Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of four biweekly guest posts by Peter Kuryla. — Ben Alpers
Joel and Ethan Coen’s now cult-classic The Big Lebowski either does some surprising cultural and intellectual work, or more likely, it doesn’t do much of anything. Who knows? In the early 1990s, when the film is set, Americans fought what might be understood as the last battle in the Cold War, namely the first Gulf War, if we recall that Iraq had been a bothersome ally of the Soviet Union. The U.S. was in the throes of what Francis Fukuyama had notoriously dubbed around the same time the “End of History”: capitalism had emerged victorious as Soviet-style communism was busily collapsing into the ash-heap. By those lights, the film (released in 1998) amounts to a stinging rebuke of the wishful thinking that came with the flush of success over communism only some seven or eight years before.
Disabuse yourself of the idea that The Big Lebowski is about Zen Buddhism, German nihilism or even American Judaism. Ignore the importunities of Jeff Bridges and his press junkets; forget the memes and throw out the commodity fetishism. The film makes a coherent statement about America at the “end of history.” (Ah, what the hell.) Three interconnected ideas run through the film. These are first, the idea of the West: frontier individualism, conquering of a continent, and the crises of empire that followed that historical development; second, the problem of labor, particularly notions of character and work in the face of the mechanization that characterizes the end of history; and third, the issue of civic association, historically, some have said, the lifeblood of American democracy. These concepts interweave in the film, making it among the most effective satires of U.S. power and character to appear in the last several decades.
The Frontier, the American West and Nathanael West
If we disregard for the moment D.H. Lawrence’s observation that Americans live on a haunted continent and that the true American soul is “isolate, stoic, and a killer,” substituting for that robust judgment a more popular American myth, then American democratic institutions and character, including our relish for association and joining, and our capacity for hard work (“rugged individualism”), resulted from what good old Frederick Jackson Turner called the “frontier process,” the movement of white Europeans westward across the continent. The Big Lebowski satires all of these things.
The film opens with a tumbleweed blowing in from across the desert and onto an urban landscape. A cowboy narrator spins out a frontier yarn for us from “way out west.” The tumbleweed is the cowboy narrator, now the voice of the incomparable Sam Eliot, who will only later be made flesh as a cowboy who interacts with the hero. Reminding us that he’s never seen Paris or London, he contends that “After seeing Los Angeles, and this a-here story I’m about to unfold, well, I guess I seen something every bit as stupefyin’ as you’d see in any of those other places. And in English too. So I can die with a smile on my face. Without feelin’ that the good lord gipped me.” The tall tales of the campfire remains with us, and our tumbleweed/cowboy narrator aims to tell us a whopper. The tumbleweed travels all the way to the Pacific—to the very end of the continent, which, if we can trust our frontier thesis again, marked the geographical end of the first stage in our national development once white Europeans had finished subduing the native peoples of the Plains. So the story of American global preeminence in the gloaming at the end of the 20th century begins with the voice of an earlier, continentally bound stage in American development. The cowboy “ain’t never seen the queen in her damned undies as the fella says” because his time ended around the year 1890 as the US census declared the closing of the frontier, only a few years from when the nation would soon embark upon imperial ambitions in the Spanish American War. Against this epic, world-historical stage, we get the sordid tale of a bunch of half-wits and idiots, some nihilists, a pornographer, a pervert, and a Vietnam vet with PTSD, a Los Angeles demimonde living at the dead end of the frontier at the end of history. Our cowboy narrator reminds us, “sometimes there’s a man, and I’m talking about the dude here, sometimes there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the dude, in Los Angeles.” From his vantage point in the 19th century, the tumbleweed marks the passing of yet another stage in American history for us, a spectral observer on our haunted Continent as our role on the world stage had become complicated by the end of Soviet Communism and with it the “New Frontier” of Jack Kennedy’s imagination. The dude is the last man.
Jeffrey Lebowski—aka “the dude”—and his friends also resemble Nathanael West’s group of eccentrics and cranks on the ragged edges of the Hollywood film industry in the latter’s novel The Day of the Locust, where boredom means a life chewed up by sex, drinking and violence. The 1930s mark a great reference point for the film, not only because the Coens share West’s wicked, quirky sense of humor, but because West and other artists with an appetite for satire and absurdity (against, say, more earnest Popular Front types) got a good deal of mileage out of what more than a few observers thought was the end of American capitalism. They were wrong about that, but the comparison works anyway. In West’s novel, Los Angeles is where people go to die once they discover that “sunshine isn’t enough…Nothing happens. They don’t know what to do with their time. They haven’t the mental equipment for leisure, the money nor the physical equipment for pleasure. Did they slave so long just to go to an occasional Iowa picnic? What else is there?”
