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“The Dude Abides”: How The Big Lebowski Bowled Its Way from a Box Office Bomb to Nation-Wide Fests

  • Unveristy of Social Sciences, łodź poland


Since Blood Simple, the first film they wrote and directed together, the Coen Brothers have been working their way up in the film world and, in spite of their outside-the-mainstream taste for the noir and the surreal, have earned a number of prestigious prizes. After Fargo, one of their most critically acclaimed films, expectations were high, and when the Brothers released their next bizarre venture, most critics rushed to measure it against Fargo’s success. Consequently, The Big Lebowski, the Coens’ 1998 neo-noir detective comedy, was considered an incoherent, “unsatisfactory” medley of genres and styles and a box office bomb, and nothing hinted that this unorthodox story of mistaken identity, featuring a pot-smoking, unemployed character named the Dude as its “hee-ro,” would gain a following. Yet, since its 1998 DVD release, The Big Lebowski has been hailed as the first cult film of the Internet, continuously inspiring versatile cultural phenomena as nonconformist in their nature as the movie itself. This essay examines particular factors which initially might have been responsible for alienating the audience only to help The BigLebowski become a peculiar cultural event in later years. It looks at TheBig Lebowski’s characters, the historical time and place of the film’s action as well as at various external historical events, phenomena, places and people such as, for example, the Port Huron Statement, the Reagan-Bush era, Los Angeles and its immigration issues, racial minorities, civil rights activists, the Western genre and, last but not least, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Reflecting the film’s oddities, this bag of cultural idiosyncrasies appears to provide some plausible explanations for The Big Lebowski’s unexpected, against-all-odds rise from the marginal position of a critical and commercial failure to the status of a cult classic and cultural landmark.
Katarzyna Małecka
University of Management, Łódź
The Dude Abides”:
The Big Lebowski
Bowled Its Way
from aBox Ofce Bomb
to Nation-Wide Fests
a b s t r a c t
Since Blood Simple, the rst lm they wrote and directed together, the
Coen Brothers have been working their way up in the lm world and,
in spite of their outside-the-mainstream taste for the noir and the sur-
real, have earned a number of prestigious prizes. After Fargo, one of
their most critically acclaimed lms, expectations were high, and when
the Brothers released their next bizarre venture, most critics rushed to
measure it against Fargo’s success. Consequently, The Big Lebowski, the
Coens’ 1998 neo-noir detective comedy, was considered an incoherent,
“unsatisfactorymedley of genres and styles and abox ofce bomb, and
nothing hinted that this unorthodox story of mistaken identity, featuring
apot-smoking, unemployed character named the Dude as its “hee-ro,”
would gain afollowing. Yet, since its 1998 DVD release, The Big Lebowski
has been hailed as the rst cult lm of the Internet, continuously inspir-
ing versatile cultural phenomena as nonconformist in their nature as the
movie itself. This essay examines particular factors which initially might
have been responsible for alienating the audience only to help The Big
Lebowski become apeculiar cultural event in later years. It looks at The
Big Lebowski’s characters, the historical time and place of the lm’s action
as well as at various external historical events, phenomena, places and peo-
ple such as, for example, the Port Huron Statement, the Reagan-Bush era,
Los Angeles and its immigration issues, racial minorities, civil rights activ-
ists, the Western genre and, last but not least, Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Reecting the lm’s oddities, this bag of cultural idiosyncrasies appears to
provide some plausible explanations for The Big Lebowski’s unexpected,
against-all-odds rise from the marginal position of acritical and commer-
cial failure to the status of acult classic and cultural landmark.
a b s t r a c t
Text Matters, Volume 2 Number 2, 2012
DOI: 10.2478/v10231-012-0056-5
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Katarzyna Małecka
There is no accounting for taste. Specically, there is no accounting for
the public’s taste when it comes to art, especially in acountry where pos-
sibly every other nation in the world is bound to have arepresentative.
Of course, given the right time and place, taste can change, providing an
opportunity for yet another from-rags-to-riches story in which acommer-
cial failure rises to acult classic and acultural phenomenon of unexpected
proportions. In 1998, the Coen Brothers’ neo-noir detective comedy The
Big Lebowski
failed the taste not only of the average American, but also of
the Sundance Film Festival audience and critics who rated the movie with
quite afew walkouts (cf. Howell). An unnamed British reviewer in The
Guardian branded TBL as “an unsatisfactory lm,” trading “the tautness
that won Fargo such acclaim for aloose, meandering outline” (“Big”). The
same anonymous author doomed the lm by calling it “infuriating” and
prophesying that it “will win no prizes” (“Big”). Due to adifferent cultural
sensibility and, possibly, the specic sense of humour famously attributed
to the Small Island, the British fortune-teller-turned-critic might be es-
sentially forgiven for disregarding the movie’s potential which, with time,
would meander way ahead of Fargo in public acclaim. Yet, some natives
of the Big Country were equally unenthusiastic, regardless of which part
of the US they came from. The New York Daily News movie critic Dave
Kehr hybrid-titled his review “Coen Brothers’ Latest Is aBig Letdown-
ski Comedy about Druggie Bowler Strikes Out and Its Tired Film Noir
Plot Is aTurkey(Kehr), and as if this lexical and stylistic abuse was not
atrocious enough, Kehr tautologizes by berating the Coens for dropping
their main character “in the middle of one of their standard lm noir plots,
avein they’ve been vigorously overworking from Blood Simple to Fargo,”
and for “ask[ing] him to behave like aprofessional crime-stopper(Kehr).
