Friday, 30 June 2017

The Big Lebowski, Stoner Noir and the Ironic Rise of Dudeism

From an "Eastern Thing" to Western Ghosts of Lost Manhood via Post-Vietnam Castration

by J. Albert Barr

Without question, the biggest cult film of the last twenty years is The Big Lebowski. It has become so popular and beloved that it has even spawned a religion: Dudeism! There has been an increasing array of festivals across the U.S. in celebration of the film since at least the mid-2000s, and many of the cast members have made appearances at them as well. The film plays regularly at second-run and art house theaters all over North America. Many books have been written about The Big Lebowski. Some of them simply laud the film, featuring still-photos of scenes, synopsis, favourite quotes, character files and biographical sketches of its cast members and crew; while other books are more analytical and philosophical sussing out the film's many themes, symbols, theoretical meanings, and cultural significance in general. Many fans have claimed to have seen the film 20-30 times, if not more. A definite percentage of those fans simply enjoy the film and its silly, expletive-filled, apparent absurdity at face value, and generally don't engage it on any other level than sheer, unadulterated entertainment, and there's nothing wrong with that, of course. While others within its considerable fanbase (writers, for instance) engage and celebrate it for its seemingly endless layers and rich, even profound, content.

Upon its initial release in March of 1998, however, The Big Lebowski was met with a lukewarm reception, receiving mixed reviews, with some even claiming outright bafflement, considering the highly acclaimed and more mature (despite its humorous undercurrents), structurally coherent, Oscar-winning Fargo, which had preceded it by just two years. The Big Lebowski was, at first, seen, "in the parlance of Maude Lebowski", as a rather fatuous effort by the Coen Brothers; a film not to be taken at all seriously, and merely a silly, albeit vulgar, indulgence to fill time and space before the Coens unveiled their next, "more serious", masterwork. The film didn't attract many movie-goers either during its first run, only grossing $17 million in the U.S. and Canada. But then it got released on video, and eventually DVD, and slowly but surely it gained an increasingly devoted cult following that would watch it over and over again.

Around four years after The Big Lebowski quietly came and went in theaters, and social media websites began popping up everywhere on-line, the film's popularity, in turn, seemed to have exploded out of nowhere. Websites dedicated to celebrating the film were being launched, and the very first "Lebowski Fest" took place on October 12, 2002. Three years and many festivals later Dudeism was officially established as an actual religion, philosophy and lifestyle; clearly a gradual product of the "Western Buddhism" that had disseminated throughout North America since the 60s, thanks in great part to the many books and lectures of Alan Watts, and the Beat Generation poets and writers, like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. There have been over 200,000 "Dudeist priests" ordained. What was it about this outrageous film, aside from its fantastic entertainment value and irreverent character, that so suddenly caught so many people's attention and imagination several years after its abject failure, commercially and critically?

With the plethora of books and essays written about The Big Lebowski, there have also been a slew of You Tube videos made about it too, and all of them offered their own take and theories regarding this multi-faceted and endlessly fascinating, off-the-wall comedy. One such intriguing theory was a paper co-written by William and Barbara Ashton in 2008 titled: "Deception and Detection: The Trickster Archetype in the Film, The Big Lebowski, and its Cult Following". In it, the writers surmised that the film was about the Iraq War, and that the idea of the "trickster", or "deceiver", was a major element within the film's narrative that struck a collective chord with its newfound audience on videotape and/or DVD. Now, hold on a second, the Iraq War happened about five years after the film was released, and it was the Gulf War of 1991 that was a constant reference point and backdrop for the setting of The Big Lebowski, so what were the Ashtons getting at with their claims revolving around the "Gulf War 2"?

