Vol. LXIV, No. 2
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
There’s some mystery to it that keeps people coming back, that they want to see it again and again.
Steve Buscemi (Donny)
A Zen master said to me one day, “You realize that many people in the Buddhist community look at the Dude as a Zen master?” And I said, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”
Jeff Bridges (the Dude)
“I like your style, Dude.”
Played by a sarsaparilla-swilling Sam Elliott, whose rich, deep drawl evokes whole Saturday matinee vistas of cowboy Americana, the Stranger narrates the beginning and the end of the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, a disappointment when it came out in 1998, a cultural phenomenon of formidable dimensions by the time a 10th Anniversary Edition DVD was released. While there are many things to praise in the movie, its most engaging feature is, as the philosophical cowboy says, the Dude’s cosmically easygoing, accepting, likeable style. He may not be Mr. Natural, but he’s close and he’s a lot more fun. When at the end the Stranger says “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there … takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners,” he’s voicing the sentiments of a whole Lebowski subculture spawned in the first decade of the 21st century, not to mention all of us sinners who consider The Big Lebowski an American classic.
Besides inspiring books, scholarly assessments, filmed documentaries, festivals, and fan regalia that may one day approach near-Beatles magnitude (T-shirts, bowling jerseys, talking keychains, bobble-head dolls, wig and goatee sets and robes à la his Dudeness), The Big Lebowski actually surpasses A Hard Day’s Night in the juicy quote department. It’s probably the most quoted movie in history. You can either buy an “Ultimate Quotes” T-shirt, or go for single-quote variety, such as: “You Are Entering a World of Pain” or “You Want a Toe? I Can Get You a Toe” or “I Don’t Roll on Shabbas.” Visitors to the internet movie database (imdb) will find 20 pages of excerpted dialogue; it would have been easier to scan the entire screenplay. Fresh from the success of Fargo, and working in the same spirit around the same time (the Lebowski screenplay dates back to 1991), Joel and Ethan Coen tapped into a gold mine of flavorful phrases and tropes, addictive speech patterns and rhythms, matched them to exactly the right actors, and timed it all perfectly, every pause, every ellipses, right down to an untippable balance of f-words (online estimates are in the hundreds) and “man”s (also in the hundreds, man).
What Monty Python did for (and to) England, Lebowski does for/to the U.S.A. Python’s comedy was a national phenomenon beyond satire that you could imagine reaching and amusing everyone from the lowliest pub crawler to the Queen. Even without an omniscient American equivalent of the BBC for a venue, Lebowski covers a comparable range. Other American phenoms like The Wizard of Oz, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Star Trek, Young Frankenstein, however dear they may be to the heart of their fans, aren’t as solidly tuned to elemental American realities. It’s fine to be in touch with musical fantasy, black comedy, the campy bizarre, horror movie fun and games or sci-fi, absolutely. But, hey, The Big Lebowski goes bowling.
The classics mentioned above also have in common a tendency to depart from the topical with excursions into the Emerald City and outer space. The Coens’ wild, profoundly profane song and dance joyride through Raymond Chandler’s LA, Busby Berkeley, flying nude feminist artists, White Russians, marijuana, and rock and roll is explicitly tied to Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, which was in the news when the original screenplay was being written. First signaled in the Stranger’s introductory monologue (“Now this here story I’m about to unfold took place in the early ’90s — just about the time of our conflict with Sad’m and the I-raqis”), the invasion is cited in the opening moment at Ralph’s market as a TV image of the first George Bush declares that this aggression “will not stand” while the Dude (whose “real name” happens to be Jeff Lebowski) is writing a 69-cent check for the half and half needed for his White Russians (strangely enough, the check is dated September 11, 1991). Saddam even makes an appearance as a dispenser of bowling shoes in one of the Coens’ bravura dream sequences, and the actor who plays him is an honored guest at Lebowski festivals, probably the only place on the planet outside Halloween where you will find uniformed Saddams rubbing elbows with Moses and Sandy Koufax.