According to Kehr, the Coens’ story is “a tired idea, and it produces an
episodic, unstrung lm.”
Many other reviewers have deemed the movie’s alleged lack of “taut-
ness” in narrative and cinematic style to be an almost unforgivable sin,
branding TBL as “a bunch of ideas shovelled into abag and allowed to spill
out at random” (“Big”), “the Coens’ gaudy bag of tricks, whose clever-
ness and imagination exist mainly for their own sake” (Rosenbaum), or
anarrative in which “the story line is in truth disjointed, incoherent and
Instead of the full title, the abbreviation TBL will be used in most cases throughout
the essay. Also, all the quotations from the lm will be parenthetically cited with the
abbreviation TBL, with three exceptions where, in order to preserve the characteristic
spelling of some words, two block quotations and one action description are provided from
the printed screenplay and accordingly indicated.
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even irritating” (Turran). Certainly, as Fred Ashe more recently and less
aggressively points out, TBL dees “the constraints of literary form by
stitching together avariety of genres: the noir detective story . . . , the
Busby Berkeley musical, the Vietnam movie, the pornographic movie, the
screwball comedy, the buddy lm, and the 1960s romantic quest à la Easy
Rider(55). Such “stitching togethermay be achallenge for the storyline,
and yet, Pulp Fiction or Clerks, both released four years prior to TBL, were
spectacular successes, although neither of these two culturally signicant
phenomena can boast a particularly linear or coherent narrative. Also,
even if TBL mixes genres and exhibits an arbitrary narrative technique,
the story is not emotionally draining in aheavy postmodern way in which,
for instance, Gilliam’s 1998 adaptation of Thompson’s Fear and Loathing
in Las Vegas may appear to be to some viewers. Thus, the critical com-
plaints about the movie’s stylistic and narrative incoherence hardly seem
alegitimate reason for TBL’s initial lack of public acclaim, especially that,
as Roger Ebert observes, the way TBL “rushes in all directions and never
ends up anywhere” is not “the lm’s aw, but its style,” cohering with the
lifestyle of the main character:
The Dude, who smokes alot of pot and guzzles White Russians made
with half-and-half, starts every day lled with resolve, but his plans
gradually dissolve into ahaze of missed opportunities and missed inten-
tions. . . . The spirit is established right at the outset, when the narrator
(Sam Elliott) starts out well enough, but eventually confesses he’s lost
his train of thought. (Ebert)
One might argue that TBL’s unexpected rise from its critically and
commercially marginal position to the status of an almost unprecedented
cult lm in the years following its DVD release stems from the fact that
the Coens’ creation embodies their “inspired, absurdist taste for weird,
peculiar Americana [and] their own bizarre subgenre” (Howe) as well as
some more traditional, even if largely revised, American values. TBL is
“perhaps the only psychowesternoircheechandchonginvietnambuddy gen-
re pic in existence” (Comentale and Jaffe 3), and, as such, testies to an
outlandish amalgam of individualism and creativity, the two crucial prereq-
uisites of the American way to wealth. The mixture of genres reects the
versatility of American culture and refers to important historical events,
while the movie’s commercial fate is apostmodern spin on the American
Dream myth, in which there is no hero but just the Dude who is “the lazi-
est [man] in Los Angeles County . . . which would place him high in the
runnin’ for laziest worldwide” (TBL). To make some more sense of why
this independent, marginal medley of genres, styles and peculiar characters
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alienated the audience at rst and then “went out and achieved anyway
(TBL) without following any methods for success, it might be benecial
to examine more closely the essential elements contributing to the creation
of any text: the time, the place and the characters. In TBL, all these com-
ponents exhibit some amount of otherness, marginality, and asynchronism
with the expectations of the American middle class, the targeted audience
of most American movies, while invariably addressing classic elements of
US culture.
At the beginning of the movie, the Stranger, the story’s cowboy-type
frame narrator, announces,
A way out west there was afella, fella Iwant to tell you about, fella by
the name of Jeff Lebowski. . . . This Lebowski, he called himself the
Dude. . . . Now this story I’m about to unfold took place back in the
early nineties—just about the time of our conict with Sad’m and the
Eye-rackies. Ionly mention it ’cause sometimes there’s aman—I won’t
say ahee-ro, ’cause what’s ahee-ro?—but 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, he ts right in there—and that’s the
Dude, in Los Angeles. (Coen and Coen 3–4)
Set in the early 1990s, the movie, however, hardly ever refers to the
Gulf War, while frequently bringing up the Vietnam War through multiple
ramblings of the Dude’s bowling pal Walter Sobchak, aVietnam veteran.
