Saturday, January 10, 2009

Is this your homework, Larry?

During my freshman year, I, similar to the majority of all NYU students, had to take a class called Writing the Essay. My experience was actually positive, very unlike the majority of all NYU students. Because I was in the Steinhardt School of Education at the time, I had to register for the special subsequent installment, Advanced College Essay. Even though I knew I was transferring into the College of Arts and Sciences - and knew that the class would be ultimately worthless to my history degree - I stayed in it anyway, and with gusto. In Advanced College Essay we analyzed Ghostface Killa in conjunction with a version of the much-covered "Hey Joe," listened to the Kings of Leon, watched "Wondershowzen," and even got to see an independent movie starring Josh Hartnett - the high school "best friend" of my instructor. All of that was swell, but I think the most wonderful thing about the class was getting to write a paper about my favorite movie, The Big Lebowski. (Just now, by accident, I typed The Bi Lebowski and if I ever make my way into the adult film industry - hey, anything to get rid of those pesky loans! - I will consider this as my debut project.). Everyone who knows anything about my being knows that I'm a rather large fan. One of the comedians at a club I used to be a seater/greeter/late show emcee at when I was a wee lass of 14 introduced me to the film. I remember the first time I watched it, I HATED it. Probable because I fell asleep and woke up during the dream sequence. I dropped in from my slumber just to see what condition the condition was in, and I was confused. Then something made me watch it again. And again. And again and... well, there I go ramblin' again. Let's just say I've had my toes painted green.

My essay was a major labor of love. It's an intense analysis of the Eastern and Western philosophies that are inherent in the film, with a little bit of a noir lens thrown in there for you cinema dudes, but then... well, you'll see. I subconciously formatted my argument within the same structure of the film. It must have slipped itself in after countless viewings. Because I'm shamelessly proud of it and want everyone I know to read it (especially fellow fans!) and because I'm afraid of losing the document to the infinite electronic abyss, and because I'm just plain vain, I wanted to post it right here on my blog. (I'm pretty sure I can hear a groan from all of you who are sick of hearing and reading it, but who cares! A girl's gotta be proud of something!)

Enjoy! And let me know what you think. I apologize for punctuation, spacing, and italic flaws. But I'm a little too lazy to correct it all, and I think The Dude would abide.

Nomenclature is Not The Preferred Nomenclature

The flickering candlelight reveals a close-up on the Dude’s oddly feminine and well-kempt feet, toes protruding delicately from the murky soapy water; resting on the far side of the pale pastel pink tub. We can hear the mellow, muffled cassette tape titled, “Songs of the Whale.” The Dude, in all his 45-year-old shaggy-haired glory, smokes a tiny joint, and chokes on his toke at the ringing of the phone. The camera quickly cuts away again, but this time to the answering machine, then back to The Dude, blowing smoke serenely with his eyes closed. The voice we hear is from the L.A.P.D., informing the Dude that his stolen car has been recovered.

“Far out, man…Far fucking out…” we hear the Dude exhale in a reefer-filled whisper, as the tail end of his rejoicing is disturbed by the loud banging of the Nihilists’ baseball bat on his answering machine. The Dude tries to see the ruckus out of the bathroom doorway, declaring “This is a private residence, man!” as three blonde-haired, thin German Nihilists are revealed. As they approach The Dude, the camera follows their boots and the viewer sees that one of them is walking an amphibious rodent – a ferret – on a leash. The Dude nods his head and leans over slightly to look at it, visibly annoyed and mistakenly commenting, “Nice marmot.” We now see the three wan German Nihilists from The Dude’s point of view in the tub, as one of them picks up the rodent and drops it in the water, right between the Dude’s laughable chicken legs. “Where is ze money, Lebowski?!” the Nihilists shout. The Dude, our protagonist in The Big Lebowski played by Jeff Bridges, is a mellow, lazy guy who, in the parlance of our times, does his own proverbial “thing,” and gets mixed up in a confusingly hilarious plot of greed and clashing ideologies. The Nihilists declare that they “believe in nuzzing,” yet they are actively pursuing monetary gain. The Dude is the true Nihilist – he’s too lazy to care…or is it that he’s too wise?