All Together Now
Movies that create subcultures have to be not only quotable but big enough to be lived in, and stylish and funny enough to be played with, worn, and above all shared. When asked what he thinks made The Big Lebowski a cult sensation, Jeff Bridges suggests, “It’s something that gives joy to the person who’s turning them on to the movie … something that you kind of share.” Part of the “you gotta see this!” chemistry is the movie’s inclusiveness. People live in it because there’s room for everyone. Even in the super-polarized present, with venom in free flow all over the internet and the media, even with all the noise made by the tea parties and Palinphiles and Obamaphobes, it’s possible to imagine people of virulently opposite political persuasions enjoying this movie under the same roof, laughing at the same lines, and sharing the same weirdly benign fantasy of getting along in the world embodied in this easygoing Californian (“the Dude abides”), in spite of head-dunkings in the toilet bowl, ravenous rodents in the tub, severed toes, crow-bar mayhem, iron lungs, and sword-wielding nihilists. The Stranger offers the feel-good prescription: “So the next time you start to feel anxious, aggressive, uptight or judgemental, just remember the Dude — and remember there’s a little bit of him in all of us.”
So what if the Dude’s a lapsed lefty who claims to be one of the Seattle Seven and spent most of his time in college “occupying various administration buildings … smoking a lot of Thai stick … breaking into the ROTC.” The Dude’s first and most pressing issue is to be remunerated for the rug a thug peed on in the course of mistaking him for the rich Lebowski (“That rug tied the room together, man”). There’s a tension of metabolic and philosophical opposites in his relationship with a Vietnam vet named Walter Sobchak, his bowling partner and best friend, a fabulously explosive mega-libertarian militant convert to Judaism played to thunderous perfection by John Goodman, who has the juiciest quotes and creates most of the action and misfortune as the plot unfolds.
The Coens Abide
Did the Brothers Coen know they were concocting a phenomenon of this magnitude? The more I see of the film, the more I think Joel and Ethan meant the Dude to be an iconic figure, though they don’t admit as much in The Making of The Big Lebowski, which comes with both the 2004 and 2008 editions of the DVD. The back and forth between the brothers also gives you a sense of the on-the-set ambience referred to by Bridges, Buscemi, and Goodman, as well as by John Turturro, who has several brief but sublime moments as Jesus Quintana.
Quoted in a bonus feature in the 10th anniversary edition, Julianne Moore, who is very funny as the Big Lebowski’s free-flying artist daughter, Maude, thought Jeff Bridges deserved an Oscar for his performance: “I think it’s genius.” And so it is. Except that the very ease and comfortableness Bridges brings to the part — he admits to having more than a little of the Dude in his nature — makes “genius” sound too weighty somehow, too un-Dude.
Speaking of genius, I don’t know what word best suits Steve Buscemi but some new superlative needs to be coined; the way he plays Donny, the third member of the bowling team, reminds me of what I’ve always thought was his truest and most endearing role, as Charlie, the hapless barber in Jim Jarmusch’s Mystery Train (1989). Charlie could well be Donny’s older brother, limping around Memphis, too strung out to make it to L.A. for the cliffside ceremony when Walter dumps a Folgers coffee can full of Donny’s ashes into the wind that, no surprise, blows it back all over the Dude. Who nevertheless abides.
Some books for students of Dudeology: The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film (Norton paperback 1998) by Tricia Cook and William Preston Robertson; I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski (Bloomsbury 2007) by co-founders of the first Lebowski fest, Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Scott Shuffitt, Will Russell; The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers by Cathleen Falsani (Zondervan 2009), and, most recently, The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies,” edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe (Indiana University Press), which features 20 essays, including “The Dude and the New Left”; “No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism and the Oil Industry in ‘The Big Lebowski’”; “‘The Big Lebowski’ and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism”; “On the White Russian”; and “Dudespeak, or How to Bowl Like a Porn Star.”
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