[Illustration by TSTOUT]
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC I’ll admit to being surprised when the Coen Brothers’ seventh film, The Big Lebowski, was deemed a certified “cult classic,” with costumed fans and tribute conventions and the whole obsessive nine yards. At the time of its release, I found the comic detective spoof to be a breezy lark; amusing, but somewhat of a disappointment after the their morbidly enthralling breakthrough crime film Fargo.
Lebowski‘s success should not have come as a complete surprise. Chief among its assets is the hugely likable Jeff Bridges, who has rarely had as rich a comedic role as “The Dude” the handsomely gone-to-seed stoner and former Metallica roadie who just lays low and tries to “abide” with all the strangeness of Los Angeles in the early 90s. The film is also loaded with jokes and has that rambling episodic quality that goes over easily amidst party banter. But going back and watching the film after 13 years, a detail stuck in my crawl: why did the fastidiously detail-oriented Coens set this film during the first Iraq War? It is too specific a point to be random yet if it went unmentioned nothing would lead you to guess that the film wasn’t set in the contemporary world of 1998, when it was first released. For all it’s references to cowboys, film noir, achievement, and bowling, what was The Big Lebowski getting at anyway? A why does that trio of bowling buddies leave such a lingering feeling of sadness?
I think the answer is found in the detective fiction form that gives Lebowski its template. Similar to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, the Philip Marlowe saga with which the Coen’s screenplay shares many details, the film follows our protagonist through this case of a missing heiress simultaneously uncovering the corruption of post-war L.A. ad x-raying the main character’s wounded psyche. As its prominent Dylan tune “The Man in Me” hints, Lebowski explores how war and our country’s individualistic folklore forges the identity of the baby boomer male’s psyche. Amongst films that uncover the deep-seated origins of male identity, The Big Lebowski is the whole enchilada.
The Dude may see himself as a Zen Cowboy but he spends most of the movie unsuccessfully trying to keep his cool, attempting to enjoy the slacker life on the periphery of the American dream. Introduced by Sam Elliott’s cowpoke Stranger (Sam Elliott), the honey-voiced ranch hand announces the film’s setting as coinciding with the opening of the Iraq War, and he refers to The Dude as “A Man of His Time.” But isn’t The Dude too anti-establishment to be a typical American? A one-time activist who has lost all interest in politics (he admits that he can’t even remember much of his sixties-era activism), The Dude has given up trying to change the world and has instead shrunk back into his own small pleasures, which he describes as “bowling and driving around,” i.e. the typical post-war passions of the American citizen, both part of a lifestyle we like to forget is fueled through the resource wars that are at the root of our Middle East policy. The Dude knows this in his subconscious, a point underlined in the dream sequence when his Busby Berkely-style fantasy of sexy, heavenly bowling is facilitated by the rental shoes dispensed by Saddam Hussein himself. But lurking on the other side of this Land of Plenty are those cartoon nihilists, ready to castrate The Dude with their over-sized scissors.
A similar earlier dream sequence presents The Dude weightlessly cruising over the glimmering skyline of L.A. His dream of freedom is interrupted when his bowling ball pulls him down to earth and swallows him whole, sending him crashing into the chaos of cascading bowling pins. The war that is waging in the Middle East seems to continue on the roads and parking lots of Los Angeles, with the Dude’s own car, a 1973 Ford Torino slowly destroyed over the course of the film, threatening to leave The Dude as hobbled as the titular, wheelchair-bound Big Lebowski that shares his namesake, played impeccably by the Dick Cheney-esque David Huddleston.
It’s the war in Korea that is responsible for the “Big Lebowski’s” handicap, and the war in Vietnam that haunts The Dude’s best friend, Walter (John Goodman). Everything reminds Walter of the war, and as small an infraction as peeing on The Dude’s rug (yes, the one that tied the room together) leads him to brandish weapons and declare full-on violent engagement. We know Walter’s secret, that behind the blustery old warrior pose he has adopted that there is really a needy man, willing to care for his ex-wife’s lapdog while she vacations with Walter’s replacement. He’s not the only one, the Big Lebowski himself is something less than his pose. He lectures The Dude on achievement with a fatherly authority but behind the symbols of power the Big Lebowski is a cuckold whose fortune is mere illusion. Perhaps, Donny, the third bowling partner, is the most authentic male of the bunch; he is honestly, consistently clueless about…well everything.
The man seemingly most in control of his destiny is Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), the porn millionaire whose production “Logjammin’” starred Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid). When The Dude arrives his estate, Treehorn is celebrating with an Inca ritual, one dead society raising a toast to one that is dying. Treehorn and the Dude meet and when a phone call distracts Greenhorn he urgently jots a message on a notepad. In his absence, The Dude uses the old trick of shading the notepad with a pencil to uncover the imprint of the last message. The only thing it reveal is a doodle of a man with an erection.
At the end we leave The Dude, helpless to do anything but just “abide.” In the final scene The Stranger gives the denouement from the bowling alley bar, telling us of the fate that awaits guys like The Dude. They continue to drift on, “Westward the wagons, across the sands of time until…” The Stranger stops himself at the “until.” He sees where our this male posture leads us, but it seems like the fate is so sad he can’t quite bring himself to burst our bubble. Perhaps in the long run he’s letting us know with his cowboy’s wisdom that “to abide” is not quite a winning strategy.
Dan Buskirk will at a screening of The Big Lebowski tonight at The Princeton Public Library (65 Witherspoon St., Princeton, NJ). The screening will begin at 7:00pm and is FREE to the public. THE BIG LEBOWSKI has recently been release on Blu-ray DVD.