“The scenes outrank the plot”, says director Joel Coen about The Big Lebowski. Following the success of Fargo, The Big Lebowski was released on this very day in 1998 across North American theatres and was met with lukewarm reviews with critics citing the excess use of profanity as a way to cover dialogue gaps. It wasn’t an overwhelming commercial success either grossing $18 million in the United States, which was barely more than its $15 million production budget. Fast-forward a few years and the film has literature analysing its philosophy, a religion (Dudeism), an annual festival (The Lebowski Fest) and is deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” enough to be preserved in the National Film Registry. Looks like, “New shit has come to light.”
Set during the Gulf War, the opening shot of the film follows rolling tumbleweed through the city of Los Angeles and we’re quickly introduced to Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), an unemployed stoner who sips White Russians through the day and spends evenings at the bowling alley with his partners Walter Sobchak (John Goodman) and Donny Kerabatsos (Steve Buscemi). Frequent collaborator John Turturro stars as an eccentric purple-clad sex offender who calls himself Jesus. With a penchant for polishing bowling balls, Jesus Quintana is one of The Dude’s stiffest competitors in the local bowling league. The Dude, mistakenly identified as millionaire Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski (David Huddleston), is assaulted at his residence by two goons for owing money to porn king Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara). The Dude’s rug is peed upon by one of the goons and he visits the millionaire seeking compensation. This transpires into a kidnapping conspiracy where Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski’s young trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) is taken for ransom. “The Big” Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore) accuses Bunny of kidnapping herself and consults The Dude to help get to the bottom of the case.
Inspired by the novels of Raymond Chandler, The Big Lebowski was described by director Joel Coen as a film that “moves episodically and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery, as well as having a hopelessly complex plot that’s ultimately unimportant”. The Coens began writing the film around the same time as Barton Fink (1991) which may elucidate the realistically detailed character writing that it exudes. The Dude is loosely based on a friend of the Coens, Jeff Dowd. Dowd is a film producer and political activist best known for his strong sentiment against the Vietnam War and as one of the “Seattle Seven” members. Also known as “The Dude”, he was pivotal in helping release Coen’s first film Blood Simple. The parts of Walter, Donny and Jesus Quintana were written specifically for John Goodman, Steve Buscemi and John Turturro respectively. Walter was inspired by a Vietnam war veteran, Lewis Abernathy, who turned into a private investigator post service. Buscemi was intentionally given a character that doesn’t speak much in contrast to his casting as loudmouth Carl Showalter in Fargo. Jesus Quintana originally evolved from the character of a paederast Turturro portrayed in Mi Puta Vida in 1988.
The Big Lebowski involves caucasian cocktails, nihilists, an angry Vietnam veteran, a porn king, kidnapping, ransom and a reclusive millionaire. Yet there are more scenes about bowling than anything else. The Coens serve as a steady hand amidst the chaos that is the labyrinthine plot creating more intrigue in the background than there is in the foreground. There is a voluntary lack of willingness that the characters exhibit to take the story forward. This is prominent early in the film when even the narrator (Sam Elliot) loses his train of thought while introducing The Dude. There are so many scenes that could have easily been edited out of the movie without it adversely affecting the structure: the elongated bowling sequences, altercations with the Malibu Police, the landlord’s play, the dream sequence, the discussion about the First Lady with Brandt (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) to name a few. So what makes The Big Lebowski so watchable? The narrative might not explain the ardent following that it has gathered as the main threads of the plot remain unresolved in the film. Does Bunny eventually pay Jackie Treehorn back? What happened to Larry who stole The Dude’s car? Does The Dude eventually get his rug back? What happened to the one million dollars withdrawn from the foundation? What motivated the Nihilists? Who wins the Bowling Tournament?
The film is less about Bunny’s disappearance than it is about The Dude being thrust into scenarios he’s not well equipped to encounter. The rolling tumbleweed in the first shot sets the tone for what is to come. It rolls into places that, we don’t necessarily associate with tumbleweeds: a city bridge, the beach, Hollywood Boulevard. It is symbolic of the Dude being pushed into settings he doesn’t thrive in. But just like the tumbleweed, he keeps rolling nonetheless. The Dude’s character is a throwback to the hippies in the early 70s who “just take it easy, man“. His life is void of any goals, stress or routine. Seeking retribution for his soiled rug, he encounters the other characters in a way that’s reminiscent of a Western Crime novel. The film can be described as The Dude’s attempt to get redress for his rug. The rug is a MacGuffin, a plot device that motivates the character into pursuing but lacks narrative context. Hitchcock describes it as “a thing that the character is after but the audience is not”. In this case, the rug is irrelevant but has precipitated to be the catalyst behind The Dude’s motive to pursue the plot. The rug represents The Dude’s detachment from worldly ornaments and amplifies his carefree, apathetic approach towards life.
Described by the narrator (Sam Elliot) as the laziest man in Los Angeles County, The Dude enjoys bowling and Bob Dylan. A practitioner of Tai Chi, The Dude doesn’t lack empathy or a moral centre. With a wardrobe full of Bermuda shorts, bathrobes and flip flops, The Dude looks as if he’s just out of a Grateful Dead concert through his encounters with Larry, Jackie Treehorn and The Big Lebowski. Cast as an outsider, he is brought to a world of scrutiny packed with contemporary norms. With Bob Dylan’s Man in Me playing as the theme, the movie in a way questions what makes a man. Is it a pair of testicles? Is it the Big Lebowski’s financial prowess? Is it Walter’s aggression and affinity towards violence? Is it the narrator’s laid back western style? The Dude is constantly critiqued about his philosophical choices but remains unaffected through the rough scorns to convey his disinterest and pacifism.
Why The Big Lebowski was not a success during its time of release is still debated to this day. Some argue that America being economically and eugenically affluent at the time was not perceptive to the detailed societal critique that the film could offer. This changed in the early 2000s with the incidents of 9/11, the Iraq War and the recession of 2008 drawing light to social concerns. The film is not short of political references either with a picture of Nixon bowling, Walter’s Vietnam rhetorics, the Gulf War, an appearance by Saddam Hussein and the underlying tone of conservatism. The film’s structure and aesthetic evokes the staples of many pre-existing film genres (comedy, crime, mystery, noir) without concurrently being loyal to any single one. Seldom looked at as one of the Coens’ lighter films, it could still be underrated because of the layers it leaves for the audience to peel. As Roger Ebert once put it, “The Big Lebowski is about an attitude, not a story.” The density in character writing and magnified analysis of ideologies demand several rewatches to fully understand this enigmatic soup of complex ideas. The film is so quotable across its entire length that it can essentially be looked at as a summation of memorable scenes. A lot of the film’s joy is I feel is derived in hopelessly quoting the film and discovering new nuances in dialogue but “that’s just like my opinion man“.
Until next time, stay gold, Ponyboy, stay gold. See you soonish.
You’re still here? Then get following us on social media
Plus we are finally on Twitter! https://twitter.com/BubblegumOutta