The Big Lebowski is a 1998 comedy written, produced, and directed by the Coen brothers, starring Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Julianne Moore, and with Steve Buscemi, John Turturro, Peter Stormare, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sam Elliott, and David Huddleston. The story was inspired by the complex plots of Raymond Chandler stories, especially The Big Sleep; indeed, one joke of the story is its wildly intricate plot, which ends with a conclusion of no consequence and no fundamental change in the characters.
Though the movie did poorly at the box office, it has since then grown into a cult classic, with fans of the movie dressing up as their favourite characters at Lebowski Fests; there’s even a Taoist-oriented religion based on the wisdom of the Dude (Bridges).
“Well, sir, it’s this rug I had. It really tied the room together.” –the Dude (Jeffrey Lebowski)
“Look, let me explain something to you. I’m not Mr. Lebowski. You’re Mr. Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. That, or His Dudeness … Duder … or El Duderino, if, you know, you’re not into the whole brevity thing.” –the Dude
“This is a very complicated case, Maude. You know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s. And, uh, lotta strands to keep in my head, man. Lotta strands in old Duder’s head. Luckily I’m adhering to a pretty strict, uh, drug regimen to keep my mind, you know, limber.” –the Dude
“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” –the Dude
“Careful, man, there’s a beverage here!” –the Dude
“Well, you know, the Dude abides.” –the Dude
“You see what happens, Larry?! Do you see what happens, Larry, when you fuck a stranger in the ass?! This is what happens, Larry! This is what happens, Larry!” –Sobchak
“Fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” –Sobchak
“Life does not start and stop at your convenience, you miserable piece of shit!” –Sobchak
“Shut the fuck up, Donny.” –Sobchak
“Forget it, Donny, you’re out of your element!” –Sobchak
“HEY! What’s this day of rest shit?! What’s this bullshit?! I don’t fuckin’ care! It don’t matter to Jesus. But you’re not foolin’ me, man. You might fool the fucks in the league office, but you don’t fool Jesus. This bush league psych out stuff. Laughable, man – HA HA! I would have fucked you in the ass Saturday. I fuck you in the ass next Wednesday instead. Wooo! You got a date Wednesday, baby!” –Jesus Quintana
“You said it, man. Nobody fucks with the Jesus.” –Quintana
“What the fuck are you talking about? The Chinaman is not the issue here, Dude! I’m talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you do not… Also, Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature. ‘Asian-American,’ please.” –Sobchak
Brandt: Uh, our guest needs to be going now, Mrs. Lebowski.
The Dude: (realizes) Ohh, you’re Bunny.
Bunny Lebowski: [takes off her sunglasses] I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars.
Brandt: Ah-hahahahaha! Ah – Wonderful woman. We’re all, we’re all very fond of her. Very free-spirited.
Bunny Lebowski: Brandt can’t watch, though – or he has to pay a hundred.
Brandt: Ah-haha. That’s marvelous.
The Dude: [Dude turns his head back as Brandt escorts him away] ..Uh, I’m just gonna go find a cash machine.
“Fucking dog has fucking papers—OVER THE LINE!” –Sobchak
“Has the whole world gone CRAZY?! [stands up] AM I THE ONLY ONE AROUND HERE WHO GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES?! MARK IT ZERO!” –Sobchak
“Lady, I got buddies who died face-down in the muck so that you and I could enjoy this family restaurant!” –Sobchak, to waitress
“Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax…You’re goddamn right I’m living in the fucking past!” –Sobchak
“You human … paraquat!” –the Dude, to the big Lebowski
“‘The Dude abides.’ I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there. The Dude. Takin’ ‘er easy for all us sinners.” –the Stranger
These are the themes I’ll be examining in this analysis:
- Taoism and Dudeism
- Pride and Shame
- The Castration Complex
- Male Humiliation
- Sexual Aggression
- Political Allegory
I) Taoism and Dudeism
The Taoist orientation of ‘Dudeism’ is more than justified, for the Dude’s whole way of life is, like that tumbling tumbleweed, a passive going-with-the-flow, though this passivity is carried to a comically slothful extreme. As it says in the Tao Te Ching, “When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.” (Chapter 48) Now, note what the Stranger says of the Dude: “And even if he’s a lazy man – and the Dude was most certainly that. Quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the runnin’ for laziest worldwide.”
