Bryant Tyler’s review published on Letterboxd:
The Big Lebowski
The film is set in 1991, when the United States was preparing to enter the Gulf War “with Saddam and the Iraqis”, while it was still wrestling with the legacy of Vietnam and the trauma that the war had inflicted on both those who served and those who protested. The Gulf War was a time when aggression was used as the answer to conflict resolution, emphasized in the first scene as President George H. W. Bush declares on television that “this will not stand, this aggression with Kuwait.” This is reflected through the characters around the film’s protagonist, who each use aggression (and intimidation) in response to conflict which only result in further escalations, destruction of property and death. Further reflective of modern America, the film depicts various emerging philosophies as individuals struggle to find an aim amidst the landscape of relativism after the death of god. The Coens show how the country continues to drift away from the tradition and values of the past, but has nothing to replace them. In relativism, everything is “just like your opinion, man”: there is no “Truth,” only differing perspectives. The core of the film centers around the friendship of three bowlers, who each represent the Democrat, the Republican and the Silent Majority of America. The film develops this through an examination of American men through the lens of masculine film genres, particularly the Western, the Film-Noir and the Sports film. Appropriately the most common word in the film is “man” and the film opens with Bob Dylan’s “The Man In Me”. When the film asks “what makes a man?”, the film is not asking what defines a man, rather it is searching for an ideal of manhood and exploring an understanding of this in the modern era.
The story is framed through the narration of a cowboy (portrayed by Sam Elliot, a popular actor in the Western genre), the cowboy archetype was a male bachelor who fought for the protection of civilization in the Wild West. The film opens with the Western motifs of a tumbleweed, Western text and music, which paint Los Angeles as the modern Wild West: “the dude” that used to rope horses is now “The Dude” of Jeffrey Lebowski.
The Dude’s lifestyle is reminiscent of Taoism, which espouses a modest, humble approach to day-to-day life, living in the present, rather than dwelling on anxieties in the past or concerns for the future. The Dude’s Taoist principles are not a suitable replacement for the old ideal, but a reaction to its absence.
The first image of The Dude’s shows him with long hair, a beard, a robe and sandals visually calling to mind Jesus Christ. Extending that comparison, The Dude lives a life of poverty in a manner that is neither aggressive nor differential. This frames the character as a model to embody: if there is no longer a uniting, guiding societal ideal, then The Dude provides answer through a return to inner-peace, until the world outside aligns itself. The Dude lives a passive life, disengaged from chaos. The Dude doesn’t seek excitement or greatness, just balance and equanimity. The world thinks his detachment makes him “a loser”. The Dude does not have a job, yet receives a monthly check, likely from his receiving unemployment insurance or welfare benefits. He is not married, he does not have a job and he is not fixated on proving or measuring up to a societal standard of masculinity. He lives by the anti-materialist vision of the Hippies and he is content.
The film’s inciting incident that disrupts The Dude’s comfort zone is when his living room rug is destroyed. The recovery of his rug becomes a symbol of his desire for order and meaning underneath his care-free lifestyle, while he insists that it “tied the room together” it really tied his life together: thus The Dude is trying to put his life back together to fill the space that he lost with the rug. The rug is also a symbol for women, as “rug” is a common, slang term for female genitalia. As a bachelor, the rug became a replacement for a woman in his life and completed his living space, and now with this missing element, he feels incomplete.
The bowling alley as a space for male bonding, through teamwork and cathartic Sisyphean repetition. The act of bowling is similar to Sisypheus’s plight, in bowling one knocks over pins and they are picked right back up. Though in the film, The Dude is never seen bowling: it is always Walter, Donny or the other team. This illustrates that The Dude is not caught up in the rat race of life, he is not caught up in the Sisyphean Cycle, he lives his life on his terms.
The imagery in bowling is full of sexual symbolism, there is a testicle-shaped ball which knocks down phallic pins. The bowling ball is also representative of female anatomy, the three holes symbolizing the three genital holes of a woman (vagina, urethra, and anus), thus making the bowling ball an androgynous sexual symbol: a union of yin and yang.
