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The Dude Abides
Joseph Cambell was an American mythologist, writer, and lecturer. He is best known for his work in comparative mythology and religion. From his studies in mythology, sprang a formula which he saw as the formula for many adventure stories. He was very influential- so influential, in fact, that George Lucas wrote his entire Star Wars series around Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces.
The elements he saw in these adventure stories were:
Departure: The call to Adventure, Refusal of the Call, Supernatural Aid, The crossing of the First Threshold, The Belly of the Whale
Initiation: The Road of Trials, The Meeting With the Goddess, Woman as Temptress, Atonement With the Father, The Ultimate Boon
Return: Refusal of Return, The Magic flight, Rescue From Without, The Crossing of the return Threshold, Master of Two Worlds, Freedom to Live
A Couple of Cambell's Books
The above information can be found in greater detail here:
- Heroes Journey : Summary of Steps
For more information on these terms, go there. I don't feel like typing it all out!
While it's relatively easy to see Campbell's formula displayed in films like the Star Wars trilogy, the Matrix trilogy and fairy tales such as Shrek, what about films like Fight Club, Carlito's Way, Scarface, O Brother Where Art Thou?, The Big Lebowski? Do these non traditional adventure stories follow Cambell's formula? I sought to find out and for my first experiment, I used to anti-hero The Dude from the Coen Brothers cult classic, the Big Lebowski. Here are my findings and I hope you find them interesting and enlightening. I hope you will conduct your own experiments and critically view other films and books. it makes the viewing experience that much more interesting.
The Dude Abides: A Look at The Big Lebowski through the eyes of Joseph Cambell.
The Coen brothers brilliant cult film about the ultimate anti-hero, the Big Lebowski, portrays a man (played exceptionally by Jeff bridges) named “The Dude” who is a lazy (quite possibly the laziest in the L.A. County, which puts him in the running for laziest worldwide”, according to the narrator.) slacker who spends his days getting stoned, drinking White Russians and bowling with his friends Donnie and Walter. It's a non traditional adventure story, and upon repeated viewings, misses many of the elements that Joseph Campbell laid out in his work about the Hero's Journey. This was discovered after viewings on consecutive days with a listing of Campbell's criteria for a Hero's Journey in front of me and with the idea of interpreting these ideas as liberally as possible if need be.
While it's missing a few of the elements, it does follow the script, so to speak, in several areas. There is a definite call to adventure, a crossing of the threshold and an ultimate boon. It doesn't have, so far as I can gather, a refusal to return (quite the opposite, actually) or a rescue from without (though this is certainly debatable). Let's take a look at The Dude's journey through the eyes of Joseph Campbell.
The call to adventure in this film stems from a classic case of mistaken identity. Jeff Lebowski, referred to hereafter as “The Dude” is beaten up in his house and has his rug, which “really tied to room together” urinated on by one of the thugs, a “Chinaman”. The Chinaman and his cohort are seeking money from a different (unbeknownst the them) Jeffrey Lebowski, who is very rich and has a trophy wife who “owes money all over town, including to known pornographers.”
The Dude wants his rug back. That's all he wants. The Dude is a simple man. He tracks down Jeffrey Lebowski, referred to hereafter as the Big Lebowski and, when confronted with the news that The Dude would like his rug replaced, the Big Lebowski refuses. At this point, the Dude leaves the meeting and has Brandt, the Big Lebowski's assistant (played hilariously by one of my favorites, Phillip Seymour Hoffman) put the rug into his car, after lying to him and saying it was okay with the Big Lebowski. It is here that we encounter Bunny Lebowski, the wife of the Big Lebowski.
On first viewing, I assumed this was what Campbell referred to as “Woman as Temptress” especially since she offers to “suck” The Dude's “cock for a thousand dollars.” However, it turns out, since there has been no call to adventure that this is not the woman as temptress encounter. This encounter is used more to plant the seeds of mistrust that The Dude will use in his adventure later on.
All this leads to the first call to adventure. Bunny Lebowski is kidnapped and held for ransom and The Dude is called upon by Brandt and the Big Lebowski to act as courier to deliver the ransom and save Mrs. Lebowski. He is offered twenty thousand dollars to do this, and is allowed to keep the rug which Brandt assures him “is not a problem”. The Dude agrees to this mission and tells his friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donnie (Steve Buscemi) about it. Walter decides to accompany the Dude and, here, the Dude is given a second call to adventure, which he refuses. Walter wants to keep the ransom money and give the kidnappers a “ringer” instead. “Why settle for twenty thousand when we can keep the whole million?” The Dude refuses this saying he wants to “play by the rules,” but, Wallter does not listen to the Dude and the ringer is delivered instead of the briefcase with the million dollars. This occurs in a car on a bridge and also embodies Campbell's “Crossing of the Threshold.” At this point, the Dude's adventure begins and his ordinary life is, at least for the moment, is put on hold.
