Like many Coen Brothers films, The Big Lebowski has become more popular over the years. Where once zeitgeist grabbing films like The English Patient or Dances with Wolves have faded from the national conversation, The Big Lebowski has proven to be remarkably enduring. Some say that the film endures because it lovingly tributes classic noir films. Others cite the unique characters and easily quotable dialogue. However, for many viewers the film represents a radical refutation of the value of the American Dream. The American Dream is the belief that an individual can start with nothing, work hard and eventually enjoy the wealth of a family and home. Often the American Dream involves several markers of success per the capitalist market economy including a six figure salary career, a house in the suburbs, a car and the purchasing power to buy as many things as one desires. Due to the Calvinist origins of American capitalism, the American Dream also requires that the individual be judged on their adherence to the Protestant Work Ethic.
By contrast, the protagonist of The Big Lebowski owns next to nothing, is late on his rent and dresses slovenly without ambition past replacing his rug. This lifestyle becomes even more pronounced when he enters a narrative derived from The Big Sleep, a noir classic involving kidnappings, corrupted wealth, gangsters and femme fatales. The Dude navigates these tropes with a combination of anxiety and casual drinking, leading to an ending where nothing is lost or won in sharp contrast to the American Dream where the goal is perpetual financial growth. Ultimately, the film’s theme is best stated in two lines of dialogue – “The Dude abides” and “Fuck it Dude. Let’s go bowling.”
The American Dream and the Protestant Work Ethic
One of the most enduring myths in American history is the myth of the Mayflower where dozens of Puritans fled religious prosecution in England and found their own colony. The original colonists braved weather, deprivation and disease in order to build colonies into cities and then states that would one day break away from the British Empire and merge into a united nation. This mythology would take on the aspect of upward mobility as Manifest Destiny became the major cultural force in American discourse. Radical individualism would also become embedded in the American culture with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “On Self-Reliance” where he writes “Then again, do not tell me, as a good man did today, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor?” (17). Ralph Waldo Emerson has become a precursor to every politician who has placed personal responsibility and individualism over helping others and social concerns.
When the culture combines radical individualism with the myth of hard work leading to upward mobility, the Protestant Work Ethic becomes an integral part of American capitalism. This then leads to the American Dream where everyone should become wealthy by relying on their own hard work without relying on charity. When Max Weber wrote about American capitalism, he traced its origins to the Calvinists who forbade wasteful spending and encouraged sober work. According to Weber “The only way of living acceptably to God was not to surpass worldly morality in monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfilment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling.” (40).
One can see references to the Protestant Work Ethic in modern political discourse where tax reform, immigration, health care and welfare are judged through the lens of work. Often immigration debate can get hung up on the perceived laziness of an immigrant group. Proponents of the Protestant Work Ethic “are generally unsympathetic toward out-groups, believing that they should be able to ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’ and overcome social inequality without the need for social welfare programs.” (Matsuo et al 4).
Within the context of a culture that values the Protestant Work Ethic, one of the greatest insults is lazy. Other insults include coward and loser. The first confrontation between Jeff Lebowski (The Dude) and Jeff Lebowski the millionaire philanthropist ends with the millionaire calling The Dude a loser and crowing about how the bums lost. One of the most scathing contemporary reviews of the film came from Richard Alleva who cited this scene as particularly troubling and that “the stage seems set for the Dude not only to rescue the trophy wife but – as the representative of one decade taking revenge on the beneficiary of a later one – to turn the tables on his crass employer” (23). The failure of the movie to fulfill Alleva’s expectations earned it a scathing review. Richard Alleva was so influenced by the Protestant Work Ethic that he could not conceive of a movie where a character is not only failing to live up to the standard but resisting. However, the same aspect of the film that earned it condemnations also rendered it into a classic. In an increasingly anxious society where Americans are judged by their ability to work and make money, the Dude will not chase the American Dream. The American Dream which is supposedly the culmination of the Protestant Work Ethic. You work hard. You pull yourself up by your bootstraps and your descendants can be in a better place than your life. However, anxiety over the American Dream’s relationship to work has become a prime concern in modern discourse. “It really is getting harder to move up in America. Those who make very little money in their first jobs will probably still be making very little decades later, and those who start off making middle-class wages have similarly limited paths.” (Semuels). As Americans are working harder than before and not seeing results, the Dude counters this anxiety by simply not caring about either his position in the social strata or the tenets of the Protestant Work Ethic. There are several aspects of this movie where the Dude’s decisions prove that he has dropped out of the American Dream.
