The Big Lebowski turned 20 on March 6, 2018. But ‘The Dude’ still abides today, and the film still stands out as one of the best political narratives against US capitalism and America’s foreign policy excesses. It has also been claimed a philosophical visual treatise on the ‘average white American guy’. It has also apparent indications towards the characters’ existentialist traits, some even nihilistic, leading to Peter S. Fosl (one of the William Irwin’s pop-culture boys) to bring out a compilation of papers on the various philosophical aspects of the movie and its characters. It is titled The Big Lebowski and Philosophy: Keeping Your Mind Limber with Abiding. The Big Lebowski is categorised as a ‘stoner film’ and that, I believe doesn’t do full justice to its very deep narratives.
The film and the Dude’s cult that followed is not surprising at all. The movie was a ‘sleeper hit’, keeping up with its bum of a protagonist, ‘The Dude’. But the Coen Brothers have always been a genius at this: selling the absurd. Almost all their films have deeply troubled characters who are a universe of their own, and they are all subsumed, equally, by the film. The Coen Brothers’ movies have always thrived on their characters but none of them really stand out as ‘the one’. Even ‘The Dude’ as a character stands equal to his paranoid and jingoistic buddy Walter Sobchack and their very nonchalantly ‘existing’ best friend, Donny who needs to be told to “shut the fuck up” everytime he opens his mouth. But the Coen Brothers have never pretentiously gone out of their way to ‘build universes’ of their characters and films, say, in like a Tim Burton experience. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) however stands as a painful exception. The Big Lebowski surprisingly, requires multiple viewings, firstly for the laughs, secondly for the philosophical and political narrative, thirdly for the cinematic appreciation and fourthly for the laughs, yet again. But how did this loser of a protagonist, who writes a cheque for $0.25 in a departmental store and whose vocabulary is restricted only to the sentences he catches from others, gain such a cult status? Why does the Dude still abide?
I don’t mean to venture into the philosophical implications of the film. That has been done and overdone. But why the Dude is still relevant today is because he represents not just the ‘average white American guy’ as he erstwhile used to. The Big Lebowski exposes the entire capitalist order and the Dude as its oblivious product.
Take for example the beginning of the movie wherein the Dude watches George H.W. Bush deliver his response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in his inimitable style, “this will not stand, this aggression. This aggression will not stand.” The Dude watches, and he carries on. He can’t be “worried about that shit”, if he were to say. This would go on to express many of the average Americans’ reactions to the subsequent wars in distant countries they couldn’t care less about, even when their President was outrightly lying to them about “aggression” in those countries.
The Dude’s perpetual zen state of mind is more of apathy than actual zen. He is not at peace with himself. He is just too stupid to care, and he doesn’t give a damn about anything that goes on. He is what the capitalist order has made us as human beings: weak, apathetic and oblivious to our surroundings. The Dude is fine as long as he gets to go to his bowling sessions as people are, as long as they have the Thank God It’s Friday Feeling.
Walter Sobchak’s character is highly interesting to follow. He reeks of jingoism throughout the movie, adopting a reactionary method of talking against everything and everyone who offends him (although very funnily). Walter Sobchak and The Dude make up today’s populist leaders around the world. They couldn’t care less about the facts and emotive arguments is all they have. There is a scene in a family restaurant where Walter gets offended when the waitress asks him to keep his voice low. Walter immediately retorts, quoting the US Supreme Court’s stance against prior restraint in free speech in US. It is completely unrelated to keeping one’s voice low, but Walter is a jingoist, and what he says doesn’t really matter as long as he gets to “enjoy his coffee”. In the Indian field, he would be called a ‘bhakt’, (although I must resist myself from such political sears), but a ‘bhakt’, as has come to be commonly accepted by the country would mean a person who would, say, quote Modi’s performance as the Chief Minister of Gujarat to justify his performance as the Prime Minister. Walter Sobchak is a ‘bhakt’.
Then there’s the original Mr. Lebowski himself, Bunny’s sugar daddy. Mr. Lebowski in humorous contradiction to the other Mr. Lebowski (The Dude) is projected as the rope seller in capitalism, the one who trades in human lives. He stands as a constant reminder to his inferiors of all the great things that he has achieved under the system and because of which, everyone else, including The Dude are bums, who “need to find a job!” But he’s broken within, and doesn’t enjoy his life fully, living a life planked on profits and calculable exchanges solely. The Dude on the other hand loves his life, and his regular glass of White Russian. He just loves to bowl, an activity which is liberating for him, and leaves him oxygenated and invigorated for his next round of laziness.
The Big Lebowski also makes an important point with regard to debates on social media. How? “That’s, just like your opinion, man.” Today, information precedes knowledge at a never achievable rate, and yes, everyone is entitled to their opinion. But that is not the problem. The problem is with the millennials being led to believe that their opinion is only right, and that there can be no truth existing independently of their opinions.
“Trump is a racist.”
“That’s, just like your opinion, man.”
“No, I have facts to prove that he is.”
“That’s, just like your opinion, man.”
The anti-intellectualism of The Dude, with his standard reaction, “what the fuck are you talking about” to anything he clearly doesn’t comprehend, is very prevalent in today’s populist societies. The Dude still abides today because he’s one of us, as the narrator in his growly voice declares in the beginning of the movie. “Sometimes, there’s a man.” Well, he’s just an ordinary man, a loser of the capitalist system sold by two hotshot directors of Hollywood, rebelling against something he doesn’t recognise with knowledge he doesn’t even know if it’s his own. That’s what we do, like The Dude, we abide. We, the posterity of the time set by The Dude, we really tie the system together.
“Life goes on man. I can’t be worried about that shit.”
Swagat Baruah is a student of law at Gujarat National Law University.
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