Walter Sobchak, The Dude’s best friend, lives in the past in regards to his time in Vietnam, which is the frame of reference through which he sees his life. When he was in Vietnam, he saw himself as a man. Walter has a temper, perhaps an indication of PTSD, and constantly uses aggression and intimidation when responding to conflict. Walter also lives in the past in regards to his previous marriage and is subservient to his ex-wife, indicated for example, as he watches her show-dog while she holidays with her new husband. Walter is unable to move on from the past from his ex-wife and her religion, Judaism, to which he converted when they had married (this creates a satire on people who cherry pick traditions in an attempt to find meaning). Walter’s defining characteristic is that he lives his life according to “the rules”, these are not the rules he made himself, presumably he hasn’t spent time to understand the meaning or reason behind them, he is just content they provide structure to his life. He is more interested in following rules above all, than in doing the right thing, doing good, helping his neighbor or seeking truth. He would even prefer to follow bad rules, than no rules at all, as he says “say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it’s an ethos.” Walter’s rigid fundamentalism evaluates each situation according to whether it conforms to his established set of rules: “without a hostage there is no ransom. That’s what a ransom is: those are the rules!” When confronted with a situation that does not obey his rules, Walter attempts to impose his rules by force, as he threatens his friend Smokey with a gun: “Smokey, my friend, you’re entering a world of pain. This is not Nam, this is bowling: there are rules!” Walter pangs amidst the relativism, lamenting “has the whole world gone crazy? Doesn’t anyone give a shit about the rules anymore?”
The Dude and Walter have little in common, however their friendship is a personification of Taoism, as the two are a Yin and Yang: opposites yet creating balance. One of the reasons that The Dude spends most of the film in a state of stress is because the balance between the two shifts to an unequal degree as he follows Walter’s suggestion to pursue compensation from The Big Lebowski. This sets The Dude on a path of uncharacteristic materialism: first he steals a rug from The Big Lebowski, then he is lured by the reward of $20,000 to facilitate the trade of the one million dollar ransom. The Dude’s world begins to fall apart when he accepts The Big Lebowski’s lucrative offer and again allows Walter to become involved and take over. Walter is greedy for the full ransom amount and he escalates the simple hand-over into a potentially lethal transaction. “The love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) and the balance in The Dude’s life has been offset.
The third man on the bowling team is Donny, who has has no other friends, and he is constantly berated and silenced by Walter. When The Dude expressed fear of castration from the Nihilists by exclaiming, “I need my fucking Johnson!” Donny responded, “What do you need that for, Dude?”, directly showing he has already surrendered his masculinity. Having been ignored the entire film then dies of a heart attack in response to a fight that he did not participate in. Donny dies without throwing or receiving a single punch, suggesting that the men who have been castrated cannot survive. If Donny represents the “silent majority” of the American voting population, this could be a message to listen to the majority of the middle class, rather than the establishment Two Party political system, whose constant aggression silences and diminishes the middle class by proxy. Donny has his ashes transported in a Folgers tin, then Walter scatters them all over the Dude’s face. In the end though, Walter eulogizes Donny with the highest praise: “Donny was a good man and a good bowler. He was one of us.”
The millionaire Lebowski (made to visually resemble the Secretary of Defense at the time, Dick Cheney) is also an opposite of The Dude, apart from their shared name. He appears to have it all and be the personification of American capitalism, though he merely maintains the appearance of a self-made man, posturing the displays of his hard-working history. By rejecting The Dude’s request for a new rug to replace the soiled one, the Big Lebowski claims to be encouraging capitalist values of self-reliance. He tells The Dude “your revolution is over Mr. Lebowski. Condolences, the bums lost.” The irony is that The Big Lebowski is revealed to also be a “bum”, living on a allowance from his late wife’s estate, managed by his daughter Maude. He steals from his own charity, while hypocritically pretending it’s his generosity that helps ‘urban achievers.’ His life is controlled by women: his daughter finances his lifestyle, his fortune is sourced from his late wife and he is subjugated by his current trophy wife, Bunny, whom he doesn’t love but keeps around as another achievement.
A prominent theme in the film is emasculation. The nihilists who have kidnapped Bunny threaten to “cut off [The Dude’s] johnson”, to permanently and fully emasculate him. Many of the other men in the film are already emasculated in a figurative sense. The Big Lebowski lost his legs in Korea, as he is emasculated from the waist down in a wheelchair. He asks The Dude “what makes a man? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost?” To which The Dude responds, “well that and a pair of testicles.” The Big Lebowski replies back, “you’re joking, but perhaps you’re right.” Resigning to the reality that biology is the determining factor one’s sex. While there are still traits such as strength, courage, responsibility, leadership and expertise that prove deterministic and admirable: characteristics or ideologies do not determine one’s biology, even if a man does not possess these traits, if he was biologically born a man - he is a man. This should be an encouragement to The Big Lebowski, that he shouldn’t have to measure up to a culturally imposed standard of masculinity. Unfortunately, he will spend the rest of the film in a state of compensation for his believed emasculation, if only he would have embraced The Dude’s wake-up call here. When The Dude and Walter later confront The Big Lebowski on his false masculine pretenses, he screams “stay away from me! You bullies! You and these women! You won’t leave a man his fucking balls!” Suggesting that this physicality is all that remains of his identity as a man.
