Episode 53: The Big Lebowski (1998)

Film chosen by Joe, introduced by Matt

The Coen Brothers’ pot-heady, mistaken identity picture and ode to the unemployed, adopts and adapts the specificity of film noir’s dialogue to create a colourful, highly quotable, stoner-noir. It’s as if our fall guy, The Dude – a clueless dropout, has been dragged into the swirling dramatic plot of a Raymond Chandler novel, or more accurately, an American movie based on one; something like Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye.

These Chandleresque flourishes are woven throughout The Big Lebowski. As with noir, characters are haunted by, or plain stuck in the past – The Dude in the psychedelic sixties, with his rug being a likely visual representation of them, and Walter constantly invoking his tour in Vietnam. Dude, however, is contradictorily a man living in the moment; seemingly not concerned with the past, or the future, until he gets bogged down in the whole rug-pissing fiasco. His pacifistic, flower power ethos and unlikely buddy, Walter’s Nam flashbacks and outbursts dance with one other, highlighting the duo’s dysfunctional marriage of sorts. When we learn about The Dude being one of the original authors of the Port Huron Statement – an anti-Vietnam War text, it only adds to the odd tapestry that is their close friendship; Walter being a sort of Sancho Panza to Dude’s Don Quixote.

As Joel Coen once stated, the plot is secondary; Lebowski intentionally sets up a complex narrative and then largely ignores it. Noir’s heroes were forever necking whisky and chain-smoking; Dude’s beverage of choice is a milk moustache-inducing White Russian – childlike like a chocolate milk, which he sips continuously throughout, and Bogart’s iconic cigarettes are swapped out for reefers. Memorably, Lebowski’s endlessly quotable screenplay features a keen repetition of phrases spanning different characters, and an excessive (but that’s the point) 260 uses of “fuck” – that’s even more cuss words than De Palma’s Scarface.

“Everything’s a fuckin’ travesty with you, man!”

The Dude, The Big Lebowski

Pauline Kael once declared Jeff Bridges, “the most natural and least self conscious actor.” I’d wholeheartedly agree. In fact, he’s so Dude-like, it prompts the question, where does Jeff end and His Dudeness begin? For instance, Duder’s jelly sandals actually belonged to Jeff, and his band, The Abiders, absolutely nail a live cover of CCR’s Lookin’ Out My Back Door. Although, to counteract that, in a move akin to Withnail and I’s boozehound, Richard E. Grant, who was famously teetotal in reality, Bridges reportedly abstained from doobies during filming.

Seemingly the sweetest, coolest, extremely likeable guy in real life too, and a terrific actor, Bridges clearly inherited comedy chops from his dad, Lloyd (Airplane, Hot Shots). I always appreciated him in John Carpenter’s Starman, and maybe it’s the Karen Allen factor talking, but Jeff’s like the anti-Harrison Ford. I love them both, but it’s revealing how their film choices eventually defined them as actors. To a degree, I believe they were each capable of doing what the other did. Once upon a time, I could see Bridges as Indy or Han, however, in spite of Harrison’s allegedly baked lifestyle, Jeff’s comedic sensibility always made him a better bet as The Dude.

“Is this your homework, Larry?”

Walter, The Big Lebowski

Lebowski is smartly and mischievously layered in such a way that you can absorb it totally addled, not follow anything, and still chuckle your way through. Or, if you dig the turf a little, you can find some interesting deeper meanings and alternative readings – everything from American militarism and the “violence begets violence” angle, the first Gulf War and Bush Sr’s New World Order, to Marxism, a carnivalesque critique of society, the feminist consequences of sexual fetishism, post-Reaganomics, a more general analysis on war and ethics, and even the theory that it’s a modern retelling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The Gulf War commentary, and subsequent Iraq War, in particular, are potential explanations for the sudden cult appreciation of the film in the years that followed. It seemingly tapped into the zeitgeist and allowed certain folks to unscramble and make sense of world politics almost subconsciously. How we processed, or failed to process 9/11, is perhaps a key factor in the film’s resurgence and long life. The character of Lebowski himself, David Huddleston, resembling future warmongering secretary of defence, Dick Cheney, and the truly bizarre instance of The Dude’s cheque being dated on September 11th are each eerily prescient.

We can’t help but feel when Walter rants about “the rules,” he’s not just talking about Smokey being “over the line,” or even bowling in general. When he references “that camel-fucker in Iraq,” it’s uttered carelessly and casually, but with such disdain, we’re certain U.S. foreign policy is endlessly swirling around his Nam-obsessed mind. Saddam Hussein appears briefly, relegated to a low-status, bowling shoe attendant in Dude’s dream, and when Walter is apoplectic, repeatedly screaming, “This is what happens, Larry! This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!” it becomes clear he’s not furious with a kid for stonewalling him, he’s enacting his Republican rage upon an innocent party as he destroys a neighbour’s car. It’s all driven by this deep-seated, unresolved anger from his service past, and his anxieties about it all inevitably coming to pass again in the near future. The Dude abides, Walter does not.

“I’m throwin’ rocks tonight!”

Donny, The Big Lebowski

The Big Lebowski, broadly speaking, targets the aimless wanderers of our time, but only you can decide if it’s a farce with no meaning, or if its pointlessness is the point. Lebowski is essentially the glorification and romanticisation of a slacker – a loser, and that doesn’t happen enough in film. The Dude’s a holy fool, a divine idiot, “takin’ ’er easy for all us sinners.” He exposes the truth in his own way by subverting conformity, reminding us to go with the flow, and that in a world of unchecked aggression, all we can do is abide.

The Big Lebowski Drinking Game

I scoured the Internet and condensed the impossible mania of its Lebowski drinking games into something not just doable, but personally tested. I sorted the alco-poseurs from the thirty-somethings who don’t want a hangover that’ll cave their skull in for three days. There’s none of that “drink every time someone says, ‘man,’ or ‘dude,’ because it’s simply not enjoyable. This is a reasonably sensible, manageable version that doesn’t involve you pickling your liver.

I selected the traditional White Russian (albeit a smidge weaker than the vodka-heavy Dude version) as it’s clearly the only way forward (unless you’re an oat soda guy or gal). To annoy mixologists everywhere, I chose to muddle mine with a straw. I probably put on half a stone, but it was worth it. I conservatively breezed through three beverages over the two-hour running time and it left me nicely merry. This is not a pissing contest, or a getting pissed contest; it’s a comfy night in.

Sip, yes, sip your White Russian, El Duderino-style, when…

  • Someone bowls a strike
  • The Dude refers to himself in the third person e.g. Dude, His Dudeness, Duder, etc.
  • The Dude drinks a White Russian
  • The Dude does a “J”
  • The Dude’s rug is micturated upon
  • Brandt squirms or laughs nervously
  • Walter says, “Shut the fuck up, Donny”
  • Walter invokes Vietnam
  • Walter mentions converting to Judaism e.g. “shomer Shabbos”
  • The Dude dreams
  • Flea!
  • Nudity
  • Someone says, “goldbricker”
  • Donny’s ashes are scattered

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