Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Big Lebowski: A Pardoner’s Tale from the Post-Cold War Interregnum and Beyond

The Big Lebowski (1998)
directors and writers: Ethan and Joel Coen
cast: Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Huddleston, Tara Reid, Julianne Moore

Introduction


There are many obvious comments one could write on the irony of the American-led neo-liberal system falling apart a quarter century after Mikhail Gorbachev announced the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Donald Trump may be an American version of Boris Yeltsin, who assaulted his own parliament with tanks less than two years after coming to power. We may soon be seeing Trump too, either literally or figuratively, firing heavy artillery at Congress and other American institutions. Yet rather than editorialize further on this point, I examine this historical moment through the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski, a superficially un-serious film that proved to be one of the most incisive political commentaries in the past twenty years.

 
Synopsis (spoiler alert)

Setting: Los Angeles, September 1990. 
Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston) is a wealthy “self-made” businessman and philanthropist. Due to a war injury inflicted by a “Chinaman” in Korea he is confined to a wheelchair. He has a young wife whose behavior has proven a little problematic because she owes money to a businessman who deals in pornography and other shady enterprises. The businessman sends two of his minions to rough up Lebowski and threaten graver punishments if he doesn’t settle his wife’s debts, but the simple-minded thugs go to the home of a different Jeffrey Lebowski, referred to hereafter, to avoid confusion, by his nickname The Dude (Jeff Bridges). They assault and threaten him, and urinate on his prized carpet, then leave after realizing that the humble surroundings must mean they have the wrong guy.
When The Dude meets with his friends at their regular bowling game, they discuss the incident. Walter, a traumatized, volatile Vietnam War veteran, convinces him to stand up to unchecked aggression. He must go to the other Lebowski and demand justice. A tale of confusion and woe ensues.
The wealthy Lebowski denies any moral obligation to compensate The Dude, and The Dude knows he has a rather tenuous claim that no court would recognize. The elder Lebowski is responsible for his wife’s debts, but not for the thugs who assaulted The Dude and pissed on his rug. Lebowski quickly sizes The Dude up as an unemployed bum, so he goes on to berate him with moral authority because in his own case he didn’t spend his life with a victim mentality. He prides himself for being a wealthy, self-made philanthropist who succeeded in spite the physical handicap inflicted on him during military service to his country. His parting shot is a comment on the entire history of late 20th century American life—the triumph of the Reagan era, the defeat the counter-culture and the fall of the communist bloc, and the rise of the new world order based on American supremacy: “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. The bums will always lose.”
In a surprise twist, The Dude is soon called by Lebowski because his wife has been kidnapped and he wants The Dude’s help in solving the case. He believes the thugs who beat up The Dude might be the kidnappers, so The Dude could help identify them if he drops off the ransom. After many confusing turns, with “a lotta ins, a lotta outs” as The Dude describes the case, he gets closer to Lebowski’s daughter, Maude (Julianne Moore), an avant-garde artist, and he learns from her that her father took advantage of the kidnapping to embezzle funds from his own charity. His trophy wife has become too much of a problem, so he doesn’t care if she never returns, and he knows her lazy nihilist friends, whom he suspects of the crime, probably wouldn’t follow through on their threats anyway. It turns out that Lebowski is a fraud in more ways than this. Maude tells The Dude that his wealth came from his wife, and it exists in the present only because of the careful management of the foundation by the mother and daughter.
Meanwhile, the group of nihilists whom the young trophy wife associated with claim the ransom. They have the false understanding that The Dude has the ransom money, while The Dude himself believes, until Maude corrects him, that he lost the ransom money. In the end, the case is closed when the hostage returns safely from a holiday in Palm Springs and The Dude learns there never was any cash in the suitcase entrusted to him to deliver to the kidnappers. There was only the emergency transfer of the cash from the foundation to Mr. Lebowski, who planned to hide the money after claiming it was used for paying the kidnappers.
As the story comes to its conclusion, Maude seduces The Dude because she has been in search of the perfect male to father the child she intends to raise alone. It helps that he is someone she won't have to see socially later on, but she chooses him also because she finds in The Dude an honest man with a commitment to peace, lacking all tendencies toward aggression and domination, capable of enjoying healthy relations but not suffering from the widespread anhedonia and misogyny she finds all around her in the wasteland of L.A. The story wraps up with the narrator, a mysterious cowboy observer of the tale, telling us there is “a little Lebowski on the way.”
_____

      When The Big Lebowski had its first run in the cinema in 1998, it was, like many classics, not immediately recognized as such. People left the theater mildly amused but shrugging off its weirdness. It took time and deeper reflection, and repeated viewings on DVD, for audiences to appreciate everything that was packed into it and elevate it to its classic and cult status, attested to by the annual Lebowski Fest since 2002.

