January 12, 2014
The "action," such as it is, takes place over the span of a few days. The Dude goes from a guy with a rug that really tied the room together to a guy with no rug to tie the room together. The various bounties he is promised for delivering ransom, or recovering money, by The Big Lebowski, Maude Lebowski and Jacky Treehorn, come to nothing. The Dude never makes a dime. He loses his old beater. He loses a friend, Donny, although he only directs five words to Donny during the course of the movie: "Home, Donny." "Thank you, Donny." He sires a child. He never bowls a single ball during the film.
The plot does not matter because the movie is really about a general feeling, an approach to life, and the contrived tale is only a vehicle for elucidating that. The Coen Brothers were capitalizing on something else that The Stranger alludes to in his closing summation. That we all feel a little bit better "knowin' the Dude is out there takin' 'er easy for the rest of us sinners." That the Dude abides.
At one point at the bowling alley, Walter Sobchak cries, "Has the whole world gone crazy?" The answer, as we all know, is yes. The world is completely insane. Friedrich Nietzsche (a guy Walter probably quoted by the wholesale yard at regular intervals), made the point eloquently: "Insanity in individuals is something rare - but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule." The social dynamics that bring this reality about are obscure, but we know nonetheless that it is true. The world is crazy. The progress of modernity has brought us to the edge of the abyss. One of the two main topics of the Port Huron Statement, after all, was the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation. What could be more insane than a species that works diligently to ensure its own extinction?
Sometimes I think it is reasonable to ascertain the intentions of an artist by speculations on the unconscious influences on the auteur or creator. If I think about "The Big Lebowski" this way, I find it significant that in the opening scene in Ralph's, President George H.W. Bush is asserting that the aggression of Saddam against Kuwait "will not stand," a phrase which the Dude will pick up and use elsewhere (the Dude has a malleable quality that makes him prone to imitation, such as copying Maude's "parlance of our time" later in the movie). Yet what was Operation Desert Storm really about? Assuring Western access to Kuwaiti oil. George H.W. Bush had the candor to say so explicitly, in fact. Thus, the purpose of this war was solely to enable the United States to continue exploiting the very resource which had made Los Angeles into a dystopian nightmare of traffic jams and pollution. And, as we know so well now, has brought us to the edge of runaway climate change, threatening the greatest die-off of species since the Permian Mass Extinction. This is social madness on an epic scale.
Sometimes there's a man who sees this insanity and checks out in every way he can. I'm talkin' about the Dude here, the guy who fits right in there for his time. Whose laziness, whose refusal to contribute to or be a part of the Rube Goldberg contraptions of death and destruction of modern civilization can be seen as heroic. ("'Cause what's a hero?" the Stranger asks). As acts of rebellion and self-definition, as Albert Camus employed those terms. The Dude rebelled actively as a youth and came to terms with the futility of resistance. Modernity rolled on, grinding all in its path, until wars were fought, national treasure thrown away, in order to ensure the continuation of a wacko mode of life. So that what was left to the Dude was the oblivion of altered consciousness, of long soaks in the tub to the music of the humpback whale, to the soundtracks of Creedence and the bowling league finals.
Who's to say what the movie's about? It's a complex case, Maude, a lot of ins and outs, a lot of what-have-yous. But maybe the Dude was saying that not just The Big Lebowski but people in general were human paraquat: buzzkilling, toxic, materialistic and crazy. The Dude Abides in this world, but not of this world, and that is his final triumph.