U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Dude Agonistes: A Picayune Intellectual History of The Big Lebowski (Guest Post by Peter Kuryla)

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”[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”

[1] Nils Gilman, Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Hopkins, 2003), 8.

[2] Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust, 72.

[3] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations (Norton, 1979), 10-11.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post, Peter! I’m a firm believer in taking THE BIG LEBOWSKI seriously. Indeed, I teach it in my film noir colloquium, because, among other things, it’s an elaborate parody of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. This ties into your argument about the 1930s…and in a roundabout way also underscores some of what the film is suggesting about Vietnam and post-Vietnam (but also post-Gulf War I) America. Paul Schrader in “Notes on Film Noir” (1970) correctly predicted that noir would undergo a revival in ’70s America. Schrader believed that “the forties may be to the seventies what the thirties were to the sixties.” Schrader saw a “hardening of the political mood” already underway in America. And one of the contributing factors (in both the ’40s and the ’70s) involved emerging from wartime (though World War II and Vietnam are usually seen as more unlike than like each other).

    • Thanks Ben. I’ve been teaching the film in my Modern US course for years, so this is the culmination of that. The Big Sleep! Of course! That makes perfect sense. That analysis of noir is just right (Chinatown, etc.), so thanks for the reference there. It seems to me that the Coens have long made a meal out of send-ups of the old Hollywood industry of the 30s and 40s, from Barton Fink on up to the Hudsucker Proxy and Lebowski. Nathanael West is a good fit to me as a reference point since he worked for RKO in the 30s. In Lebowski, the Coens stage the send-up in the “gutter” in more than one way, since the industry there is pornography. I suspect that Jackie Treehorn and his ilk are intended as a postmodern parody of old Hollywood.

  2. Peter, this is great. Love the movie and your take on it. I personally like to think of it as a movie about the Baby Boomer generation. But I’ve heard all kinds of great takes on it including the captivating idea that the whole movie is a meditation on language. I guess “there’s a lot of ins and outs a lot of what have yous.”

    • Thanks Eran. You’re right. It is about baby boomers, the 60s generation. My favorite parody happens when the dude, in the afterglow with Maude, tells her that he was one of the authors of the first, “uncompromised” draft of the Port Huron Statement, and one of the “Seattle Seven,” on its face a joke about the Chicago Seven, being a reference to the lesser known student activists in the Seattle antiwar movement. The dude has always been on the fringes. “Seattle Seven” could also refer to the companies that colluded in the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1991. As I see it, the Coens’ debts to the 1930s wend their way through the reevaluation of that Depression decade in the 60s by the boomers, now updated with a 90s postmodern sensibility. The dude now mindlessly repeats catch phrases he hears on TV from the first Gulf War and George HW Bush, “this aggression will not stand, man,” to refer to his peed-upon rug.

      • Funny that you mention that retort by The Dude, since the notion that the movie is a meditation on language hinges on how the dude–and other characters–pick up phrases and reapply them even if they did not hear them. I personally like how the Dude uses Maude’s phrase “in the parlance of our times” when referring to Bunny. I also love how the Treehorn goons who come to bully him in the beginning say “you see what happens Lebowski” and later Walter yells the same thing at Larry with a few expletives thrown in to the mix, while wrecking the car. I should stop here I could talk about this movie way too long.

      • Yep. That’s exactly it. I’m with you, I could bang on about this movie until the cows come home. The repetition of phrases keeps going. It’s all signifiers without signifieds in a certain way.

      • Enjoyed your essay, particularly the material about the frontier.

        Always loved Nathanael West. Interesting that Faulkner and Fitzgerald were Hollywood screenwriters at the same basic time as West. Fitzgerald wrote about his experiences in Hollywood in 17 short stories collectively called the Pat Hobby stories.

        The Dude associating himself with the Seattle Seven is a joke but an inside joke. The Seattle Seven were the most famous members of the Seattle Liberation Front, an anti-war organization formed in Seattle just as the SDS was breaking apart. The Dude mentions the Seattle Seven because one of the members was a man named Jeff Dowd. Dowd later moved to LA, where he became a film producer and close friend of Joel and Ethan Coen – the genius writer/director team behind The Big Lebowski. Dowd is credited with being the inspiration for the character of the Dude – a fact that he confirms on his website and through appearances at various colleges, conventions and the annual LebowskiFest.