The film is a mix of several genres: Western, crime, noir, surrealist, buddy film, holy quest, comedy, and subversive socio-political commentary. At first glance it appears to be just a comedy about fools mixed up in a kidnapping caper. Yet for reasons that became apparent upon later contemplation, the writers set the story in September 1990, a  month after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and a year before the declared end of the Soviet Union. President George H. W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, the Gulf War and the Vietnam War play important roles in the story.

The Historical Context

After launching political and economic reforms, and achieving momentous agreements with the United States to reduce both nuclear and conventional weapons, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev made his famous speech at the United Nations in 1988. He announced the end of Cold War hostilities and the possibility of a new peaceful and balanced world order. The assembled international audience reacted with stunned applause, but the US government soon came to take this as a cue to establish unipolar American supremacy.
In the summer of 1990, shortly after Iraq invaded Kuwait, president George H. W. Bush was also making frequent mention of a new world order, but he remained vague about whether he agreed with Gorbachev’s vision of a lasting balanced order. Six months later, the historic overwhelming display of American military strength was made in the Iraqi desert. From then until September 2015, the United States made a long series unopposed unilateral interventions, sometimes under the flag of NATO or a “coalition of the willing.” The US launched these wars and regime change operations without any need to worry about opposition from a rival superpower or the international community. When the use of military force was inconvenient, tools of economic warfare and political interference were employed without any concern for international law.

Lebowski Studies

Subversive Carnivalesque Humor


One analysis of The Big Lebowski’s political themes by Paul Martin and Valerie Renegar states that it is a highly subversive film. They argue that the film:

... explores the ability of carnivalesque rhetorical strategies to challenge hegemonic social hierarchies and the social order in general. Working through grotesque realism, the inversion of hierarchies, structural and grammatical experimentation and other tropes, the carnivalesque encourages audiences to achieve a critical distance through laughter and realize the constructed nature of the social world.

They say the genre helps audiences “reflect on, and ultimately reject, their fears of power, law and the sacred.” The story features “multiple dismembered body parts, an outwardly wealthy and successful character who turns out to be neither,” and an “intentionally confused plot interrupted by dream sequences” to achieve its effect on the viewer.[1]
In their book The Big Lebowski, J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters note the film specifically “subverts traditional notions of masculinity” with a morality tale about what happens when male ego is challenged.[2] The film examines what happens when one must “draw a line in the sand” or decide whether a certain unchecked aggression “will not stand.”
Contemporary observers believe that it was the second president Bush, the son, who was prodded by Oedipal doubts to overcome his father’s reluctance to go to war, but the story of the two president Bushes is really one of doubling down on masculine insecurity and the readiness to make war. Bush Sr. was mocked during the election campaign of 1988 for being a wimp, for being the boring type who is “every woman’s first husband,” and this insecurity lay behind his decision to draw a “line in the sand” and announce that Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait was a transgression that “will not stand.”[3]
The film refers to the way Bush succumbed to the threat to his masculinity, and connects it to the same problem faced by The Dude. In the opening scene, he is shown, pathetically, buying a quart of milk with a post-dated check. Behind the cashier, as he writes the check, a small television plays news footage from August 1990, right after Iraq invaded Kuwait, of President Bush saying “this aggression will not stand.” On the check we see the date: September 11, 1991—exactly one year after Bush gave his “toward a new world order” speech to Congress. The filmmakers couldn’t have known, but of course, this became an uncanny premonition of the infamous day ten years later when Bush Jr. launched the endless “war against terror.” In the next scene, The Dude’s landlord asks him for the rent check because “tomorrow’s the 10th,” and thus this scene delivers for the careful observer the joke that in addition to not having enough cash for a quart of milk, he had to buy it with a post-dated check.
     Furthermore, the writers created confusion about what year it actually was. In the opening the narrator says imprecisely "it took place in the early 90s, just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis." It is much more likely that it is September 1990, which would explain why video footage of President Bush speaking in August 1990 is on the television behind the cashier. If it is 1990, then The Dude is committing a petty fraud by post-dating his check not just a few days but one year in the future, hoping the clerk doesn't notice. This puts him on the same moral level as the other Lebowski, with the only difference being that between sixty-nine cents and a million dollars. Near the end of the story Walter is heard mumbling about the upcoming invasion and the difference between desert and jungle warfare, so the writers left a well-hidden but clear indication that The Dude is going to battle for his rug concurrently with the president's declaration that "this aggression will not stand":

