Though unplanned, this appropriately marks the 100th post on this blog. I dedicate it to The Dude. In my comments on the Coen Brothers’ most recent film, Burn After Reading, I mentioned that Coen films seem designed to withstand criticism, especially of the academic sort. These guys are smarter than the vast majority of those who write about them, taking their critics even less seriously than they take most of their films. Of all their films, The Big Lebowski most mercilessly mocks every group of people the Coens can get their hands on in one fell swoop. The mockery is not only well-deserved, but beautiful. Just to get this out of the way, The Big Lebowski is probably the smartest and funniest movie since Dr. Strangelove. It ages like wine, though it presents itself as a cheap White Russian: with vodka sure to produce a headache and half-and-half about to start curdling. And as for The Dude, there has never been anyone like him in the movies.
But despite this aversion to criticism, the dirtiest deeds are those that have to be done. I’ll restrict myself to a single essay on the film in order to keep things manageable. It’s from Todd A. Comer, entitled, “‘This Aggression Will Not Stand’: Myth, War, and Ethics in The Big Lebowski” (SubStance, 34.2 (2005) 98-117). The article’s main weakness is its appeal to the film’s screenplay rather than to the film itself. While it may be easier to interact with a script for quotation and reference purposes, the film itself is both more significant than and much more than the screenplay.
Reference to the works of Raymond Chandler is evident through the title (reminiscent of The Big Sleep), the structure, and the often unmanageable narrative. The Dude’s constant acknowledgment of the complexity of the story (“lots of ins and outs and what-have-you’s”) reiterates the complaints of those trying to comprehend a Chandler novel or its film adaptation. Other similarities include the trophy wife/daughter’s association with a pornographer and that character’s counter in a masculinized or perhaps simply (and ironically) “feminist” woman. (Compare Kitty and Maude in The Big Lebowski with, respectively, Carmen and Vivian in The Big Sleep.) The wheelchair-bound father in the latter film corresponds, too, with the “Big Lebowski” in that film. Most of the similarities function for the greater irony of the film, however. Beyond this point, they serve to illustrate the differences in these films rather than the similarities. For example, the Coens have the young, troubled woman as the trophy wife of the disabled older man, while Chandler/Hawks have her as his younger daughter. When Kitty’s background is finally exposed toward the end of The Big Lebowski, she becomes a daughter- rather than a wife-figure. Here the Coens might have had in mind a throw-back to Polanski’s Chinatown and its incestuous subtext. Clearly the Coens are delving into the noir realm.
On a character level, it doesn’t need to be said that The Dude stands as everything Phillip Marlowe isn’t. Rather than seeking out a mystery to solve, The Dude is lassoed into the chaos. His reluctance to participate in the crisis and his wrongful implication in it by the hands of others ties The Big Lebowski to the western genre. The presence of The Stranger both establishes the western motif and signifies the film’s break with it, as The Stranger is unable to comprehend both the story (one of the most “stupefying” he’s ever observed) and the characters (ditto). So the film stands as a sort of collision of genres. Still, the narrative can function as a western by virtue of its sub-theme of violence. Comer sees this theme confirmed early in the film following The Stranger’s narration. As The Dude writes a 69-cent check at the supermarket counter, a TV text to the clerk features President George (H. W.) Bush giving his famous statement about the (first) invasion of Iraq: “This is a call for collective action…This aggression will not stand against Kuwait.” The Dude echoes Bush’s words after his own apartment is wrongly invaded. Later, Walter pulls a gun on a fellow bowler who, he insists, crossed the line with his foot during a roll. Following that, The Dude and Walter “invade” the home of a boy who had stolen The Dude’s car for the purpose of interrogating him. The Dude’s apartment is invaded at least three times in the film, despite his efforts to remain out of the loop and even barricade his home from unwanted trespassers. Comer does a bit of dubious psychoanalysis of the former President, explaining his invasion of Iraq by associating it with Bush’s experience as a shot-down fighter pilot during WWII. Since the Gulf War had to do with airspace, Comer postulates, it connects nicely with this earlier chapter in Bush’s life and his desire to retaliate against the idea of lost airspace. By regaining Middle East airspace, Bush can regain his loss of pride (or something) from his participation in the earlier war. If the story of George H. W. Bush were a fiction told through film, such correlation might work. Or if Bush were being psychoanalyzed in a professional setting, this theory might be more legitimate. However, if Comer’s intention is simply to illustrate how in the life of Bush the theme of The Big Lebowski functions, the comparison can be taken with a grain of salt. But more on that later.
