Part One. Glance around academia.edu and you’ll find a few articles on the Coen brothers most popular film with titles like “’This Aggression Will Not Stand’: Myth, War and Ethics in The Big Lebowski,” as well as “The Big Lebowski, ritual and (imposed) narratives of the self.” In the last three years, over a hundred thousand priests have been ordained in The Church of the Latter-Day Dude, which is described on its Wikipedia page as “a modernized form of Taoism purged of all of its metaphysical and medical doctrines.” For a film about taking it easy, an awful lot of people take the thing quite seriously.
The Coen brothers seem to have a genuine and pronounced interest in what it means to be a man. In the first decade of this millennium, the Coens released The Man Who Wasn’t There, No Country For Old Men, and A Serious Man, and I suppose we’ve only to wait for some enterprising film retailer to release those titles in a box set called The Man Trilogy. Were someone completely unfamiliar with The Big Lebowski to view The Man Trilogy and then be told, “Now, having seen all that, what if I told you the same fellows who made all those movies also made a movie which gained an honest-to-goodness cult following… I mean a genuine religion with priests and such… a holy book, conventions, scholarly criticism… well, what kind of movie do you think that would be?” I wonder how surprised that person would be when they finally sat down to watch it, the opening credits rolled by, and there was Jeff Bridges sniffing discounted cartons of dairy at Ralph’s.
Given the Coens hefty oeuvre, dismissing The Big Lebowski as a fluke, a one-off paean to slacking-off, seems ill-advised. At the same time, investigating a film as profane as The Big Lebowski with a stack of anthropology books nearby would be a humorless task best left to sophomore film school students. There must be some kind of middle way to proceed. Some kind of tao to… well, now I’ve gone and done it.
For a film in which nothing ultimately happens, quite a bit seems to happen for the better part of two hours. The plot is a twisting, ranging affair which begins with a case of mistaken identity and concludes arbitrarily. Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) was a radical in the 1960s. He organized sit-ins, occupied public buildings, and claims to have been part of the Seattle Seven, a criminal protest group all of whom were briefly jailed after being found guilty of contempt of court. Twenty years after getting out, the Dude lives in LA, where he shuffles around in a bathrobe and disinterestedly notes George Bush delivering anathemas against Saddam Hussein. The original script suggested the Dude lived off royalties he collected from the estate of Ernő Rubik, a long lost relative, though that detail didn’t make the final cut.
When the Dude is mistaken for another Jeffrey Lebowski, thugs come to collect on the latter Jeff’s debts. Those thugs “micturate” on the Dude’s rug, so the Dude tracks down Jeffrey to get a new rug. Jeffrey Lebowski is a venerable-looking crank and a wealthy philanthropist who insults the Dude as “a bum,” mocks his former radicalism, and rebuffs the Dude’s request for a gratuitous rug.
The older Lebowski has no money of his own, but married into it. After his wife passed, she left nothing to her husband and put everything into a charity she created. Her husband spends his latter days figuring out ways of embezzling dollars from that charity, all the while keeping up appearances. When his irresponsible second wife Bunny (played by Tara Reid, who seems to have simply wandered onto the set) turns up missing, her nihilist friends decide to report her “kidnapped” to Jeffrey in order to extort a million. Jeffrey withdraws the money from his deceased wife’s charity to pay the ransom, but secretly keeps the money for himself and hires the Dude to make the drop, though Jeffrey intends to accuse the Dude of stealing the money. The Dude’s friend Walter noses into the plot and hatches a plan similar to the corrupt Jeffrey’s plan— keep the money, then capture the kidnappers and force them to disclose Bunny’s location.
As the story progresses, characters which at first seem diametrically opposed to one another begin to appear as overly similar. Both the rich Lebowski and the poor Lebowski are freeloaders. The older Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny is a low-class porn star, but Lebowski’s high-society daughter Maude creates avant-garde paintings which she happily informs the Dude have been described as “strongly vaginal.” Walter and Jeffrey both try to extort money from a charity, giving little thought to the needy. The rich characters are just as low and tasteless and lazy as the poor characters, but the rich characters cover their meanness with a gloss of respectability. That respectability gets skewered, though.