Unlike Walter, the Dude is apacist, apot-smoking, laid-back hippie stuck
in the 1960s and early 1970s, the heyday of the civil rights movement,
when, as he himself claims, he helped to draft the Port Huron Statement
(1962) and was one of the members of the Seattle Seven (1970), the two
radical student-based anti-war ventures of the New Left. Among its mul-
tiple principles dening what was wrong with America of the 1960s and
what steps should be taken to amend the warped democracy, the Port Hu-
ron Statement condemned “the pervasiveness of racism in American life,”
the perils of “the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb,”
and the international “uncontrolled exploitation . . . of the earth’s physical
resources” (“Port Huron”), all of which had been long neglected by the
United States government, mostly on account of the country’s enduring
involvement in the nancially exploitive Vietnam War, afrequent reference
in the lm. The Statement’s supporters proclaimed that racism, possible
nuclear extinction and environmental disaster “either directly oppressed”
them “or rankled [their] consciences and became [their] own subjective
concerns,” leading them “to see complicated and disturbing paradoxes in
[their] surrounding America” as well as the hollowness of the nation’s
founding declaration that “all men are created equal” and should be able
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to pursue happiness in awar-free country and world (“Port Huron”). Pro-
fessing “we are aminority,” the Port Huron activists knew how important
but also how marginal to “the vast majority of . . . people” their views at
the time were (“Port Huron”). In 1969, replacing the vacuum created by
the collapse of the national Students for aDemocratic Society, the lead-
ers of the Seattle Liberation Front, founded by University of Washington
professor Michael Lerner, were tried and briey imprisoned after the anti-
Vietnam war demonstration on February 17, 1970 in front of the Federal
Courthouse in downtown Seattle (“Seattle”).
Based on areal member of the Seattle Seven, the Coens’ friend Jeff
Dowd, the character of Jeffrey the Dude Lebowski is aretired-civil rights
activist, who nds himself at the end of the Reagan-Bush era with his aver-
sion to aggression intact, but with no radical anti-war ventures to fuel his
existence. The Persian Gulf War did not last long enough to call for any
signicant anti-war demonstrations and actually earned the Republican
president national support. Although any specic references to the po-
litical climate of the country or the L.A. region are absent from the story,
in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Los Angeles County, as well as most
other regions of Southern California, “remained under the stewardship of
acountersubversive coalition that targeted civil rights crusaders, feminists,
antiwar demonstrators, and gay activists as culpable for the social ills and
economic malaise wrought by economic restructuring, deindustrialization,
and the dismantling of the welfare state” (Avila 234). Generally, “[l]iberal-
ism in all its forms was anathema” during the Reagan-Bush administration
(Glazer 234). Upon the Dude’s visit to claim compensation for his soiled
rug, the poser millionaire Lebowski, with whom the Dude is confused at
the beginning of the story, also reminds him that the Dude’s “revolution
is overand that “the bums will always lose” (TBL). Even in the Dude’s
own words, he is essentially someone who “the square community does
not give ashit about” (TBL).
Such anti-liberal circumstances could hardly make the Dude t “right
in there,” and yet, the Dude remains comfortable within the lm’s his-
torical setting. This laid-back attitude, however, might be what initially
encumbered his appeal at the time of the lm’s release in the late 1990s.
In the early 1990s, limiting his protests to professing pacism, the Dude
poses as a mere reminder of the radical New Left individualism which
once challenged the government by “opposing the Vietnam War, working
for free speech and civil rights, and practicing civil disobedience” (Stacey
Thompson 126). Thus, in essence, the Dude was to the protest period of
the Vietnam War what Thoreau had been to the imperialistic period of the
Mexican-American War, while in the early 1990s, he exemplies ahippie
version of Rip Van Winkle on whom “the changes of states and empires
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made but little impression” (Irving 991). As Fred Ashe points out, both
Rip and the Dude lack “masculine aggression” and seem “unfazed” by the
respective wars referred to “in both texts [which] come off as inconsequen-
tial and serve primarily to highlight the thematic war between aggressive
American striving and passive American slacking” (Ashe 48, 49). In 1998,
during the second term of Clinton’s presidency, the overtly liberal image
of an economically unproductive, unburdened and unconcerned hippie,
who denitely inhales more than once within 112 minutes of his screen ap-
pearance, failed to t in the country’s economically thriving frame, which
is to acertain extent surprising, considering the number and popularity of
slacker lms and television shows released around this time period, such
as, for instance, Wayne’s World (1992), Beavis and Butt-Head (1993–1997),
or Clerks (1994). In Doing Nothing: AHistory of Loafers, Loungers, Slack-
ers, and Bums in America, Tom Lutz observes that although “many of the
slackers of the 1990s and beyond have not felt much power to change the
world” the way that the 1950s and 1960s rebels did (299), the 1990s slacker
“characters [do] have jobs, just not good jobs” (285). The work-shy Dude,
on the other hand, helped move history forward in the 1960s, but, ironi-
cally, got stuck there and, thus, has more in common with the loafers of
the past, even distant past (e.g. Rip Van Winkle, Bartleby or Huck Finn),
than with the 1990s counterculture in which many indolent individuals
managed their “disregard for the world of employment [only] very brief-
ly(Lutz 286), accepting mediocre jobs over total rejection of work. As
aresult, in 1998, the Dude turned out to be an outsider even in the world
of outsiders and, thus, might have seemed alittle redundant to the audi-
ence. Pondering on what “a Lebowski” is and how the phenomenon exists
in the world, the editors of The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies observe,
At rst glance, we can reasonably assert that it is not atool, in the same
way, say, ahammer . . . or aheavy drink may be atool. In fact, compared
to the familiar things on our domestic shelving units, this one seems to
lack any obvious purpose, any implicit use or application to aid either the
individual or the community. The actual viewing experience pro duces
nothing, accomplishes nothing, changes nothing. In fact, Lebowski-
users—the “achievers”—use the lm to avoid work, and whatever force
or energy they might apply in their endeavor is clearly unmatched by
any obvious input. (Comentale and Jaffe 3)
While other cinematic slacker characters might appear equally unpro-
ductive in what they have to offer to the viewers, the Dude surpasses all
of them in failing to meet any expectations of the audience and society by
“reject[ing] such traditional markers of American self-hood as family, ca-
reer, religion, [and] even his given name” (Ashe 52). In the Rip Van Winkle
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manner, “the Dude drifts through life guided by no personal code more
tangible than the desire to live free of care” (Ashe 52), but even in this
characteristic he outmatches Irving’s protagonist, because the middle-aged
Dude has no family to neglect and, therefore, avoids the accusation of being
an irresponsible husband and father.
