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Life lessons from ”The Big Lebowski”
I recently became captain of the ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY bowling team, which is probably a mistake for everyone concerned. Holding any position of authority stresses me out to an intestine-knotting degree. And, being British, I don’t know much more about bowling than I do about that game Spike Lee likes so much with the hoops and the nets and the giant men. Needless to say, we’ve lost most of our matches, but there was one nice moment recently when a teammate asked me for advice on how to approach his next bowl…or throw…or whatever it’s called. ”Sometimes you eat the bar,” I told him, ”and sometimes, well, he eats you.” I’m not sure the guy knew what I meant (I’m not sure I did), but he responded with a robust ”I’m going to get a strike!” Then — and I am not making this up — he did exactly that.
I stole the aforementioned piece of advice, if you can call it that, from The Big Lebowski, a movie that was made by the Coen brothers and released 10 years ago this month. The movie concerns Jeffrey ”the Dude” Lebowski (Jeff Bridges), a perennially Zen ’60s burnout who deals with every drama life throws at him by smoking pot or going bowling. When thugs mistake Lebowski for an L.A. millionaire with the same name, the Dude happens into a kidnapping plot and turns amateur sleuth. Bridges’ character is offered the homily about ”eating the bar” by a mysterious cowboy (Sam Elliott), while both are, indeed, sitting at a bar. It’s just one of many lines from this comic thriller I like to drop into conversation whenever it seems appropriate, and frequently when it doesn’t. Others include: ”That rug really tied the room together”; ”This is not Nam. This is bowling. There are rules”; ”Hey, careful, man, there’s a beverage here”; and ”A lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous.”
Now, you may think it’s tragic for a 40-year-old man to communicate through movie lines, particularly when they all come from one film — and you might be right. But I am not alone. A decade after its premiere, The Big Lebowski is ensconced at the high table of classic cult films. The movie’s army of fans pack late-night screenings and travel the country to attend ”Lebowski Fest” conventions, where they bowl, dress up as characters from the film, and drink White Russians, the Dude’s favorite beverage. Knowledge of the movie can even help your employment prospects. One of my friends actually got hired for a job after noting that there seemed to be ”a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous” involved in the position. (His interviewer turned out to be a fellow fan of the movie.) I am proud to be in this fraternity of Lebowski-ites and have come to regard the Dude as a personal role model. But it was not always thus.
The Dude is a lazy man. As Sam Elliott points out in the film’s opening narration, he is ”quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.” Bridges’ character is an unmarried, beer-gutted, long-haired, crappy-car-owning, Bob Dylan-loving hippie type. Shortly after the film’s release, friends began to ask me, pointedly, if the Dude reminded me of anyone, and I knew what they were getting at. Ten years ago, I too was an unmarried, beer-gutted, long-haired, crappy-car-owning, Bob Dylan-loving hippie type. Moreover, like the Dude, I wasn’t technically employed. Okay, I wasn’t employed at all, having recently quit a senior editorial position at a London-based film magazine, which I found so stressful that my prebreakfast routine sometimes consisted of vomiting blood. (Of course, that usually ruled out breakfast altogether.) My plan was to abandon the magazine treadmill and write the Great American Novel, a widespread ambition among British journalists despite the handicap of not being American. Mostly, this involved me spending a lot of time in my South London flat staring at a computer screen that seemed to get blanker with each passing day. By the spring of 1998 the only obvious difference between the Dude and me was that the Dude, at least at the start of the film, owned a rug that ”really tied the room together” — until it was peed on by a porn baron’s goon.
I didn’t appreciate being compared to the Dude. I was not some feckless, zonked-out waster. I was writing a novel — or I would be, just as soon as I finished putting my Dylan records in chronological order. Moreover, and it almost physically hurts to admit this, I didn’t think the film was very funny at the time. I thought it was kind of stupid. Many seemed to agree. Critical reaction to the The Big Lebowski was mixed, and the film grossed just $17 million domestically, significantly less than the Coens’ previous movie Fargo. Even John Turturro, who plays a bowler and pederast called ”the Jesus,” has admitted: ”When I first saw it, I didn’t completely get it.”
