[FoRK] El Duderino
owen at permafrost.net
Sun Aug 8 15:41:01 PDT 2004
Just so happens I was complaining about being kept up late by this last
night. I guess I'm part of the cult - where's my caucasian?
CULT gives its members license to feel superior to the rest of the
universe, and so does a cult movie: it confers hipness on those who grok
what the mainstream audience can't. Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998
hyperintellectual stoner noir bowling comedy "The Big Lebowski,"
starring Jeff Bridges as Jeff (The Dude) Lebowski, has the requisite
exclusivity of a cult classic: it bombed at the box office; it was met
with shrugs by many critics who had arguably overpraised the Coen
brothers' Academy Award-winning "Fargo"
(1996); and it has amassed an obsessive following on cable and video and
by word of mouth. Nowadays, quoting its intricate, absurdist, often
riotously profane dialogue earns you coolness points in widely disparate
circles. Some would even say that the cult of "The Big Lebowski" is
It has a rolling national convention, for starters: the Lebowski Fest,
which in June attracted 4,000 followers in Louisville, Ky., and on
Friday arrives in New York City. For two days, Lebowski fans (referred
to as Achievers) will dress up as their favorite character (or prop,
like a severed toe), dig some far-out rock bands at the Knitting
Factory, bowl in far-out Queens, imbibe White Russians (and maybe less
licit substances) and spend a lot of time shouting lines at one another
"This aggression will not stand, man."
"You're entering a world of pain."
"You want a toe? I can get you a toe. Believe me, there are ways, Dude.
You don't want to know about it, believe me. Hell, I can get you a toe
by 3 o'clock this afternoon, with nail polish."
And, of course, the Zen-like sign-off, "The Dude abides."
I suspect this will all grow old pretty quickly and I plan to be at home
those nights with my pet marmot. But the festival offers a superb
opportunity to celebrate "The Big Lebowski" for being not "Fargo" but
one of filmdom's most inspired farragos — a monumentally disjunctive
text that is much more fun to savor a second, third and tenth time, when
all one's petty-bourgeois narrative concerns have dissipated like so
much marijuana smoke.
The central joke — the raison d'être — of "The Big Lebowski" is a
disjunction. The Coens take a disheveled stoner layabout, the former
60's activist the Dude — seen mostly in baggy shorts, sandals, an
oversize T-shirt through which his gut is visible, often sucking a
joint, mixing a white Russian or lying on his rug with headphones
listening to bowling competitions or whale songs — and make him the
gumshoe protagonist of a convoluted Raymond Chandler-style Los Angeles
mystery-thriller in the tradition of "The Big Sleep."
Robert Altman took steps in this direction in his masterly version of
"The Long Goodbye"
(1973), but he stuck to the outlines of Chandler's story. The joke of
"The Big Lebowski" is that the kidnapping mystery, such as it is, turns
out to be a nonstarter.
And so, of course, is the hero, which is why the Coens have paired him
with Walter (John Goodman), a hothead Vietnam vet paranoiac with a
tendency to wave his gun around over small slights, explaining that he
did not watch his buddies "die facedown in the muck" to be, for example,
asked to keep his voice down in a diner. It is Walter's sense of outrage
that compels the Dude to seek payment for a rug that has been urinated
on by goons who seek another Lebowski, the big one, a disabled rich
Republican whose ex-porn-actress hottie wife owes money to a smut king,
and whose daughter, an arty feminist splatter painter — you see: it's
exhausting just getting a handle on the dramatis personae, and I haven't
even mentioned the band of German nihilists and their savage marmot, or
the purring cowboy narrator who inexplicably shows up in an L.A. bowling
alley to order sarsaparilla and tell the Dude, "I like yer style, Dude."
As the Dude himself puts it: "This is a complicated case, Maude. A lot
of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous, a lot of strands to keep
in my head, man. Lot of strands in old Duder's head."
But if "The Big Lebowski" is in the tradition of scattershot druggy
comedies (represented in theaters at the moment by "Harold and Kumar Go
to White Castle"
it is also the work of disciplined — not to mention show-offy —
aesthetes. In virtuoso sequences, the Coens eroticize the sport of fat
men, the only sport in which one gains weight, with pins that do sultry,
slow-motion sambas and a hooded ball return that's like a mysterious
feminine canal. They stage a surreal Freudian Busby Berkeleyish dream
sequence in which the Dude wraps his manly arms around a helmeted
Valkyrie (Julianne Moore, with golden bowling-ball breastplates) and
thrusts his bowling ball heavenward, the Mighty Thor of Brunswick Lanes.
The Coens turned down requests to be interviewed about the cult of "The
Big Lebowski," which is frankly infuriating: I did not watch my buddies
die facedown in the muck to be blown off by too-cool, insular,
Fortunately, Jeff Dowd will talk. He's a 54-year-old producer, writer
and producer's representative who was the inspiration for the Dude, and
who actually goes by the name the Dude, showing up at Lebowski festivals
(he is scheduled to be in New York) and signing autographs with "The
Dude Abides." The festival's co-organizer Will Russell said that the
Dude can drink people a third of his age under the table. "The guy, man,
is a party machine," Mr. Russell said.
"Jeff Bridges only hung out with me once," said the Dude, by phone from
Los Angeles."But the body language is, like, 110 percent real, the
slouch, all the physicality. My daughter said, `Daddy, where did they
get your clothes?' " The Dude is thrilled to have had his fictional
counterpart named the 53rd best movie character ever by Premiere
magazine — ahead, he pointed out, of Stanley Kowalski, Rocky, Sam Spade,
Tony Manero of "Saturday Night Fever"
and even George Bailey of "It's a Wonderful Life."
But he wanted to add that the Dude of "The Big Lebowski" was
short-lived. Although the movie is set in the 90's — when George H. W.
Bush was telling Saddam Hussein, "This aggression will not stand" — the
Dude depicted is the Dude of the late 70's and 80's, when the ideals of
his beloved counterculture seemed dead. Nowadays, the real Dude is back
in the saddle. He's registering Lebowski fest attendees to vote, and
vowed to deliver a gift basket to the Republican National Convention
containing (according to his news release) "symbolic gifts including an
oversize pair of glasses to help the Republicans see what's going on in
our country, a copy of the Constitution to remind them of our rights as
free citizens and a bowling ball so they will have something to do for
the next four years."
He added: "The Lebowski festival is the tip of the iceberg. It's
remarkable how many people from different walks of life see this movie
again and again. Not just potheads. There was a Wall Street guy I met
who'd drop a `Lebowski' line into job interviews and if the person
didn't pick up on it he wouldn't be hired. I met this commander of a
military base. He said they watch the movie down there in the missile
silo two or three times a week."
It makes one feel safer already.
Mr. Dude — er, Dowd — likened the Coens to Jonathan Swift and Mark
Twain. They are, he said, social satirists for the age. "People like
that the Dude is a guy who is not allowing himself to become a corporate
cog," he said. "So even if they are corporate cogs, they can live
Like I said: mainstream.
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