The history and meaning of The Dude's abiding

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BY EMILY BOUDREAU
Daily Arts Writer
Published September 9, 2010

Sometimes, there’s a man for his time and place. And that's The Dude. Sometimes, well, there’s a movie for a time and place. And that’s “The Big Lebowski.” When the film was first released, it wasn’t particularly well received. Many critics deemed it the worst of the Coen Brothers’ movies and said it would soon be forgotten — which is a perfectly understandable reaction. Face it. It’s a really weird movie about a pothead named Jeffery “The Dude” Lebowski who gets mistaken for a millionaire with the same name. Obviously, this ends in The Dude’s rug getting peed on. Since the rug really tied the room together and that sort of aggression will not stand, The Dude investigates and encounters a host of memorable characters.

While the quirks of the cast do help "Lebowski" withstand the test of time, I’d argue there’s more to it than that. With the cult following the film has, there must be. The film really means something to the masses of fans who attend midnight screenings and do some hardcore bowling. White Russians have never been so popular and bathrobes have never been so stylish.

In order to understand the attraction and significance of the film, “The Big Lebowski” must be understood as a quintessentially American movie. It takes place against the backdrop of the Gulf War, which was arguably partially fought as an attempt to heal the wounds years after Vietnam — to reconstruct a new identity of a victorious nation. “The Big Lebowski” struggles to reconstruct the identity of the American populous after Vietnam.

Rather than forging a completely new identity, "The Big Lebowski" creates one out of tired icons from America's past. The movie is nothing if not nostalgic. The favorite pastime of The Dude and his cohorts is bowling, a relic of the idyllic '50s and '60s. The Dude has a picture of a bowling President Nixon in his living room, a relic of a less cynical America. “The Big Lebowski” takes place in Los Angeles, which was, for many years, the exalted final frontier of manifest destiny. The narrator is a cowboy — Hollywood’s traditional, masculine hero.

In this case, however, the cowboy is not the hero of this film. He seems to be lost and hollow, as do many of the film’s elements. The bowling alley is kind of sketchy. The Los Angeles portrayed in the film is not “The City of Angels” but rather a collection of characters from the underground, ranging from juvenile delinquents to porn directors. The Dude’s friend Walter is a neo-conservative Vietnam veteran who is by no means an exemplary citizen. Jesus is a pederast in a purple jumpsuit. The Dude’s time is one in which nothing is sacred.

And nothing in that time deserved to be treated as sacred. Any character who's supposed to mean something — to have done something for America — is exposed as a phony and a failure. Lebowski the millionaire didn't really make his own millions. The Dude himself was a hippie who wanted to make change and spent his college years occupying various administration buildings. One of the German Nihilists cuts off her toe for a million dollars. Between the Vietnam years and the world of Lebowski, something in America was lost. A tradition was broken and it became easier to abide than to act.

It's easier not to act because no one wants to be exposed as a phony and a failure, and that fear of exposure drives "Lebowski." As a who-done-it film investigating the darker side of an American nature, “The Big Lebowski” falls into the tradition of a film noir. Noirs were often channels of fear during the Depression and World War II years in American cinema. Yet “The Big Lebowski” was released at a time when there seemed to be little to fear. In fact, the whole film mocks the idea of fear — the bad guys are just nihilists. Even death is a bit of a farce as Donny’s ashes are placed in a Folger’s coffee can and dumped somewhat anticlimactically into the Pacific Ocean. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe there’s a reason why a ridiculous noir like “The Big Lebowski” still resonates today. Perhaps there is something to fear and worry about if we are living in a society where everything is completely devoid of meaning.

I find the irreverence and in some sense, anger, of “The Big Lebowski” to be perfectly justified and part of why it’s so popular. For one thing, the Dude’s time and our time are remarkably similar. Granted, it’s only been about twenty years but we're engaging new enemies in the Middle East in wars that are hard to make a whole lot of sense out of. The war in Iraq has often been titled the next Vietnam. But the thing is, none of it is about Vietnam (as much as Walter would like to believe it is) — not bowling and not even that war in the Middle East.

The Dude is the man for his time. He’s not a hero exactly, but he does make people realize that no country and no people can construct an identity if each generation is growing up under the shadow of the kitschy stars of a romanticized bowling alley. But the movie does construct an identity and a sense of a community because it teaches us to laugh at the mistakes of the past. After all, the human comedy does keep perpetuating itself.

The Coen Brothers are trying to analyze the direction the human comedy has taken in the years since the Vietnam War and what they have to say in their film doesn’t seem to be entirely pleasant or hopeful. But in a time where nothing is as it seems, corruption is to be expected, and cynicism is the norm, the best thing to do is probably just to abide and know the dude is out there, taking it easy.