Twenty years on, the Dude still abides

Harriet Marsden

Harriet Marsden on how ‘The Big Lebowski’ gained and maintained its cult status

20 October 2018 09:39

‘What makes a man?’, asks the narrator of The Big Lebowski (Coen brothers, 1998). What makes a cult movie? Two questions to consider as this archetypal cult classic toasts its 20th birthday with a White Russian this year.

If Peter Hoskin’s idea of a Movieverse describes how cinema is currently blending with other artforms, blurring old divisions, then the so-called ‘cult movie’ goes one step further. Not only do cult films spawn art, music, fan fiction and audience participation, they jump off the screen into real life, blurring fiction and reality. The role of technological innovation – social media, fan forums, the birth of the digital age – cannot be overstated.

Take The Big Lebowski. Once a critical and commercial disappointment; now, twenty years later, it boasts legions of obsessives (known as ‘Achievers’), an annual festival, a fan guide, a restaurant, bowling parties, two species of African spider and even its own religion: Dudeism, a modern Taoism with a sacred holy Day of the Dude (6 March). A spin-off, Going Places (2018) will see John Turturro reprise the unforgettable role of Jesus Quintana, a backwards-dancing ball-shining pederast. A couple of nights ago, the cast met for a well-publicised reunion.

Fandom can, given sufficient time, trump the money and power of the big Hollywood studios – a more democratic cinema. Cult status is ultimately conferred by the audience, not the critics or judges. Achieving cult status also allows for an unsuccessful film to be ‘resurrected’, allowing for a re-assessment of its quality.

And so it was with this film. Premiering at Sundance in 1998, it was much anticipated after the Coen brothers’ wildly successful Fargo two years before. But the box office was unmoved (it barely earned back its budget), and so, by and large, were the critics. Perhaps it was a victim of expectations after Fargo, or perhaps the critics were less forgiving of these already proven directorial darlings. But, either way, the rather ridiculous plot didn’t curry favour.

Screening of ‘The Big Lebowski’ (Coen brothers, 1998) at the TCM Classic Film Festival, April 2018

Jeffrey ‘The Dude’ Lebowski (the role of a lifetime for Jeff Bridges), a charmingly stoned, ex-hippy slacker and bowling enthusiast, shares a name with a millionaire, whose trophy wife ‘owes money all over town’. The loan sharks accidentally threaten the wrong Lebowski, and urinate on his rug – the one that ‘really tied the room together’.

Infuriated by the injustice, The Dude visits his namesake (later called the ‘Big Lebowski’ for clarity), who turns out to be as aggressive and ambitious as the Dude is unfazed and unemployed. Bunny the trophy wife is later kidnapped; her husband and his manservant Brandt (a delightful turn from the late Philip Seymour Hoffman) beg the Dude to deliver the ransom and solve the crime.

Unfortunately, the Dude’s friend Walter (John Goodman), a bombastic Vietnam vet with a penchant for violence, decides to join him on the ride. The plan goes spectacularly wrong. Prepare for a batshit series of events, including a drug-induced dream sequence, a severed toe, a flamenco version of ‘Hotel California’, a few German nihilists and an instance of ‘coitus’.

New York magazine criticised the Dude for getting lost in his own story, ‘a story so incoherent that he can’t explain it to anyone’. Roger Ebert described the plot as ‘ramshackle’, while Edward Guthman denounced the film as ‘too clever for its own good’.

But therein lies the point. Like most films eventually described as cult, the film allows fans to bask in their own cleverness – other people ‘just don’t get it’. There’s a symbiosis: to achieve cult status, films need to attract fans who will repeatedly watch, write about and participate in the world it creates. That kind of fan tends to be an educated and eager moviegoer willing to participate in online geekdom. The kind of film that becomes cult must therefore cater to those sensibilities with winking asides and a joy in the inexplicable, the utterly bizarre.

The film is riddled with artistic and cultural references to political philosophies, Lenin, the Bible, Theodor Herzl and Orthodox Judaism, to name a few. The Coen brothers were also emulating the detective fiction of Raymond Chandler.

