guy who wants no more than to hang out and be left alone. He’s an emblem of the peaceful happy hippie dippie pacifist element of the 60’s who, ultimately, accomplished nothing. On the flipside, we have Walter, a Vietnam vet who takes every opportunity to remind everyone in earshot of it and who, though he claims to not worry about anything, worries about (and takes offense to) practically everything. The Dude and Walter seem to be best friends. It’s never mentioned, but left for the audience to realize, that if they did know each other in the 60’s, they would have been bitter enemies — the Fascist Oppressor vs. the Flower Child.
The two of them together manage to be about the most ineffectual team ever seen in the history of cinema. There isn’t a single scene in which either of them goes somewhere with an intent and leaves having accomplished it. The Dude’s increasingly inarticulate attempts to explain what’s going on (when it would only take four words to do so) become one of the film’s running gags, and also serve as a subtle indictment of 60’s counterculture. They could have achieved something if they could have articulated what they wanted, instead of screaming about what they didn’t want. But, they couldn’t, The Dude can’t and the revolutionaries of the 60’s will always be looked on as the century’s losers.
Lest anyone try to counter this argument by claiming the end of the war in Vietnam as an example of hippie victory: 1) It took nine dead students at Kent State to start to win over the “silent majority,” who had been alienated by hippies in the first place; 2) Whatever moral victory the war’s end might have represented, 90% of the activists involved packed up and went away afterwards, so there was no one around to stop the Reagan-Bush fascist counter-revolution of 1980.
If I seem to have skipped over the 70’s, that’s because it’s what Walter and The Dude do in the film. While they bowl with their friend Donny, Walter pelts him with verbal abuse, calling him names to the ceaseless mantra of “shut the fuck up, Donny.” His name is even reminiscent of the ultimate bland 70’s product: you-know-who and Marie. Everything about Donny is bland, quiet, always a few steps behind the curve. He wants to be like The Dude and Walter, but doesn’t have the balls or the inclination. Oddly enough, Donny is the only member of the trio we ever do see bowl. Walter’s one use of a bowling ball is not on a lane, and The Dude never touches one. He and Walter pretty much ignore Donny despite letting him tag along, the end result being Donny’s fear-induced death. A generation is ignored and lost. The true political significance of the 70’s, which began the day Nixon resigned in 1974 and ended the day Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, is nothing but dust in the wind that blows left and soils the 60’s. The flipside of the 70’s is represented by Jesús Quintana (John Turturro), the purple jumpsuit clad, allegedly pedophiliac Chicano who is always announcing to the opposing team, “I’ll fuck you up the ass.” Ultimately, he’s all posturing and no action, a colorful, loud, sexually aggressive, culturally proud showboat destined to capsize. We never even find out how Quintana does in the big game against The Dude and company.
As for that Reagan devolution era, the 80’s are represented by new age Maude on one side and by the Eurotrash nihilists on the other. The former cares deeply about everything, while the latter care about nothing but themselves, one member going so far as to commit an act of self-mutilation in the interest of achieving their million dollar score. When Walter finally tells them they’re getting nothing because there never was a kidnapping and, well, you have to have a hostage to get a ransom, they pout and whine that it’s not fair. They’re a gang of ineffectual posers dressed in black who try to blame everyone else for their own acts of stupidity.
On the other hand, Maude takes responsibility for everyone and everything. Her actions are not motivated by greed or lust. Rather, she wants to see money stolen from a charitable trust returned. Likewise, she conspires to conceive a child with The Dude, but all she wants is his sperm. The new age ethos is born of the drug age mythos with none of the lazy, hazy baggage and, as the future “Little Lebowski,” the child will be the polar opposite of the titular Big Lebowski. Maybe.
