Whenever people are asked to name the greatest atrocities of the 20th century-while making small-talk at a dinner party, say, or on Family Feud-the usual suspects will invariably 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 20th 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 that 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's The Outlaw. Films considered to be Lebowski's equals include such cinematic high points as Smokey and the Bandit, Showgirls, and The Blob. "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."
Well, Virgin Film Guide, you are wrong.
The story-which, I think you'll agree, ticks most of the boxes of classic Aristotelian Poetics-is set into motion when our protagonist, a happily unemployed stoner and keen amateur bowler, Jeff Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a.k.a. 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 inveigling reparations from his millionaire namesake, he's subsequently embroiled in a ransom handoff 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. Anyhow, Dude's somewhat volatile Vietnam vet bowling compadre, Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), hatches a plan to keep the dough that backfires more than Dude's soon-to-be-stolen banger, forcing these two unlikely detectives to track down the whereabouts of Bunny, money, and car. It's a very complicated case.
Not to worry, for the plot of Lebowski-much as with life, despite our vain search for the safe anchorage of meaning-is entirely secondary to the ride, a fact that seems to have escaped our establishment-development-resolution of a reviewer, for whom "the Coens' vision of LA's kooky underbelly is simply convoluted, and desperately so." Ludicrously, this human traffic cone finds no leavening humor 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." Fuck you talking about?
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 fuses and cross purposes) have been so well rendered through such absurdly fatuous dialogue. And, at bottom, this is a buddy movie, with Walter and the Dude-hothead and pothead-forming a symbiotic yin-yang of calmness and rage in the face of the workaday intrusions of the world.
While 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 pedophile bowling artist, Jesus Quintana; Philip Seymour Hoffmann's button-down factotum, Brandt-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 sociopolitical satire, its allegorical richness. Or perhaps I projected all this. Anyway, I wasn't alone-the film's cultic status can be averred from its having spawned a fan site, dudeism.com, where you can be ordained as a Dudeist priest (who may or may not have a fatwa out on the Virgin 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 (disclosure: by yours truly).
What had not occurred to me, I came to realize, was its subtle skewering, its soft subversion, 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 aspirationalism, happy to drive around, bowl a little, have the odd acid flashback. Indeed, he 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 other Lebowski's "various awards, commendations, honorary degrees," to the extent that, when forced to endure Brandt's parroted commentary, he repeatedly touches what he's been asked to leave alone, transgressing those invisible yet real social barriers. And it turns out that 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 couldn't ever see being 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, 100 percent) of my PhD thesis, as well as all backup copies-three months before a deadline I was never going to make, I found myself in Turkey selling advertising to real estate companies on the website of a cable TV channel under the amateur tutelage of a best friend teetering on the edge of a break-up-induced breakdown who had taken a sabbatical from his job in video production after making $2,730 commission on his first day in sales. As you sometimes do. I was in a deep funk, pretty sure the goddamn 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 vacation on him. Nothing is fucked.
As with Dude's reinvention as a sleuth, I was distinctly out of my element-what salesman "flown out from London to solve an urgent problem" does so in $16 Matalan strides and George by Asda shirt?-and yet, despite this, I "earned" $5,940 in eight days, no mean windfall considering I'd spent the previous 12 months, my "writing-up" year, collecting a fortnightly $175 from the state in return for the charade of job-seeking so as to maximize the time available for getting further behind with my work. Next thing I know, I was in Altinkum, selling the sizzle (not the steak).
Both Sling and I were staunch Lebowskites, and, despite our affectionately chipper 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" (our "paddle of rebuke," if you will); "new shit has come to light," when a stalling client registered interest; "who's in charge of scheduling?" or "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 $160,500 TV ad deal ($2,000, man!): "our fucking troubles are over."
See, Lebowski's quotability is unlike the 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 omegas, akin to catching butterflies and pinning them to a cork board. Essentially dead and deadening. Here, the lines emerged from, and enhanced, a new context, putting the butterflies to flight.
Anyway, one of Sling's first deals was with a waiter-turned-property developer called Deniz, in which he'd bartered us up from the boxy, apologetic, coarse-toweled 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 check. So, after six days hand-washing shirts, six days being fobbed off, six days wheelin' and dealin', we swaggered into his office and asked: What the fuck? Sling went the full Walter Sobchak, dropping a few F-bombs, at which point Deniz lost his shit, turfing us out of "our" pad, threatening to notify the police that we didn't have work visas, and informing us he'd be complaining to the TV channel.
We skulked out of there in a reduced, sick-stomached quiet, a little 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…
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