Whenever people are asked to name the greatest atrocities of the twentieth century – while making small-talk at a dinner party, say, or on Family Fortunes – the usual suspects will be trotted out: Nazism, the Stalinist pogroms, the Khmer Rouge, sundry African dictators and Latin American juntas. All fine, of course, but somewhat missing the mark.
No, the single greatest atrocity of the twentieth century was, without question, the Virgin Film Guide’s decision to award the Coen Brothers’ comic masterpiece The Big Lebowski a one-and-a-half-star rating out of five. Only four movies – FOUR – of the hundreds and thousands in this rainforest-devouring tome were given a lower score: Pokémon: the First Movie, Babe: Pig in the City, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Howard Hughes’ The Outlaw.
“What a reversal of fortune”, begins the (wisely) anonymous critic. “Two years after Fargo, the film that will probably stand as Joel and Ethan Coen’s finest moment, they followed up with what is, without question, their worst. […] The Coens' vision of LA’s kooky underbelly is simply convoluted, and desperately so."
The fact that seems to have escaped our establishment-development-resolution of a Virgin Film Guide reviewer is that the plot of Lebowski – much as with life – is entirely secondary to the ride.
The story is set into motion when our – well, I won’t say hero, ‘cos what’s a hero? – when our protagonist, a happily unemployed stoner and keen amateur bowler, Jeff Lebowski [Jeff Bridges], aka The Dude (or El Duderino, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing), has his valued rug peed upon by debt-collecting thugs in a case of mistaken identity.
After seeking rug-reparation from his millionaire namesake, he’s embroiled in a ransom hand-off for the return of the eponymous Lebowski’s trophy wife and part-time porno starlet, Bunny [Tara Reid], who may or may not have been abducted by some techno-pop purveying German nihilists. Or perhaps the carpet-pissers.
Anyhoo, Dude’s somewhat volatile Vietnam veteran bowling compadre, Walter Sobchak [John Goodman], hatches a plan to keep the baksheesh, forcing these two unlikely detectives to track down the whereabouts of Bunny, money and car. It’s a very complicated case. A lottas ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-yous…
Our critic, or human paraquat, finds no leavening humour in the shaggy-dog-stoner-farce-hardboiled-detective-noir-pastiche, dismissing its nod to Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as the film’s “one and only joke”. But Lebowski’s comedy froths from every pitch-perfect moment in a script as taut as catgut. Scarcely can two dramatis personae (three, if you include Steve Buscemi’s hapless Donny, the other member of a bowling team built on short-fused cross-purpose) have been so well rendered through such absurdly fatuous dialogue.
My first (and second and third) viewing was a symphonic hoot of curveball narrative twists, screwball set-pieces and oddball characters – Julianne Moore’s glacial conceptual artist, Maude Lebowski, rasping “coitus” at an imperturbable Dude; John Turturro’s paedophile bowling kingpin, Jesus Quintana; Philip Seymour Hoffmann’s button-down factotum, Brandt. Yet this was only the courtship in my relationship with Lebowski.
Later, when watching with popcorn rather than pot, the belly-laughs rippled out to a less visceral, more cerebral response, and I came to appreciate the film’s hidden depths, its oblique socio-political satire, its allegorical richness. I wasn’t alone – the film’s cultic status can be averred from its having spawned a fansite, dudeism.com, where you can be ordained as a Dudeist priest (who may or may not have a fatwa out on TheVirgin Film Guide’s publishers) while perusing esoteric essays untangling the movie’s homespun wisdom: for instance, the film’s >Taoist lessons, its complex use of the f-word, or what it teaches us about cricket.
At bottom, this is a buddy movie, with Walter and Dude – hothead and pothead – forming a symbiotic yin-yang of calmness and rage in the face of the workaday intrusions of the world. A subtle skewering of the American Dream, the greatest control mechanism yet devised. Keep working, keep striving, and you will ascend the social strata. Zero to hero. We can all win! Of course, Dude eschews the stress-inducing hamster wheel of aspiration, happy to drive around, bowl a little, have the odd acid flashback.
Lebowski rejects the very idea of social hierarchy, showing no uneasiness in pornographer Jackie Treehorn’s palatial Malibu pad and no deference to the Chief of Police (“fuckin’ fascist”), while remaining blithely unimpressed by the Big Lebowski’s “various awards, commendations, honorary degrees”. It turns out that this, the film’s model achiever, its self-made man, is a sham, embezzling money from the charity he’s been appointed to manage. Behind the meritocratic mythos of the American imaginary lie corruption and cynicism.