Yet, acouple of years after its 1998 DVD release, The Big Lebowski
and the Dude must have benetted many individuals and more than one
community, giving rise to such cultural phenomena as: annual Lebowski
Fests, which originated in 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky, and since 2004
have been “replicated . . . in other locations: Las Vegas, New York, Los
Angeles, Austin, Seattle, London, [and] Edinburgh” (Comentale and Jaffe
23); Dudeism, “a religion deeply inspired by The Big Lebowski, as well as
several other traditions that predate Lebowski—most particularly: Taoism,
Zen Buddhism, American Transcendentalism and humanism” (“Dude-
ism”); I’m aLebowski, You’re aLebowski: Life, the Big Lebowski and What
Have You, a2007 book by the Lebowski Fest organizers, prefaced by the
Dude (Jeff Bridges) himself and including interviews with most of the
movie’s cast; and at least one academic study, The Year’s Work in Lebowski
Studies, a2009 insightful collection of essays by scholars referred to in the
present Lebowski essay. This, of course, is just the crème de la crème of the
Lebowski cult, the beginnings of which “are shrouded in mystery, thriv-
ing elsewhere in multiple viewings, late-night campus screenings, recita-
tions of catch-phrases, drinking games, and theme parties” (Comentale
and Jaffe 23). In 2007, commenting on the upcoming Lebowski Fest UK
in Edinburgh, Liz Hoggard gave TBL its British share of credit by interest-
ingly accentuating the lm’s bizarre achievement through the recollection
of its unsuccessful beginnings:
The plot is frankly unfathomable. The lm bombed at the box ofce.
And yet many fans consider the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski
awork of ‘cinematic pop poetry,’ and Observer readers rate it the sev-
enth funniest lm ever. Back in 1998 when it was rst released the lm
was considered aop, but it has now sold more than 20 million copies on
DVD. One Wall Street rm even interviews candidates by throwing lines
of the lm at them—to see if they can pick up on them.
Establishing oneself on Wall Street via mere linguistic impact is an un-
questionable achievement in itself, making one wonder which exchange
of lines in particular would result in being hired at that particular rm.
The likely winner seems the scene where the millionaire Lebowski asks the
less than casually clad Dude (his jelly sandals are atouch of sheer genius),
“You don’t go out looking for ajob dressed like that? On aweekday?” to
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which the Dude responds with aquestion, “Is this a... what day is this?”
(TBL). In hindsight, had TBL been released in 2002, the lm might have
been received with much more enthusiasm. In spite of its apparent lack
of social and cultural commentary or usefulness, TBL can be experienced
as ahealthy cultural balance to the American obsession with measuring
one’s life through economic success and the trite US policy of manifest
destiny. In the prosperous late 1990s, however, few felt the need for such
balance because who really needs to see what is wrong when things are
going right and the only legitimate concern is the president’s sex life. Ap-
plying Bakhtin’s concepts of the carnivalesque to TBL, Paul Martin and
Valerie Renegar observe,
[I]n the late 1990s, the United States was enjoying aperiod of economic
and social prosperity. . . . Consequently, most Americans were not recep-
tive to social critiques that TBL had to offer. However, in the interven-
ing years, the cultural landscape has shifted in several important areas.
With aagging economy, an extended and bloody war with Iraq, and
the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States has increasingly
become aplace where the mainstream media tends to legitimate only
ofcial points of view and political dissent is unpopular. The latter tends
to be “swallowed by the big ofcial spin” (Griffen 279), creating avoid
in popular critical discourse. With this void begging to be lled by those
left voiceless and powerless, The Big Lebowski has become even more
relevant today.
It is hardly coincidental then that the rst Lebowski Fest, very much
acarnivalesque event, was held on October 12
, 2002 at Fellowship Lanes
in Louisville, Kentucky. Although “this inaugural year was abit tame,” as
“Fellowship Lanes is aBaptist run bowling alley which didn’t allow drink-
ing or cussing” (“Lebowski Fest”), the very fact that this less than liberal
state has become home to an annual event celebrating the Coens’ unruly
creation proves that, to quote Walter quoting Theodor Herzl, “if you will
it, it is no dream” (TBL). In the parlance of the capitalist Lebowski, over
time, TBL has met challenges, bested competitors (none of the 1990s
slacker movies can boast this amount of attention in the age of technol-
ogy), overcome obstacles (cf. TBL), and made the social and cultural op-
posites meet within and without its historical timeframe, while eluding
easy classication all along.
TBL spaces out of time on many levels and in many directions, almost
as surrealistically as the knocked out Dude does ying over the Los An-
geles nightscape in the rst dream sequence. The location of TBL marks,
reects and coheres with the lm’s cultural marginality, oddities and rejec-
tion of narrative discipline, which might help throw some more light on
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the shift in TBL’s status. At the outset of the story, the Stranger muses in
his Texan drawl,
A way out west there was afella, . . . fella by the name of Jeff Lebowski.