The first voice in the film is credited as “The Stranger” who serves as the narrator at the beginning and the end of the movie as well as interacting with the Dude twice in the bowling alley. The Stranger serves as the omniscient narrator, which might be in keeping with the novel The Big Sleep which begins with Philip Marlowe describing his clothing before explaining that he was chasing a million dollars. The Raymond Chandler novel also ends with Philip Marlowe giving over the theme which is that death is coming for us all – “You were dead, you were sleeping the big sleep, you were not bothered by things like that. Oil and water were the same as wind and air to you. You just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how you died or where you fell” (230).
These narrative asides were included in the 1978 Michael Winner adaptation with Robert Mitchum; however, the Howard Hawks 1946 adaptation chose to eliminate the narration and the Howard Hawks version is widely considered the classic. By including the narrator into the film, the Coen Brothers are re-introducing the voiceover and placing The Big Lebowski in the context of an adaptation of the novel instead of a remake of the original film. In the novel, Philip Marlowe’s narration begins with a description of a detective dressing well in order to chase after money and ends with rumination on the inevitability of death. The Coen Brothers retains this narrative trope but through the use of a stranger played by Sam Neill who takes on the role of The Dude’s alter ego and narrator.
The first shot in the movie is a tracking shot over desert ground and before the narrator can speak, the Gene Autrey classic “Tumbling Tumbleweed” plays over the soundtrack. The camera moves closely to the ground as the scene grows dark. The narrator introduces Jeff Lebowski in a manner that makes Lebowski sound like a legendary hero “Way out west there was this fellow that I want to tell you about. Fellow by the name of Jeff Lebowski…this Lebowski he called himself the dude” (The Big Lebowski). As the narrator states that he doesn’t understand a lot about the Dude, the scene has transitioned to the night and just as the song comes to the line about “tumbling tumbleweeds”, the camera tilts up on a tumbleweed as it rolls off of a cliff. Then the camera continues to tilt up to show the city of Los Angeles in freeze frame.
The scene cuts to a close-up of that same tumbleweed rolling down the sidewalk as the camera pans along with its journey through Los Angeles. As the narrator talks and the music plays, the tumbleweed goes through a montage of movements through Los Angeles until it ends up on a beach and slowly moves toward the waves. The camera pulls out and then cuts to a scene in a grocery store in the same long shot that then slowly creeps to a low angle medium shot of the Dude opening a carton of milk and sniffing it for its contents. He is wearing a bathrobe, sunglasses, white t-shirt, sandles and shorts. The narrator calls him lazy but then keeps repeating “sometimes there’s a man” until he loses his train of thought and gives the dialogue over the George Bush on the television giving the famous “this aggression will not stand” speech concerning Iraq. The song continues to play as the Dude arrives home, opens the door and then closes it on blackness. This entire sequence sets the entire tone of the movie where Jeff Lebowski is on full display. The closing of the door to blackness serves as a shock cut to the next scene as the light comes up and The Dude is bullied by home invaders who mistake him for the other Jeff Lebowski. In contrast to the tumbleweed narrated scene, this scene is full of Dutch angles and close-up shots of the Dude’s head in the toilet. The setting has been established and the rest of the narrative becomes an effort to return to that setting.
The Stranger comes in the middle of the movie as the Dude is at his lowest point. As far as he knows, he has lost the money that he was supposed to give to Bunny’s kidnappers. Bunny’s kidnappers have cut off her toe. His car has been stolen and trashed. The kidnappers are threatening to castrate him. After sending Walter and Donny away, the Dude orders another White Russian and the camera tightens in on The Dude as the tumbling tumbleweed music starts playing. The Dude looks puzzled as if he hears the music and then the camera pulls out to a medium shot to reveal the Stranger. The conversation is brief. The Stranger behaves like an old fashioned cowboy from the Gene Autry movies, ordering a sarsaparilla and asking the Dude why he has to use so many cuss words. He also imparts the wisdom about how some days you eat the “bar” and some days the “bar” eats you.
This is the center of the movie and from this point on, the Dude’s life gradually improves as he comes to learn that all of the mechanisms of the closing trap are simply not as dangerous as they appear, beginning with Maude Lebowski identifying Bunny’s nihilist kidnapper as her co-star in adult films. It should be noted that in this scene The Dude is wearing an outfit similar to the one in the beginning, only instead of a bathrobe, he is wearing a thick cardigan sweater.
The final scene with the Stranger mirrors the first scene. The camera tracks slowly along empty bowling alleys and the balls and pins process through the mechanical sorters. A slow song plays as one lone bowler rolls the ball. The Dude comes into the frame from an angle and walks to the bar. The camera pans slowly around the Dude and the Stranger who is sitting at the bar. After a short conversation where the Dude repeats the line about eating the bar, he walks out and says the main point of the movie which is “The Dude abides.” He is presented in sharp contrast to Philip Marlowe who begins The Big Sleep going to an appointment with a client. The Dude is wearing a bowling shirt but also shorts.