Still, for all his faults, this White-Russian-drinking pothead represents a laid-back ideal many of the more high-strung characters would be wise to try to emulate. Indeed, between the grumpy curmudgeonliness of the big Lebowski (Huddleston), the moronic thuggery of the goons of Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara), the loudmouth blustering of Jesus Quintana (Turturro) and Walter Sobchak (Goodman), and the buffoonish bullying of the German nihilists (Stormare, Flea, and Torsten Voges), the Dude finds it challenging to be his normal, easy-going self.
Other parallels with Taoism are the themes of duality, dialectics, and the unity of opposites. First, we’ll deal with duality. Characters in the movie can often be paired, based on their comparable and contrasting qualities and traits. The most obvious pairing is that of the two Jeffrey Lebowskis, the millionaire in the wheelchair and the Dude. Yet apart from their shared name, the two men are opposites in almost every way.
The Dude is laid-back, while the big Lebowski is a grouch. The Dude is lazy and unemployed, possibly, if only temporarily, living off the welfare system that would continue to exist as such for another five years (the Coens’ original idea to have the Dude live off some of the wealth from a family invention, the Rubik’s Cube, wasn’t included in the movie); the big Lebowski is an “achiever”…or is he? (More on that below.)
The next pairing is that of the Dude and Walter Sobchak. They’re both bowlers, on the same team in a competition, and they’re friends…though the friendship is rather strained over the course of the movie; for Sobchak’s bad temper and asinine impulsivity are a constant source of frustration and embarrassment to the Dude, who just wants to “take it easy,” and have Sobchak do the same.
Next, there’s the pairing of Sobchak and Jesus Quintana. Both bowl, but are on rival teams. Both talk tough and indulge in outbursts in the bowling alley. A contrast, however, is Sobchak’s adopted Judaism versus the presumably lapsed Catholicism of “the Jesus,” for there’s no reason to believe that the “pederast” ever goes to church.
More pairings: Maude and Bunny Lebowski (Moore and Tara Reid, respectively). Both women are liberated and sexually aggressive in the extreme, though only Bunny is tainted with the label of “slut” for appearing in porn. Maude, in contrast, is clearly a pro-sex feminist and “vaginal” artist, though she throws herself at the Dude as blatantly as Bunny does.
Next, we must explore the dialectical relationship between these comparable/contrasting pairs, as well as other examples of the yin/yang-like unity of opposites in the movie. Like the black dot in yang, and the white dot in yin, each opposite has a bit of the other in it.
Consider who’s upset and who’s calm. Sobchak points a gun at Smokey and yells at him for stepping over the line when bowling a strike and not accepting marking it zero for committing a foul; meanwhile the Dude keeps his cool, warns Sobchak that they’re calling the cops, and tells him calmly to put the piece away. As soon as Smokey marks it zero, Sobchak calms right down and puts the gun away.
As he and the Dude leave the bowling alley and go into the latter’s car, the Dude gets increasingly agitated trying to get Sobchak to understand how excessively he reacted. After hearing the Dude yell, “Just take it easy, man,” Sobchak says, “I’m calmer than you are,” with perfect coolness.
II) Pride and Shame
Pride and shame are intermixed, which makes perfect sense, since with Sobchak, pride goes before a fall…not that he really ever notices himself fall. Apart from his explosion with Smokey in the bowling alley, Sobchak makes an absurd, Vietnam-war-esque stealing of the big Lebowski’s ‘money’ instead of tossing it over to Bunny’s ‘kidnappers.’ He imagines his plan to be brilliant, when really he’s just being “a goddamn moron.”
Then there’s his outburst about “basic freedoms” in a diner, when all he’s been asked to do is lower his voice for the sake of the other customers. The Dude is so embarrassed, he quickly pays and leaves, while Sobchak is so oblivious to what an ass he’s being, he’s proudly “staying,” “finishing,” and “enjoying [his] coffee.”
