The Dude Abides
“Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski. Condolences. The bums lost. My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose. Do you hear me, Lebowski? David Huddlestone, The Big Lebowski
On its ten year anniversary, Andy Greene of Rolling Stone magazine attempted to explain why an offbeat comedy, The Big Lebowski, became “the most worshipped comedy of its generation”. I count myself among the denizens who regularly quote, watch and discuss the 1998 Coen Brothers movie about an LA slacker named Jeffery “the Dude” Lebowski, a peacenik anti-hero who becomes mistaken for another Jeffery Lebowski, an LA millionaire with financial and personal problems. As a Dude connoisseur, I savored Greene’s entrée along with Walter Kirn’s side dish analysis of Dude, the ultimate underachiever. Greene makes a persuasive argument as to why a decade of Generation X’s and Y’s related so clearly to a man who was and is, the antithesis of our hard charging society.
At its most basic level, any motion picture is created to entertain. However, film is art and an important lens through which we interpret, depict and assess society and ultimately, ourselves. The Big Lebowski follows an unemployed forty something pot head who refers to himself simply as “ the Dude”, as he is haplessly drawn into a bizarre plot of kidnapping, extortion, pornography and deception. As Greene describes, “ the narrator ( a man simply known as the Stranger )…intones, ‘sometimes there’s a man who well, he’s the man for his time and place’. The odd truth is this man may have been a decade ahead of his time. Today, as technology increasingly handcuffs us to schedules and appointments – in the time it takes you to read this you have missed three emails – there’s something comforting about a fortyish character who will blow an evening lying in the bath tub, getting high and listening to an audiotape of whale songs. He is not the 21st century man. Nor is he Iron man – and he’s certainly not Batman. The Dude doesn’t even care about a job, a salary, a 401k and definitely not an iPhone. The Dude just is, and he’s happy.”
The Dude still appeals to a multi-generational audience. He has fans like myself – – the salt and pepper, latter stage Baby Boomers, known as the Generation Joneses, who were programmed by their Silent Generation parents to become economic grunions, genetically returning each day, month and year to beaches of hard labor in hopes of exceeding our parents’ standard of living and in doing so, writing the next great chapter for America. The Jones generation exists as a fragile bridge and no man’s land between the rules and conventions of the Silent and Boomer crowd and the self obsessed cynicism of the Gen X’s and Y’s. Generation Joneses were raised by the firm hands of self-reliant sergeants who believed in a strong military, free market, and the possibility that anything could be overcome with hard work. This ethos could vanquish any threat – a need, a want, a rival or even a foreign power with dark intentions.
The Silent and Boomer generations react viscerally to characters like the Dude. He is a ne’er-do-well and a slacker. Slackers are societal ticks and chronic underachievers who rationalize their inability to compete in our meritocracy by criticizing, pontificating, using mind altering substances and garnering unemployment checks from the very establishment they target with so much languid contempt. To the older generation, the Dude is like Europe – – impractically egalitarian, unmotivated and content to constantly regress to the mean. Socialism is Dudeism . Dude would rather see America lay medicated in a warm mineral bath listening to NPR than enforce its individual and collective imminent domain. The Dude’s indolent lifestyle is a threat and virus that must be halted. The fact that the emasculated Dude is content just to be and accepts life as it comes – “ strikes and gutters, ups and downs…you know, the Dude abides” – is lost on those whose lives are a frenetic merry go round of materialism and indentured obligation.
The Big Lebowski: Are you employed, sir?
The Dude: Employed?
The Big Lebowski: You don’t go out looking for a job dressed like that? On a weekday?
The Dude: Is this a… what day is this?
The Big Lebowski: Well, I do work sir, so if you don’t mind…
The Dude: I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.
Dude is an anti-hero. He is a pacifist. Jeff Dowd writes, “He’s a character who’s very loyal to his friends, but in some ways, he’s a real intellectual drifter, a person who doesn’t really care what people think about him. I mean obviously, if it’s the middle of night, and you’re in Ralph’s in your robe and jellies, then obviously you don’t care all that much about what people think of you. He’s a character that sees the truth.” He is, by society’s definition a bum. However, through the eyes of generations who have come to the depressing realization that they may not exceed their parent’s standard of living but instead inherit record deficits, a global environmental crisis, foreign wars and back breaking energy dependence, none of which was their doing, Dude’s minimalistic lifestyle in a Venice Beach apartment looks downright noble. To many, Dude was and is, a metaphor for all who have been dragged against their will into conflicts and circumstances beyond their control – Vietnam, Iraq and a world that no longer seems full of possibilities but fraught with sharp edges. He is the ultimate conscientious objector to a subtle social war. It is a battle being waged against the weeds in our society – – the bums, ne’er do wells, bleeding hearts and those who cannot or will not help themselves. The Big Lebowski and his ilk want to clear the fields of these useless dandelions who refuse to get with the program. His “program” is a life of unilateralism whose offspring are fear and consumption. Millionaire Jeffery Lebowski, The Big Lebowski, is the embodiment of this ideology – crippled, manipulative, angry and rich. He is a living picture of Dorian Gray, a canvas that reveals every twisted wrinkle of a man who has everything but has lost his soul.
The Dude: You thought that Bunny had been kidnapped and you were @$^*ing glad, man. You could use it as an excuse to make some money disappear. You’d just met me… You human paraquat! You figured ‘Oh, here’s a loser. A deadbeat, someone the square community won’t give a @$#% about.
The Big Lebowski: Well, aren’t you?
The Dude: Well… yeah.
Dude is surrounded by a supporting cast of misfits – – life’s tragic figures and confederates including a gang of malevolent German nihilists who nip and tear at his mellow cocoon. He is ill equipped to deal with the bizarre circumstances that engulf him or the arrogant elitists who continuously put him in harm’s way. While most of us cannot condone how Dude chooses to express his “rejection of absoluteism”, we have a soft spot for him. We see him as a green branch bending in a strong wind but not yet breaking. He is inept but loyal. He is an ash from an old cigarette lit in the 60’s that never quite extinguished. He is a relic and a reminder that it is ok to march to the beat of a different drum and not be persecuted or labeled for choosing the path of less resistance.
In the end, Walter Kirn describes “His Dudeness” in simple terms: “ The Dude is one of those saintly underachievers, those holy screw ups who make it ( life ) somewhat bearable. His greatest powers are not to use his power and to acknowledge, serenely, without resentment – that in the end, he doesn’t have much power. Forever may he stagger. Long may he weave.”