Gutterballs and Busby Berkeley: Labor and Mechanization at the End of History
The cowboy narrator/tumbleweed has made a whimsical peace with the dude, so rather than complain about him, he tells us that he means to describe “a lazy man, and the dude was most certainly that, quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County, which would place in high in the running for laziest worldwide.” Laziness, and its companion boredom, have long been the conceptual problem at the end of history. Once we achieve success by conquering the idea that work should be toil, once we enter a space where, by means of mechanization or a permanent foreign underclass, a good number of people in society have only to get on with the business of consumption, then what’s left for the go-getter to do? Why keep going anyway? The problem, as several mid-twentieth American theorists, flush with victory in the Second World War figured, was what Nils Gilman called “the eidolon of rationalist modernism: total knowledge about a society free of both want and dissent, with boredom as its most threatening feature”
The dude “fits right in there” because he has found a way to conquer boredom or at least be in rhythm with it, rolling a number and smoking it, listening to whales or the sounds of bowling balls knocking strikes and spares. “The dude abides,” a sentiment our cowboy narrator wistfully repeats, because, he reasons, at the end of the film, “I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that, knowin’ he’s out there, the dude, takin ‘er easy for all us sinners.” The sin here is toil in a society at the end of history, where, despite being potentially freed of such things we refuse to act like it or pursue that freedom. The cowboy is the American conscience that now haunts us. We toil despite not needing to, hoarding commodities in a vain search for redemption on a haunted continent. The dude seems to have no such hang-ups. Yet he acts very “un-dude-like” for most of the film, constantly interrupted or bothered by events and venal people. We can only imagine that he abides the rest of the time. For now, he struggles against the strivers and their sordid entanglements: Dude Agonistes.
The dude’s domain is the bowling alley, which the Coen brothers sometimes shoot in rapturous sequences that recall another 1930s genius, namely Busby Berkeley. In the same way that the sophisticated, clean, sleek, automaton-like lines of Berkeley’s dancers in films like The Gold Diggers of 1933 or 42nd Street parodied mechanization in a society only recently grown accustomed human beings as extensions of machines, early on in the film the Coens offer sequences of grotesque human beings in all shapes and sizes aimed at the task of rolling a ball toward the pins, one after another, “the mechanical encrusted upon the living” to borrow from Henri Bergson. As a neat bookend, the film ends with sumptuous, almost erotic close-ups of the backside of the lanes amidst the strains of a great, wistful Townes Van Zandt cover the the Rolling Stones’ “Dead Flowers.” We peer behind the stage, as it were, where automated pinsetters service the dude and his bowling league friends. It all recalls Claude Estee’s observation about sex, in West’s Day of the Locust, that “love is like a vending machine, eh? Not bad. There’s some mechanical activity inside the bowels of the device.” Three-quarters of the way through the film we get a full-blown Berkeley sendup in the form of a dream sequence. The narrator sets the scene with some good old-fashioned cowboy Yiddish: “darkness washed over the dude, darker than a black steer’s tuchus on a moonless Prairie night, there was noooo bottom.” The Hollywood extravaganza that follows, called “Gutterballs,” is a choreographed number featuring a tripped-out mash-up of sex, empire, bowling, and labor. Saddam Hussein serves as proprietor of the dream bowling lanes, offering entre to a skyscraper of shoes. Fits right in indeed. What’s your shoe size?
No Man Bowls Alone or Crosses the Line: Success, Failure and Civic Association
In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), Christopher Lasch observed that:
In the heat of the struggle to win the West, the American pioneer gave full vent to his rapacity and murderous cruelty, but he always envisioned the result—not without misgivings, expressed in a nostalgic cult of lost innocence—as a peaceful, respectable, churchgoing community safe for his women and children…Today Americans are overcome not by the sense of endless possibility but by the banality of the social order they have erected against it.
Maybe trailblazers, mountaineers and muleskinners gave way to Rotarians, Moose Lodgers and PTA moms. Alexis de Tocqueville noticed the American penchant for joining all the way back in Jacksonian America, extolling the virtues of civic association. Three decades shy of two centuries later, Robert Putnam captured on the Frenchman’s observations, lamenting declining social capital amidst the collapse of forms of civic association, using as a playful metaphor the startling fact that more Americans bowled than ever before, while fewer than ever bowled in leagues with one another.
