Sidevue: Citizen Dude (Expanded Version)

SideVue: Citizen Dude
How the Coens’ slice of slacker-noir shuffled on beyond “cult-classic”

He abided most critics shrugging him off when he strolled into theatres in March 1998. He sipped a White Russian in humble self-congratulation after the first midnight screenings of dialogue-quoting fans in the early ’00s. Then came the conventions, now held regularly in his honour in the USA and UK. Then the Collector’s Edition DVD, the Tenth Anniversary DVD, and now the limited-release Blu-Ray. All the attention rattled him a little, but he sloughed it off by hitting the lanes.
He was a bit weirded out when John Turturro talked about a spinoff of his character, Jesus Quintana, and when Tara Reid suddenly dreamed up, during an interview, a sequel. Still, even after becoming a target of serious academic investigation— from Joshua M. Tyree and Ben Walter’s British Film Institute study: “[it] is the rarest kind of film, a comedy whose jokes become funnier with repetition. The same goes for its multitudinous jukebox-like references to other films, many of which open up vistas for intertextual interpretation”—the Dude still abides.

But exactly how did The Big Lebowski (screening Fri at 11pm at the new Metro Cinema) become not just a cult-classic but the Coens’ best movie and an all-time comic-film masterpiece?

Before we get too deep—or, as the Dude says to Jackie Treehorn, “Yeah, well, right man, there are many facets to this, uh, you know”—let’s reiterate Tyree and Walter’s most important point. The Big Lebowski is fuckin’ hilarious, and habitually so, surrendering more of its plethora of verbal and visual jokes (including misidentifications, misunderstandings, mis-trickery, and mis-posturing) each time. That endearing, welcome-back vibe—we’re happy to be slackers, just hanging with the Dude (Jeff Bridges) and even his pals, high-strung Walter (John Goodman) and out-of-it Donny (Steve Buscemi)—is the big heart of The Big Lebowski’s irresistible charm. It’s the constantly cool slacker movie. Rarely has such a smartly written film (Shakespeare, Herzl, the Talmud, and Lenin—Vladimir, not John—are quoted or misquoted) cared less to please. The Coens’ coarse (perhaps its most famous refrain: “This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!”; Tyree and Walters claim “fuck” and its variations are uttered 260 times) but erudite script wears its intellect much like the Dude samples a carton of milk off the rack, then pays for it with a cheque for $0.59—all without an ounce of pretense or self-regard.

Such seemingly casual storytelling is the trick to tightly weaving—“that rug really tied the room together!”—the plot’s disparate elements. A kind of leftover ’60s acid-flashback on ’90s melting-pot America, the story stews a succulent mix of ingredients. A Western-style framework voiceover-narration from a mustachioed Stranger (Sam Elliott) and two Freudian dream-Busby Berkeley musical sequences drift through a slacker-mystery/LA neon-noir story that itself drifts nowhere in particular. Lightly parodying The Big Sleep—a noir whose 1946 adaptation plot was so complicated that the director, screenwriters, and novelist Raymond Chandler himself didn’t know who killed one of the characters—the anti-establishment Dude’s byzantine investigation for the rich man (apparently based on Orson Welles’ Charles Foster Kane) whose last name he shares proves, ultimately, to be a big hoax. (The only crime committed is self-absorbingly capitalist—embezzlement.)

The film’s one flaw is its thin portrayal of women: Maude (Julianne Moore) is a chilly feminist-artist caricature, while Lebowski’s trophy-wife Bunny (Reid) is an airhead sexpot … though she gets a semi-autobiographical moment of pathos when we learn, from another private detective searching for her, that she grew up on a farmstead in the Coens’ home state of Minnesota before running off to LA and falling into porn.

But much of that glaring flaw can be excused by The Big Lebowski’s potent focus, also the Coens’ main concern in their work—manhood. (See: The Man Who Wasn’t There, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man.) From the Dude being a “private dick,” to his worries about the Nihilists rendering him a non-man by cutting his “Johnson” off, to the most ballsy of games, bowling, the film’s replete with hilarious concerns about masculinity: “I won’t say a hee-ro,’cause what’s a hee-ro?—but sometimes there’s a man.”