The Big Lebowski is a film about Jeffrey Lebowski – The Dude - whose rug is soiled by two thugs searching for the “other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire,” whose wife owes money all over town. Walter Sobchak, The Dude’s Vietnam vet best friend, convinces him to seek out the millionaire – referred to as “The Big Lebowski” – to compensate him for his decorative loss (the rug really tied the room together). Mr. Lebowski yells, assuming that the Dude is looking for a free hand-out but when Lebowski’s wife is kidnapped, he entrusts the Dude to act as courier for the ransom money. From then on the plot develops into a complex and convoluted story, with, to quote the Dude, “a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s.”

He responds to the chaos around him by “abiding” through doing what he is told by various authoritative characters, eventually proclaiming, “Ah, fuck it,” when he realizes that all the falderal isn’t worth whatever compensation he might receive. The Dude rolls through life like his bowling ball down his alley, strikingly similar to the tumbling tumbleweed shown navigating the streets of Los Angeles in the very beginning of the film. He just is, very much like the Tao of Taoism. In fact, one of the rare times that he gets flustered, his friend Walter notices: “C’mon, you’re being very un-Dude,” – how about “un-Tao,” instead? As Zhuangzi, an ancient leader of Taoism, wrote: “The Tao cannot be seen: if you see it, it is not that. The Tao cannot be spoken, if you speak it, it is not that” ("Zhuangzi"). The Dude is effortless in his ways. No matter what happens he somehow always becomes “privy to the new shit” and things seem to work out for the best. As long as he keeps his mind limber and open – usually with the aid of a “strict drug regimen” – he is able to figure out all of the crazy happenings that unfold before him.

The beginning of the film shows us the Dude, donning a robe and jellies, in a brightly lit grocery store late at night. The contrast of his warm-colored clothing in the vibrant super-market really proves to set him apart from everybody else. He’s special, different. As he saunters through the aisle to the check-out counter, our narrator, The Stranger, startles our ears with his raspy cowboy voice, introducing this odd character: “Sometimes there’s a man . . . And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here - - sometimes there’s a man who, wal, he’s the man for his time’n place.” Another man who warrants a similar introduction is no one other than the Buddha himself. The Four Noble Truths and The Eightfold Path of Buddhism are eerily present within The Dude in The Big Lebowski.

For those who aren’t familiar with the whole Buddhist “Eastern thing,” the Four Noble Truths are: 1) Life is suffering, 2) Suffering is due to attachment, 3) Attachment can be overcome, and 4) There is a path for accomplishing this (“The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom”). Who’s more unattached than The Dude? He has no wife, no family, no kids, no job, no money, and he seems perfectly content. Tai-chi, bowling, driving around, the occasional acid flashback, drinking White Russians, and smoking marijuana just may be the Dude’s own abbreviated version of The Eightfold Path. After every time something significant happens to him, he’s either at the bowling alley, rolling a joint, or having a drink. One smashing example of this is when the millionaire Lebowski calls upon The Dude to act as courier. Brandt, The Big Lebowski’s assistant, ushers The Dude in to discuss the situation. It is awkward for the viewer to see the Dude in a dramatically dark room lit only by the serious fireplace, which The Big Lebowski is sitting in front of in his wheelchair with a blanket on his lap. Brandt stands solemnly in his tailored suit between the two men with his head down, arms stiff at his side, fingers spread apart robotically. The Dude, however, is dressed in a light-colored baseball t-shirt and leans back in his chair listening to The Big Lebowski blubber about his manhood and the alleged kidnapping. The Dude interrupts: “Mind if I do a jay?” This juxtaposition is visually intoxicating. In this Western World, The Dude keeps his Eastern composure and stays on track in the face of trouble which turns out to be a scam, anyway. The viewer learns a Buddhist lesson from The Big Lebowski. Once The Dude experiences attachment through desire – or in Sanskrit, “trishna” – of compensation for his rug, life isn’t so pleasant. Suddenly he’s responsible for the removal of a woman’s toe, the destruction of a corvette, and the death of his friend.

