The incipient cult of The Big Lebowski was forming before I even saw the movie, and I saw it fairly early on, two or three weeks after its release. I didn’t recognise the signs at the time, but they were there to be read in retrospect — friends badgering me to see it, quoting lines of dialogue to me, bragging that they’d already gone back to see it again. I was primed to join in myself. These were friends I respected, whose movie tastes I generally shared.
Thanks to its fans and their continuing ardor, in the 25 years since its release, The Big Lebowski has generated a vast cultural legacy, catchphrases taken from the dialogue and conveyed to us via coffee mugs and t-shirts. It’s inspired para-academic books and articles on the movie’s philosophy, at least one Lebowski-based religion, and at least two undying Reddit threads. All based on what? After an evening of bowling, lazy stoner and ex-hippie Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) — known universally as “the Dude” — is assaulted in his apartment by two goons. The goons demand that the Dude pay back some money his wife borrowed, or else. You’ve got the wrong Lebowski, the Dude protests. The Dude is a bachelor. In a fateful insult, one of the goons pisses on his living room rug.
Seeking compensation for his pissed-on rug, the Dude visits the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the “Big” Lebowski the goons were really looking for. This Lebowski is a wealthy paraplegic with a young and profligate trophy wife named Bunny (Tara Reid). From the Lebowski mansion the Dude takes a replacement rug — and thereby stumbles into a Humphrey Bogart movie (proximately The Big Sleep). There’s conflict in a rich family, a kidnapping subplot, a pair of seductive heiresses, cars following other cars, and the dogged hero getting punched and then drugged unconscious. The Dude is forced into the Philip Marlowe role, which he plays at his own ambling speed, wearing a bathrobe most of the time.
And, from the very start of my first viewing, I could see that the Coen brothers were doing something that was right up my alley, philosophically speaking. I’d spent enough time tethered to Theodor Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory to be — perhaps in the manner of Stockholm Syndrome — persuaded by it. Adorno speaks the language of Marx and Hegel in that book, but he’s basically updating Immanuel Kant’s aesthetic theory for “late capitalism”, and I was already a huge fan Kant’s aesthetics, and I was a young academic at the time. You can do the math.
And this was much more than a mere detective story, or much different. The Coens, as I said, were doing playful things with their storytelling that put me in mind of Adorno — taking the expectations of the detective plot and messing with them, letting the narrative momentum build up and then stopping it dead with whimsical digressions, antic speeches, absurd details lingered over for many seconds. Within the aesthetic form of the detective story they were carving out smaller, subordinate forms, immanent forms, a grad student might say.
But at some point I realised that — despite this philosophical thrill I speak of — I wasn’t enjoying The Big Lebowski very much. With some chagrin, I also realised that it was precisely the narrative moves I was so philosophically taken with that were setting my teeth on edge. Apparently I like narrative momentum in a detective plot, and, apparently, I find it deeply, almost viscerally unpleasant to have it messed with so systematically. But I had that philosophical respect for the film, and my friends who liked it were smart people with good taste in movies. At the same time, my own displeasure felt so idiosyncratic. It seemed a poor basis for any general claims about aesthetic merit. So when the The Big Lebowski came up in conversation, and people turned to me for my opinion, I was uncharacteristically humble: “You know… I didn’t really like it. I’m not sure why.”
I’ve observed the thriving cult of The Big Lebowski in the same spirit. As a freelance culture writer I’ve had glaring incentive to enrage Lebowski fans with a contrary take, to send out a stereotypical “Slate pitch” on how this beloved film is totally overrated. (I wrote for Slate for many years. It would have been a literal Slate pitch.) I never did that. But my diffidence about this film I didn’t like has inspired some more general thoughts about the ironies of aesthetic judgment and cultural debate, which have been helpful. We all agree that de gustibus non disputandum est — because every gustibus comes from some secret consultation between a mind and a body — and then we go on disputing like it’s physical science we’re talking about, or universal morality. The Big Lebowski has forced me to dwell on these ironies, even as I’ve gone around calling other widely praised movies totally overrated.
As tolerant as I’ve been of the Cult of Lebowski, I do have one problem with it: The Dude is its Christ-like moral foundation, but the portrait it’s left us of him is almost perfectly wrong. In the Religion of Dudeism, the Dude is said to represent “the rebel shrug”. Dudeist observance begins from this simple nugget of wisdom: “Mellow out, man.” Writing and philosophising on the Dude generally treats him as a disciple of hippie stoicism and Buddhist mindfulness, of going with the flow, of taking it easy. We know he’s also hip to Wittgenstein because he won’t play the no-win language games of up-tight squares, who refuse to take things as easy as he does.
Now, the Dude says “Take it easy” several times, and it sounds a fitting sentiment, given that he’s wearing a bathrobe over Bermuda shorts, and that he’s speaking slowly, via the harmonic miracle of Jeff Bridges’s voice. But one thing The Dude rarely does is take it easy. Yes the Dude is a stoned, slow-talking hippie, but he’s also weirdly rigid and impatient, pessimistic and quick to despair. He doesn’t go with the flow. He makes the flow go with him. The plot’s begins with him fixating on an old rug. It may be defensible, as a matter of principle, seeking justice for this insult against his rug, but it is not stoical. Indeed it feels kind of wilful and arbitrary, like he was already looking for a fight, fishing around for a reason to start one.