.. . This Lebowski, he called himself the Dude. Now, Dude, that’s aname
no one would self-apply where Icome from. But then, there was alot
about the Dude that didn’t make awhole lot of sense to me. And alot
about where he lived, likewise. But then again, maybe that’s why Ifound
the place s’durned innarestin’. (Coen and Coen 3)
The Stranger comments on the regional and cultural differences of his
country, pointing out that the Dude and his place of residence intrigue
him because they both elude his Southern logic. After this introduction,
according to the script’s action description, “the smoggy vastness of Los
Angeles [at twilight] stretches out before us” (Coen and Coen 3), and the
Stranger adds, “They call Los Angeles the City of Angels. Ididn’t nd
it to be that exactly, but I’ll allow it as there are some nice folks there”
(Coen and Coen 3). The Stranger represents the American invention of
“that most mythic individual hero, the cowboy, who again and again saves
asociety he can never completely t into” (Bellah at al. 145). Less solemn
in nature than Will Kane and with aDude-like attitude towards his role as
narrator, this cowboy, aliteral American “Strangerin L.A., is just such
an individual to whom city life does not “make awhole lot of sense” and
for whom his home prairie territory promises openness and freedom, in
contrast to “the massive electrical L.A. grid that the lm’s opening se-
quence lingers on” (Ashe 47). With his Southern accent and cowboy gear,
the narrator stands out in the bowling alley, and yet, when midway through
the story the Dude casually compliments the Stranger’s outt, the city
setting suddenly becomes more complimentary as well, and the Dude, in
his stretched-out sweater, might be perceived as areluctant cowboy-type
Located between the Mojave desert and the Pacic ocean, Los An-
geles, both metaphorically and geographically, traps the free ow of the
American West and, as aprot-hungry and economically exploitative me-
tropolis, “presages the end of individual autonomy as aprimary feature of
American life” (Ashe 47). And yet, with its most famous district, Holly-
wood, responsible for popularizing the cowboy image and, thus, enhanc-
ing the mythic image of American individualism and self-reliance, as well
as with “more artists, writers, lmmakers, actors, dancers and musicians
living and working [there] than [in] any other city at any time in the his-
tory of civilization” (“Only”), the City of Angels also poses as an almost
God-like place, providing unlimited creative opportunities for various in-
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dividuals, many of whom happen to be as outlandish in their lifestyles as
the Coens’ artistic output and, thus, frequently referred to as “freaks.”
One of the most succinct literary references rendering the cultural am-
biance of this city, aplace uninhibited by Puritan heritage, comes from
Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: ASavage Journey to
the Heart of the American Dream. Halfway through their drug-infused Las
Vegas escapade, having violated most social norms for the sake of testing
and exposing the downsides of the American Dream, Raoul Duke, based
on Thompson himself, decides to decline his Samoan attorney’s telegram
invitation to report to the Dunes Hotel for more abuse of everything that
can be abused, as he thinks he “pushed” his “luck about as far as it was
going to carry [him] in this town . . . all the way out to the edge” (78).
Consequently, he plans his escape back to L.A.,
There is only one road to L.A.—US Interstate 15, astraight run with no
backroads or alternate routes, just aat-out high-speed burn through
Baker and Barstow and Berdoo and then on the Hollywood Freeway
straight into frantic oblivion: safety, obscurity, just another freak in the
Freak Kingdom. (Hunter S. Thompson 83)
While both cities could easily compete for the American Dream myth
capital, Duke, with whom the Dude incidentally has alot in common, nds
Los Angeles, even at the peak of its 1970s racial tensions, to be aplace
where someone like him feels relatively secure, possibly because, unlike
Las Vegas, Los Angeles tends to be less “relentlessly middle-class, middle-
income, and middle-aged” (cf. Whissen 90), which, from the standpoint
of unbridled, nancially broke individuals unconcerned with time, like
Duke or the Dude, is denitely agood thing, allowing such outsiders not
to have too much money and ambition, and yet still enjoy life on their
own terms in this predominantly “two-class [region] of haves and have-
nots” (Whissen 90). Ambition, the pressure for success and money are
there but so is the choice not to do too much or to do things weirdly and
differently. Reporting back on Lebowski Fest West, which nally took
place in L.A. in 2005, aLEO weekly journalist observes that in spite of
the discomforting attention the fest staff were getting from the cameras
documenting the event, the commotion and interest “still seemed like
nothing to L.A.—a city whose smoggy breath continually warps your ho-
rizon as fast as it cranks out more freaks to draw the attention away from
you” (Titan). Trapped between two geographical extremes, yet expanding
over an impressively vast area with several independent cities attached to
or engulfed by it, Los Angeles liberally allows over-the-top otherness as
much as obliterates it, only to spout out more bizarreness. Unlike TBL at
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the time of its original release, the L.A. Lebowski Fest of 2005 managed
to make amark in the region, selling out entirely for its two-day celebra-
tion and disappointing “the countless people who planned on attending
but were caught unaware of the power of the Lebowskifest” (Titan). The
Entertainment Capital of the World clearly underestimated the impact
of its own marginal creation which did not benet the city’s economy in
1998 when it was born, but, like Frankenstein’s creature, came back to
claim its position.