After the Dude leaves, the Stranger gets a straight close-up and talks about how the Dude abides is a comfort and that the Dude is taking it easy for all us sinners. Just as the Stranger becomes philosophical about the human story across the sands of time, he stops talking and the camera pans to a lone bowler who rolls a strike as the scene fades to the credits and the song continues through at least half of the credits.
The stranger is framing the movie in the same method that Philip Marlowe frames the novel with an introduction and a final discussion of mortality. It appears that the Stranger shares much of Philip Marlowe’s worldview, only the Stranger is relaxed in his approach to the inevitability of death and the need to chase after money. “While Marlowe is driven by some primordial, existential need to understand the criminal conspiracies that characterize his city and his modern moment, the Dude simply “abides,” pleasantly passing his days bowling with his friends Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), an unmoored, divorced Vietnam veteran, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), a passive dimwit” (Hoefer 44).
However, the contrast between Philip Marlowe and the Dude truly comes forth in the relationship that both men have to the millionaire character. The Man in the Wheel Chair
The first scene between the two Jeff Lebowskis exists in dialogue with the first scene in the Howard Hawks version of The Big Sleep. In both movies, the detective meets with a millionaire in a wheel chair and in both cases, the status of the hireling and the millionaire are clearly demarcated with a butler negotiating the differences between the two men. In both cases, a younger woman in the household propositions the detective.
However, these superficial similarities make the contrasts that much more notable. In The Big Sleep, Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe is wearing a suit and even after the millionaire gives him permission to remove it, he leaves it on. Everything he says is stated with the utmost respect and the butler is holding back all emotions and exists solely as a functionary who watches the way that the youngest daughter attempts to seduce Marlowe but does not make a statement.
The placement of the scenes is especially important. In The Big Sleep, the first scene with the handicapped general comes at the very beginning of the movie. In The Big Lebowski the scene comes after the Dude has been beat up by henchmen who pee on his rug. Then the credits come on the screen and there is a montage of bowlers of all body types bowling in slow motion. This montage is in blatant opposition to most stereotypes about Los Angeles as a city of image obsessed fashionable people. Then Walter convinces the Dude to go to the other Lebowski for a replacement rug. Only after all of these items have been filmed does the Dude actually visit the Big Lebowski.
Within the confines of The Big Lebowski, the characters are vastly different. The Dude is led around the room to look at the plagues and the pictures of the wealthy Jeffrey Lebowski posing with various charity cases and Nancy Reagan. Instead of a young woman attempting to seduce the detective, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s butler character is attempting to impress the Dude even as the Dude will not stop touching everything. The first indication that Jeffrey Lebowski is not the rugged individual that he portrays is the mention of Ronald Reagan who was the president who most solidly pushed the narrative of the Protestant Work Ethic even as he was cutting off the American Dream for most Americans. “That President Reagan did not have time to take a picture with Lebowski despite meeting with him privately is the first clue that Lebowski is not what he seems. After all, what politician avoids a photo opportunity?” (Kensky)
When Jeffrey Lebowski enters the scene, the contrasts between the movies cannot be clearer. Instead of being gently led to the room of the man in the wheelchair, the Dude stands there as the man in the wheel chair comes barreling out of the next room and yells at the Dude as the Dude slouches on the Big Lebowski’s chair and attempts to convince him that he should give him a rug. Even though Jeffrey Lebowski is presumably a millionaire deserving of respect, The Dude introduces himself as the Dude in a flaunting of all social conventions. By the time Jeffrey Lebowski is yelling at the Dude for being a failure, the Dude refuses to accept the intimidation and simply puts on his sunglasses and lies to the butler about being told to take another rug to replace his rug.
Upon leaving the house, the Dude runs into Bunny Lebowski who is not the daughter in this adaptation but the trophy wife. She offers him oral sex for $1000 which bemuses the dude but makes the butler played by Philip Seymour Hoffman extremely uncomfortable as the actor gives the most strained smile and laugh as the camera tightens in on his red face. This scene creates the template for every encounter between the Dude and Jeffrey Lebowski as the Dude’s encounter with Bunny demonstrates that the Big Lebowski is a fraud who can’t even keep his wife from outright offering prostitution to house guests.