When The Big Lebowski came out on DVD about six months later, I watched it again. And again. Each time I laughed more. I needed all the yuks I could get. The failure of my novel-writing plan had sent me into a dark funk, and not of the Bootsy Collins variety. The situation was exacerbated by my diminishing financial resources and lack of a significant other (or, as the Dude would have it, ”special lady”). Eventually, things got so bad that my doctor suggested I start taking Prozac. I declined, finding succor instead in The Big Lebowski and its bum hero’s enjoyment of a laid-back existence that, as the months of non-novel-writing stretched into years, actually seemed to be more full of achievement than mine.
In 2002, I abandoned my book and accepted a job at a music magazine in New York. By then I was able to quote vast chunks of the film. And, as I said earlier, I wasn’t alone. That June, a pair of twentysomething Louisville, Ky., residents named Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt found themselves trading Lebowski lines while selling clothes at a tattoo convention. As Russell told me later, ”These guys who had the booth next to us joined in. And before you know it we had this bonding going on. Scott and I were like, Man, if they can have this goofy tattoo convention, we should have a Big Lebowski convention. It just kind of clicked.”
In October of that year, the pair held the ”1st Annual Big Lebowski What-Have-You Fest” at a bowling alley in Louisville. They expected around 35 people to turn up. One hundred fifty did. The next year, 1,200 fans made the pilgrimage. I know because I was there (true, it was on assignment for The Guardian, but one of the great things about being an entertainment journalist is that people will pay you to attend things you would go to anyway). The weekend featured a screening of the film and a Saturday-afternoon meet-and-greet session at a hotel that was attended by the drunkest people I’ve ever seen outside of a New Year’s Eve in Dublin. I’m pretty sure many of them didn’t even make the main event that night at the AMF Rose Bowl, where fans indulged in the Dude’s favored sport, drank yet more vodka-infused half-and-half, and showed off their costumes. Many were dressed as the Dude, which involves shorts, T-shirts, robes, and, if you’re being technical about it, jellies. A few women wore the Valkyrie attire Julianne Moore’s eccentric artist character Maude sports during one of the film’s dream sequences. The fest’s celebrity guest was political activist and film producer Jeff Dowd, who helped the Coens secure distribution for their 1985 debut film, Blood Simple, and inspired the character of the Dude in the first place. ”The movie’s odd because it takes only a portion of my life, when we were hanging out in the 1970s,” Dowd told me. ”But they captured a certain spirit of Dudeness, if you will, of friendship and not accepting the corporate conglomerate reality. And I think the people here have a certain satirical outlook. They are people who don’t accept the norm. But I don’t want to make too much of it. I mean, maybe they’re just a bunch of drunks drinking White Russians.”
Fans love the movie for its frequent references to alcohol-guzzling and dope-smoking, and for its vivid supporting characters (such as John Goodman’s Vietnam-obsessed vet, Peter Stormare’s nihilist porn star, and Steve Buscemi’s terminally confused bowler). But the key to the film’s cult standing is simply the Dude himself. He is beloved by the film’s good guys, and his laziness doesn’t stop him from getting the girl — briefly, anyway. It helps that Bridges himself seems to be quite a Dude-like character in real life: Most of the clothes in the film are actually his. The actor has supported the movie over the years and even attended a Lebowski Fest in Los Angeles. ”I guess it was like a Star Trek convention,” he explained to me when the film was rereleased on DVD in 2005, ”but with more vodka.”
I don’t think I had ever tasted a White Russian prior to attending my first Lebowski Fest in 2003, but since then I’ve consumed far more than anyone with high cholesterol should. I now bowl regularly, if poorly, and without entirely understanding the points system. These days when I’m stressed about work, I find myself thinking, ”What would the Dude do?” even if the inevitable answer — ”Go bowling” — is not likely to lessen my chances of being fired. I own three Big Lebowski T-shirts, two of which I often wear. (The third, which features the image of John Goodman, I retired after three different people mistook his face for mine.) Finally, I’ve become less interested in leaving my mark on the world than in just not making it any worse. I think the Dude would approve.
The truth is, I’ve learned to embrace my inner Dude — or ”El Duderino,” as the character says, ”if you’re not into that whole brevity thing.” Which is just as well, since I’m still an unmarried, beer-gutted, long-haired, crappy-car-owning, Bob Dylan-loving hippie type. Earlier this year I even bought a rug. And you know what? It really does tie the room together.