The Big Lebowski is set in September 1990, not September 1991 as suggested by the check that The Dude writes in the opening scene. Operation Desert Shield, the buildup of troops, lasted from August 2, 1990 to January 17, 1991. In the film, Walter talks in the future tense about the upcoming combat phase, Operation Desert Storm, which lasted from January 17, 1991 to February 28, 1991:

Sure, you’ll see some tank battles. Fighting in desert is very different from fighting in jungle. Nam was a foot soldier’s war, whereas this thing should, you know, be a piece of cake. I mean, I had an M16, Jacko, not an Abrams fucking tank.... Whereas, what we have here... Fig-eaters wearing towels on their heads, trying to find reverse on a Soviet tank.

By the time of the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to win by focusing on the message that it was “the economy, stupid,” so the post-dated check is a way of referencing America’s accumulated debt, the post-dated checks Presidents Reagan and Bush had written to “win the Cold War” and display American military supremacy to the post-Soviet world. War is money. Money is debt. War is debt.
Nonetheless, the story does much more than just condemn the US leadership. More importantly, it shows how the entire country went along for the ride. Even the liberal and pacifist extremes of opposition were pulled into the whirlwind, and what was left of the counter-culture of the 1960s was too weak, or it capitulated like the story’s protagonist from a haze of self-indulgence and withdrawal—drinking White Russians, smoking pot and bowling. (It is a philosophical question as to whether The Dude's apathy puts him on a path toward the nihilism of the gang of cretins attempting to extort the ransom.) Roused from his withdrawal from the world to face an aggression, The Dude reluctantly takes up the challenge, and of course it ends in tragedy. Donny, symbol of the passive populace, dies in the crossfire, and compensation for the urine-soaked carpet is never obtained.
Late in the story it is revealed that The Dude was one of the drafters of The Port Huron Statement, the founding manifesto of the 1960s radical student movement. He adds that it was the original one, “not the compromised second draft.” He also mentions that he was part of the Seattle Seven, a line which ties the character to the creators’ actual inspiration for the story, Jeff Dowd, a member of the Seattle Seven who later worked in Hollywood and befriended the Coen brothers.[4]
The Dude, in spite of his past commitment to pacifism and his self-declaration in the opening act as a pacifist still, is urged on by his Vietnam veteran friend and drawn into conflict to right an aggression against his prized possession. In making his claim for justice to his namesake and adversary, he even inadvertently uses the president’s statement to Saddam. “This will not stand,” he utters lamely, simply because it was a meme of the time, a line on everyone’s lips. He restates it in counter-culture argot by meekly adding “man” to the phrase with a telling embarrassment and hesitation. “This will not stand... man.” There are other instances in the film that show how the characters have unwittingly become conveyors of propaganda terms as they re-use phrases they've overheard for their own purposes. They talk about a "line in the sand" that can't be crossed, and by the end The Dude ends up demanding from his namesake, "Where's the fucking money?" just as his tormentors had said to him.
     Not only does The Dude succumb to the challenge to answer the aggression (while later facing a threat of castration from the nihilists and another of getting "fucked" by a bowling league rival), he gets pulled into Walter's scheme to keep all of the ransom money rather than merely settle for the $20,000 handling fee. They conclude they might as well keep it if they are sure that the whole thing is a scam and the trophy wife kidnapped herself. After this, Maude offers him 10% if he can recover the ransom, which has gone missing in The Dude's stolen car, yet even after this offer he attempts play both sides by trying to collect the $20,000 in advance from Lebowski. Like the characters in Chaucer's Pardoner's Tale who set out to meet the grim reaper and kill him, Walter and The Dude forget their higher purpose and are overtaken by greed.