Of the movie’s many catchphrases,“The Dude abides” has become its most defining, supposedly. But the Dude certainly does not abide having his rug pissed on. The Dude digs in his heels about the rug, and then he heads to the Big Lebowski’s house to get a new one. There, sitting across from this other Lebowski, a tomato-faced blowhard who listens only to himself, the Dude insists that the man not call him Jeff. He’s the Dude. Everyone calls him the Dude. The Dude does not abide being called Jeff. In this moment, a whole history opens up of our Jeff Lebowski telling clueless people through the years that, no, goddammit, he’s not called Jeff. Nobody calls him Jeff, or Jeffrey. He’s the fucking Dude. Can’t you get that through your fucking head!
Nor does the Dude abide the mellow California sounds of The Eagles. He gets himself physically ejected from of a taxi when, after clear warning from the driver, a large and irritable black man playing “Peaceful Easy Feeling” (seriously) from the cassette deck, he continues to complain about the music. “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles,” the Dude cannot keep himself from saying. In the principled stand he takes against the Eagles, he sounds less like an easygoing hippie than like a pretentious art-punk. One imagines a younger Dude in the apartment of a woman he doesn’t know, kicking a turntable because it’s playing “Desperado”.
To be clear, I’m not claiming my against-the-grain assessment of the Dude’s character is original. So much has been said about the Dude and his movie that, within the still-expanding Lebowskiverse, the main cosmic law must be Nietzsche’s “eternal return of the same”. This exact essay has already been written, indeed an infinite number of times. My point is more personal. It concerns the Dude and me.
Late in the film, after the kidnapping subplot has gone awry and the Dude’s car has been stolen and recovered, the Dude and his friends arrive at the home of the teenager they think stole the car and kept the ransom money that was left inside it. Parked on the street is a brand new red Corvette with the dealer invoice still stickered to a window. When he sees the Corvette the Dude moans, “Oh fuck me, man. That kid’s already spent all the money, man.” I got a strange familiar feeling watching this moment, the Dude making that wild, pessimistic inference and moaning it at his friends with total certainty. I’d have made the same leap in his situation, because, like the Dude, I’m a pessimist. I jump to dark conclusions all the time, with the same intensity of conviction, and a similar lack of justifying evidence, as the Dude possessed when he drove up on that Corvette.
Also, like the Dude, I’m dogmatic about music, or I was when I was younger. I spent my teens and twenties sneering at other people’s music tastes, and I imagine I ruined a few parties by complaining about the lame music. Like the Dude earning ejection from his taxi, I was almost fired from a job because I was always changing the station on the radio — “I hate this song!” — instead of working.
The Coen Brothers’s early films often owed some obvious debt to David Lynch, but The Big Lebowski is Lynchian in its very structure — a protagonist learning his fate has gotten tangled up with a sort of double, in this case a man with his exact name, and then realising this double-figure is an enemy who must be overcome. When the Dude grasps that his real beef is not with the rug-pisser but with his own Freudian double, the other Jeffrey Lebowski, he begins spinning in ecstasy. Likewise, were I to find myself in a David Lynch movie, confronted by some dream distortion of my hidden self, I’d assail this other self with all the lively purpose of a pigeon trying to kill his reflection.
But the strongest, eeriest parallel between me and the Dude is that neither of us can abide his best friend Walter Sobchak, volcanically played by John Goodman. Were The Big Lebowski a film about how an anxious hippie played by the great Jeff Bridges self-medicates with weed and White Russians and bowling while solving a low-stakes Lynchian mystery, I think I’d have liked it very much. But instead it’s about how that guy is constantly bickering with his enormous friend who’s always yelling. Watch the Dude’s face every time Walter starts talking. It clenches in distaste and (correct) anticipation that Walter’s about to go on some pointless digression. The Dude is almost as mean to Walter as Walter is to their friend Donny (Steve Buscemi). Walter drives the Dude crazy.
Walter drives me crazy, too. Like the Dude, I want the kidnapping plot to go smoothly. We’re both stressed out when Walter screws it up. Like the Dude, I want everyone to keep the conversation on point. A rug has been pissed on. A young woman has been kidnapped. A car has been stolen. A briefcase filled with money is missing. We need to figure out what to do! The Dude is working hard to solve the mystery, and I’m urging him on as I watch, but Walter keeps interrupting the deliberations with his madcap ideas, his constant invocation of the Vietnam War, his armed threats, his yelling.
If I were to submit an article for inclusion in the next inevitable book on philosophy in The Big Lebowski, and the article’s title was “Aesthetic Freedom in Adorno and The Big Lebowski,” the editor, seeing the title, would surely start thinking of the Dude: “Yes… the Dude …aesthetic freedom…nice.” But it wasn’t the Dude who made me think those excited thoughts when I saw The Big Lebowski in 1998. It was Walter. Walter was negating narrative time in the detective plot with his prolonged and senseless yelling. Walter was carving out autonomous zones in the movie’s logic, where an alternative logic applied. And, once the thrill of philosophical recognition cleared away, my response to these moments of aesthetic freedom was the same as the Dude’s when Walter chides him about his “negative energy” at the bowling alley: “Fuck you, Walter.”