By Liam Lacey
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the release of The Big Lebowski. The film by Joel and Ethan Coen is a "cult movie" that has inspired an actual cult, a mock religion called "Dudeism," that is effectively a form of hippie Taoism.
There are annual Lebowski festivals in England and the United States, all kinds of memes, from John Goodman's irascible Vietnam vet Walter ("Am I the he only one around here...") to those satisfying recent videos juxtaposing Donald Trump saying something offensive with Walter shouting “Shut the fuck up, Donny!"
There have been a rash of articles about the foolishness of critics who were, to quote The New Republic, "blind to the movie's brilliance," and I wanted to weigh in.
I re-watched The Big Lebowski recently and I don't consider it a towering achievement. The movie is a grab-bag of pilfered items -- a detective story, a Western, a stoner fantasy -- held together by Jeff Bridges’ wonderfully affable performance. Most of its plot is from a film noir, the Howard Hawks-directed The Big Sleep, based on Raymond Chandler's novel. You can also, perhaps, discern in its irreverent tone traces of Robert Altman's 1973 film The Long Goodbye with Elliott Gould,
There's a distinct echo of a 1978 movie, starring Richard Dreyfuss, called The Big Fix (also about a former '60s activist). What Umberto Eco said of the cult status of Casablanca applies to The Big Lebowski: Its enduring appeal is that it isn't one movie but a patchwork: "It is many films, an anthology ... Two clichés make us laugh. A hundred clichés move us."
Like Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca, Jeff Lebowski, aka The Dude is a refusenik in a time that calls for choosing political sides. The film is set during the first Gulf War - an event that takes place about 20 years after the end of the ‘60s and the radical student activism in which The Dude, was involved.
There are numerous allusions to the war, Bush and Saddam Hussein, though what the Coens think about any of that is largely guesswork. Mostly, the Gulf War backdrop seems like an opportunity for a series of riffs, a kind of update on Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (a parody of the abduction of Helen of Troy, based on the theft of a curl of cut hair). The Dude's desire to receive compensation for his peed-on carpet becomes his version of George Bush's "line in the sand."
There's a motivational big hole in The Big Lebowski. You may recall that Jeff Lebowski was a committed activist before he took up pot, bowling and drinking White Russians. He tells performance artist Maude (Julianne Moore) that he used to be a political activist, as a writer of the Port Huron statement and as a member of The Seattle Seven.
In real life, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated against the Gulf War. Not the Dude though. Why he abandoned politics for self-centered time-wasting remains a bigger mystery than the disappearance of Bunny Lebowski.
Meanwhile, the presence of the cowboy-hatted character called The Stranger (Sam Elliott), who pops up to warmly endorse the Dude's uncompromising individualism, seems awfully close to self-centered complacency.
You could argue that the satirists must be allow their shield of irony to duck behind while they take potshots. Then again, the Coen brothers’ heroes tend to be politically dormant: Inside Llewyn Davis, a movie about the '60s' folk music era, managed to ignore the anti-war movement and Civil Rights.
The real Dude - the inspiration for the character of Jeff Lebowski - isn't like that. Like many journalists who attended the Toronto, Sundance and Cannes film festivals over the years, I have met the man who is the inspiration for Bridges' character. His name is Jeff Dowd ("Dude" is a childhood variation on his surname), who's a few years older than the Coens.
Dowd is a hustling film marketing guy who is still a champion of left-wing films and one of the people who helped found the Sundance Film Festival. He seems to have a good side hustle going nowadays, giving lectures and appearing at Big Lebowski conventions, where he seems to have increasingly adopted the slovenly appearance of Bridges' character.
A few years ago at Sundance, Dowd got into an altercation with a Variety reporter when he was trying to promote a documentary called Dirt, about the global depletion of top-soil. (Contrary to Ecclesiastes, the Earth is not abiding). Clearly, the real Dude's activism is still important to him.
For the record, the real Jeff Dowd had nothing to do with the Port Huron statement, the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society which was mostly written by University of Michigan student, Tom Hayden, in 1962.
But, eight years later when he was a student at the University of Washington in 1970-71, he was briefly jailed as a member of the Seattle Seven, which was mentioned in the movie. This was an anti-Vietnam student group formed at the University of Washington in 1970, led by visiting University of California, Berkeley professor Michael Lerner.
Lerner decided to form the local group a year after the Students for a Democratic Society had disbanded. There was even some overlap in membership between the Seattle Seven and the Weather Underground - the group that emerged from the disintegration of the SDS and which embraced arson, bombing and sabotage.
What has that to do with 1991, the year The Big Lebowski was set, or 1998, when the film was released? It was the era of The Clintons, the Baby Boomer leaders who shared their generation's enthusiasms for political activism and personal growth, the political slogans of Saul Alinsky and affirmations of New Age guru, Marianne Williamson.
Even before they got to the White House, they were big fans of The Seattle Seven's leader, Michael Lerner, who, in 1986, founded the Jewish progressive publication Tikkun.
Tikkun Magazine was named for the kabbalistic word “tikkun,” the idea that the world is broken and can be fixed only by human effort. By the time the Clintons were in the White House, the media began calling Lerner “Hilary’s guru." She adopted his phrase "the politics of meaning" in her speeches. The core of his idea is that an ethos of selfishness to and financial achievement distort American relations and values and need to be replaced by a code of communal and environmental good.
Later, when Hilary Clinton was attacked by conservative critics for having a leftie radical friend who was a supporter of Palestinian statehood, she did a quick about-face, denying any special relationship with Lerner. In Lerner's words "she responded to those attacks by abandoning what I was saying and abandoning me."
While I'm not saying that the fictional Dude is like Hilary Clinton, they, like many Baby Boomers, abandoned their original idealistic political values for the more comfortable middle-ground.
More interesting are the parallels between Michael Lerner's views - of a broken world in need of repair - and the Coens' vision of modern America. They see it as a place of broken promises, corruption and vanity, where social relations are distorted by an ethos of success and money. As Marge Gunderson said in Fargo, after cataloguing a series of murders: "And for what? For a little bit of money. There's more to life than a little money, you know."
While the Coens prefer to keep the messages embedded in the story, after the Trump inauguration, Ethan Coen wrote an op-ed piece for The New York Times, couched as a series of "thank you notes" to everyone who made it possible, from Jill Stein and Gary Johnson voters, to FBI chief, James Comey, the media, and Jimmy Fallon ("Maybe now you could have the Grand Wizard on your show: He leans his head to you, you slip his hood off and ruffle his hair!")
When you think of what The Big Lebowski actually stands for, it's not much, except a refusal to conform: Even a Buddhist monk has an obligation to do acts of compassion. Compare the Dude to the sad-sack Larry Gopnik in the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, a pleaser who plays by the social rules and is rewarded with a personal apocalypse.
The Dude's small genius is a gift for passive resistance, a standard that may be so widely appealing because almost any one of us can meet it.