Other instances of the emasculation theme include: the nihilists urinating on The Dude’s rug to mark their territory. In The Dude’s apartment there is a picture of Richard Nixon bowling, framed like an altar above his bar. Nixon had the nickname “Tricky Dick” and his impeachment, or fall from power, resonates with the theme of emasculation. When The Dude confronts a private investigator hired by Bunny’s family. The PI tells him that he is “a dick, man” and asserts that The Dude is “a dick” as well. Jackie Treehorn sketches a penis on a pad of paper when The Dude visits his party. Walter uses a suitcase full of his dirty underwear as the ringer for the kidnappers payment. The Jesus’s bowling team polishes their bowling balls in an act of dominance.
Maude Lebowski is probably the most powerful character in the film and she is surrounded by images of scissors. She is a successful painter who works in the nude and whose artwork has been described by critics as being “strongly vaginal.” She confrontationally states that “the word [vagina] makes some men uncomfortable.” Maude does not allow The Dude to keep the rug that he stole from her father, because it belonged to her mother. By taking back the rug, Maude insures that The Dude remains in this state of incompleteness.
Maude is a bourgeois feminist who judges her father for his capitalist posturing, but she also benefits from their wealth. She is in control of her parents’ money, she also exploits the Dude every bit as much as her father has done. Maude tricks The Dude into sleeping with her to conceive a child, because he is someone who won’t have any interest in being a father. She is using him, literally, for his manhood. Because of the advent of the welfare state, a woman no longer needs a man financially to raise a family. Maude takes advantage of The Dude and tells him that she doesn’t “want a partner [nor] the father to be someone [she has] to see socially, or who’ll have any interest in rearing the child himself.” Maude, the utilitarian, aims to only further her self-interest, and The Dude is merely a means to an end.
The end of the film, there is no epiphany, no social gain, no world saved, The Dude hasn’t fallen in love or retired and he hasn’t even gotten a new rug. Though they lost Donny, the Dude and Walter resume their bowling tournament. Like the ouroboros, the end of the story returns to the normalcy of the story’s beginning. The film, like life, may seem insignificant if viewed from the wrong light. Though if one adopts a position like The Dude and accepts life as it is, then one may be able to let go of the things that hold them back and be at peace in the moment.
While hints of his old idealism are apparent, it is because The Dude is not beholden to a particular ideology that he is far more open to taking in new ideas, even if he doesn’t fully comprehend them. The Dude’s refusal to conform to society’s expectations does not come from contempt or ignorance. The Dude sees, comprehends and accepts the world around him, but he chooses to stand apart without trying to change anything, himself included.
While Walter emphasized that taking it easy is The Dude’s “answer for everything”, and this is difficult to maintain zen through every situation and circumstance, The Dude is not a perfect model for Taoism (or Stoicism or Aristotelian) virtues, he merely practices them, albeit imperfectly. If The Dude were truly content, he would want for nothing and no change of fortune could make him unhappy.
The Stranger initially posited that The Dude is “the man for his time and place” because more people like The Dude are needed to think differently from the expectations of the era and stand as inspiration. The Stranger at the end recalls the Christ analogue, affirming that “it’s good knowing he’s out there, The Dude, taking it easy for all us sinners”. This frames The Dude attitude of “taking it easy” as a righteous action, redeeming how people do everything but take it easy.
The Stranger also conveys that there is “a little Lebowski on the way”, providing comfort that there will be more Dudes in the future to carry on the tradition.
Society has propped up the image of a man, that achievement, strength and a big name are the measures of a man. The film challenges this and encourages one to lead a simpler, humbler and more spiritual existence. The film affirms to the viewer that they are not obliged to conform to the pattern of the world.
Through this The Big Lebowski celebrates the qualities of the common man. While some are quick to proclaim the film as an affirmation of relativism, the film seems more to be an exploration of the search for meaning amidst the era of relativism.