Well, apparently, it was that the political climate circa 2002-2003, so closely following the catastrophic events of September 11, 2001, thus setting the stage, imminently, for another war in the Middle East, despite the marked lack of evidence contradicting the American government's pro-war claims, that so fuelled the suspicion, or outright protestations, of a considerable cross-section of the American populace that seemed to connect profoundly with the scenario depicted in The Big Lebowski, regardless of how ridiculous the film's convoluted plot played out. In the film, it seemed all the characters were tricking and deceiving one another: enemies, friends and even lovers, it didn't matter who, so long as their respective wants and desires were being satisfied. This structural trope, of course, abides by the noir film formula, which is one of the reasons The Big Lebowski is indeed a neo-noir film, or more specifically and contextually, a "stoner noir", given its contemporary, postmodern setting and drugs, particularly marijuana, playing such a big part in its milieu. Many of the film's new fans, either consciously or not, saw a connection with their unwanted Iraq War and The Big Lebowski's diegetic Gulf War, in terms of the respective "tricksters and deceivers" involved: the characters deceiving each other in the film, and the government deceiving the American people by justifying going back to war against Saddam Hussein under the pretext of responding to the attacks on the World Trade Center that were perpetrated 18 months prior. With the Ashton's theory in mind, it is perhaps a stunning coincidence that, in the opening scene of the film, The Dude signs a check, for a carton of milk, that is dated September 11, 1991, exactly ten years to the day before 9/11 happened in 2001.

There are plenty of other theories and claims that have been made by interested parties concerning The Big Lebowski and its many facets, including ones that fall under feminism, consumerism and commodity fetishism, societal critique, existential absurdity, nostalgia, sexuality, male identity, narcissism, postmodernism, etc. My approach here might seem a little more radical, and maybe controversial, but I'll likely be touching on some of the aforementioned theoretical points, particularly postmodernism, male identity, existential absurdity, and the new sub-genre of the "stoner noir". For this essay/article I'd like to zoom in on some of the distinct details found in a number of specific scenes and their respective surroundings, their individual set-pieces, mood and what they represent and implicate before I conclude with the main crux of this article.

To begin with, the Coens chose to place their film in a modern noir setting, that is, a "neo-noir setting"; though unbeknownst to the Coens at the time, they were actually making one of the first "stoner noir" films. The first belatedly known stoner noir was Robert Altman's 1973 classic, updated adaptation of Raymond Chandler's, The Long Goodbye. Altman's film is set during the early 70s, instead of Chandler's original 1949-50 setting in his 1953 novel. Indeed, the film's star, Elliott Gould, who plays private investigator Philip Marlowe, is seen, at the start of the film, waking up in the middle of the night, slightly disoriented, as if he's been asleep for 20 years, just like Rip Van Winkle, only to find himself suddenly in a different world than the one he occupied in the 40s and 50s. The film's DVD making-of featurette is actually entitled "Rip Van Marlowe". Marlowe now is, anachronistically, immersed in the post-60s drug haze of a counter-culture hang-over where everyone - certainly in Southern California - appears to be grooving on new ageism, the sexual revolution, second-wave feminism, organic lifestyles and simply "taking it easy", particularly at Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills, where Marlowe is actually located.

The most recent stoner noir, and the film that officially established this new sub-genre of noir, is Paul Thomas Anderson's most recent film, Inherent Vice, based on Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel. The novel, and film, are aptly set, just like Altman's The Long Goodbye, in the early 70s following the cultural, and political, crash of the attempted revolutionary 60s. Like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and Marlowe in Altman's adaptation, "Doc" Sportello is a somewhat hapless, and socially dubious, protagonist, in Inherent Vice, investigating a situation that takes him into unforeseen circumstances - running into a colourful cavalcade of unseemly characters - that he has very little influence and power over, only to finally arrive at a bittersweet, ambiguous and elliptical resolution to the case he'd been working on.

Though The Big Lebowski is also set in Los Angeles, like The Long Goodbye and Inherent Vice, it takes place during the early 90s, instead of the early 70s. But despite this, it still evinces a pronounced throwback quality while it remains very much in its respective time and cultural climate. ultimately giving it a liminal essence, or an in-betweenness. This quality isn't anything necessarily new in cinema (you certainly get it as well in Pulp Fiction, for instance), but it's very much a postmodern trope that has appeared more and more since the 90s. One could argue that it began with Blade Runner in 1982, where you don't just see retro-fitted architecture, but "retro-fitted characters" and their stylistic details in perpetual oscillation with the past age they reflect and the contemporary age (or in the specific case of Rick Deckard, the futuristic age) they occupy.