The “Supernatural Aid” in this film is interesting. It's actually the narrator of the film, referred to as The Stranger. Unlike most narrators who are onipresent but non physial voices, The Stranger has physical encounters with the Dude on two different occasions at the bowling alley, offering sage advice and asking simple questions such as “Do you have to use so many cuss words?” To which The Dude responds “What the fuck are you talking about?”. While the Supernatural Aid doesn't aid The Dude in the traditional sense, he is an ever present force throughout the film's and the characters' lives, even if the characters are unaware.
After crossing the threshold, where he and Walter did not deliver the ransom money, The Dude enters Campbell's “Belly of the Whale”. Here, he worries that “They're going to kill that poor woman, man”. Further down the road, the purported toe of Bunny Lebowski is sent to the Big Lebowski causing The Dude, when confronted by it, to freak out and worry about the welfare of the woman whom, prior to this, he'd assumed had kidnapped herself. He wishes at this point that Walter had not interfered and that he'd just stuck with the plan.
Official Trailer for the Big Lebowski
The road of trials is not easily identifiable because from the beginning of the movie until the end, the Dude is constantly getting harassed, beat up, having his rug and car stolen (and eventually destroyed, in the case of the latter). With the exceptions of the rug and the car, these actions do not cause the Dude to act, but more to be annoyed. As stated before, the dude is a simple man. He's perfectly happy getting stoned, listening to CCR, drinking White Russians and bowling with his buddies. He's a pacifist. He doesn't want to hurt anyone or be in anyone's way.
The meeting with the goddess which Campbell cites as “a union of opposites,” occurs after his rug is stolen a second time, this time by Maude Lebowski, daughter of the Big Lebowski. Maude is beautiful and eccentric and offers insight and perspective into the situation. She also offers The Dude a third call to adventure- to double cross her father, not knowing that the Dude has already done this, albeit through no choice of his own. Maude and The Dude eventually become lovers and even, as pointed out by The Stranger to end the film, conceive a child together. When he meets Maude she is naked and, because of the offer she makes the dude, also serves as the temptress in this film.
Who holds the power in the Dude's life? He is so passive and laid back, it's hard to think anything has power over him. He seems only bothered by the disappearance and vandalism of his rug. But could the rug serve as the father figure in this story? I was tempted to think so but, upon my second viewing, I viewed the father figure as Jackie Treehorn, who's role in the film is very small--only one scene-- as the pornographer to whom Bunny Lebowski owes money and is the one who really holds the key to everything in the film. If not for Jackie Treehorn, the dude would have never been in this situation. His rug wouldn't have been peed on, he would never have met the big Lebowski, he would have never received the call to adventure. Based on this evidence, it is clear that Jackie Treehorn controls the Dude at this point. When The Dude confronts him in his Malibu mansion, his White Russian is spiked with some kind of drug and he, falls into a deep hallucination/dream which helps him clarify and realize the gravity of the situation he's in. I believe these two things are, liberally interpreted, as Campbell's “Atonement with the Father” and the “Apotheosis” since this is when the The Dude makes his journey towards the “Ultimate Boon.”
When the Dude confronts the P.I. Who's been tailing him since the adventure began and finds out more information about Bunny Lebowski he realizes that this whole situation has been a fraud and a scam and nothing is as it seems. The Big Lebowski is confronted with his lies and humiliated by Walter and the Dude. He loses- but I'm not sure the Dude wins. His car is destroyed, his rug is still gone, and the Dude has none of the money promised to him. Still, I think he takes some satisfaction in knowing that the Big Lebowski's plan failed and he is eager to return to his life as a stoner/slacker/bowler. There is no, as campbell would refer to it, refusal of return-- the return is actually sought and welcomed.
But when does The Dude, as Campbell suggests, cross the return threshold? I believe it is when, outside the bowling alley, after all this has occurred when The Dude, Donnie and Walter are confronted by the German nihilists, who have been tormenting The Dude throughout the film, and fight them in the bowling alley parking lot. This could be viewed as Campbell's rescue from without but I don't believe that's a correct interpretation. I think this scene is betetr interpreted as the magic llight which, accompanied with Donnie's death (occurring at the end of the scene) serve as the crossing of the return threshold back to the mundane life The Dude lived before- the life he wanted and longed for and seems perfectly content with.
He settles down. After burying Donnie's ashes at sea, The Dude and Walter are seen at the bowling alley, where the film began, living their lives as before. It is here that the Stranger and the Dude once again meet up the Dude is at peace. He has freedom to live even though his friend Donnie has died as a result of the mission. “The Dude abides.” the Dude says as he walks away, showing us that he has indeed become, as Campbell suggests, master of two worlds. He seems wiser and happier, but his life is basically the same. It is here that we find out from The Stranger that there is “A little Lebowski” on the way. Life goes on.
My poetry collection
All rights reserved. Copyright Justin W. Price, June 13th, 2011.