        The Baby Boom, by most accounts, ran from 1946-1963. While some of them came of age in the sixties (the leading edge would turn 14 in 1960), many others came of age in the seventies and the very early eighties.

        It is a misnomer to classify the great musicians, writers, and early student radical leaders as members of the Baby Boom. Virtually all of them (Bob Weir being the sole American exception who comes to mind) were born right before or during the war. Tom Hayden was born in 1939, Bob Dylan (I won’t quote him at a certain individual’s request even though Dylan’s The Man in Me is used in the film) in 1941, Jerry Garcia in 1942, Grace Slick in 1939, Ken Kesey in 1935, Roger McGuinn in 1942, Todd Gitlin in 1943, etc.

        These were people who created what was eventually consumed by the Baby Boom masses. They shouldn’t be blamed for that mess.

        San Francisco, for example, was a far different place from 1963-67 than it became afterwards. The early denizens of the Haight began moving out by then as their world became increasingly profaned.

        Anyway just a pet peeve about a generational fault line. Each side grew up in a different world.

        I see possible influences in several places: Your reference to Nixon Agonistes makes me wonder if Wills was influenced by Milton’s Samson Agonistes. (I have to admit though that i have no desire to ever read any Milton again to see if there are parallels.) Your description of the Dude as “mindlessly repeat(ing) catch phrases he hears on TV” call to mind Chance the Gardner in Being There. The Dude’s description as “struggl(ing) 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” brings to mind Yossarian.

        I would argue that the beginning of the end for America was not Vietnam but the murder of JFK which made Vietnam as we came to know it possible. At the time of Kennedy’s death NSAM 263 specified that 1,000 advisers were to be pulled out by the end of 1963 and that the remainder of the advisers would be gone by the end of 1965. These recommendations were communicated directly to the American people as the secretary of defense took to the steps of the White House on October 2 to tell the press of plans to withdraw 1,000 troops from Vietnam before the year was out. Additionally, the fact that all troops were to be withdrawn from Vietnam by the end of 1965 was reported in the October 4, 1963, Pacific Stars and Stripes under the headline “U.S. TROOPS SEEN OUT OF VIET BY ’65” and details of Kennedy’s withdrawal plan appeared in 1963 Facts on File.

        On October 31, Kennedy reiterated the McNamara announcement and added: “I think the first contingent would be 250 men who are not involved in what might be called front-line operations.” This statement describes the “220 or so nontechnical personnel who were in fact withdrawn from Vietnam on December 3, 1963.”
        This withdrawal was further discussed and agreed to at a conference in Honolulu on November 20 that was attended by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, McNamara, Admiral Felt, Ambassador to South Vietnam Henry Cabot Lodge, and Gen. Paul Harkins, MACV commander.

        In fact, “press accounts and the Pentagon Papers agree that the Honolulu conference not only announced but accelerated the withdrawal plan, to a new level which UPI put at 1,300 by year’s end.”

        Johnson issued NSAM 273 several days after Kennedy’s death. Deciphering the document’s bureaucratic language shows that Johnson had begun subtly reversing Kennedy’s policy of withdrawal. The focus of American policy was changed to embrace the concept of a broader commitment that would include large-scale direct military involvement, including combat units and bombing of the North.

        While it is true that NSAM 273 itself did not include plans for major American military operations, it was the first step down the long road that led to the Gulf of Tonkin, Operation Flaming Dart, the Ia Drang Valley, Operation Rolling Thunder, Tet, Khe San, Hue, My Lai, the Cambodian incursion, the Phoenix program, the Hanoi Hilton, the Christmas bombings, and, ultimately, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., upon which the names of America’s war dead are inscribed.

        John Newman’s JFK and Vietnam is the best source on this.

        Peace.

  3. A bit reluctant to comment here, b.c (1) I’ve never seen The Big Lebowski and (2) have not even read the whole post carefully (obvs. very well written, though). But I have just a quibble with the opening reference to the Gulf War as perhaps the last battle of the Cold War. I never think of it that way. Yes, Iraq had been an ally of the Soviet Union, but the U.S. in effect backed Iraq during its long war with Iran (1980-1988), though U.S. policy hedged its bets by also (secretly/illegally) selling Iran arms in return for release of hostages. But basically the U.S. backed Iraq during the Iran/Iraq war. Anyway, I don’t see the Gulf War as an extension of the Cold War.

Comments are closed.