One such instance in The Big Lebowski is the scene where The Dude is forced to confront porn mogul/hedonist Jackie Treehorn at his luxurious, postmodern home in the Hollywood Hills. The house is a fairly famous one known as the Sheats-Goldstein Residence. It was designed and built, as an example of Organic Architecture (i.e., to intermingle the artificial structure with its natural surroundings), by influential architect, John Lautner in 1963, and was eventually purchased by eccentric real estate billionaire, and "NBA Superfan", James Goldstein. He's known to lend his property to film-makers to use in their films, like The Big Lebowski of course, and musicians to use as a location for music videos, such as Snoop Dogg's video for "Let's Get Blown". It was even the location for Rihanna's 27th birthday party in 2015.  

So, in that Jackie Treehorn scene we can clearly see that the affluent bachelor pad retains its late 50s/ early 60s decor and atmospheric essence. Even the music chosen to play during this scene (Henry Mancini's smooth, romantic, modernist 1961 instrumental, "Lujon") fits perfectly with the postmodern irony of the setting and bawdy content of the discussion therein; all the while, however, retaining the trope of the hardboiled detective "on the case", although The Dude is more "softboiled", and an inadvertent "detective". At one point Jackie tells The Dude about "Teledildonics", which corresponded with the early stages of virtual reality technology under development and referenced in Howard Rheingold's 1991 book, Virtual Reality: The Revolutionary Technology of Computer-Generated Artificial Worlds - and How It Promises to Transform Society: "New technology permits us to do very exciting things in interactive, erotic software - wave of the future, Dude, one-hundred percent electronic!" To which The Dude glibly responds, "Well, I still jerk-off manually." Despite its lewd humour and wit (which we, as the audience rooting for The Dude, enjoy immensely), it's a rather telling statement coming from The Dude, given his current life circumstances as an unemployed, single man in his forties - a fore-runner of the recently established "MGTOW movement" perhaps?

In another scene, we see The Dude, Walter and Donny attending The Dude's landlord, Marty's, strange dance-cycle performance in a local theatre not exactly filled to capacity. The performance is a highly symbolic, interpretive dance, and one that recalls a Wagner opera (like I initially mistook it for), even funnily evoking the classic Looney Tunes cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?" But, in fact, the music Marty uses (and therefore the Coens) is from the 19th Century Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, and is entitled "The Gnome", which is the first movement in his 1874 ten-piece suite, Pictures at an Exhibition. The piece's narrative is supposed to depict a "little gnome, clumsily running with crooked legs". And, in a sense, we see that in Marty's performance, but he choreographs a very Wagnerian episode of Man struggling against the elements, the forces of nature, including his own self-sabotaging nature, while attempting to overcome these outward and inward forces. Completely unbeknownst to our intrepid, um, "I won't say heroes, 'cause what's a hero?", protagonists, they don't realise that what Marty's symbolically performing could, and I feel is, a reflection of their own current lives, respectively, and even the present situation they unwittingly have found themselves involved in, with the exception of Donny, who is merely a marginalised member observing from the sidelines, and haplessly asking questions while hopelessly "out of his element".

The ironic thing about Mussorgsky being referenced here is that, while he was a gifted composer, he was also a reputed buffoon and societal contrarian of sorts in his day, who failed to finish several of his compositions, due to his alcoholism, laziness, hedonism and ribald behaviour, and died fairly young at just 42 years of age. Even though Mussorgsky's famous contemporary, Tchaikovsky, admired his undeniable talent, he described his personality thusly: "...he has a certain baseness to his nature which likes coarseness, uncouthness, roughness. He flaunts his illiteracy, takes pride in his ignorance, mucks along anyhow, blindly believing in the infallibility of his genius". Mussorgsky died a broken and ineffectual man, and Marty is also a broken, timid, figurative-eunuch of a man expressing, in his dance cycle, the loss of his manhood. This public gesture, barely attended by anyone, but importantly attended by The Dude and Co., also reflects the all-but-literally-castrated state of not only The Dude and friends, but virtually every other male in the movie. The lead female character, Maude, is the most assertive, self-assured, take-charge, get-things-done, "balls out" presence in the entire film! From getting her rug back, to seducing, as the "femme fatale", The Dude into impregnating her so she can become a single, self-sustaining mother.