Finally, Sobchak proudly imagines he’s clever enough to know that the big Lebowski isn’t really a cripple, then picks the old man up and out of his wheelchair, imagining Lebowski will stand when he’s let go of. Of course he falls to the floor…though I can’t help suspecting–in the scene when the Dude explains to Sobchak in his van that he’s figured out how Lebowski never put money in the briefcase–that he’s actually standing in the dark, his body physically far from the back of his wheelchair, as he’s putting a phone book, etc., in the “ringer” briefcase. (Were the Coen brothers just sneaking that into the movie, to see if anyone was really watching carefully, or am I overthinking the scene?)
This leads me to the fallen pride of the big Lebowski. He presents himself as a ‘great achiever,’ but we learn from Maude that his money is actually her mother’s, he failed at running the family business, and Maude gives him an allowance. He married Bunny for the same reason Trump married Melania…as a kind of male jewellery to boost his ego. If I’m right about him actually faking as a cripple (which, by the way, doesn’t make Sobchak any less of a jackass for pulling him out of his wheelchair), is his posing as a disabled man supposed to be idpol compensation for his failures in life, a cure for the narcissistic injury of not being the ‘achiever’ he poses as? Is his falling on the floor, after Sobchak lets him go, a kind of face-saving continuation of the pretence?
III) The Castration Complex
The theme of shame is further developed in the form of the motif of Freud’s castration complex. The German nihilists threaten to castrate the Dude after dumping a marmot between his legs in his bathtub as he’s lying naked in it; he yelps as he tries to stop the animal from scratching at his balls.
The big Lebowski gives the Dude a severed toe with green nail polish on it, the same colour Bunny had on hers when she offered to perform fellatio on him. Actually, the severed toe (symbolic castration) was that of a German girlfriend of the nihilists, the only one of them in the restaurant scene who can’t speak English. Bunny’s toes, however, are all intact, and she freely expresses herself as she sings ‘Viva Las Vegas’ while driving.
When Maude meets the Dude, she mentions how the word “vagina” bothers some men. Sometimes the vulva is perceived as a wound resulting from castration, as Freud noted; consider also Camille Paglia‘s comments on the subject of the–to men, frightening–mystery surrounding the vagina, which can also be the vagina dentata (Paglia, pages 13, 22-23, 47). Furthermore, ‘nothing‘ (what the castration-threatening nihilists believe in), ‘no thing,’ or ‘an O-thing’ was slang for a woman’s genitals back in Shakespeare’s day.
Incidentally, a large painting of scissors is hanging on a wall in Maude’s studio; after saying, “dick” and “rod,” she gives a brief, uncomfortable pause before saying “Johnson,” the very word the nihilists use when threatening to emasculate the Dude. Still, “without batting an eye,” Maude can refer to Bunny’s porno film as “the beaver picture.” Maude wants to have a child; and Freud noted, in his 1917 essay “On Transformations of Instinct as Exemplified in Anal Erotism,” that a girl’s penis envy would transform later in life, from das Kleine (‘little one’) for the penis, to das Kleine for a baby.
Lacan said that “women don’t exist” because in the Symbolic Order, they in a sense have no language (i.e., no symbolic phallus as signifier); for him, this was the true, phallocentric meaning of Freud’s notion of penis envy, a phallogocentrism. Remember the soft-spoken German woman without a toe, who also needed the nihilists to translate her pancake order into English. Symbolically castrated, the nine-toed woman had no English signifiers to express the meaning in her mind, to order pancakes. Stifled and silenced by the three Germans, who represent fascism (as I’ll explain below), she has been subordinated just as women in Nazi Germany were.
In contrast, Maude and Bunny are liberated, expressive women each with all ten toes; their vulvas aren’t felt to be ‘wounds’ from castration, and accordingly, they’re proud, and in full control of their lives. They speak freely, in full control of linguistic signifiers: Bunny in her jouissance has a lascivious tongue, and she doesn’t care who hears it; Maude is particularly articulate. These two women aren’t thwarted by psychoanalytic sexism.