Walter’s nearly hysterical military-imperial attitudes—he’s eager to enforce his “rules” by pulling a gun in the lanes—and his distorted nostalgia for Vietnam only reveal late 1990 to be a moment when Uncle Sam’s acting like a little bully-boy, trying to regain some sense of its former tough-guy self by steamrolling Saddam’s Iraq in the First Gulf War. The left-ish Dude even childishly parrots George Bush Sr (from a press conference airing on TV in the supermarket) when he tells the Reaganite Lebowski, “This aggression will not stand, man.” (The ex-hippie also calls the buzzkill of a rich man a “human paraquat”—the pesticide that the US got Mexico to spray on its marijuana in the late ’70s.)
Still, even though, throughout a marginalized LA (Venice Beach, the Valley, Pasadena), the Dude’s repeatedly used, attacked (including by ferret), pissed on (vicariously, via his rug and increasingly damaged car), and is never the typical “big man” of the title, he abides … as the one man in the film who’s most comfortable with who he is. With its toking, strike-rolling, strolling PI closing the case his own shrugging way, The Big Lebowski is casually radical in its joyful explosion of the myth of the American movie hero.


10 Things You May Not Know About The Big Lebowski:

Back to the future: The film’s set in late 1990, during the outbreak of the First Gulf War, but was actually moved slightly forward, since it was first written around 1989, around when the Coens also wrote Barton Fink, which they made first, especially since neither Bridges nor Goodman were available for the roles for some time.

Bowling as morbid metaphor: The generally neglected or told-to-“shut up!” Donny gets one brief, haunting moment of his own when his ball hits nine pins but the tenth wobbles and stays up. Donny looks at it, disconcerted by this odd twist of fate. Soon after, Donny, unlike the pin, falls down, dead from a heart attack.

“What’s your point, Walter?”: Walter Sobchak was largely based on Jewish screenwriter John Milius, a right-wing aficionado of guns and the military who, among many projects, has co-written Apocalypse Now (coining “I love the smell of napalm in the morning”) and Clear and Present Danger, co-written and directed Conan the Barbarian and the small-town-kids-fight-Commies ’80s movie Red Dawn, and co-created the miniseries Rome.

Bard to death: Walter melodramatically quotes Horatio’s eulogy of Hamlet, “Good night, sweet prince” (Hamlet 5.2.310) before tossing Donny’s ashes into the wind (and, unwittingly, into the Dude’s face). But it’s the Dude himself who is a laidback Hamlet, a non-anxious, happily indecisive riff on the Great Dane.

“Does the female form make you uncomfortable, Mr. Lebowski?”: Maude’s character was largely based on artist Carolee Schneeman, who worked while swinging naked, and on Yoko Ono, whose 1961 work “Kitchen Piece” involved smashed and smeared eggs, jello, and ink on a canvas she then set ablaze. (Ronald Bergan, The Coen Brothers)

Minds in the Gutter: For the filming of the “Gutterballs” dream-sequence where the Dude floats between the legs of dancers, looking up their skirts, Bridges invited his wife and kids to the set but the dancers played a prank on him by slipping wigs up inside their leotards. So Bridges’ odd expression in that scene comes from trying not to laugh at all the huge tufts of fake pubic hair he was staring up at. (Bergan)

Dude Studies: In 2009, Indiana University Press published the academic-essay collection The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies (2009), though there have been no annual instalments since. Essays include: “A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail Quest”; “The Dude and the New Left”; “No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski”; “Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski.”

But Seriously: The film’s political stance seems shruggingly left-wing, especially in its resolution. The ’60s-leftover Dude has happened to expose the Big Lebowski for the hollow, self-delusional Republican and Big Lie he is—he married a young trophy-wife out of vanity, hoped for her death, stole from a children’s charity, and tried to dupe someone he hoped was a dope.

Po-Mo No-Go: In its collage of elements, amoral stance, and fusing of high and low culture, the film’s generally seen as quintessentially postmodern. But the Coens, who sometimes affect ignorance and won’t give straight answers to questions, even on some of the interviews included on their DVDs, generally deny any larger meanings to their work; Ethan once replied, rather post-ironically, to a question on the subject, “The honest answer is I’m not real clear on what postmodernism is.” (Bergan)

Dude-Like Direction: The Coens also often claim to do little actual directing. Joel said, “The only time we ever directed Jeff was when he would come over at the beginning of each scene and ask, ‘Do you think the Dude burned one on the way over?’ I’d reply ‘Yes’ usually, so Jeff would go over in the corner and start rubbing his eyes to get them bloodshot. That was the extent of our direction.” (Bergan)

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