The Dude himself works neither as a noir character nor as a western character. His almost complete apathy is only usurped at rare junctions by his ambivalence. More than anything, he is annoyed by that which unnecessarily complicates what could otherwise be simple. The Dude is not, however, a stupid character. The Stranger accurately labels him as “lazy,” but The Dude is quick to understand situations, thriving in those moments of epiphany that remind one of Marlowe’s monologues to those who think they’ve gotten away with their crimes. When it comes to action, however, The Dude is a self-proclaimed pacifist. Through most of the film, he has no voice, or what voice he has is silenced midstream by Walter or Maude. His words are the words of others, as seen in his insistence that “this aggression cannot stand,” the words of Bush he heard earlier. He allows Walter to make “sense” of the carpetpissers, less “jumping” on the bandwagon than being thrown onto it. Maude takes advantage of his utterly laid-back nature by changing the subject when it suits her, forcing him to visit a doctor for alterior purposes, and leading him to believe something even when it doesn’t make complete sense to him. In a detective noir, the protagonist often is a professional PI whose fascination with the mystery combines with his own eventual implication in certain aspects of it, though not necessarily criminal aspects. In a western, the protagonist is often forced by moral obligation to don his holster again, despite his reluctance. The Dude’s reluctant involvement (he only wanted to get his rug back) turns into intrigued investigation, though he remains a pawn among forces greater than he.
Comer identifies the nihilists as a third party, positioned opposite the otherwise-opposite positions of pacifism (The Dude) and violence (Walter). Walter’s wonderful critique of nihilism allows him and The Dude to join forces against a common foe (p. 102): “Say what you like about the tenets of national socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.” Comer notes, “For a man who is so stridently Jewish, his horror of nihilism is very telling. It is not the well-defined, immanent subject that horrifies him. It is rather that which cannot be cognized due to its essentially non-metaphysical nature.” As mentioned, Walter’s violence is first seen through his discourse. While The Dude is unlikely to assign meaning to the events that have befallen him, Walter “rationalizes” the events, couching everything into the injustice of his fallen comrades in the Vietnam War. Comer notes the irony in labelling Walter as “rational,” but this is certainly where Walter’s violence is best seen. Obsessed with the “rules” of every game he plays (whether bowling, ‘Nam, or battling the nihilists), Walter snaps when his opponents break the established order. He pulls a gun on a bowling opponent who steps out of bounds, and he rightly complains at having to explain the “rules” of the “game” to the nihilists who have “killed” The Dude’s car because of his refusal to pay a ransom for a non-existant kidnapee. Walter’s adherence to the Torah’s command not to work on the Sabbath leads him to reschedule a bowling match scheduled on a Saturday and almost refuse to help The Dude in peril on the same day. The Dude complains that Walter only converted to Judaism because of his marriage, and he is now divorced. Walter rhetorically asks The Dude if he is supposed to turn in his library card and change his religion simply because he is divorced. When The Dude complains that Walter brought his ex-wife’s Pomeranian bowling, Walter explains that you cannot keep a Pomeranian caged – “It gets upset.” All of the above illustrate Walter’s strict and sometimes blind adherence to rules and his fury unleashed against those who break them. When The Dude tells Walter about the injustice done to his carpet, Walter assigns meaning to the event, consults the established rules of warfare, and convinces The Dude that action must be taken. In so doing, Walter does violence to the narrative (a sort of hermeneutical violence) and eventually physical violence to those who break the rules. Also, Walter’s contempt for nihilists is based on their abandonment of rules, an abandonment that is inconsistent with their actions. After throwing a marmot into The Dude’s bathtub and demanding the ransom for Kitty, they proclaim, “We believe in nothing!”
