January 09, 2014

The Light Carbon Footprint of The Dude, Part One

The best movies are richly textured and deeply characterized, so that the viewer can in effect enter into an alternate reality and live there during the mesmerizing spell cast by the film.  Films such as these can become cult classics.  Two salient examples are "Casablanca" and "The Big Lebowski," the 1998 masterpiece written and directed by the Coen brothers. 

"The Big Lebowski" is narrated, in desultory fashion, by The Stranger, a cowboy played by Sam Elliot who oversees the movie and appears a couple of times at the bowling alley where the Dude and his two friends, Walter Sobchak and Donny, bowl as a team.  After an opening sequence in which a tumbleweed rolls through the brush, tops the ridge overlooking the L.A. basin, crosses a pedestrian bridge over the 405, and then makes its way on surface streets to the beach at Malibu, we see The Dude in Ralph's Supermarket (the location used in the movie was the Ralph's in South Pasadena), wearing his bathrobe, bermudas and sandals.  He's there to buy cream, an important ingredient in what is apparently his main source of sustenance, White Russians.  While he peruses the dairy section, and samples the cream, The Stranger extols The Dude's virtues as "the right man for his time," the time being about 1991 just before the American invasion of Iraq in Operation Desert Storm.  The Dude is described as a "lazy man, quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County, which would place him in the running for laziest worldwide."  After writing a check, using his Ralph's Club Card (which we will learn from the Malibu Sheriff much later is The Dude's sole form of identification), for 67 cents (while the checkout girl scowls), The Dude gambols home to Venezia Avenue in Venice, where he lives in a garden court of bungalows a few blocks from the beach (the actual address is 608 Venezia, but the court was extensively remodeled in the intervening years and has lost its vintage Art Deco decadence).  In a lovely sequence, The Dude trots along the curved sidewalk leading to his door in a kind of flying motion, smiling serenely as he anticipates another night of oblivion.

The improbable plot then kicks in.  The Dude is mistaken for Jeffrey Lebowski, a Pasadena bigwig, and is manhandled by a couple of toughs sent by Jacky Treehorn, a Malibu pornographer.  It seems that the wife of this other Lebowski (The Big Lebowski) owes money to Jacky and lots of other people, and the thugs are there to make The Dude pay up.  This mistaken identity is the basis for everything that follows, a complicated narrative about a faked kidnapping by the Nihilists (who are in league with Bunny Lebowksi, the wife of The Big Lebowksi) to extort money from her millionaire Pasadena husband.  As the thugs leave The Dude's bungalow, one of them (the "Asian-American" Woo) pees on an oriental rug.

The next day at the bowling alley, the Vietnam vet Walter (played by John Goodman), in his usual hysterical, PTSD manner, urges The Dude to confront this "other Lebowski" and to seek compensation for the damaged rug, given that "it really tied the room together."  The Dude does so and is sent packing by The Big Lebowski (but not before scamming a replacement rug).  While on the premises, The Dude meets Bunny Lebowski, and even sees her "Nihilist" friend floating drunk in the pool, an empty bottle of Jack Daniel's bobbing alongside.  When Bunny mentions that her friend is a Nihilist, The Dude mutters, "that must be exhausting." 

Shortly thereafter, The Big Lebowski develops a plan to use The Dude as the feckless "courier" to carry money to his wife's kidnappers.  The Dude is unaware at the time he accepts the mission that the husband only pretends to load a briefcase with one million dollars; The Big Lebowski's real intention is to use the ransom demand as a cover for stealing money from a family foundation run by his daughter Maude and first wife.  These various elements of deception carry the narrative forward to its conclusion.

The Dude has no visible means of support.  It is established numerous times during the movie that he is unemployed.  A friendly exchange with his landlord tells us that as of the 10th of the month, The Dude has not paid his rent.  Toward the end of the movie, when the Nihilists try to strongarm The Dude, Walter & Donny, we learn that The Dude has four bucks in his wallet.  He drives a late-70's vintage beater, which is involved in two wrecks, one major act of vandalism, a theft and joyride incident, and is finally burned by the Nihilists. None of this probably greatly diminished the car's Kelley Blue Book value.

The Dude's back story is sketched in at various points of the movie. We know that he was a student activist in college, and was one the authors of the Port Huron Statement, "the original, not the compromised later draft."  Since Tom Hayden wrote most of this document, which was primarily about racism and the Cold War, as the founding manifesto for the Students for a Democratic Society in 1962, and that the movie takes place in early 1991, we know that The Dude must be nearing 50 years old (assuming he was around 20 in 1962).  We know also, from an afterglow conversation with Maude Lebowski, that The Dude was one of the Seattle Seven, a civil disobedience trial in 1970 arising from anti-Vietnam War activism.  In fact, there was a Jeffrey Dowd named as one of the defendants, and the Coen Brothers have acknowledged that Dowd inspired the character of The Dude. In later years, Dowd settled in Hollywood, became a screenwriter and part-time producer, and got to know Joel and Ethan.

In the second installment of this landmark series, we will explore why The Stranger declared that "sometimes there's a man" who "fits right in there," who's the man for his time, and that he was talking about The Dude.  This deep philosophical question lies at the base of "The Big Lebowski" and its profound Weltanschauung, which has not been analyzed with the seriousness it deserves, a lacuna which I will strive to correct.

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