Summer Cinema: The Big Lebowski
There’s cult movies and there’s The Big Lebowski, a film so culty that it even inspired its own religious cult, Dudeism. It’s the ethos of The Church of the Latter Day Dude, based on the worldview of Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, the ambling stoner caught up in a kidnap caper in the Coen Brother’s beloved film.
According to their website they have around 350,000 ordained Dudeist Ministers, and for all its jokiness they seem very sincere about creating an “open source religion” as a modern day incarnation of Chinese Taoism. One of Dudeism’s central tenets is that everything’s open for discussion and “Just, like, your opinion, man”, and in America you can even get married by a Dudeist Minister. Far out, as the Dude Himself might say.
I’ve probably seen The Big Lebowski eighteen times, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen at the summer cinema this year. Like Casablanca, if I’m feeling sad it will cheer me up, and if I’m feeling great it’ll make me feel even better.
It’s the story of Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges) a unemployed middle-aged slacker whose hobbies include smoking weed, driving around, having the occasional acid flashback, and bowling. He spends most of his time at the alley with his buddies Walter (John Goodman), a volatile Vietnam veteran and Donnie (Steve Buscemi), a meek surfer dude who rarely says anything and never misses a strike.
The Dude’s world is turned upside down when he’s mistaken for his millionaire namesake, the “Big” Lebowski of the title, played by David Huddleston. The wealthier Lebowski’s trophy wife Bunny (Tara Reid) owes money to local porn king Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), and two of Treehorn’s goons try shaking the Dude down for it by mistake. Realising he’s broke and the wrong guy, they decide to urinate on his rug.
That rug really tied the room together, so The Dude visits the Big Lebowski to seek compensation. He ends up getting drawn into a mystery surrounding Bunny’s disappearance instead…
The film is a loose adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s classic detective novel The Big Sleep, and despite the big dance numbers, outlandish characters and wilful silliness, it’s actually very faithful to Chandler’s style. The novelist’s books were always convoluted and meandering, and he himself had no clue who killed one of the characters in The Big Sleep. To him, the ideal mystery was one that you’d read even if the ending was missing, favouring atmosphere and character over plot.
The Dude makes an excellent substitute for Chandler’s hardboiled detective, Philip Marlowe. Although Marlowe has now rightfully taken his place alongside other classic fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, his methods were rather different. He was often a few steps behind the plot, and got results through street smarts and dogged determination rather than brilliant deduction. He was often beaten up during his investigation by various heavies, a fate that befalls the Dude’s car instead. And the Dude is always several dozen steps behind the plot…
Despite his cluelessness, we’re always rooting for the Dude. The Big Lebowski is another spin on one of the Coen’s favourite tropes, of a bunch of characters caught in a madcap scramble for a bag of cash (see also: Fargo, No Country for Old Men), but the difference is the Dude isn’t out for financial gain. All the Dude ever wanted was his rug back, and he is genuinely concerned for Bunny’s safety.
The Big Lebowski may be the Coen’s most intuitively directed film. They move the Dude so fluidly from one scene to the next, in and out of fantasy sequences without ever missing a beat. The music choices are inspired and Roger Deakin’s lensing is dreamy, somehow making bowling look alluring.
The cast is stuffed with famous names all the way down the list, some in little more than bit parts (David Thewlis as a giggling video artist; Peter Stormare as a German Nihilist; John Turturro as the pederast bowler Jesus Quintana). In lesser hands some of these characters could have easily turned into caricatures, but here they’re note perfect – Julianne Moore as Maude, the Big Lebowski’s daughter and artist whose work has been described as strongly “vaginal”; Philip Seymour Hoffman as the millionaire’s grovelling assistant Brandt; Sam Elliot’s drawling cowboy, known as “The Stranger”, seemingly drifting in from another movie to narrate the tale and give the Dude the occasional pep talk.
In short, the film is a thing of pure joy, and I’ve chosen it as my pick of the Summer Cinema screenings after reading some more about The Church of the Latter Day Dude. Seems their world is divided into the“Dude” and the “Un-Dude” – those who are “Dude” basically take life easy, don’t get uptight in their thinking, and enjoy things as they come. That’s a fair description of Brno in the summer, so where better place to sit down with a bunch of laid-back individuals on a fine July evening and watch The Big Lebowski?
Showing at Městské divadlo (Lidická 12) on Friday, July 28 at 9.30 pm.