When The Dude eventually refuses monetary gain, he finally gets his “Dudeness” back and in the end shares his motto with The Stranger, “The Dude abides.” “Abiding” is essentially what Buddhists refer to as nirvana: “the letting go of clinging, hatred, and ignorance; the full acceptance of imperfection, impermanence, and interconnectedness of life” (“The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom”). One could argue that the Dude “abides” of everything because he’s too lazy to do anything else, but with this one should remember that the real Buddha did spend several years sitting under a tree until he was Enlightened. Perhaps this was The Dude in college, “occupying various administration buildings” and smoking Thai stick. When The Dude and The Stranger are sitting at the bowling alley bar for the first time together, much is revealed. The Stranger offers The Dude a helpful aphorism: “Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar, wal, he eats you.” The Dude replies, “Is that some kind of Eastern thing?” to which The Stranger answers with twinkling eyes full of wisdom, “Far from it.”

The film accomplishes its wide appeal and taps into pop-cultural knowledge not only through various characters’ hilarious ravings about everything from Vietnam to hating the band The Eagles, but through the hodge-podge of different traditional genres. Robert Scholes, author of “On Reading a Video Text,” is concerned with this idea of American universal “cultural knowledge” that allows the Coen brothers to make such an intriguing film (205). The different genres present serve as a form of “cultural reinforcement” for the viewer (206). We notice the different elements fused together, which is refreshing because it serves as “a defense against the ever-present threat of boredom” (206). There is a little bit of everything in The Big Lebowski: a cowboy, part of a romance, comedy, a crime drama. . . there’s even a musical number resulting from a drug-induced stupor. All of these components would be considered very “Western” in essence, revealing American values such of entertainment, escape, and intrigue. The use of a Western archetype, the cowboy, to narrate an Eastern message is also truly fascinating. To display the Eastern values of the Dude in such a Western way is to poke fun at both sides of the ideological spectrum, as few aspects of life ever neatly and completely fit into one category or the other. Is sitting under a tree for several years actually fruitful meditation or just an excuse to leave your wife and take a load off? As Brandt would say, “Well, Dude, we just don’t know.”

There are a few times during the film that the viewer feels like he or she should be taking notes, especially when trying to figure out the significance of the very surreal scene that takes place at pornographer Jackie Treehorn’s so-called “garden party.” Topless women are tossed in into the nighttime sky near a bon-fire by the blanket held by a circle of men gazing up at them with mouths agape in ecstasy. All of this occurs in slow motion. Even the viewers who are also on a “strict drug regimen” will want to ask the Coens, in the parlance of our Dude, “What the fuck are you talking about!?” at least once during the movie. An episodic, seemingly unrelated plot is a vital characteristic to the most important genre that The Big Lebowski toys with: the Neo-Noir.

Lee Horsley, in an essay titled “An Introduction to Neo-Noir,” writes that Neo-Noirs, “draw on films and novels of earlier decades,” and this proves to be true. A sister Neo-Noir, L.A. Confidential, was inspired by James Ellroy’s L.A. Quartet series of noir novels, and the Coen brothers were influenced by writer Raymond Chandler and 1946 private-eye flick, The Big Sleep (“An Interview with The Coen Brothers”). L.A. Confidential can be considered the other side of The Big Lebowski. It gives us insight into The Dude’s “worthy adversaries,” the rich, the powerful. One of the Dude’s enemies is the fascist Malibu Chief of Police, and L.A. Confidential is a story about policemen like the Chief, who are caught up in a mixture of lies, corruption, sex, and murder. There are essentially the same elements in each film: political corruption, drugs, pornography, prostitution, and California. L.A. Confidential is set in 1953 and its events can be considered responsible for molding the corrupt world in which the Dude of the early 1990s lives. When compared to The Big Lebowski, L.A. Confidential is more of a classic noir as it deals more directly and literally with what Neo-Noir usually tackles: consumerism. The Big Lebowski deals with our American emphasis on material possessions and consumption, but with a more frivolous intricacy and an Eastern protagonist twist. Lee Horsley mentions Frederick Jameson and his essay titled “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” because Jameson poses this interesting question: “Are self-consciously ‘noir’ contemporary narratives to be seen as escaping from or engaging with contemporary issues?” (Horsley). For The Big Lebowski, the answer is both. Although the Coen brothers do leave little trinkets of repeated dialogue and images throughout the movie for devoted eagle-eye viewers to spot and wring out extensive meaning, they also provide the more passive viewer with more obvious jokes.