Just as TBL stitches together genres and “suggests . . . laid-back con-
nections between more or less disparate phenomena” (Comentale and
Jaffe 5) (e.g. the Dude’s Wizard of Oz-like pair of bowling shoes handed
to him by aSaddam look-alike, the wicked wizard of Western Asia, in the
second dream sequence), Los Angeles stitches together aunique variety
of cultures from within and without America. After having been captured
from the Mexicans by US forces in 1846, this west-coast area speedily be-
came an American “bastion of middle-class whiteness” (Avila 230), only to
renegotiate these conditions and rebalance its predominantly white popu-
lation at the end of the twentieth century:
Since 1970, the vast inux of immigrant populations into Southern Cali-
fornia has transformed the region . . . into a Third World citadel. In
1970, 71 percent of Los Angeles County’s population was non-Hispanic
white or Anglo, and the remaining 29 percent of the population was di-
vided among Latinos (15 percent), African Americans (11 percent), and
Asian/Pacic Islanders (3 percent). By 1980, the non-Hispanic white
population had dropped to 53 percent, and ten years later it had fallen
further to 41 percent. . . . By 1990, Latinos comprised 36 percent of the
city’s population; African Americans and Asians constituted 11 percent,
respectively. Today’s Los Angeles ranks among the most diverse urban
regions in the world and the city once heralded as the “nation’s white
spot” now mirrors the polyglot diversity that denes the city and even
its past. (Avila 230)
Such cultural and political changes might also partially account for
TBL’s rather moderate reception in 1998. In order “to preserve white he-
gemony,” “[i]n the 1990s, California voters passed aseries of measures that
targeted immigrant groups and racial minorities,” for instance Proposition
13, which “drastically reduced property taxes at the expense of public ser-
vices such as schools, libraries, and police and re protection, services that
racial minorities have been increasingly forced to rely on” (Avila 232, 233).
The threat that speedily growing non-white minorities were perceived to
pose to the whites found its reection in the region’s political and cultural
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One year after the end of the Reagan-Bush era and on the heels of the
Rodney King uprising of 1992, the lm Falling Down engendered con-
troversy among national audiences for its neonoir portrayal of the white
man’s identity crisis in contemporary Los Angeles. “D-Fens, ” an unem-
ployed engineer suffering anervous breakdown, begins akilling spree
as he walks from downtown Los Angeles to the beach. In the tradition
of noir’s white male antihero, D-Fens trudges through the racialized
milieu of the city, attacking aKorean market, afast-food outlet, aChi-
cano gang, and aneo-Nazi. The city that once resonated with compelling
expressions of suburban whiteness is now alien territory for D-Fens,
an inhospitable non-Anglo landscape that renders white male identity
obsolete. (Avila 234)
Falling Down became abox ofce hit because the misunderstood pro-
tagonist is amilitary type who, like alonely cowboy, ghts violence in
search of justice at the time of white ight. Six years later, with an even
greater upsurge in immigration and powerful cultural changes in the re-
gion, the Coens’ neonoir “Western at the limit of the West” (Comentale
and Jaffe 6) might have seemed oddly out of place. If D-Fens aka Wil-
liam Foster (Michael Douglas) indicates “the n de siècle crisis of white
male identity(Avila 234), the image of an unemployed, family-shunning
hippie could hardly have helped enhance this identity in 1998, and, thus,
might not have initially resonated with white male Americans, or their
wives. Moreover, in spite of lacking aggression himself, the Dude’s charac-
ter, with his 1960s pacist mind-set and liberal attitude even towards the
nihilists who burn his car, might, by association and quite ironically, bring
to mind more radical and culturally resonant acts of violence which L.A.
gave vent to at atime of rapidly increasing immigration and the civil rights
movement, such as Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination at the Ambas-
sador Hotel, “the gruesome spectacle of the Manson familyor the 1970
killing of Rubén Salazar, who was “held up as amartyr in the struggle
against Chicano oppression” (Avila 227). The majority of whites in South-
ern California were prone to blaming the non-white immigrants, angry
minorities and the civil rights activists for the lack of morals in the area
and “for obstructing their path to realizing the suburban good life” in the
1970s and 1980s (Avila 227).
Thus, it is hardly surprising that in the 1990s aCaucasian, confront-
ing acity lled with violence and social deviants worse than him, and
wandering through L.A. with abagful of weapons reclaimed from are-
venge-seeking Latino gang, mastered more sympathy from the audience
nationwide than apot-smoking dropout who drives around L.A. for rec-
reation. Eventually, however, in this contest of two cowboy-like types,
the Dude wins without drawing any weapons, because, unlike unstable
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Katarzyna Małecka
white-collar D-Fens, who also used to be prone to bouts of aggression as
afamily man, the Dude represents aconsistent, laid-back, unemployed
single individual, whose lack of typically masculine/military behaviour
and disregard for forced male responsibilities offer an alternative to the
craziness and violence of L.A. that also resonated with males all over the
country, who, at the beginning of the twenty-rst century, must have felt
not only the crisis of identity resulting from the unprecedented increase
in women’s rights and power, but were also probably eager to avoid the
post 9/11 military commotion and drop out of yet another imperialis-
tic US intervention waged, in order to, among other things, benet the
likes of “the other Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire” (TBL). This does
not mean, however, that the Coens’ unorthodox homage to the Western
genre and to Los Angeles “as natural extension of the American frontier
(Comentale 228) and as the setting of multiple noir classics is devoid of
violence and demand for justice, the two necessary prot-harvesting in-
gredients in most products of the Dream Factory. The acts of aggression
and angst in TBL include, among other things, frequent references to
the Vietnam War, Walter’s angry outbursts triggered by almost everyone
and everything, agun in the bowling alley, adisturbing dance number by
Jesus Quintana—allegedly an ex-pederast with arecord, asevered toe and
abitten-off ear, repeated threats of genital mutilation, amug thrown at
the Dude’s forehead by the sadistic police chief of Malibu—“a real reac-
tionary(TBL), the accidental shooting, untimely stealing and premedi-
tated burning of the Dude’s car, and, last but not least, Donny’s death
caused by trauma experienced during the ght between Walter and the
alleged kidnappers of Bunny Lebowski. All this violence, simultaneously
suffused and sharpened by the Coens’ stylized cinematography, is as scary
as it is funny, calling for ahero who feels at home in the City of Angels,
this “bizarre universe, ashimmering America beyond America” (Comen-
tale 228), because only such an individual could have developed enough
immunity to survive all the dangers and anxiety that such amixture of
weirdness, surrealism and aggression are bound to cause to an average
man. As Edward P. Comentale observes, the Dude, denitely “a man for
his time and place,” remains cowboy-style righteous, albeit unarmed and
[T]he lm presents the Dude as representative of alost mode of living,
adefender of the old easygoing ways against all manner of big city cons.