IV) Male Humiliation
Men, however, are constantly being humiliated in this movie. Sobchak destroys a beautiful, brand new car, whose infuriated owner then smashes up the Dude’s; once again, Sobchak’s idiot impulsivity makes him lose face.
The threat of castration is a recurring potential humiliation for him, especially in the scissors dream sequence, reminding us of Maude’s painting.
Quintana is embarrassed at having to tell everyone in his neighbourhood that he’s “a pederast.”
A major form of this theme of male humiliation is expressed in the language of male-on-male rape, a making of the victim into a passive partner in sex, his anus made into a vagina, as it were. Quintana says he’ll beat the Dude’s team so crushingly, he’ll “fuck [them] in the ass next Wednesday.”
Elsewhere, Sobchak is so enraged with mute, uncooperative Larry, who he and the Dude believe stole the money they [thought they] stole from Lebowski, that the boy shouldn’t “fuck a stranger in the ass.”
When the nihilists fight Sobchak, the Dude, and Donny, Uli brandishing a phallic sword, the Germans shout “I fuck you!” over and over. Sobchak bites off Uli’s ear, another removing of a bodily appendage symbolic of castration; and the German played by Flea is hit by Sobchak’s bowling ball, and he buckles over as if emasculated. The nihilists are now as silent as their girlfriend in the pancake restaurant.
V) Sexual Aggression
We see that sexual aggression is a major theme in this movie, one in which the word “fuck” is used more than in most others. This isn’t mere overindulgent swearing in a Hollywood movie. “Fuck,” incidentally, comes from (among other possible etymologies) Middle Dutch fokken, meaning ‘to hit,’ or ‘to strike.’ Bowling is full of sexual symbolism in this movie, the testicle-shaped ball knocking out all the phallic, penis pins in a strike; then the ball goes into a yonic hole behind the mechanical pinsetter. Bowling is a pun on balling.
The three finger holes in a bowling ball can represent a woman’s urethra, vagina, and anus, thus making the testicular ball an androgynous sexual symbol, a union of yin and yang. Similarly, in the ‘Gutterballs‘ dream sequence, the dancing ladies–under and between whose legs the Dude enjoys floating, looking up their skirts with an ear-to-ear grin–wear hats of phallic bowling pins…more androgyny.
Then there’s Maude in her Viking outfit, with the phallic horns on her helmet and her thrice-phallic trident. Since yin and yang represent the intermixing unity of opposites, it should come as no surprise that Maude and Bunny are sexually aggressive women, coming on to a very sexually passive Dude, a stoner who doesn’t seem all that interested in “coitus.”
VI) Political Allegory
Finally, we must examine the political allegory of The Big Lebowski. Appropriately, the two Lebowskis are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. Here is a list of what a number of the major characters in the movie symbolize, even if they don’t necessarily espouse the political position they represent:
- The Dude……………………..left-libertarianism
- The Big Lebowski……….Trump-like, narcissistic capitalism
- Maude………………………….liberal centrism
- Jesus Quintana…………….corrupt, abusive Catholic Church
- Walter Sobchak……………neo-con, imperialist militarism and Zionism
- Jackie Treehorn…………..exploitative capitalism
I’ll deal with each one by one, starting with the Dude.
Lying in bed with Maude, the Dude tells her he was involved in the original drafting of the Port Huron Statement, associated with the New Left. The Dude says he was also a member of the Seattle Seven (Jeff Dowd, on whom the Dude was based as a character, was an actual member of the Seven), a radical anti-Vietnam-War movement. These two facts establish his credentials as a progressive: remember the Dude’s pro-woman, “racially…cool” attitude; it also, however, shows his disengagement from the labour movement and concern for class struggle.
Indeed, his problem is that, like most libertarian leftists (myself excepted), the Dude doesn’t put enough thought into self-protection. His home is constantly broken into–fouled and ransacked. His efforts to keep intruders out are comically pathetic; and his car is progressively damaged and degraded, until finally destroyed. Left-libertarians sneer at tankies‘ authoritarian measures, all the while oblivious to the need for that authoritarianism, which is for the sake of defending their ever-so-fragile revolutions. The Dude, representing the left, sees his property destroyed, which symbolizes capitalist sabotage of socialist states; his home is his own private DPRK.
