The Coen Project Part 7: The Big Lebowski

I haven’t officially signed up for the church of Dudeism, but I’ll admit I’m a bit of a Lebowski fanatic. I’ve spent more time than anyone should trying to figure out what books the Dude has on his coffee table, and I own an (almost) exact replica of the Dude’s Pendleton sweater. Despite these patterns of behavior, I’m uncomfortable with The Big Lebowski’s status as a “cult classic”. It’s hard to specify exactly what makes a cult film, but most are defined by something other than their quality as a movie. While it has inarguably developed a cult following in the years since its release, The Big Lebowski is and always was just a great film.

According to Ethan Coen, the goal in writing The Big Lebowski was to create a Los Angeles noir story in the vein of Raymond Chandler’s dark, labyrinthine novels. This influence is the basis for the film’s structure, but in a classically Coen-esque subversion, it’s populated with distinctly un-noirish characters. The typical hard-boiled detective protagonist is traded in for an easy-going stoned bowling enthusiast, Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski, a role written for Jeff Bridges.

The Dude bowls, drinks white russians, and hangs out with his friends, Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi). One evening he is accosted in his apartment by two men who shove his face in the toilet and demand money. It’s a case of mistaken identity — they have the wrong Jefferey Lebowski. The intruders leave, but not before one of them urinates on the rug. Bummed by the destruction of his property, The Dude seeks out the other Jefferey Lebowski (David Huddleston), a paraplegic millionaire, to right the wrong. All he wants is a rug, but he gets conned into participating in a kidnapping scheme that spirals into a convoluted mess.

The plot of the Big Lebowski surprises me every time I watch it because it’s so complicated, yet so extraneous to an understanding of the film. Who the are the Knudsens? Whose toe is that? Where is the money, exactly? These narrative details are fun, but they’re largely decorative: the meat of the film is in the characterization, most importantly of the two men named Jeffery Lebowski, along with John Goodman’s compulsively aggresive Vietnam war vet Walter Sobchak.

In my notes on Fargo I talked about the Coens’ commentary on American manhood in the form of the contrasting characters of Jerry and Norm. In Lebowski, the filmmakers build on this theme more deliberately. This is evident from the Dude’s introduction, coupled with a narration by Sam Eliot’s The Stranger, speaking in a deep Western drawl (emphasis is mine):

Now this here story I’m about to unfold took place back in the early nineties — just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. I only mention it ’cause sometimes there’s a man — I won’t say a hero, ’cause what’s a hero? — but sometimes there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes there’s a man who, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude, in Los Angeles.

We get two major themes upfront: conflict and manhood. Even before this, the focus on masculinity is previewed by the opening credits song, Bob Dylan’s The Man in Me.

The Dude and the millionaire he calls the Big Lebowski represent warring visions of what an American man should be. The fact that they have the same name is more than a plot device — it makes the contrast and conflict between them explicit. In their first scene together, the Dude walks into the Big Lebowski’s ornate office in his sandals and hoodie with a simple request — some form of compensation for his peed-upon rug. He instead gets subjected to a self-righteous tirade. (Note the opening shot of the Dude in the Man of the Year mirror.)

The rant has nothing to do with the rug. Big Lebowski is affronted by the Dude’s very existence, livid that anyone, much less a man, could live with that little regard to societal norms. Any suggestion that his twentieth century values of male achievement and status don’t apply to everyone must be aggressively shouted down. Big Lebowski smugly believes that he’s won the encounter, while the Dude never even wanted to pick a fight. It’s important that Big Lebowski’s “achievements” turn out to be fraudulent. His version of manhood was literally a performance.

Walter Sobchak has no slavish notions about masculinity per se — he gladly carries around his ex-wife’s tiny dog. Where he contrasts with the Dude most starkly is how he handles conflict. When anyone crosses a line (literal or figurative) he reacts immediately and forcefully. Walter isn’t mindlessly violent — he has airtight logic justifying all of his outbursts. “Am I wrong?” is his mantra. To this the Dude responds with the film’s thesis in regards to conflict:  “You’re not wrong, Walter, you’re just an asshole”. The reasons for being violent don’t matter. It’s always an asshole way to be.

I want to talk about Sam Eliot’s mysterious cowboy character The Stranger, because I think he’s more than a narrator or an audience surrogate. I’ve always thought of The Stranger as the Dude’s guardian angel. This used to be just a pet theory of mine with little textual justification, but it actually fits in pretty well thematically. When the Stranger tells the Dude that he likes his style, he isn’t talking about his clothes — it’s a moral validation. He likes the Dude’s way of living, his commitment to peacefulness in a world that keeps on pummeling him.

The Big Lebowski was intended to be produced and released before Fargo, but due to scheduling issues with Jeff Bridges and John Goodman had to be delayed. This was a stroke of luck: Lebowski’s reception was lukewarm, barely making back its fifteen million dollar budget. Had it been released first, the Coens’ careers would have been on shaky ground.  Why did Lebowski resonate to such greater degree in the 2000’s than in the late 1990’s? It’s likely that pre-911 America wasn’t as interested in the film’s focus on conflict, violence, and pacifism. In the (George W) Bush era, these issues were in the forefront of American life. It probably also didn’t hurt that The Big Lebowski looks a lot like Dick Cheney.

While it’s their second film set in Los Angeles, Lebowski is the Coens’ first true LA movie. Los Angeles is unique because there is no way to experience it holistically — it’s so decentralized that everyone lives in a different version of the city. Each individual will know a handful of places intimately, but the rest is an amorphous, unexplored landscape that’s never fully comprehensible. This can be difficult to capture cinematically — one of the major failures of La La Land is that Damien Chazelle tried to film Los Angeles as though it were New York, ending up with a touristy, Instagram-filtered version of the city that bears no resemblance to the experience of those who live here. The Coens, however, aren’t interested in landmarks — they only show us the version of Los Angeles that’s relevant to the characters in the story. 

Stray Observations

  • I love how the Dude repeats words and phrases that he learns in previous scenes, first with “This agression will not stand, man”, after he hears Bush Senior say it on TV, then “johnson” after he learns it from Maude.
  • I’ve always been bothered that the cups Donny and Walter hold after they get In-n-Out aren’t In-n-Out cups. But I have to imagine that the company wouldn’t allow their products onscreen — It would be a big detail for the filmmakers to overlook. Also, I have been to that particular In-N-Out in North Hollywood. It is indeed near Radford.
  • John Turturro uses every second of screentime to the fullest in his performance as the bombastic Jesus. Dios Mio, man. Also, what’s the deal with his silent pal Liam?
  • I just now realized that the title of this movie is a reference to Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Wow.
  • The Stranger does have a nit-pick about the Dude’s character — his use of “cuss words”. This is the line that I always point to in defense of my theory. Who else but a guardian angel would care about that?

2 thoughts on “The Coen Project Part 7: The Big Lebowski

  1. I totally agree with you about it being fortuitous that this was released after Fargo – I distinctly remember seeing this on opening night and the rest of the theater clearly not getting it (probably because they were expecting Fargo 2). I’m glad it’s finally been recognized as a classic, not to mention one of the funniest films ever made.
    Really enjoying your Coen retrospective. Made we want to watch so many of these again!

    Liked by 1 person

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