At the showdown with the nihilists, Donny expresses fear. For the first time in the film, Walter acknowledges and responds to Donny positively: “These men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of.” But when Walter beats up the nihilists, he turns to see Donny in convulsions having a heart attack, apparently unrelated. Donny has stood throughout the film as a sort of nihilism. Through dialogue, Walter violently controls Donny, who threatens Walter by virtue of his confusion. Comer uses Derrida’s concepts of différance and the specter to describe the trauma of Donny’s death (p. 112). Donny functions as the specter, that which is Other and produces trauma in a subject. Trauma occurs when the specter dies and an identification with the Other takes place through myth. Before death, the specter interrupts being-in-common with the subject, producing a threat of identity in the subject. In this case, Donny’s constant interruptions are indicative of a spacing of being-in-common through misunderstanding what Walter and The Dude are discussing. When talking about Lenin, Donny thinks they mean John Lennon, interjecting at multiple points, “I am the walrus?” Walter yells at Donny variously, “Donny, you’re out of your element,” and, “You have no frame of reference. You’re like a child wandering into the middle of a movie…” Walter’s constant ordering of Donny to shutup reflects the threat Donny is to Walter. Walter’s intention to construct an orderly and meaningful narrative is constantly interrupted by Donny’s confusion and lack of intersubjective connection. When Donny dies, as a character he contains meaning for the first time. The scene of his heart attack has Walter paying full attention to Donny, proclaiming, “We have a man down, Dude!” Walter orders The Dude to call for help, explaining that he would do so himself but his bleeding might result in passing out. As The Dude runs inside, Walter assures Donny that there’s help getting “coptered” in. Walter’s application of his Vietnam trauma to Donnie’s crisis not only allows him an outlet for completing his unfinished and unvindicated fighting in ‘Nam, but it allows Walter to assign meaning to Donny the specter. In Donny’s death, the spacing of being-in-common collapses into intersubjectivity. Therefore, when Donny dies, the event is traumatic, necessitating ontologizing through myth, which happens to be Walter’s forté. Comer points out that this ontologizing, or spiritualizing, is what Derrida calls “mourning.” Comer connects Walter’s mourning over Donny, assigning meaning to Donny’s death, to Larry’s lack of mourning over his father’s “death” in the iron lung. Larry’s silence (never speaking a word) juxtaposes with Walter’s incessant speech over Vietnam and, eventually, over Donny. Walter attempts to put Vietnam to rest as he presides over Donny’s funeral through eulogy (discursive power) (pp. 111ff). Comer does not mention, though, that Walter’s failure to put Vietnam to rest in his inner self is reflected in his failure to put Donny to rest, scattering the ashes all over himself and The Dude. Scattering becomes clinging, as Walter cements Donny’s association with them, and his lack of voice and identity.