In reference to the already-suspected faking of Bunny’s kidnapping, the Dude makes a reference to Lenin, whom clueless Donny confuses with Lennon. Sobchak shuts up and corrects Donny, growling “V. I. Lenin–Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov!” This suggests that, apart from being annoyed at Donny being once again “out of [his] element,” Sobchak isn’t happy talking about the man famous for decrying imperialism, which Sobchak personifies (more on that below).
The big Lebowski represents the spoiled capitalist who finds himself in the upper classes by association with them (i.e., marrying a rich woman, Maude’s mother), not by having “achieved” on his own merits, as he and other capitalists like to boast. He steals from his own charity, while hypocritically pretending it’s his generosity that helps his ‘urban achievers.’
However the Dude is able to provide for himself financially–whether it be from the Rubik’s Cube fortune of his family, as originally conceived by the Coen brothers, or if it be, as I speculate, from his receiving unemployment insurance or welfare benefits–his ability to have money while not working can be seen to symbolize the socialist ideal of a Guaranteed Basic (or Universal) Income. If the Dude, thus representing the left, is a slacker, then the big Lebowski, a millionaire capitalist married into money, is a kind of corporate welfare bum. So their yin and yang opposition is also an identification, a dialectical association.
Maude is a bourgeois liberal who judges her father for his conservative posturing, but she’s sitting on all that wealth, too, rather than pushing for revolution. She is in the political centre, in control of her parents’ money (her mother’s, actually) while doing her hipster art; she also exploits the Dude (to get her pregnant) every bit as much as her father does (to act as courier to pay off Uli et al).
Thus, Maude politically represents how liberals are no better than conservatives when it comes to preserving the class structure of society, all the while acting as though such establishment thinking is solely the fault of conservatives. If the Dude represents the besieged socialist states and vulnerable Third World, she–in her seduction of him–represents the liberals who exploit such poor countries no less than those on the right do.
The last thing that Jesus Quintana comes across as is a practicing Catholic, but that doesn’t mean he can’t symbolize the corruption of the Church. Sobchak’s “day of rest shit…don’t matter to Jesus” reminds one of Christ telling the Pharisees that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), in response to seeing Jews working on Saturday (i.e., “to pluck the ears of corn,” Mark 2:23, presumably because of an emergency [an urgent need to feed the hungry], the only time breaking of the Sabbath is allowed in Jewish law). This scene shows the contrast between ‘Quintana’s’ Church and ‘Sobchak’s’ synagogue.
The sex offences of “the Jesus” can be seen to represent the largely unpunished Catholic priests guilty of sexually abusing boys: one is reminded of the sex perversion and wickedness of the priests in the erotic novels of the Marquis de Sade, for he, an ardent atheist, enjoyed satirizing and shaming the Church (see Sade, pages 762-798).
Sobchak, a Vietnam vet obsessed with his years fighting “Charlie, eyeball to eyeball,” represents neo-con, US imperialism and Zionism, aggressively shoving itself into other people’s business and lives, as Sobchak does. His outbursts indicate the emotional dysregulation of PTSD sufferers. He may refer to Lenin angrily, but he’s most comfortable discussing Theodor Herzl…
Though born a Polish Catholic, he’s converted to Judaism, so he’s as much a lapsed Catholic as Quintana. This conversion to Judaism, constant talking about it, and his use of a spinning Uzi when he jumps out of the car during the hand-off of the money, all suggest Christian Zionism, which really is just another form of Western imperialism, rather than an inherently Jewish issue. (Indeed, legitimate anti-Zionism and illegitimate antisemitism are often wrongly conflated by, ironically, both Zionists and antisemites.)
Furthermore, consider Sobchak’s contempt for Saddam (“…look at our current situation with that camel-fucker in Iraq.”) and the Iraqis (“…what we have here, a bunch of fig-eaters, wearing towels on their heads tryin’ to find reverse on a Soviet tank. This, this is not a worthy fucking adversary.”), and therefore, of Muslims in general, all examples of neo-con/Zionist traits.