The Dude, Walter and Donny





Many fans of the film have debated the meanings of the trio of bowlers that includes The Dude, trigger-happy Vietnam veteran Walter (John Goodman), and the passive Donny (Steve Buscemi). A common reading of this trio is that The Dude and Walter represent two opposing political wings of American life: liberal pacifism and reactionary militarism. Donny represents the ignored and uncomprehending masses who must simply be spectators in the political theater of these polarized elites. Thus it is the war party (Walter) who continually berates Donny to “shut the fuck up” and stay out of political and strategic discussions of how to respond to the aggression and the kidnapping. The Dude hardly seems to acknowledge Donny’s presence. Donny never interacts with any characters besides Walter and The Dude, which led to speculation that he is a figment of their imagination.
The odd-couple pairing of The Dude and Walter says many things about the uneasy co-existence of political opposites within America. If anything good has come out of their ill-advised quest for justice, it is in the hint that Walter’s traumatized soul has healed just a little. In the final moments The Dude explodes in anger and finally gets Walter to face the truth that nothing in this misadventure has had anything to do with his traumatic experiences in Vietnam.
A curious aspect of Walter’s biography is that he converted to Judaism when he married his wife, but she has divorced him. He now sticks with his adopted faith and looks after his ex-wife’s dog while she goes on vacation with her husband. As Walter represents American militarism, the Coen brothers may have wanted to imply something here about the United States’ relationship with Israel. Julian Assange provided some perspective as the American government and media were making frenzied allegations in December 2016 that Russia interfered with its domestic politics:

... there is, however, another country that has interfered in U.S. elections, has endangered Americans living or working overseas and has corrupted America’s legislative and executive branches. It has exploited that corruption to initiate legislation favorable to itself, has promoted unnecessary and unwinnable wars and has stolen American technology and military secrets. Its ready access to the mainstream media to spread its own propaganda provides it with cover for its actions and it accomplishes all that and more through the agency of a powerful and well-funded domestic lobby that oddly is not subject to the accountability afforded by the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938, even though it manifestly works on behalf of a foreign government. That country is, of course, Israel.[5]

Holy Quest

In a work of collected essays on The Big Lebowski,[6] Andrew Rabin writes that that The Big Lebowski is a version of the quest for the Holy Grail, with Los Angeles presented as the Medieval wasteland:

As bowlers, Lebowski’s grail knights seek to master a game which idealizes repetitive, cyclical movement in a confined, constructed and utterly controllable environment... Bowling offers them an escape into a predictable world isolated from the chaotic nihilism of late-20th-century culture.[7]

Their quest forces them to leave these confines and contend with the wider world where they find deception, avarice, violence, duplicity and manipulation—everything the counter-culture opposed in the 1960s. For The Dude there was no escape in bowling, White Russians (Kahlua, vodka and milk), marijuana and refusal to accept “gainful employment.” We are all captives of our era.

Victory for Matriarchy


The most ambiguous question left by the story is what to make of Maude’s seduction of The Dude. She obviously represents the establishment of a matriarchal order in which women may wisely rule with the cooperation of a new kind of “successful” man—a selected breed of evolved dudes who will help women lead in a new peaceful era. The inversion of sex roles is portrayed comically in the dream sequence in which The Dude dances and shakes his ass before Maude's female gaze. But the film leaves open the question of whether Maude is a benign force. She made restrained but unnecessary use of violence on a few occasions, which makes her less of a pacifist than her chosen man. She could be a power-hungry usurper, conqueror of a race of men who have become lost boys condemned to living in perpetual adolescence. They have no parental responsibilities, and seem to be needed only for friendship, occasional heavy lifting, and sperm donation.