As the movie continues, the millionaire Lebowski turns out to be a fraud as his money is either an allowance from his daughter or embezzled from the children’ charity. The kidnapping of Bunny becomes an opportunistic scheme for several agents including the nihilists who pretend to kidnap her for ransom money and Jeffrey Lebowski who gives the Dude a briefcase full of bricks in order to keep the money outright. “The inversion of social hierarchies in The Big Lebowski not only works to question the idea that wealth goes to those who work hard or that success is only measured out in dollar signs; a major component is that it can function to assuage fear of enemies, monsters, and the unknown.” (Martin & Reneger 307)
The disrespect that the Dude shows toward Jeffrey Lebowski is constant throughout the movie as he smokes pot in his home, dismisses his “what makes a man” speech and even avoids his phone calls when it appears that Bunny truly has been kidnapped. The unraveling of the Jeffrey Lebowski, however, can only be achieved with the assistance of Walter who is angry where the Dude is casually sarcastic.
Walter is personally angry at everything that Jeffrey Lebowski represents. Many critics state that Walter represents unchecked aggression and military individualism, however, Walter is more ambivalent about war than most critics would believe. Walter frequently references Vietnam, particularly when he states that bowling isn’t Vietnam and there are rules. Walter sees the Big Lebowski as all that is wrong with the country and even though Walter appears to have volunteered for the Vietnam war, he is acutely keen of the role of the wealthy in sending others to war. One of his most powerful outbursts comes after the Dude suggests that Bunny kidnapped herself. At this point it becomes obvious that Walter has PTSD. “Walter’s inappropriately aggressive behavior and distorted beliefs about the world are hallmarks of PTSD.” (Little 198).
Walter is the victim of the American Dream. Even more importantly, Walter is a veteran who has not gotten over the war in Vietnam and continues to fight. “When set within the veteran war film, Walter’s divorce follows the course of other veterans’ lives who return home only to find that they have lost the home they had. “ (Redmon 59)While the Dude purposefully stays away from the American Dream, Walter has an entire background of fighting in Vietnam and this history colors everything that he does. So when Walter joins the Dude in returning to Jeffrey Lebowski’s mansion just as Bunny returns from Las Vegas, Walter is the character who pushes Jeffrey Lebowski out of his wheel chair in a mistaken belief that he is faking his affliction. Dude is the one who supports Walter and saves him from himself. “They are opposites, but they need each other. W alter motivates the Dude to stand up for himself and provides the brawn when diplomacy fails. The Dude keeps W alter from shooting innocent people at their bowling league.” (Little 195). Their friendship is built upon a solid foundation of yelling at each other but they remain friends as shown in the scene after Walter inadvertently inspires a man to smash the Dude’s windshield and the Dude tells Walter to f— off and leave him alone, but then promises to go to bowling league.
The Symbolism of the Car
The fate of the Dude’s car appears to be a running joke as the car is steadily destroyed throughout the film until the nihilists finally burn the car up in a bonfire outside of the bowling alley. David Martin-Jones notes that the Gulf War serves as a subtext to the film as the Gulf War was the most closely associated with oil of all American wars. “This war was but the continuation of an already established cold war policy of military intervention in global affairs designed to keep the American market (and therefore, way of life) stable.” (Martin-Jones 136). David Martin-Jones argues that the Gulf War serves as a metaphor for American expansionism and states that the car’s destruction represents the Dude’s alienation from his own culture.
However, it seems more plausible that the Dude has sacrificed his car to the interaction with the various residents of Los Angeles and his choice to actually work for someone. The car is first seen in the film when the Dude drives Walter home. As Walter and the Dude argue with each other, the sirens are heard over the speakers and the flashing police lights show up in the window behind The Dude. As the Dude speaks to Walter in a relatively static shot, the police run out of the police vehicle and run into the bowling alley. Even though the police are at the bowling alley to arrest Walter for pulling a gun on another bowler in a league championship, neither Walter nor the Dude worries about the police. In fact, Walter’s side of the car can’t even see the lights.
However, once the Dude accepts the role of the ransom carrier, the car becomes a sacrificial victim as Walter’s attempt to switch the money out with his underwear leads to Walter jumping out of the car and shooting it with an uzi. From this point forward, the car receives steadily more abuse as it smashes into a telegraph pole. Teenagers steal the car and when Walter attempts to confront the thief, the car’s windows are smashed. Finally, the nihilists burn it before attacking Walter, Donny and Dude, which leads to Donny’s fatal heart attack.
