Talking Movies: The Dude Still Abides

In the 10 years since the release of The Big Lebowski, a few things happened. Cell phones overtook our public spaces. The internet colonized our private time. George W. Bush won once in the popular vote and twice in the electoral college. On a single morning, terrorists brought down the twin towers, destroyed part of the Pentagon, and killed thousands of innocent people. We fought—and continue to fight—two wars, one of which on grounds that proved false. Our country openly acknowledged participating in torture. The levees in New Orleans broke. Our economy collapsed. Free-marketers socialized a large segment of it. So, has the Dude abided?

The Dude, of course, refers to the great anti-hero of the 1990s: as he himself is reminded after having his head stuffed into the toilet by one of Jackie Treehorn’s thugs, “You’re name’s Lebowski, Lebowski.” Or, as he says to the other, bigger Lebowski, “His Dudeness, Duder, or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.” We first see him on screen strolling through a supermarket to write a 69-cent check for half-and-half in order to make his signature White Russian. He smokes pot. He likes CCR. He bowls. He doesn’t pay his rent. But who really is the Dude?

Nietzsche would recognize him as “the last man,” the spiritual end-point of democracy: a man lacking significant values, incapable of creating them, and yet vaguely satisfied with his tranquilized existence. All that remains of his withered aesthetic sense is his conviction that a peed-on rug “really tied the room together.” His sense of honor has faded since his days of membership in the Seattle Seven and authorship of “the original Port Huron Statement—not the compromised second draft.” His motivation in life, beyond bowling and pot, is largely borrowed from Walter Sobchek, a kind of parody of Nietzsche’s Übermensch: “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude: at least it was an ethos,” he declares in disgust about a band of roving nihilists.

Critics have often grumbled that the movies of the Coen brothers are nihilistic. That complaint is kind of right, provided we realize it is an ethical—and not an aesthetic—judgment. In the Coen brothers’ recently released movie, Burn After Reading, the nihilism often feels cramping and, ultimately, sadistic. (As a side note, Oliver Stone has just released W., which hews closely to the facts of our current president’s life; and yet the movie itself seems exactly the kind of paranoid attempt at myth-making as Nixon. Reality, once again, has defeated the fabulist. Thus, I have deduced a theorem: The Big Lebowski + [W. x 8] = Burn After Reading.) But to dismiss Lebowski as nihilistic and unethical is to be weirdly insensitive to its immense panache and visual lushness and all-round sense of fun—in short, those qualities that have obsessed people like me for the past 10 years.

The story of Lebowski isn’t worth going into; it rambles, Raymond-Chandler-like, in and around L.A., and involves a cast of semi-allegorical characters: a fraudulent business man, a performance artist, a pornographer, a Vietnam vet, and so on. But these representative men and women are brought to life by performances that are, without exception, exceptional. Jeff Bridges’ Dude and John Goodman’s Walter are the best performances of their careers; and Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro, and Philip Seymour Hoffman so light up their characters you can’t help smiling every time they appear. The bravura cinematography of the Coen brothers never lets up. The soundtrack reinforces the odd joy of the movie from the opening credits, as Bob Dylan’s “Man in Me” washes over wonderful shots of the bellies, feet, and falling pins of the Dude’s bowling alley, to Townes Van Zandt’s version of “Dead Flowers,” which presides over a similar, though more somber, scene of the bowling alley at the story’s end.

“I know a few people just like the Dude,” you’re moved to say after seeing the film. In fact, pretty much everyone you know under the age of John McCain contains some quantity of the Dude. If the past 10 years have demonstrated that we need to find spiritual resources far beyond anything the Dude can teach us, they have also given us some reason to be nostalgic for the days when we basked in the “end of history” and life was no more serious than a bowling game—“strikes and gutters, ups and downs.” The Dude may be a thing of the past, but Lebowski abides. I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that.

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