A bowling alley. A severed toe sporting a neatly polished nail. An aging hippie and his best friend, a Vietnam War veteran with a hair-trigger temper.
If those images don't add up to anything for you, feel free to flip the page. If they do, it means you're familiar — perhaps intimately so — with one of the most analyzed, deconstructed and eclectically interpreted films of recent decades: The Big Lebowski.
Joel and Ethan Coen's subversive comedy, in which a slovenly slacker (Jeff Bridges) in modern-day L.A. gets caught up in a convoluted kidnapping case, was neither a critical nor a popular success when it was released in 1998. But it gradually became a cult classic, attracting a large, committed group of followers — including more than a few academics.
In anticipation of the 10th annual Lebowski Fest, a gathering of fans taking place July 15 and 16 in Louisville, Ky., we decided to pour ourselves a white Russian and peruse some of the scholarly papers the film has inspired. Probably by design, it's impossible to get a firm handle on The Big Lebowski, but there's value in tracing its disparate thematic threads and discovering the patterns they create. Think of it as research that ties the room together.
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Twenty-one essays inspired by the film are included in the drolly titled This Year's Work in Lebowski Studies, a 2009 collection edited by Edward Comentale and Aaron Jaffe. "We can't claim with any assurance that Lebowski is a work of art," they write in their introduction. But they go on to compare it to the classic films of Luis Buñuel and Man Ray in its "liberating irrationalism" and celebration of the "surrealism of everyday life."
Like, whatever, man. But why is the film, which often has a stream-of-consciousness feel (and not only during its dream sequences), catnip to so many right-brained academics? The central character of Jeff Lebowski, aka The Dude, has been referenced in recent papers on "the interplay between genetic and demographic structuring" (in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution) and "systematic gene identifiers" (in Trends in Parasitology, which is not generally known for its cutting-edge take on pop culture).
Grasping to explain this appeal, Comentale and Jaffe point to a minor character in the film: "The Stranger," portrayed by Sam Elliott, a veteran of numerous Westerns. Dressed in traditional cowboy garb, he emerges occasionally to provide background information, analysis and commentary. In their words, "he just points at something interestin' and gently nods" — a watch-and-learn stance that is the foundation of academic research. The Dude abides, but The Stranger annotates.
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Although its political message is far from overt, The Big Lebowski is a highly subversive film. At least, that's what Paul "Pablo" Martin of Grossmont College and Valerie Renegar of San Diego State University argue in a 2007 article in the journal Communication Studies. Referencing the work of Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, they call the film an example of "carnivalesque humor," a genre that encourages audiences to "reflect on, and ultimately reject, their fears of power, law and the sacred." This particular type of surrealism, they write, features grotesque situations, inverted hierarchies and "structural and grammatical experimentation."
All three elements can be found in abundance in the film, which features multiple dismembered body parts, an outwardly wealthy and successful character who turns out to be neither, and an "intentionally confused" plot interrupted by occasional dream sequences. "From the disjointed opening scenes through its anticlimactic denouement, the film pushes viewers to be aware of the constructed nature of society," Martin and Renegar write. In this way, they add, it "encourages viewers to question the norms upon which we base our lives."
In their short book The Big Lebowski, Stanford University's J.M. Tyree and journalist Ben Walters pick up on that point, noting that the film specifically subverts traditional notions of masculinity. Set in 1991, just as President Bush ("I am not a wimp") was leading the nation into war, the film celebrates the habitual passivity of The Dude, whom they note is "consistently averse to confrontation."
In contrast, his best friend Walter, played by John Goodman, has "a line-in-the-sand mentality of picking fights over the broaching of more or less arbitrary boundaries and working himself up into apoplexy simply to prove his intransigence." In other words, he represents a cultural type we've seen more and more of in the years since the film's release — a '60s icon who feels awfully familiar to anyone who watches current-day cable news.
Tyree and Walters note the term "dude" was coined in the 1870s "to denote a man conspicuously concerned with look and dress." While admitting that hardly describes the disheveled Jeff Lebowski, they add that the term traditionally had "pejorative connotations of effeteness."
So a "dude" wasn't a "real man." For traditionalists, the same can be said of The Dude, who has no interest in power, influence or conquest. "Excused from the tired, vain, arbitrary business of being a man," Tyree and Walters write, "he can concentrate instead on being human." And, of course, on his bowling game.
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Andrew Rabin of the University of Louisville, a scholar of medieval literature, makes the case that The Big Lebowski is a funhouse-mirror version of one of the oldest of all stories — the quest for the Holy Grail. (The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam's cinematic update of the grail legend, was released in 1991, the year The Big Lebowski is set. Coincidentally, or not, it also starred Jeff Bridges.) In this interpretation, The Dude's living-room rug (the soiling of which sets the story into motion) is the Holy Grail being sought by three "knights" — The Dude, Walter and their quiet, innocent friend Donny. And the bowling alley where they hang out is, well, sort of a temple.
"As bowlers, Lebowski's Grail knights seek to master a game which idealizes repetitive, cyclical movement in a confined, constructed and utterly controllable environment," Rabin writes. "Bowling offers them an escape into a predictable world isolated from the chaotic nihilism of late-20th-century culture." (An adversarial fellow bowler is named Jesus, although in a typically dark joke, his temperament is less than saintly; with his long hair and beard, it's The Dude who actually has a Christ-like look.)
Their quest plunges the trio into the wider world; as Rabin notes, "Los Angeles stands in for the medieval wasteland," and quite convincingly at that. They find deception, duplicity and manipulation — everything The Dude protested against in the 1960s. The ultimate aging hippie, he may want to stay pure and unsullied by withdrawing from society, but his quest is a futile one; we're all captives of our era. Looking at the film through this lens, The Big Lebowski is to George H.W. Bush what Camelot was to John F. Kennedy.