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The Big Lebowski and the American Dream
The Big Lebowski, the eighth film by Joel and Ethan Coen, stands as not only a high point for two much acclaimed directors, but also as one of the greatest American films ever made. While it may seem like a slacker-comedy to the casual viewer (and it certainly is) there is much more to it than that. It has layers, man.
It is, in fact, a stoner-comedy-film noir-Western, an homage to both the city of Los Angeles and to ideals of American life in the early 1990s. It is a film about the American Dream, that great cliché; and in its own way, it manages to be more truthful to that dream than most.
It’s also about bowling. Can’t forget that.
The opening credits seem to be addressing this bizarre set of influences. The credits themselves are presented in a mixture of sleek chrome looking script and big Western block letters, while a lone tumbleweed rolls around the deserted beaches and boulevards of LA. “They call Los Angeles the City of Angels,” Sam Elliot muses in his opening narration. “I didn’t find it to be that exactly.” It’s a great line for a private-eye, but it’s delivered by a cowboy instead. Elliot’s character—known only as The Stranger—is man clearly from another time, who presides over the story with an almost God-like perspective. It is never revealed exactly how he knows everything that happens to these characters, but such an explanation is unnecessary anyway. He is our gateway into the lives of the film’s protagonists, and he sets a fitting introduction for our hero. “Sometimes, there’s a man…well, he’s the man for his time and place.” And that is just what The Dude is. Not a traditional hero, not at all. But a hero all the same.
I won’t bother recounting much of the plot here. Chances are if you’re reading this, you already like the movie enough to know the plot. And besides, the plot is ultimately irrelevant—purposefully so, too. The Coen Brothers have stated that they wished to tell a Raymond Chandler sort of story: a convoluted plot that ultimately leads nowhere, populated with a cast of colorful side characters. Chandler was essential in cementing the detective noir genre, and his stories played a large part in forming the vision of Los Angeles so common in crime movies. It is something the Coens acknowledge without draining dry; there are, after all, plenty of other inspirations to mine in this movie. But watch, for example, the ransom money handoff scene, accented with deep reds and blues, and you will see standard crime tropes put to excellent use.
warning--It's The Big Lebowski, after all. Expect some language.
How is this relevant to the American Dream? Noir films always carried a certain aesthetic: downbeat, pessimistic. They were stories of beaten, broken people trying to make their way in the world, usually through illegal means. In the end, either their accumulated wrong-doings or a collection of forces beyond their control conspire to put them down. Sometimes it is a combination of both. In almost every noir, the promise of a life of ease and happiness is not delivered upon. The American Dream turns sour.
While The Big Lebowski certainly has its downbeat moments, it is far from a pessimistic film—it’s too funny. And The Dude, famously, abides. It is this attitude that allows him to achieve an ultimately happy ending (more on that in a moment) while traditional noirs almost always ended badly for their protagonists. However, throughout most of the movie, The Dude’s life is shaped by forces beyond his control, preserving one of the essential ingredients of noir.
The theme of the downtrodden man also makes an appearance, albeit in a different form than typical noirs. Rather than a burned out detective or a damaged femme fatale, we are introduced to a group of characters who have seen the best parts of their generation pass them by. Through the character of Walter Sobchak, The Dude’s blustering, trigger-happy bowling partner, we can see just how badly the Vietnam War scarred our national consciousness, and The Dude himself might represent how the optimistic promise of the 1960s was ultimately squandered. While he maintains a simple, laid-back approach to life, those he encounters frequently deride him for it, calling him a bum. Not that they are being dishonest—he is a bum. All of the radical, rebellious spirit he might have once possessed (he mentions that he spent college “occupying various administration buildings”) has left him. He can’t even fully remember the Lenin quote he tries to tell Walter. In fact, throughout the film, it seems as though The Stranger’s prediction about The Dude may have been wrong. He might not be the man for this time and place. As the other Jeffrey Lebowski famously tells him: “Your revolution is over! The bums lost!”
But did they?
The greatest key to understanding this film—and how it approaches the American Dream—comes in understanding the two Lebowskis. The rich, wheelchair bound Jeffrey Lebowski considers himself the epitome of American achievement, and at face value, he would be right. A crippled war hero who pulled himself out of the gutter to make something of himself, he perhaps is right to disdain The Dude’s blasé worldview. But then you find out that he’s lying about the whole thing. He apparently married into money, utterly failed at running the family’s various charities, and resorts to stealing from a disadvantaged children’s fund to pay off the debts of his trophy wife. His entire Horatio Alger façade is just that—a façade. And by virtue of being a petty and small minded man, accompanied at all times by his spineless sycophant Brandt, he will live in this façade for the rest of his life, never rising any higher, his vast empty mansion symbolizing the illusions of wealth and status that he satisfies himself with.
The Dude, by contrast, has no illusions. He makes no pretensions. He is content with his place in the world and sees no need to venture too far from it. And in this way, he is a hero. Certainly he is the most moral character in the principal cast (Donnie is another, but remains relatively uninvolved in the larger plot). He is the only person in the entire movie concerned for Bunnie’s safety, even though he barely knows her. He honestly tries to unravel the mysteries around her disappearance, even though it results in his house and car being destroyed. He even shows, in his own way, a sort of John Wayne protective heroism when he tells the detective in the VW Bug to “stay away from [his] special lady friend, man!”
There is a moment in The Big Lebowski where this motif—the larger than life Western hero—is shown plainly. The Dude sits at the bowling alley bar with Donnie and Walter. His life is in shambles. He fears that so long as he remains inactive, a woman’s life is in danger. And there is no help to be found in those around him. “Friends like these, right, Gary?” he asks the bartender. And then he sits, lost in thought, his eyes fixed on the middle distance. The camera gives him a close up here, taking in the wrinkles around his eyes, the craggy features, and the goatee that is (surprisingly) free of a White Russian moustache. In this moment, he looks dignified. Heroic. Well, as heroic as a man at a bowling alley bar can look. Perhaps this is why The Stranger chooses this moment to introduce himself to The Dude, and to tell him that he likes his style. The Stranger recognizes that The Dude is exactly the sort of person this time and place needs.
It is in The Dude’s approach to life that we can find the movie’s commentary on the American Dream. The film’s time and place make it very clear that the ideals of the earlier generations are gone. There will always be another war, another scam-artist, another wild goose chase. Our share of the American Dream is determined by how we choose to approach these inevitable problems. The best way to do that, the Coens seem to say, is simply to abide as best you can.
Or the whole thing could just be about bowling. All of this is just, you know, my opinion, man.