by M. Roca
The Big Lebowski is a great example of the power of cinema to transcend its original medium into the wider realm of pop culture and cult fandom. If you ever happen to walk down Thompson Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, you could bump into a store wholly dedicated to the Coen brothers late 90s film. Stocked with paraphernalia and merchandise devoted to the comedy, The Little Lebowski Shop offers a glimpse of the movie’s continuously enduring popularity over time. Once inside, a visitor is thrust into the Dude’s world, and you can get the T-shirt to prove it!! Keeping one’s johnson from deliberately peeing on the store’s rug would seem insurmountable. Along with the (now) 10 years of beautiful tradition that the Lebowski fests (held all over the country and beyond since 2002) offer enthusiasts and bowlers alike, you can plainly see how Lebowski’s legacy has quickly become a far-reaching cultural phenomenon.
The movie itself was a follow up to the Coens’ then biggest success Fargo. The reception was mixed and the box office, while not awful, barely grossed more than its actual budget during the initial theater run in the US. The plot was a jumbled, knotty puzzle that would have given Raymond Chandler a headache. Like many classic noirs filled with befuddling twists and turns (The Big Sleep, the second half of Out Of The Past, The Lady From Shanghai), one would need a Prezbo-and-Lester-Freamon bulletin board to keep track of all the characters and story details that occur in the 119 minutes. This, however, does not detract from the joys of The Big Lebowski. The destination is not as important as the journey and the gradual affinity we begin to feel for the main participants. The Dude, Walter, Donny, Maude, Jesus, Liam, Brandt, Jackie and the Pomeranian all vividly come across the screen as real corporeal (and comedic) characters. They inhabit a world we want to consider truly exists. The Coens’ script and dialogue is so expertly fine-tuned, that it ticks like a Swiss fucking watch of believability.
The Big Lebowski is a buddy film, first and foremost. And to give a plot synopsis would accomplish very little. The movie mainly revolves around two completely diametrically opposed protagonists: a burnout hippie with a severe lack of employment and the occasional acid flashback and a gun-loving Vietnam vet with a huge chip on his shoulder. The inspiration for The Dude supposedly came from two people the Coen brothers met in LA. One had a fondness for White Russians and marijuana; the other had actually found a 12-year-old’s homework in his stolen car. Walter Sobchak (portrayed with great relish by John Goodman) was partially based on director and screenwriter John Milius, whose Red Dawn and Conan The Barbarian proved he roundly rejected prior restraint and pacifism. The film is meant to highlight the witty banter these guys throw at each other above all else. The movie references are numerous and plentiful. Everything from Murder My Sweet—“darkness washed over The Dude—darker than a black steer’s tookus on a moonlight prairie night. There was no bottom”—to the bizarre Busby Berkeley Viking musical numbers. Anything is feasible…an ethos of unlimited possibilities guides the proceedings throughout the picture.
Overall, we get a giant helping of pornographers, nihilists, strong men who also cry, Kraftwerk err Autobahn, Saddam Hussein, vaginal art, embezzlement schemes, and tumbling tumbleweeds that contribute to the giant sprawling mosaic of early 90s LA that Lebowski calls home. Double (even triple and quadruple) crosses transpire. You attempt to look for the person who will benefit from all these happenings and find that nothing is made clear. It’s a place where Creedence holds dominion over The Eagles, and the cab driver’s opinion has been found faulty and illogical. Those who are bereaved are certainly not saps. Theodor Donald Kerabatsos (played by Steve Buscemi) checks out and finally remains silent, but gets a lovely sending off on a cliff over a peaceful beach. Everything is spoken in the parlance of our times, F-bombs included. A nine-toed woman must live with her decision for some ransom money, while Smokey rolls another frame… dreaming of peace and tranquility forevermore.
While references to past films are easy to decipher throughout by knowledgeable movie buffs, the biggest nod of all seems to be directly squared towards Ivan Passer’s film Cutter’s Way. That 1981 film also stars Jeff Bridges playing a (much younger and chiseled) slacker who drifts his way through life, while hanging out with agitated Vietnam vet Alex Cutter (played by John Heard). The movie, though, is no comedy, and is instead a very politically charged film calling on the poor and disenfranchised to rise up against wealthy elites by any means necessary. Bridges’ character, Richard Bone, has clear parallels with The Dude as both don’t seem to take life very seriously. You could imagine Bone occupying various administration buildings in college without ever committing himself to any worthwhile cause. There seems to be nothing beyond superficiality to the character of Bone. Whatever inner life was once present has perhaps been extinguished by the disillusionments many people felt with the slow death of the 60s ideals in the midst of the 70s. The Dude seems to be this very same person now fully immersed in his middle age quandaries or lack thereof.
Alex Cutter echoes Walter Sobchak quite explicitly as well. Both are Vietnam vets equally embittered by their experiences abroad fighting in a hopeless war. More evidence: They also cling to this traumatic period in their lives as a way to feel some self-worth and sense of purpose (Cutter also uses it to get out of trouble when necessary) and impossible schemes are hatched and implemented in both movies with the hope of some financial reward as a final bonus. While The Big Lebowski comes across as being much less political than Cutter’s Way, it does allude to the fact that perhaps dangerous neo-cons, like Walter, and sniveling liars, like crippled Jeffrey Lebowski, are running our foreign policy and pulling the strings. Saddam Hussein also pops up menacingly several times, stressing the anxiety many felt about the Gulf War. Maybe the bums did lose as Jeffrey screams out to The Dude after their initial meeting, or perhaps it’s actually the other bums in charge that made the goddamn plane crash into the mountain.
The Coen Brothers’ follow-up to Fargo came out in my college years, which is precisely the perfect time to watch this movie. Back then, half my vocabulary consisted of dialogue directly from the picture. In fact, if my list was strictly based on the ratio of laughs garnered, Lebowski would be my #1 choice by far. It may also be my single most watched film ever (and it rightly deserves multiple viewings as often as possible). To anyone who has not yet seen The Big Lebowski, I highly suggest you grab your significant other and set aside some time to get intimately acquainted with the film.
“You got a date Wednesday, baby!!!”
How The Big Lebowski made the top 100:
#3 J.D. La France
#6 Samuel Wilson
#11 Maurizio Roca
#16 Pierre De Plume
#17 Dean Treadway
#18 Sachin Gandhi
#19 Dennis Polifroni
#21 James Uhler
#38 Bobby McCartney
#41 Steven Mullen
#44 Ed Howard
#60 Brandie Ashe