Adrifter, adropout, aman extremely slow to provoke, the Dude none-
theless serves to uphold amoral code in abattle against forces that are
awkwardly juxtaposed, but undeniably modern: big business, big gov-
ernment, uxus feminists, and German nihilists. (230)
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Although at the time of his debut “a lot about the Dude didn’t make
awhole lot of sense” to Americans, “[a]nd alot about where he lived,
likewise,” they eventually found both “durned innarestin.” A“deadbeat”
might seem like mediocre hero material, but he can still “uphold amoral
code” without compromising his simple ideals of pacism and leisure, ide-
als which many were nally able to recognize and embrace as an antidote
to the aggression-fuelled and war-oriented American life at the beginning
of the twenty-rst century. Geographically and culturally positioned at the
edge of the country’s landscape, Los Angeles visually enhances the adven-
tures of the Dude, who, on the whole, feels comfortable in its vastness and
sustains his presence, his “royal we” (TBL), equally well in the Pasadena
mansion of his namesake and in his own frequently invaded and thrashed
simple abode. The city’s impressive night-time overview, the characteristic
Googie architecture, which became an integral part of US scenery in the
1950s and early 1960s (Martin-Jones 220), and “the everyday feel of [its
climate] from alow-rent perspective” (Rosenbaum) feature as culturally
recognizable trademarks, while the Dude’s lack of aggression exposes and
balances the city’s gratuitous violence, giving the ultimate frontier myth
afresh twist.
While basic information has been provided about the lm’s main pro-
tagonist and how he might have contributed to the movie’s delayed success,
little has been said about the other characters, each of whom might provide
additional insight into what has made TBL acultural icon regardless of its
otherness and initial failure. Since each character provides enough material
for at least aseparate essay, they hardly t into these concluding remarks.
Yet, it must be mentioned that the critics in 1998 were dissatised not only
with the movie’s narrative structure but also with the characters. Jonathan
Rosenbaum seemed particularly disappointed, piling up accusation upon
accusation: “the Coen brothers . . . lin[e] up asuccession of autonomous
freaks”; All that The Big Lebowski really cares about is the nightmarish-
ness of 90s Los Angeles and the way acouple of dysfunctional 70s types
endure it”; “The Dude and Sobchak begin as caricatures . . . , but they’re
allowed to grow into something deeper, if only because the humanist econ-
omy of the Coens’ surrealist vaudeville allows for acouple of human be-
ings within the tapestry of freaks,” while “[the arbitrary narrative] reduces
everyone else in the movie to aparade of satirical cartoons” (Rosenbaum).
Undoubtedly, as Roger Ebert more favourably points out, “Los Angeles
in this lm is azoo of peculiar characters” (Ebert), featuring, among oth-
ers, the Dude’s bowling companion Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), the
Vietnam veteran connecting the Vietnam War with literally everything; the
Dude’s landlord Marty (Jack Kehler), an aspiring performer whose “dance
quintet” and costume can only be out-weirded by the tight purple costume
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Katarzyna Małecka
and slow-motion dance of the Dude’s bowling rival Jesus Quintana (John
Turturro); and, last but not least, the Dude’s “special lady friend,” Maude
Lebowski (Julianne Moore), the other Lebowski’s artsy daughter, who
“covers her body with paint and hurls herself through the air in aleather
harness” (Ebert), and whom Rosenbaum sees as “a nasty parody of afemi-
nist artist,” conveniently ignoring the fact that the nancially and artisti-
cally independent Maude actually gures as the titular Big Lebowski (Ju-
lianne Moore observes that while Maude is “almost beyond pretentious,”
“she’s [also] got all the powerand “the Dude respects Maude for what
she is and what she does,” which she reciprocates [Green et al. 38]). The
Coens’ choice “to lin[e] up asuccession of autonomous freaks” in TBL
serves apurpose that Rosenbaum and many other critics failed to appreci-
ate at the time of the lm’s theatrical release. While certain characters such
as the nihilists could be classied as “dysfunctional types” in the sense
of being athreat to non-violent members of society, others, such as, for
instance, the Dude’s quirky landlord or even Walter, help redene “freak-
ishness” as aterm denoting choice, openness, freedom, security, and, last
but not least, atype of unquestionable achievement which does not require
one to compromise their original values.