As alluded to already, the confrontation with Larry marks another moment of invasion and violence. The violence is brought about through a power play between Walter and Larry. Dressed in a suit and unusually personable when greeted at the door, Walter presents Larry’s homework, left in The Dude’s car, as a piece of evidence in a trial. Walter acts as the absolute judge and is miffed when Larry refuses to speak at all. Comer notes that this scene is a violent break with the rest of the film. While the film is characterized by incessant dialogue, Larry’s silence and lack of expression are jarring for both the viewer and (especially) Walter. Walter’s use of courtroom rules have fallen flat, as Larry refuses to play along. The scene also features, in the background and trapped in an iron lung, Larry’s father Arthur Digby Sellers, the author of numerous episodes of the classic television show Branded. Sellers’ “life” in the iron lung is essentially a death, unjust and unrecognized by Larry, at least according to Walter. Death, whether of Walter’s comrades in Vietnam or Donny later in the film, is a psychological violence that deserves recognition through myth, assigned meaning. Comer notes that Walter’s respect for Sellers makes sense based on the show Branded, about a war veteran unjustly stripped of his honors after being implicated in a crime of cowardice. As a survivor of Vietnam, Walter is incapable of forgetting his buddies “who died face-down in the muck” and applies their deaths to every situation he encounters thereafter. When Larry refuses to convey a sense of loss or even a single word or expression, Walter yells, “You’re killing your father, Larry,” a comment that otherwise makes no sense in the film. Comer also points out that Sellers’ nearly comatose state corresponds with the western motif of the film – as Sellers is essentially dead, and unfairly so, so is the western in the context of this film. As Comer states, “The breakdown of the narrative means that the narrative borders have momentarily dissolved and the narrative ‘self’ (and those selves that it limits) has spaced out and into the other. However, this interruption ripples throughout the film. Since the film opens and closes with a famous western actor (The Stranger) it can be seen as Striving toward a traditional cowboy western narrative only to fail because the origin – writer Sellers – lies gasping in an iron lung, incapable of speaking and making his narrative cohere” (p. 109).
Here, too, the theme of immanence or present arises in the film, closely related to the notion of invasion earlier discussed. There is a closing-in-on that takes place throughout the film. Boundaries are crossed and territory conquered, both for good and for bad. Another example is seen through flashback when Walter tells The Dude about the “pederast” moving into a suburban community and having to go door-to-door to inform the neighbors. When Walter and The Dude invade Larry’s space and Donny refuses to cooperate, Walter complains that the kid has “stonewalled” him as he pulls a crowbar out of The Dude’s car and destroys what he believes is Larry’s Corvette. What Walter yells during the beating (which will not be recalled here) further expresses his disdain for unprovoked immanence as he interprets it in Larry. Refer back to Bush’s words at the beginning: “This is a call for collective action…” Comer sees this as “a totalized, supra-subject,” the film’s theme and credo. An injustice has occurred requiring not only action but collective action. And just as (theoretically) Bush’s call for action was based less on an actual necessity for retaliation and rather on a necessity based on past psychological trauma, so Walter assigns meaning to the injustice done to The Dude and demands retaliation based more on his Vietnam trauma than anything else.
In a way, The Big Lebowski is just as nihilistic as the Coens’ other films, but with the difference that it makes fun of nihilists. This difference illustrates that the Coens probably aren’t nihilists, but that they certainly have nihilistic tendences, as anyone who stops and thinks must have. Anti-heroes are usually more interesting than heroes, the proof of which is seen in The Dude and Walter. Oh that we could meet the “little Lebowski” in which The Stranger takes comfort.
PS (10/22): More comment should have been devoted to the use of spoken language as a futile instrument of power. Obviously The Dude’s incessant rambling, almost never finishing a sentence, reflect his overall inability to control anything despite multiple attempts. Walter’s constant diatribes are his attempts to ward off threats, including Donny, who presents a threat by virtue of his silence (as with Larry). That Walter must raise his voice and resort to physical violence demonstrates the inefficacy of his words and the rules they attempt to enforce. Even after pulling the gun at the bowling alley, a message left on The Dude’s answering machine informs him that a formal complaint is being filed that will probably affect their status in the tournament. Donny’s few and seemingly inane comments actually function as a commentary that empties the narrative of any pressing importance. His observation of the Big Lebowski’s name (“That’s your name, Dude”), preference to discuss In-N-Out Burger rather than the nearby place of interest (“Those are good burgers”), and non-rhetorical question of The Dude’s fear of losing his “johnson” (“What do you need that for, Dude?”) all force the other characters as well as the audience to realize the silliness of the story and just how little is at stake. Other examples of incessant and/or loud talking failing to dominate other subjects include Brandt (incessant, but he seems to take a chill pill from The Dude) and the Big Lebowski (loud, and getting louder). Also, nothing has been said here of Jeff Bridges, probably because…what can you say? I’ll refer to a better tribute than I could write, here.