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The Dude Abides

Mark Witte | Sunday, February 1, 2009

With Oscar season right around the corner, one is reminded of all the great films that have garnered the prestigious Academy Award for Best Picture in the past. Epic works of filmmaking such as “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” older, classic favorites such as “The Sound of Music” or films that, in my opinion, really didn’t deserve to win anything, like the abominable, box-office spectacle “Titanic.”

But Oscar season also reminds us of why we love movies, especially those movies which never win awards, and really shouldn’t. Yet some of those flicks are our personal favorites. I can think of one that sticks out most for me.

When I turned 14, a friend of mine gave me as a present the Coen brothers’ cult hit, “The Big Lebowski.” As a teenager somewhat sheltered from R-rated movies by overprotective parents, the fact that I was watching something prohibited had me grinning before the movie even started. And when it did, I laughed nearly the entire 117 minutes.

Yet at the time, my being humored was at best a product of the film’s unique, bawdy plot, its eccentric characters, goofy ruses and its 200-plus f-bombs (though some claim the number to be closer to 398). In fact, it would be four years – during my freshman composition class – before I seriously cogitated on what made the film so entertaining.

The film’s premise starts off simply. Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) is mistaken by a pair of thugs for the extremely wealthy and crippled philanthropist Jeffrey Lebowski (David Huddleston). These thugs knock the Dude around before proceeding to urinate on his favorite rug, a rug that according to the Dude’s volatile bowling buddy Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), “really tied the room together.”

The Dude then sets out to seek recompense for his damaged upholstery, getting himself stuck in a complicated web of ransom-seeking Nihilists, porn kings, playboy wives, raging feminists and inept private detectives along the way.

But the film is more than its farcical, bumbling plot portends it to be.

My freshman year composition class focused on representations of gender, class and race in media. In order to demonstrate contemporary critiques of the subject, the instructor chose to screen “The Big Lebowksi” as an example, and that’s when I began to decipher what the Coen Brothers were really doing with their film.

“The Big Lebowski” provides masculine (and feminine) role models that no one would willingly want to associate with. Most of these representations are done through extremes.

The Dude’s hardly potty-trained antagonists are completely boneheaded, mistaking the debt of a millionaire philanthropist’s playboy wife to be associated with the unemployed, Welfare-dependent Dude.

The Nihilists, who later pretend to kidnap the philanthropist’s wife and then extract ransom from the Dude, turn out to be spineless, cowardly bullies when confronted by Walter in a showdown outside the bowling alley.

Contrasting their representation is that of Walter himself, a character negatively amped and exuding in testosterone. A Vietnam veteran with an exceptionally short temper, Walter comically blunders around the Dude’s situation throughout the film, constantly making matters worse for the Dude by attempting to fix them with violence and war tactics. At one point, while interrogating a teenager who stole and crashed the Dude’s car, Walter becomes fed up with the boy’s refusal to answer any questions and takes a crowbar to what he believes is the boy’s brand new car. The car actually belongs to a neighbor, who comes out hooting and hollering and takes a baseball bat to the Dude’s vehicle, bashing its windshield.

In between these extremes of cowardice and belligerence, but still in the negative realm of masculinity, fall the Dude and his buddy Donny’s powerless representations.

The Dude, because of his passivism, laziness, alcoholism and even hazed stupidity, lacks the power to rationally communicate or combat injustice and oppression. His inability to solve his own problems, depicted through his constant manipulation by and abuse from other characters, forces him to turn to Walter for help.

In the film’s final showdown, the Nihilists set fire to the Dude’s car, destroying it. The car then becomes a metaphor for the Dude’s impuissance. Throughout the story it is shot, crashed, stolen, used as a urinal, crashed again, assaulted with a bat and finally burned. Like the car, the Dude has no control over the events happening to or around him.

Donny is even more powerless, despite being the best bowler of the bunch. Every time he speaks, Walter immediately contradicts him or to yells at him to “Shut up!”

By providing extreme masculine representations associated with defeat and failure, “The Big Lebowski” encourages its viewers to come up with their own conception of masculinity somewhere between those extremes, and without the help of a traditionally represented hero.

If you look for a literal hero within the film, you will not find one, I hope. Instead, the film works to promote a different type of viewing, a viewing where individuals create and construct their own conception of gender rather than relying on what they see to form their masculine role models.

The film contains another character extreme, the story’s out-of-place narrator. Dressed in full cowboy garb, what the Old West would consider the height of manliness and masculinity – in other words, a perfect extreme – the narrator first introduces the Dude by posing a question: “Sometimes there’s a man. I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero?”

While the narrator may not know the answer to his question, neither may we, and that’s something to think and laugh about.

For me, “The Big Lebowski” will always have a special place in my heart. Since first watching it eight years ago, I have shown it to numerous friends and family. And whether or not they’ve understood the film’s gender critique, we’ve shared laughter at the Dude’s expense nonetheless.

But hey, at least the guy is housebroken.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Mark Witte at mwitte@nd.edu