The three nihilists aren’t Nazis, of course, but their use of violence and destruction in pursuit of their goals (as well as, unfortunately, the German stereotype) shows that they represent the fascist wing of capitalism, for they cut off the toe of their German girlfriend, in hopes of getting “ze money.” (Sobchak’s confusion of the three nihilists with Nazis, as wrong as he is about that, nonetheless strengthens this symbolic association.)
That the big Lebowski seems to have cut a deal with the nihilists to give him an excuse to move some charity funds, while hoping they’ll kill Bunny, suggests a symbolizing of capitalism’s habitual cozying up to fascism, while treating its victims as contemptible and expendable. Her owing money all over town can symbolize the economic crises of capitalism that often fan the flames of fascism, hence the involvement of the nihilists.
Jackie Treehorn, as a pornographer who “treats objects like women,” consummately personifies capitalist exploitation. Of course, he has the “reactionary” and “fascist” Malibu police on his side (two epithets the Dude has for the police chief who hits him on the head with a coffee mug), for capitalists can always rely on the cops to help them, no matter how questionable their business practices may be.
Porn’s objectification of women is so obvious and oft-discussed that my elaboration on the matter would just be redundant; the fact that the “studs” of porn are every bit as exploited and shamed is worthy of note, however, since this shaming is a further developing of the theme of male humiliation.
I suspect that Treehorn’s two goons, Wu and the blond who dunks the Dude’s head in his toilet, are porn studs who double as Treehorn’s muscle, given the two men’s muscles and good looks, not to mention their vulgarity.
More importantly, consider Uli’s humiliation as “Karl Hungus” in the video “Logjammin’.” He and the other two nihilists were musicians as “Autobahn,” a synthesizer-driven “techno-pop” group modelled on such groups as Kraftwerk; the lack of Autobahn’s success, combined with presumed financial woes, has led Uli (and possibly the other two) to have to resort to doing porn in order to survive.
The nihilists’ humiliation has driven them to “takes de money” in a desperate attempt to restore their existence to its pre-porn status, back to their former glory as musicians, hence the playing of their electronic music on a tape player during the fight scene. The nihilists’ situation reminds us of German humiliation and economic woes in the 1920s…and the desperate urge felt to restore the nation’s honour led to…you know. Hence we can see a further association of the nihilists with fascism.
The political meaning behind who is most brutally made fun of in the movie (the big Lebowski, Sobchak, the nihilists, Treehorn and his goons, Quintana, and the gnomish, dancing landlord) is that what they represent is a group of establishment ideologies that deserve our contempt and loathing. Arguably, despite her bourgeois liberalism, Maude is OK–provided she relents and lets the Dude regularly see their future child; for the Dude, for all his faults, foibles, and laughable moments, is the closest the movie comes to having a character who represents a political ideal worth striving for.
As the Stranger says, “sometimes there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero? But sometimes, there’s a man. And I’m talkin’ about the Dude here. Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”
Finally, the whole twisting and turning plot, which has “a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s,” ends up as, really, much ado about nothing. Instead of the conflict ending with the characters changing or growing in any significant way, everything just ends up more or less the same as it was in the beginning: the tail of the ouroboros at the end of the story finds itself in the biting mouth of the story’s beginning, with no sublation.
Bunny has come back unharmed, for she never even “kidnapped herself”; she just took off without telling anyone, in her usual carefree, irresponsible way. Though they lost Donny, the Dude and Sobchak will resume their bowling tournament. There will be “a little Lebowski on the way,” since the Dude has just passively gone along with aggressive Maude’s agenda to be a mother.
Indeed, the first Dudeist is like a Taoist, who teaches us: “Know the masculine, keep to the feminine.” (Tao Te Ching, 28…and, of course, Maude and Bunny reverse the sex roles of this wisdom.) So, the story, as needlessly and comically complicated as it was, ultimately amounted to nothing, because the Dude’s philosophy is about doing nothing to leave nothing undone. Going with the flow, and following the Tao, “the Dude abides.”