The dude is an exception to Putnam’s Bowling Alone. He and his pals bowl in leagues and take it seriously, their ragged squalor amidst hyper-individualist urban wealth. The problem is that one of the crew, the Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak (a deliriously pugilistic John Goodman) takes it only too seriously. When Smoky (played by Jimmie Dale Gilmore), a member of an opposing team, apparently steps over the foul line during league play, Walter barks, “over the line!” Smoky disagrees, appealing to the dude, but Walter gives no quarter. The dispute escalates until Walter draws a loaded pistol and aims it at Smoky’s head, cocking it, ultimately forcing him to “mark it zero.”
In our fondest exceptionalist fantasies, civic associations, by inculcating democratic practices like voting or parliamentary procedure, also encourage harmony and civic virtue. Walter makes a fetish of rule following itself instead, such that it becomes a source of potentially lethal violence. At the dead end of a continent, amidst the gloaming of American global hegemony, the pioneers’ “rapacity and murderous cruelty” which had cleared the way for “a peaceful, respectable, churchgoing community” can only show up this time as violent farce. Walter bellows, “This isn’t ‘Nam, there are rules!” If Vietnam signaled the beginning of the end of the American preeminence, then a vet, a victim of the murderous cruelty of that war, takes the stage for a satirical reimagining of the return of the repressed frontier West in our civic associations at the end of history.
The phrase “fuck it” is among the most critical in the film. The dude lets that one go after enduring a diatribe from another Jeffrey Lebowski, who styles himself a paragon of achievement and self-making, the dude’s dark twin. Here “Dude Agonistes” recalls Garry Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, written in the aftermath of Nixon’s victory in 1968, where Wills’ Nixon is the “last liberal” offering up the old, shopworn gospel of the self-made man for a nation ultimately willing to settle after a few years of turmoil. The dude, on the other hand, struggles to stay lazy amidst superficial men following decades of more of the same self-serving, tired nonsense about American hard work and self-made wealth. His agon comes from being the last man at the end of our global hegemony, the man “for his time and place,” who “fits right in there.” A wall in the dude’s shabby apartment features a photo of Nixon bowling, as if to underscore the irony.
The dude makes this other Lebowski’s acquaintance after having been convinced by his friend Walter that he deserves payment for damages to a rug in his apartment. A “Asian-American” named Woo had urinated on said rug after he and another thug mistook the dude for this other, well-heeled Jeffrey Lebowski, who owes money to the pornographer Jackie Treehorn. (Sometimes it’s entertaining to just narrate the story.) Before their meeting, Mr. Lebowski’s assistant Brent (a wonderfully unctuous Phillip Seymour Hoffman) shows the dude the various emblems achievement in his employer’s study: pictures with famous people—Nancy Reagan, Charlton Heston—and various civic awards, etc. We eventually learn from Maude Lebowski (the dude’s sort of lover and Mr. Lebowski’s daughter) that this other, non-dude Mr. Jeffrey Lebowski actually has no money of his own, so his achievement wall, the testament to his social capital built out of civic association, is mere window-dressing for an inflated sense of himself, a powerless beneficiary of an allowance who extols the virtues of hard work. This hypocrite Lebowski asks the dude, “Do you have a job, sir?”
I’ll wrap up this ridiculous post with one of the final scenes in the film. The final member of the dude’s bowling league troika, one Donny (a timid Steve Buscemi) dies after suffering a heart attack during a (climactic?) moment in the film where Walter, wielding a bowling ball, does battle against a group of pathetic German nihilists in the bowling alley parking lot. The dude and Walter aim to deposit Donny’s ashes off the end of the continent into the Pacific Ocean. Walter intones: “He died as so many young men in his generation, before his time. In your wisdom Lord, you took him, as you took so many bright, flowering young men from Khe Sahn, Lan Doc, and Hill 364. These young men gave their lives. Donnie, Donnie who loved bowling.”
Because the wind is blowing in from the ocean at the time, Donny’s ashes land all over the dude, who, in his frustration yells at Walter: “God damn it Walter, you fuckin’ asshole…What’s the fuckin’ travesty with you, man? What was that shit about Vietnam? What the fuck does anything have to do with Vietnam? What are you talkin about?”
The dude is exactly wrong here. It has everything to do with Vietnam, the beginning of the end. Walter can only hug the dude, easing his struggles, cooing in his friend’s ear, “Fuck it dude; let’s go bowling.”
 Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Hopkins, 2003), 8.
 Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, 72.
 Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (Norton, 1979), 10-11.