The Big Lebowski

There are a lot of reasons to love The Big Lebowski. The movie's most impressive feature might be how well balanced its script is, since it takes it's time to set up it's central mystery - who kidnapped Bunny Lebowski, and can The Dude get her back? - and then after that's established it continues to develop that story but it also makes a lot of time for a bunch of weird side-stories and dead ends. Furthermore, it's a very funny movie, with it's main character The Dude offering a constant string of sarcastic quips as he muddles through one misbegotten situation after another, whether he's in trouble (like when he's being assaulted by some thugs in his own home) or whether he's just dicking around (like when he's meeting a vagina-centric painter in her art studio.) It's super weird to boot, since in addition to those thugs and painters the cast of characters also includes nihilists, a guy in an iron lung, multiple pornstars and an Eagles-loving cab driver. It's the sort of movie that you can take a deep dive into, with each repeated viewing showing you some other weird detail that you'd missed. (For example, last night as the first time I'd ever noticed that The Dude has a poster of Richard Nixon bowling on top of the bar in his apartment.)

However, I think that the reason why the Big Lebowski has become such a cult movie over the years is not because it's such a funny movie or because it's so weird (although those factors certainly helped.) No, I think the reason why the movie has really resonated with audiences is that it has a philosophical core that's really enticing. I had kind of known this for a long time. After all, I had been vaguely aware that whole books had been written about The Philosophy of the Dude. I was also well aware that the movie had been important in my own philosophical growth, because when I was in college I realized I was a little too like Walter, The Dude's rules obsessed sidekick, and that I needed to calm down quite a bit. The Big Lebowski really opened my eyes to the fact that you can't just be right - you also have to go about being right the right way or else you're wrong. If you pull a gun out on someone because their toe went over the line while they were bowling you take the mantle of asshole from their shoulders and put it on your own.

But in my mind those were academic things, aimed at the small subset of people who had scholarly minds. (I might have felt differently about my own personal revelation if I hadn't had it while I was in college.) I just didn't think that the average Lebowski fan responded to it for the same reasons that I did. I thought they were maybe attracted to the fact that it's quite the stoner film (at one point The Dude almost pays for his coffee at a diner with a joint and some coins before catching his mistake and returning his wacky tobacky cigarette to his pocket). Or maybe it was because it's a rambling set of interconnected set pieces and those movies are ideal for rewatching over and over again on cable (where infamously the line "this is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass" was edited into "this is what happens when you find a stranger in the Alps.")

But when I rewatched it last night I really began to lock in on how The Big Lebowski has a really idiosyncratic and appealing approach to fate, and I began to understand just how comforting it's approach to life can be. First let me try to tackle the idiosyncratic part. Most movies are centered on strong protagonists who completely control the narrative, with a smaller subsection of movies being about Kafka-esque protagonists who are utterly powerless to fight against an indifferent and cruel universe. However, the Big Lebowski is neither. It is not immediately obvious that The Dude and Walter are strong characters because they spend so much of the movie being pushed around for reasons they don't completely understand, but at the end of the day they are as powerful and well informed as anyone else in the story, because once the mystery is completely unraveled we find out that everyone, whether they were a powerful pornographer or a toadying butler, was ill-informed and their schemes were half-baked. I know that it sounds crazy to call a movie with this many outsize characters semi-realistic, but the Big Lebowski has a sort of narrative messiness that is omnipresent in real life, where no one person gets to call all the shots, and which you almost never see in film, where there is almost always one person in charge of steering the story, and that makes it feel really grounded in a subtly powerful way.

Now for the appealing part: the Big Lebowski puts a very pleasant spin on that powerlessness. If I had to encapsulate this film's appeal succinctly, I would say that it comes down to the fact that no matter what's happening in the tumultuous plot - whether the dude's been drugged, beaten by a Malibu sheriff, or just potentially fathered a child - he still makes time to bowl in his bowling league. This gets at a core truth of life (which, again, you almost never see in fiction): namely that people continue on with their day to day existence regardless of whether they are currently blessed with good fortune or bad fortune. We all have our ups and downs in life, but either way we still have to eat, sleep, and make time for our friends and family. There's something really comforting about the way that The Big Lebowski keeps taking time away from it's crazy twists and turns to show The Dude and Walter and Donnie knocking a few pins down at their local lanes. Again, I understand that at first glance it's crazy to compliment a movie about a million-dollar kidnapping for being "mundane", but there is something refreshing about how The Dude's everyday life continues apace even in the middle of so much hustle and bustle. Honestly, I think that if I was in his shoes I would also keep bowling. After all, how many hours can you spend trying to crack a such a head scratching case without taking a break or going insane?

I should have picked up on The Big Lebowski's karmic charms a bit earlier. After all, for the last few years I've been answering the question "how are you doing?" with some variation of "As The Dude says: strikes and gutters." I didn't really connect that up with the bigger "The Dude Abides" meme, in large part because I wasn't trying to make a cosmic claim about my continued existence. I was just using that line because it's a semi-clever response to a generic question; because it doesn't make me pretend that everything in my life is going great but it doesn't force the other person to offer fake concern; because I'd rather be talking about movies than myself. But today I can see how that bowling-is-full-of-both-strikes-and-gutters-so-what-are-you-gonna-do philosophy is the heart of what "The Dude Abides" means - how you can take that to be a small talk way of indicating "I'm indifferent to small scale changes in fate" or a deep way to express the idea "I'm willing to accept that the universe as a whole is composed of both good and bad elements." That's a helluva message to convey through a simple quip about a silly game. But then again, The Big Lebowski is a helluva movie.

Winner: Me

The Big Lewboski on IMDB