Born in Louisville, Kentucky, Hunter S. Thompson aka Raoul Duke
would certainly embrace the Coens’ “tapestry of freaks,” and so would
Dylan Moran, an Irish actor and stand-up comedian, who in his 2006
show quips: “Arnold Schwarzenegger is the governor of California. There
is aperfectly ordinary English sentence. How did that happen? Do you
know how that happened? ‘Cause Itell you . . . . He got there by lifting
things” (Moran). Sarcastic as it is, Moran’s remark, however, pays tribute
to the Golden State, implicitly contrasting California’s cultural exibility
with the more traditional, not to say rigid, culture of, for instance, Great
Britain. Although no longer governor as of January 2011, Schwarzenegger
has raised the bar for the unusual in the region yet another notch, simul-
taneously redening his own long-lasting American Dream. Although all
the Dude ever lifts is abowling ball and glasses of White Russian, TBL’s
shift from acommercially and critically marginal production to acultur-
ally signicant yet inherently offbeat phenomenon measures up to the
from-rags-to-riches life story of the Austrian bodybuilder-turned-Mr.
Universe-turned-actor-turned-politician, who, incidentally, after mov-
ing to California trained at Gold’s Gym in Venice, Los Angeles, which
is where the Dude dwells. The number of both bizarre and classic cul-
tural connections one can draw in relation to TBL is endless, twisted and
surprisingly gratifying, though the real pleasure lies in just enjoying the
ride. As Ebert rightly observes, “The Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski
is agenial, shambling comedy [which] should come with awarning like
the one Mark Twain attached to Huckleberry Finn: ‘Persons attempting
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to nd aplot in it will be shot’” (Ebert). And yet, just like in Twain’s
unnecessarily censored classic, there is nothing incidental in the Coens’
lm, apertinent example of which can be found in the movie’s constant
play on “the Dude’s trademark verb—to abide—. . . contrasted with Leb-
owski’s—to achieve” (Comentale and Jaffe 20), adistinction which serves
to defend the Dude’s lazy lifestyle against the unrelenting Puritan work
ethic. Because even if the Dude is alazy man and arelic of his recent re-
bellious past, and, thus, the utmost failure among the 1990s’ slackers, in
time he has proven that, in the parlance of the Port Huron Statement, the
famous American independence does not have to equal “egotistic indi-
vidualism” or military involvement—“the object is not to have one’s way
so much as it is to have away that is one’s own” (“Port Huron”). Finally,
against The Guardian critic’s prediction, The Big Lebowski did win aprize,
the 1998 Golden Aries for Best Foreign Film, awarded, coincidentally yet
more than appropriately, by the Russian Guild of Film Critics. To use the
Dude’s favourite qualier: How “far-out” is that? Enough to repeatedly
toast The Big Lebowski’s rise from abox ofce bomb to anation-wide
cultural event with the Dude’s favourite drink.
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Avila, Eric. Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight: Fear and Fantasy
in Suburban Los Angeles. Berkeley: U of California P, 2004. Print.
Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Com-
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don: Faber, 1998. Print.
Comentale, Edward P. “‘I’ll Keep Rolling Along’: Some Notes on Sing-
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“Dudeism.” 2010. Web. 8 Oct. 2011.
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owski and What Have You. New York: Bloomsbury, 2007. Print.
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about Druggie Bowler Strikes Out and Its Tired Film Noir Plot Is aTur-
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Full-text available
The Utility of Discourse Analysis to media-based Discourse: Dudeism or The Church of the Latter-Day Dude
The following Tale was found among the papers of the late Diedrich Knickerbocker, an old gentleman of New-York, who was very curious in the Dutch history of the province, and the manners of the descendants from its primitive settlers. His historical researches, however, did not...
A massive underground sensation, The Big Lebowski has been hailed as the first cult film of the internet age. In this book, 21 fans and scholars address the film’s influences-westerns, noir, grail legends, the 1960s, and Fluxus-and its historical connections to the first Iraq war, boomers, slackerdom, surrealism, college culture, and of course bowling. The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies contains neither arid analyses nor lectures for the late-night crowd, but new ways of thinking and writing about film culture.
Los Angeles pulsed with economic vitality and demographic growth in the decades following World War II. This vividly detailed cultural history of L.A. from 1940 to 1970 traces the rise of a new suburban consciousness adopted by a generation of migrants who abandoned older American cities for Southern California's booming urban region. Eric Avila explores expressions of this new "white identity" in popular culture with provocative discussions of Hollywood and film noir, Dodger Stadium, Disneyland, and L.A.'s renowned freeways. These institutions not only mirrored this new culture of suburban whiteness and helped shape it, but also, as Avila argues, reveal the profound relationship between the increasingly fragmented urban landscape of Los Angeles and the rise of a new political outlook that rejected the tenets of New Deal liberalism and anticipated the emergence of the New Right. Avila examines disparate manifestations of popular culture in architecture, art, music, and more to illustrate the unfolding urban dynamics of postwar Los Angeles. He also synthesizes important currents of new research in urban history, cultural studies, and critical race theory, weaving a textured narrative about the interplay of space, cultural representation, and identity amid the westward shift of capital and culture in postwar America.
List of Illustrations Preface Acknowledgements 1. Chocolate Cities and Vanilla Suburbs: Race, Space, and the New "New Mass Culture" of Postwar America 2. The Nation's "White Spot": Racializing Postwar Los Angeles 3. The Spectacle of Urban Blight: Hollywood's Rendition of a Black Los Angeles 4. "A Rage for Order": Disneyland and the Suburban Ideal 5. Suburbanizing the City Center: The Dodgers Move West 6. The Sutured City: Tales of Progress and Disaster in the Freeway Metropolis 7. Epilogue. The 1960s and Beyond Notes Bibliography Index