At the time of figuring all this out, I was doing a Master’s or PhD – to tell you the truth, I don’t remember a lot of it – and sinking slowly into a personal crisis, an unhappy tumbleweed drifting toward a future I didn’t particularly want or see as useful. Motivation was an issue – where others merely procrastinated, I meta-procrastinated: I was always working on working on working – and I’m sure the Virgin Film Guide would tell you that, without motivation, you have no character development.
Yet Lebowski was teaching me to “just take it easy, man”, to live life enjoying the journey, not fixating on the goals. Even so, such lessons were only the nuptials. The lifelong bonds, the film’s absorption into my very being – my ‘becoming-Dude’, if you will – would only be sealed a few years later.
In July 2006, a few weeks after my laptop was burgled – and with it, 65,000 words (that is, all) of my PhD thesis, as well as all backed-up copies – three months before a deadline I was never going to make, I found myself in Turkey selling advertising to property companies on the website of a cable TV channel. I was under the amateur tutelage of my best mate, who was teetering on the edge of a break-up-induced-breakdown and who had taken a sabbatical from his job in video production after making £1700 commission on his first day in sales. As you would.
I was in a deep funk, pretty sure the goddam plane had crashed into the mountain<, yet ‘Mr Sling’ (not the handle his loving parents gave him) airlifted me from my three-match-a-day, wake-and-bake World Cup vigil with the promise of either making some clams or, at worst, having a free holiday on him.
As with Dude’s re-invention as a sleuth, I was distinctly out of my element – what salesman “flown out from London to solve an urgent problem” does so in £10 Matalan strides and George by Asda shirt? – and yet, despite this, I ‘earned’ £3700 in eight days. No mean windfall considering I’d spent the previous 12 months, my ‘writing-up’ year, collecting a fortnightly £110 from the state in return for the charade of jobseeking – Is this a Wednesday? What day is this? – so as to maximise the time available for getting further behind with my work. Next thing I know, I was in Altinkum, Turkey, selling the sizzle (not the steak).
Both Sling and I, despite our affectionately chippy interactions, lived out a cathartic buddy movie there on the Aegean coast. There was, it seemed, a line (verbatim or tweaked) from Lebowski to fit almost every scenario: a sarcastic “that’s fucking interesting, man”, or a “new shit has come to light” when a stalling client registered interest; a “do you have any promising, uh, leads?” when the day’s appointments came through; and, when we thought we’d be taking 25 percent commission from a £100k TV ad deal (£1250, man!): “our fucking troubles are over”.
Lebowski’s quotability is unlike the uber-geekery you get with many other cult movies, where the banal repetition of circle-jerking fanboys is designed only to out-aficionado other devotees, to be the alpha male of the omega males. Here, the lines emerged from, and enhanced, a new context.
Anyway, one of Sling’s first deals was with a jumped-up waiter-turned-property developer called Deniz. The guy had bartered us up from the coarse-towelled functionality of our package-holiday-twin-room at the Seabird Hotel into a spacious duplex apartment. Trouble was, the washing machine didn’t work – that, and the fact that Deniz was being evasive about writing out the cheque. So, after six days hand-washing shirts, six days being fobbed off, six days wheelin’ and dealin’, we swaggered into his office and asked him what-the-fuck? Sling went the full Walter Sobchak, dropping a few f-bombs, at which point Deniz lost his shit (“Even my father no swear me!!”), turfing us out of "our" pad, threatening to notify the police we didn’t have work visas, and informing us he’d be complaining to the TV channel (none of whom we ever met, incidentally – we were working for their provider, a marketing company, none of whom we ever met, incidentally…).
We skulked out of there in a sick-stomached quiet, vexed that the party was over, the consequences of our frankly unnecessary bravado slowly sinking in. After a long beat, I broke the silence, “I dig the way you do business, Jackie”. Back he flashed, “Fuck it, let’s go bowling”. And that was it: the hardest laughter I ever knew. We made our way back to the Seabird, abiding.
That day, I understood that it’s not what happens to you that counts. It’s how you perceive and process life’s strikes and gutters. Having a nervous breakdown? Lost 15 months’ work? Nothing is fucked…
More from this series: 'King Ralph' Is the Film That Taught Me the True Depths of Human Cruelty
'Vanishing Point' Was the Film That Made Me Wanna Go Out in a Blaze of Glory
'Powaqqatsi' Is the Film That Made Me Want to Soundtrack Movies