Martin-Jones states that this car’s fate represents “the Dude’s downward spiral into pedestrianism, his crushing defeat under the wheels of the infinitely replaceable, automobile economy” (145). Yet, the Dude is hardly defeated at the end of the movie. There are only a few scenes between the ultimate destruction of the automobile and the Stranger’s final speech and in almost every scene the Dude is either processing his grief or his friend or declaring that the Dude abides. Frederic Jameson writes that in Raymond Chandler novels “the appearance of the detective breaks the balance, sets the various mechanisms of suspicion ringing, as he crosses the boundary lines, snooping and preparing to make trouble in a way that isn’t yet clear” (24). By the end of The Big Lebowski, almost everything is left intact except for Donny and the one nihilist’s little toe. The major signal to chaos is the car that the Dude needs to lose in order to live a truly free life.
There are two other major vehicles that assert their presence in the movie – the limousine and the Volkswagen. There are technically two limousines in the movie, belonging to the millionaire Jeffrey Lebowski and one belonging to Maude Lebowski. In both limousines, the Dude leans back with his legs apart as he enjoys his drink. Maude’s limo driver brings the Dude back to his home while talking about a rash and as soon as the Dude gets out of one limousine, he is dragged into another limousine where the elder Lebowski yells at him and shows him the dismembered toe. In both cases, the Dude sits in the back of the limousine holding a drink and acting like it’s a couch.
These moments in the back of the limousines underline just how unimpressed the Dude is with the trappings of wealth and privilege. “The Dude is never busy, even when entrusted with making the drop-off. It is as if he has come to terms with his inauthenticity, and this gives him a heightened sense of self. The Dude is perfectly comfortable, therefore, in his own skin.” (Sanyal 16). The Dude stretches out in these limousines and his entire persona is attractive because he never allows the trappings of wealth to impress him.
Even more intriguing is the Volkswagen which follows the Dude. The Volkswagen is one of the most blatant versions of the WWII symbolism that moves throughout the movie. The movie is a loose adaptation of a 1939 that was first adapted into a film in 1946 and WWII is a major undercurrent in both movie and novel. However, this film is purposefully taking place during the Gulf War and frequently reference Vietnam in the form of Walter’s many rants about his buddies dying in the mud.
Yet, WWII does invade the movie as Walter’s Vietnam experience is bolstered by a Jewish identity that angrily asserts his adherence to Shabbos and Theodore Herzl. The German friends who pretend to kidnap Bunny are ostensibly nihilists but they keep taking on the description of Nazis to the point that their band was once called Autobahn. Thus, a Volkswagen that follows the Dude throughout the movie is presented as a threat up until the Dude confronts the driver shortly before the end.
When the driver of the Volkswagen turns out to be a licensed detective who even calls himself a shamus in the same way that Philip Marlowe called himself a shamus, the scene is played for laughs at the shamus detective outright expresses admiration for the Dude for playing the sides off against each other even though he is doing nothing of the kind. The Dude drags the actor out of the car and as he yells at the character, the scene is a straight over the shoulder shot with the back of each actor’s head in reaction. Jazz music plays as this scene ends with Walter picking up the Dude in a van. The scene is played for laughs as the shamus shows the Dude the most depressingly stark black and white photograph of a dilapidated farm stating that this is the photograph that is supposed to make Bunny Lebowski (whose real name is the even more ridiculous Fawn Knutson) feel sentimental and want to return home.
This scene starts out the series of three scenes where the kidnappers are pictured at the restaurant and the camera moves down to one kidnapper’s foot where her toe is missing (thus solving the mystery of the toe) and then the Dude explains the plot to Walter as he is driving his van and they then argue over Walter’s Judaism. The Volkswagen is juxtaposed with Walter proudly declaring that he is living in the past which he characterizes as 3000 years of beautiful tradition from Moses to Sandy Kolfax and then leads into the shot of Bunny’s car in the Lebowski fountain.
There is one last car that the Dude rides in which is the taxicab returning from Jack Treehorn’s house. This is a thirty second scene where a drugged and beaten Dude asks if the cab driver could turn off the radio because he hates the Eagles. The driver throws him out of the cab which does even less for the movie than most of the digressions throughout the narrative.
The Big Lebowski exists in conversation with noir classics and is technically an adaptation of The Big Sleep. Noir has traditionally been a genre that has questioned the underlying assumptions of the American Dream where the wealthy members of society are the most corrupt and the sentimentality is constantly challenged. As a neo-noir film, The Big Lebowski has a much more pointed dispute with the American Dream as the Dude moves through different scenarios with a determined folly as he constantly reaffirms his identity as a bum. His most important contrast is the character of Jeff Lebowski who is the Reagan era millionaire whose wealth is illusory in much the same way that the Reagan economic recovery was based upon false reporting and credit. By the end of the film, both Jeff Lebowski and the Dude are exposed as unremarkable men who are not successful with the American Dream or the Protestant Work Ethic, yet the Dude is the foolish hero who can watch his car burn and still say that the Dude abides.
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