Indeed, most of the men in the film (with the sole exception of The Stranger, who not only narrates, but acts as a kind of "ghost of the old west" and of manliness), however endearing some of them appear to be, are bumbling, ineffectual losers and/or posers, wholly, and ironically, contradicting the traditional trope of the "man's man" that populate classic noir stories and films. They're soft instead of "hardboiled", who, in the case of Walter, for instance, over-compensate for their softness (catering to his ex-wife, posturing for political correctness - "Chinaman is not the accepted nomenclature, please, Asian-American.") by assuming the Alpha-male role in his social circle (emasculating Donny - an easy target - constantly), owning a security supplies store, pulling a gun out in the bowling lane because someone may or may not have "crossed the line", and, in knee-jerk fashion, losing his temper the second someone disagrees with him. The great irony here is that Walter almost always loses the seeming conviction of his outbursts, which get suddenly truncated (or castrated?), due to him being consistently distracted by something else going on before him. We call this kind of behaviour "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder". The Dude just calls him "an asshole".

What is perhaps the most surprising and revelatory take away from The Big Lebowski, and one it took years and many viewings for me to finally realise, is that all of Walter's incessant references to the Vietnam War, as having a "connection" with the goings-on in the film's story, to which The Dude in turn always dismissed out of hand, actually have everything to do with what is happening in The Big Lebowski! The humiliating defeat ("defeat" in that the war was not won) in Vietnam apparently emasculated, and in many cases psychologically castrated, the American male psyche, among the Baby Boomers, through the ensuing years since the war ended. The modern man of 1991 (right up to our present time, sadly) has become impotent, symbolically castrated by Vietnam's failure, by feminism, by consumerism, by political correctness, by idle testosterone, by misguided, so-called progressive ideologies, by unbridled capitalism. It's no mistake that the film is absolutely rife with references to penises and castration and "fucking someone up the ass". In fact, the very act of bowling is symbolic of this evident, cultural castration of America's men, which they've unwittingly passed down to their "little Lebowskis" as well, as Generation X came face-to-face with, psychically speaking of course, through the 90s. The bowlers are quite simply rolling their "balls" down the lane to knock over the "phallic-shaped pins", to ritualistically render impotent, their own "dicks". Men are no longer "the phallus" in society, and they've been rendered as "cucks"(in the parlance of our times) as a result.

The Dude's "rug" is, of course, following the detective noir trope, a "MacGuffin", in that the convoluted plot is beside the point. But in the context of the symbolism of American men being collectively castrated, the rug is the key. The rug acts as a surrogate woman, a place-holder, and the essence of The Dude's manhood being perpetually in a state of liminality. Taking a cue from Arnold van Gennep's initial meaning for liminality (i.e., "the rite of passage", usually for an adolescent male or female before they are officially incorporated into society), Victor Turner expanded on the concept by applying it to not only tribal societies but non-tribal societies, certain sections and specific societal communities and personages. Turner became aware that liminality "...served  not only to identify the importance of in-between periods, but also to understand the human reactions to liminal experiences: the way liminality shaped personality, the sudden foregrounding of agency, and the sometimes dramatic tying together of thought and experience...The attributes of liminality or of liminal personae ("threshold people") are necessarily ambiguous". "One's sense of identity dissolves to some extent, bringing about disorientation, but also the possibility of new perspectives. Turner posits that, if liminality is regarded as a time and place of withdrawal from normal modes of social action, it potentially can be seen as a period of scrutiny for central values and axioms of the culture where it occurs - one where normal limits of thought, self-understanding and behaviour are undone."

In these kinds of situations, "the very structure of society [is] temporarily suspended". This accurately describes the structure, and societal crisis,  you usually find in hardboiled detective stories and noir films. The stoner noir that is The Big Lebowski, and its internal societal crisis, aside from all the hysterical laughs it provides, ironically of course, is a definite "case" in point here.




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