January 11, 2014

Saturday Morning Essay: The Light Carbon Footprint of The Dude, Part Two

Brought to you by Peet's Major Dickason blend...

The Coen brothers have been known, in creating other works in their oeuvre, to borrow from the narrative frameworks of classical literature.  Most well known is their use of Homer's The Odyssey for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"  I think something similar inspired "The Big Lebowski," and my candidate is Albert Camus and his novel, entitled suggestively enough, "The Stranger."  Or for you Rosetta Stone fans out there, L'Etranger

Think about it, as The Dude said to Walter Sobchak after El Duderino had finally tumbled to the fraud perpetrated by The Big Lebowski in order to steal one million dollars from a children's foundation.  ("He yelled at me a lot, but he never did anything!").  The Dude is a man with no job, no assets, no ambition, no prospects, and the most unencumbered lifestyle imaginable.  He has no spouse, no dependents, no pets and a Ralph's Club Card as his main connection to organized society.  He is, of course, a fantasy; an actual person living in Southern California under such conditions would be homeless.  

In his post-coital chat with Maude Lebowski, the Dude admits that his career "slowed down" after he worked as a roadie with Metallica on their Speed of Sound Tour.  Metallica was formed in Los Angeles in 1981, and by all accounts its members were in fact a bunch of assholes, as the Dude notes.  There was never a "Speed of Sound Tour" or an album by that name, so it's not possible to pinpoint when the Dude last worked.  His routine in 1991, as he related to Maude, was mostly bowling and "the occasional acid flashback." 

This studied indolence is reminiscent of one of my favorite passages from The Stranger, where Meursault, after returning from his mother's funeral and entertaining his girlfriend at his small flat in Oran, spends Sunday doing essentially nothing. This seemingly innocent episode is part of Meursault's undoing; when murder charges are brought against him for the killing of the Arab on the beach, the citizenry is outraged by the evidence of his indifference to his mother's death.

The Meursault of Venice, California, Dude Lebowski, has a similar desire: to be left alone to pass his days in a reverie of marijuana and White Russian suffused oblivion.  He is an alcoholic and a pothead, but he is sane, kind-hearted, sympathetic and a nihilist without the "exhausting" part of turning it into some kind of belief system.  Society will not allow him this for the period covered by the movie.  He is physically attacked four times, by Jacky Treehorn's thugs, who push his face in the toilet; by Maude Lebowski's henchman, who punches him in the jaw; by the Sheriff of Malibu, who throws a coffe cup at his head; and finally by the Nihilists, whom he tries to hold at bay by thrusting his wallet containing four bucks at them.  He is also drugged by Jacky Treehorn.

It all starts with Woo peeing on his rug in the opening scene; later in the picture, the Dude comes to terms with the idea that if he had just let this go, none of the misfortunes that later befall him would have occurred.  His mistake was to fall under the influence of the badly-damaged PTSD victim Walter Sobchak, who is the true anti-hero of "The Big Lebowski."  Walter is cruel, constantly berating and dismissing the mentally slow Donny; pulling a firearm on the mild, innocent Smokey for allegedly fouling on the next bowling lane over; screaming at the waitress for her "prior restraint" (which the Dude quickly and accurately points out is "not a First Amendment issue;" it's about disturbing the peace); and inciting the Dude to all kinds of nonsensical behavior based on drawing a "line in the sand."

As Brandt would say, "This is our concern, Dude."  His poor choice of associates, perhaps the only ones left to him by his reductionist mode of living, does him in.  At least for a while, but as we know: The Dude Abides.

It is left only to decide why the Coen Brothers were convinced that The Dude was the man for our times, why he fits right in there.  Why sometimes there's a man, and we're talking about The Dude.

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.

January 07, 2014

Weatherwise, It's Such A Cuckoo Day

Many on the Mouth-breathing Right have used the recent spate of extremely cold weather in the Midwest and Northeast, and "mega-storm" Hercules (currently pounding the hell out of the west of England with hurricane winds and fifty-foot waves), as further proof that this whole "global warming" theory is a giant hoax.  Let me begin by saying, as always: I hope they're right. 

On the off chance they're not, the scientifically curious among you may wonder what the connection is between "Arctic amplification" (our melting of the North Pole, in effect) and extreme weather events in the mid-latitudes.  Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, a leading light in the field of jet stream perturbation caused by the relative loss of the temperature gradient between the equator and the Arctic, explains her take on the matter in the video following.  You may have something better to do, like watching a "Jersey Shore" re-run. On the other hand, if you're curious why the weather will be disturbingly weird for the rest of your life, and for at least the next one thousand years, you might be interested in Dr. Francis's brief presentation:

Let's let Ol' Blue Eyes take it on home...

....so just say the word,
and we'll catch that bird
to beyond the Milky Way!
Come fly with me, let's get the hell away.

Once I get you up there,
Where the air is ionized,
You'll be surprised,
And hor-ri-fied.
Once I get you up there,
You'll be holding me so very near
You might even hear
All the angels sneer
Because of the weather!

[Rousing finish, con brio!]

Weatherwise, it's such a freaky day,
The tro-po-pause is a long-lost cause,
We've screwed the pooch I'd say!
It's perfect for a swinging Kool-Aid punch...to-day!
Come fly with me -
Pack up let's fly away!