The Big Lebowski is such a legendary movie that it’s almost embarrassing to admit this is the first time I’ve watched it. It possesses all the accoutrements proper to a cult film: sold-out repertory screenings, enthusiasts quoting large contiguous chunks of dialogue at each other, multiple regular fan conventions, and a central character who has been absorbed by global culture far beyond the boundaries of the picture itself. Although this was the first time I had actually met Jeff Bridges’s Dude, I already knew a lot about the character. I knew that ‘the Dude abides’ (boy does he ever, this flick is over twenty years old now!). I knew aspects of his attitude as encoded in other widely repeated lines, such as ‘this aggression will not stand, man’, ‘careful, man, there’s a beverage here’, and ‘I’m the Dude, so that’s what you call me. That or, uh His Dudeness, or uh Duder, or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing’.
In fact, this universal yet specific being has permeated so deeply into the warp and weft of our world, that I knew people who were modelling themselves on The Dude in the mid 1980s. This is a cultural trope whose meanings were in forlorn circulation for decades before the signifier emerged to contain and unify them, in much the way that a well-chosen rug can tie a room together. As Gene Wolfe’s narrator pointed out in The Book of the New Sun, it is often symbols that make us, not the other way round.
The Dude is clearly the heart of this film: The Big Lebowski is a film about The Dude. In fact, whatever else it may appear to be about at any given moment is likely to have evaporated or petered out by the time it reaches its lack of a denouement. If anything, I was surprised by how restrained The Dude is, as a portrayal, since my introduction to the character has been through the abstraction and public re-reproduction of his most striking features—a kind of crowd-sourced caricature of a caricature. And with this archetypal slacker everyman at its core, this deity of drop-outs, this mythical contrarian, I was surprised that the movie contains other characters just as strongly drawn. Everyone here is a caricature, but nobody is schematic or generic, and it turns out that most of the idiosyncrasies with which these characters are equipped are based directly on those belonging to the Coen Brothers’ personal acquaintances.
Foremost among these is John Goodman’s Walter Sobchak, who initially appears to be the fairly straightforward type of a neo-con gun-nut—although clearly one who is willing to hang out with a hippy like The Dude. This is the most non-John-Goodman-like character I’ve seen Goodman play, swapping his usual big-guy charisma for needy, angry awkwardness, a transition perfectly summarised in his flat-top, his chinstrap beard and his yellow-tinted glasses. He’s also an observant convert to Judaism, which is an odd choice for a character like him, but that’s point: every character is drawn like a cartoon in this picture, but every one of them is equally something more than ‘a character like that’. He’s based directly on a screenwriter that the Coens knew, grounded in reality, like much else in this ostensibly fantastical movie.
When Julianne Moore’s character is introduced painting by hurling paint at a canvas while suspended naked from a swing, she is simply reproducing an artistic practice of Carolee Schneemann’s. Her entire persona as an art-world feminist, in a caricature which teeters on the edge of devaluing some important subject positions, is actually quite plausible in most of its particulars: it’s the delivery that’s comedic. This is a consistent facet of much of the film’s satire, which is very precisely pitched at a point which I initially had some trouble putting my finger on. The way the picture presents David Huddleston’s pompous philanthropist, a gang of German nihilists, a porn producer and his hired thugs, is all articulated from The Dude’s perspective. This is how he sees the world. He is, in effect, the narrator.
We are put off the scent, as is the Coens’ wont, by the presence of a literal narrator, a moustachioed cowboy portrayed by Sam Elliot, initially in voice-over, and later in conversation with The Dude and direct address to the camera. His southern drawl contrasts with Bridges’s California stoner deadpan, which further distracts us from noticing that many of his lines could have been written for The Dude—right down to forgetting the point of what he’s saying when he introduces him. The Big Lebowski generally seems to be understood as quite a straightforward film, but the more I think about it, the more narrative games I can see, being played on more and more levels.
Elliot’s voice-over is also an obvious reference to the kind of film on which the Coens modelled their plotting, the many classic adaptations of Raymond Chandler stories. Roger Ebert called Howard Hawks’s 1946 The Big Sleep a picture about the ‘process of a criminal investigation, not its results’, and that’s a good summary of the approach in The Big Lebowski—is anyone still naïve enough to think the similarity in the titles is a coincidence? The plot is convoluted, involving several of its characters in attempting to resolve a number of conundrums from different angles, and at the conclusion of the flick it’s quite apparent that none of it really mattered.
In fact, nobody resolves anything: an explanation just emerges. And although The Dude does work out what’s going on, and identify the site of a fundamental deception, it doesn’t do him any good. Throughout the movie things just happen to him, and the denouement is that he ends up exactly where he started. The only time he’s actually proactive is the point at which he sets the whole chain of events in motion, and he spends the rest of the story trying to escape the consequences of his unwonted intervention. None of the other characters fit the structural narrative roles of opponents or allies, because he isn’t trying to do anything, and he achieves nothing. He is berated for his lack of achievement by his namesake at the start, but it becomes clear that this is his principal virtue.
There is a lot more to talk about in this picture. There are an awful lot of details, with some extraordinary incidental characters (John Turturro’s pervert bowler is a doozy), and there are an awful lot of layers to the narrative. The visual design and cinematography are, as always, exemplary—and significant contributors to the overall thrust (or lack of thrust) of this cinematic utterance. However, this is a personal essay, and to say anything more in a meaningful way would entail actual scholarship (which is no fun at all). I came to The Big Lebowski expecting to see a relatively straightforward comedy elevated primarily by its cleverness, its stylishness, and its charismatic performances: I expected this because that’s what its reputation is. By the time I’d had a day to reflect, I realised I’d seen an extremely complex and tricksy flick, full of doublings, narrative subterfuge, and multilayered significance. It’s as sharp, as manically inventive and as reflexively deceptive as The Dude isn’t.