Conclusion

The Coen brothers don’t seem interested in commenting on their films or making sequels, but The Big Lebowski is one that screams out for follow-up during this time when America is reaping the whirlwind of what it started in 1990. The question about Maude’s true nature and the potential of matriarchy could be answered by showing us how The Little Lebowski has turned out a quarter century later. It would be good to know how the progeny of Maude and The Dude (and grandchild of the other Lebowski) would face this historic turning point when the Democratic-Republican one-party order, along with its propaganda machinery, is crumbling just as surely as the Communist Party disappeared under Gorbachev’s deliberate and, by comparison, honest and purposeful demolition that he ultimately lost control of.
But perhaps the sequel is not necessary because The Big Lebowski is the story of 2016 as much as it is the story of 1990-91. The capitulation of the American people is represented by the defeat of “the bums” and The Dude’s long absence from the struggle. When he is finally roused to action, he goes to war not to defend life, family or community, but to restore his pride and obtain compensation for an offense against a mere possession that could be easily replaced. He was “a man for his time and place,” as the narrator states in the opening. He abides much and the audience abides him, pardons him, and elevates him to cult hero status, but his story is not uplifting. He is a tragic hero whose defeat foretold the next quarter century of third-way politics of compromise, with its belatedly recognized consequences.

Notes

[1] Paul “Pablo” Martin and Valerie R. Renegar, “‘The Man for His Time’ The Big Lebowski as Carnivalesque Social Critique,” Communication Studies, 57 (September 2007): 299-313,
[2] J.M. Tyree and Ben Walters, The Big Lebowski (BFI Publishing, 2007).
[3] Curt Suplee, “Sorry George, but the Image Needs Work,” Washington Post, July 10, 1988.
[4] Colin Patrick, “The Dude, the Port Huron Statement and the Seattle Seven,” Mentalfloss, January 10, 2011.
[5] “Assange: Forget Russia, The Real Threat to America comes from Israel and the Israel Lobby,” Another Western Dawn News, December 18, 2016.
[6] Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, editors. (Indiana University Press, 2009).
[7] Andrew Rabin, “A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest,” in Comentale and Jaffe. Some of the sources listed here (Martin, Renegar, Tyree, Walters, Rabin) were found in an article by Tom Jacobs entitled “Scholars and The Big Lebowski: Deconstructing The Dude,” Pacific Standard Magazine, July 11, 2011.


Other essays in Lebowski Studies found in
Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, editors (Indiana University Press, 2009):

Metonymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds: Noir Literary Aesthetics in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski
Found Document: The Stranger’s Commentary and a Note on His Method 
A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest
The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism
“I’ll Keep Rolling Along”: Some Notes on Singing Cowboys and Bowling Alleys in The Big Lebowski
The Really Big Sleep: Jeffrey Lebowski as the Second Coming of Rip Van Winkle 
The Dude and the New Left
No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski
Dudespeak: Or, How to Bowl like a Pornstar
Lebowski and the Ends of Postmodern American Comedy
LebowskIcons: The Rug, The Iron Lung, The Tiki Bar, and Busby Berkeley
Logjammin’ and Gutterballs: Masculinities in The Big Lebowski
Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski
Professor Dude: An Inquiry into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students
What Condition the Postmodern Condition Is In: Collecting Culture in The Big Lebowski
On the White Russians
Size Matters
“Fuck It, Let’s Go Bowling”: The Cultural Connotations of Bowling in The Big Lebowski 
Abiding (as) Animal: Marmot, Pomeranian, Whale
Enduring and Abiding
The Goofy and the Profound: A Non-Academic’s Perspective on the Lebowski Achievement

A note on the title:

pardoner: a medieval preacher delegated to raise money for religious works by soliciting offerings and granting indulgences


The Pardoner’s Tale is one of The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Pardoner initiates his Prologue—briefly accounting his methods of conning people—and then proceeds to tell a moral tale. Setting out to kill Death, three young men encounter an Old Man who says that they will find him under a nearby tree. When they arrive they discover a hoard of treasure and decide to stay with it overnight to carry it away the following morning. It goes without saying that they find Death but do not kill him. None of them survives the night. The tale is concerned with what the Pardoner says is his theme: Radix malorum est cupiditas (Greed is the root of all evil).

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