The good old-fashioned American capitalistic schtick of Jeffrey Lebowski is money-grubbing, but so is the self-professed nihilism of the German “kidnappers” who need cash to pay for their lingonberry waffles. One of those nihilists originally met Bunny on the set of a blue movie, and we’re left to assume Bunny didn’t meet Jeffrey during coffee hour at Calvary Chapel. While each character seems well-distanced from the next on an ethical continuum at the start of the film, at the denouement, they are all converging on the same point. The Dude has even become the father of Jeffrey Lebowski’s only grandchild. The Coens seem discontent that the social and political rivalries of the 60s and 70s were meaningful, or that one has to scale many rungs on the culture ladder to get from “low” to “high.”
What makes one character sympathetic over another? In a word, ethos. The Dude is not a “hero,” according to the Stranger who narrates the film, “…because what’s a hero?” Neither a pacifist nor a patriot, apparently, although the question is rhetorical. The world has become perfuse with angry idealists, and what it needs is someone who can surf a zeitgeist. The Dude drinks sugary cocktails, smokes pot, and wears pajamas more often than not. He is the chill point in a burning world. He does not lack the ability to empathize, though his typical response to evil and suffering has more to do with ruffled feathers than spiritual angst. He does not expect things go his way, but neither is he sympathetic with people who do. As a young man, he was fiery and passionate, but fire and passion failed him and so his old prejudices have become mere preferences. The Dude is not a hero, but simply “a man for his time and place,” according to the Stranger. While he’s not exactly good, he is full of goodwill. Looking back on the film now from the era of internet rage— the era of the angry, anonymous, offended brute— even a man of virtue might find something compelling in the Dude’s disinclinations to freak out. “If thou seest the oppression of the poor, and the violent taking away of justice and righteousness in a province, marvel not at the matter: for one higher than the high regards it; and there are higher than they,” teaches Koheleth in Ecclesiastes, and verily, the Dude does not marvel at much. The Iraq war is a backdrop for the story simply so we can see the Dude not care about it. His best friend proudly served in a war he proudly went to jail protesting. The narrative doesn’t much come down on the Dude because the Dude doesn’t much come down on anyone. He is judged in the manner he judges others.
Part Two. The nonchalance of the Dude is alluring, and I daresay that anyone who watches the film with an open mind in the morning will find himself in a daze of non-uptightness for the rest of the day. At the same time, The Big Lebowski owns a dirty, relaxed moral mood in which obscenity is not so much a degradation of language as a language unto itself. Sexual deviance is passé and nude bodies pass humorously through a handful of scenes. That the final joke of the film involves the ashes of the Dude’s friend being unceremoniously knocked from an upturned coffee tin into his squinting face ought to be a fact which lingers with viewers longer than the apparent ease in which the Dude lives. These might seem like dry, tidy conclusions to draw about a slippery show heavy-laden with arresting contradictions, many dozens of talking points which could not be touched on here, and a mood so beguiling as to inspire real devotion in some. It might be argued the lowness of the material merely reflects LA, or that the Coens did not mean to commend the Dude to viewers. The Coens are hard workers, after all, and the Dude is one of the laziest men who ever lived. Further, have the Coens not commended fidelity and chastity as admirable in nearly all their other pictures? Isn’t the Dude obviously absurd? And if he is “a man for his time and place,” are Ethan and Joel not simply suggested his time and place are no less absurd than he is?
These questions are largely irrelevant, though.
In 1996, when the gauntness of Calvin Klein models was a big deal, Bob Dole suggested in an interview that the freshly-released Trainspotting was further glamorizing heroin use. When asked him if he had seen the movie, he said he hadn’t, and most media outlets and pundits laughed because, had he seen the movie, he would have known the film couldn’t have tried harder to make heroin look awful. And there is a conventional, intuitive common sense to that idea. The characters in Trainspotting live low, mean, filthy, brutal lives. And yet, this is the sublime power of the image: Trainspotting absolutely glamorized heroin use. Trainspotting couldn’t not glamorize it. Revealing a thing while simultaneously condemning it is almost always a fool’s errand. You show it, you approve it. In fact, anytime you show something and don’t approve it, it strikes people as kind of strange, off-putting, judgmental. Gazing at a thing has a way of inspiring love for that thing as a matter of course. Images pour into the eyes as wine pours into a mouth.
Or a white Russian.