‘The Big Lebowski’ (Coen brothers, 1998)

There are also elements of social commentary. The Dude, at the Utopic bowling alley with Walter and the beleaguered Donny (Steve Buscemi at his wide-eyed best) is complaining about the man who pissed on his rug, a ‘Chinaman’. To which Walter, a politically incorrect – to say the least – hawk, responds: ‘Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature, dude. That’s Asian American, please.’ The Dude responds: ‘This isn’t the guy that built the railroads!’

Consider also the gang’s absolute derision of the Nihilist Germans: ‘Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, but at least it’s an ethos!’

Like so many cult films, it was via the medium of the midnight screening that the film first began to attract a following, allowing for those ‘in the know’ to gather, quote and participate, without the interruption of the uninitiated.

Quotability is key – cult films spawn a common language, this one involving liberal use of the word ‘dude’ and ‘man’. One of the film’s most famous lines has also become a core religious belief of Dudeism (and a useful comeback to any insult): ‘That’s just, like, your opinion, man.’

By the early Noughties, the film had achieved semi-official ‘cult status’. In 2002, The Lebowski Fest was born in Kentucky, and has since been held all over the US every year. By 2014, it had been selected for the National Film Registry as ‘culturally significant’. It is now one of the most popular cult films.

This year, in homage to that line, critics were asked to reassess their opinions of The Big Lebowski in light of its enduring legacy. Daphne Merkin of the New Yorker, who originally panned the film, responded: ‘In some ways, The Dude and his disconnected dudeness has a certain appeal now, maybe because the world has grown more horrendous’. But, she added, ‘I still think it’s basically more of a guy’s flick, than a woman’s.’

There’s no denying that women do not come out of this film well. Bunny the kidnapped wife (a mischievous Tara Reid in her pre-American Pie incarnation) and Maude, the Big Lebowski’s daughter (characteristic cold perfection from Julianne Moore) both embody a mash-up of masculine fantasies and fears. Bunny is a beautiful blonde porn star – and a nymphomaniac gold-digging cheat. Maude is a sexually liberated and highly intelligent saviour – and an intimidatingly articulate feminist who all but steals The Dude’s sperm for conception.

‘The Big Lebowski’ (Coen brothers, 1998)

But there was, and still is, something about the film that captured the hearts of guys in particular. If the last few years have seen an upheaval of political turmoil and cultural despair, they have also seen a reckoning and reassessment of masculinity – and that’s where The Big Lebowski comes in, with its constant repetitions of ‘dude’ and ‘man’, and musings on what it means to be a man.

The typical Hollywood male hero is someone to emulate: success in career and with women, good looks, ambition, physical superiority, etc. But an audience who emulates also envies, and its easy to see why The Dude, with all his lack of aspiration, inspires. There’s something wildly attractive about his total absence of drive; his peace with his failed hippy ideals; and his pursuit of the simple pleasures of bowling, baths and blunts.

The film makes its judgement on masculinity obvious by pitting the two Lebowskis against each other. The Big Lebowski, a millionaire charity worker who’s met the President, is also unsentimental, money-driven and viciously jealous: all toxic masculinity in a wheelchair. ‘Your revolution is over,’ he tells The Dude. ‘Condolences; the bums lost.’

Compare that to The Dude, who laughs when asked if he’s employed and isn’t sure what day it is, but is ultimately a pacifist who’s trying to solve a crime, save Bunny and replace his beloved rug. He decries men who, he says, ‘treat objects like women’. Where George H. W. Bush is seen on the television in the opening scene justifying military action with the famous: ‘This aggression will not stand!’, The Dude subverts that by using the line to protest the violence of his male counterparts.

‘What makes a man?’ the narrator asks. ‘Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost?’ That is the very essence of The Dude.

The character was partially inspired by Jeff Dowd, a political activist and member of the Seattle Seven (an anti-Vietnam War movement), and there’s no doubt that Vietnam looms large as the spectre of what can define, or break, a man. The Big Lebowski is wheelchair-bound thanks to his service, while Walter simply cannot let it go: ‘This is not ‘Nam, this is bowling, there are rules.’

There’s also no doubt that it was a film for its time: nostalgic for the end of the Sixties, reactionary against the birth of Reaganomics – The Dude tries to pay with a cheque for $0.69 – and fearing further conflict in the Gulf. The narrator tells us that The Dude ‘is a man for his time and place’. But he’s also a man for our time and place. The world may have ‘grown horrendous’, but The Dude still abides.