This brings me to the bracket decades for the film, the 50’s and the 90’s. Our story is set during and after the Gulf War of January 1991, in that breathless nasty year right before the (psychological) 80’s ended with Bill Clinton’s election. In the film, this makes the 90’s an impending event of which the participants are not aware. The single representative of the future generation is Little Larry Sellers (Jesse Flanagan) a fifteen year-old alleged car thief who is harangued by Walter, but never says a single word. His is a generation found guilty by its elders, but never allowed to speak in its own defense. The upshot of his silence is one of the more hilarious mistakes in the film, and a perfect metaphor for what did happen to the children of the 90’s. The adults have accused all teenagers of being little criminals, and so end up bashing each other. Larry is the cause of wanton destruction without having done a thing.
Meanwhile, the 50’s are indicted with a vengeance, personified by two rich men, Jeff (“The Big”) Lebowski and Jackie Treehorn. The real guilty parties, these two men are the forces behind all the plot machinations, motivated by greed despite both of them seeming to be so rich. Adult entertainment mogul Treehorn, who sent out the carpet-soiling thugs in the first place, is a man who has more money than god but uses strong-arm tactics to collect what, to him, must be pocket change. Also emblematic of the 1950’s, Treehorn tries to deny what he is but, other than labeling, is there any difference between “adult entertainment” and “beaver movie?” Of course not.
Whereas Treehorn acts to get back money he shouldn’t miss, the Big Lebowski schemes to get hold of money he shouldn’t have. His daughter, Maude, explains to The Dude that Lebowski is living on an allowance from the family’s charitable trust and doesn’t have any money of his own. He’s a kept man, but his vanity won’t allow him to admit that. Instead, he lives in the family mansion, buys a porn star trophy wife, and then concocts a plot to use that wife in order to relieve the trust of some of its cash. Maude is the defender of the trust. Lebowski, her father, is the old white man who wants to steal his children’s heritage out from under them. He’s also utterly alienated from his emotions. When Lebowski calls The Dude in to tell him about the kidnapping, he launches into a long monologue about what it means to be a man, blah, blah, blah. What he says is absolute bullshit, but that he says it shows us that The Big Lebowski has no connection with his own emotions or with what it means to be human. He’s an old man in a wheelchair in a gigantic house, trying to hoard as much as he can because he can. He tries to use the counterculture as a cover to defraud Maude, but it’s the counterculture that finally, literally, knocks him off his pedestal, revealing him as the helpless cripple he really is, despite all his bluster to the contrary. He may decry The Dude as a bum, but only because the Big Lebowski knows that he himself is the biggest bum of them all.
As I mentioned above, there’s an “a-ha!” moment in the film when this whole metaphorical structure becomes clear. This is when The Dude and Walter go up to a cliff above Zuma Beach to scatter dead Donny’s ashes, and Walter still manages to make the moment all about his bitterness over Vietnam. He’s mentioned that war and his involvement countless times before, in fact, in his every scene, but this moment is when it all clicks.
To make sure we get this connection, the film ends with the onscreen appearance of the enigmatic man who introduced it in voiceover, The Stranger (Sam Elliott), a grizzled but kindly cowboy who looks and feels like he wandered out of a Zane Gray novel. He’s another perfect metaphor; the cowboys of reality existed a long time ago in a place that’s become mythical, but the modern cowboy mythology reached its heyday in the 50’s. The Cowboy Spirit is much like The Dude Spirit, the desire to wander freely in the world, unmolested and unbothered — but only mythological characters can have that freedom. As for the rest of us? Well, The Stranger ties it up in his closing monologue. Life is always about intergenerational give-and-take, a story that’s not always pretty, but as the Stranger says, “that’s the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself down through the generations, westward the wagons, across the sands a time.” It’s a beautifully written line to wrap up what has seemed to be a MacGuffin-laden shaggy dog story, but it’s really been all about the outrageous circumstances that lead to the conception and birth of Maude and The Dude’s child, a convoluted tale to out-do “Tristam Shandy.” Even the title is an intentional misnomer. This story isn’t about the Big Lebowski.” It’s about the Little Lebowski, who, someday, is going to grow up to be trapped in his or her own generation, too.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles who works in the TV trade to keep his dog rolling in kibble.
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