At the end of a classic Neo-Noir such as L.A. Confidential, loose ends are tightly tied like the shoelaces of an accomplished adult, similar to the works of Raymond Chandler consisting of tiny little interactions that perpetuate the plot. The “ins and outs” of the incongruous events are curtly explained, leaving the viewer thinking, “Ahh, now I get it.” This is not the case in The Big Lebowski, whose end resembles the loose double-knots and bunny ears of the too-long shoelaces of your average toddler. Not everything ends up making sense, and the viewers are on their own if they want some kind of definite answer. The Coens aren’t concerned with – or, perhaps, are above – providing analyses of their films. It’s up to the viewer to provide meaning for themselves. But that’s how, according to The Stranger, “The whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin’ itself:” our lives’ distinctive events may not always be overwhelmingly meaningful upon first glance. To bring back some Eastern perspective, The Western Stranger is promoting the Buddhist principle of “anatman,” or the notion that all things are interconnected and interdependent; nothing has a separate existence (“The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom”).

One of the most brilliant characters actually appears in the film only twice. The arch-nemesis of The Dude is portrayed in a dramatic, slow-motion shot, complete with his own theme song (The Gypsy King’s rendition of The Eagles’s classic “Hotel California”) and lavender jumpsuit. The music builds and swells as Jesus Quintana – no, not Jesus – rolls an emphatic strike and poses in a flamingo-like fashion after his success. The Coens let the characters spend a significant amount of time revealing the background of the character, even employing a rapid flashback to show us his mandatory door-to-door punishment of announcing to his pederasty to his neighbors.

The character Jesus Quintana tends to be the most momentous part of the film to the viewer but really has nothing to do with the rest of the plot . . . or does he? Perhaps if the movie was given a little more time we might have seen the second coming of Jesus as a distant relative of Bunny’s or a former member of the German Nihilists’ techno-pop group, “Autobahn.” Even if this didn’t turn out to be the case, sometimes the most significant events in our lives are the moments that last just a few seconds. Neo-Noir and Eastern philosophy are serious in their critiques of the human existence; the Coens are not. Life’s peculiarity is beyond labeling or classifying, as the message of The Big Lebowski isn’t in the Dude himself, but in getting it from him. Although it is usually detrimental to dissect and inspect films, The Big Lebowski is one of the few whose value increases exponentially with each viewing. If we think hard enough or let a sufficient amount of time pass, we can provide some kind of explanation and label for anything if we really want to – except maybe the floating topless women.


"An Interview with The Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan about "The Big Lebowski".
"IndieWire. 02 Mar 2007. Coen Brothers. 29 Mar 2007 .

Boeree, C. George . "The Basics of Buddhist Wisdom." Shippensburg University. 29 Mar
2007 .

Horsley, Lee. "An Introduction to Neo-Noir." Neo-Noir. 02 Mar 2007. Crime Culture. 29
Mar 2007 .

Pregadio, Fabrizio. "Zhangzi." Taoism and the Taoist Canon. 02 Mar 2007. Stanford
University Department of Religious Studies. 29 Mar 2007

Scholes, Robert. "On Reading a Video Text". The Advanced College Essay: Education
and the Professions. Ed. William M. Morgan and Pat C. Hoy II.
Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2007. 205-206.

Perhaps next I will share my Moby-Dick paper with you all, for it is titled "Monkey See, Monkey Do, Monkey Die."