The Coen brothers’ most enduring film might be 1998’s improbable cult phenomenon, The Big Lebowski. Coming after the triumph of Fargo and before the inspired musical experience of O Brother, Where Are Thou?, Lebowski occupies a special place in the Coen filmography, and in popular cinema.
It’s a very odd movie. All Coen brothers films have a certain strange specificity to their dialogue, with characters latching on to turns of phrase or using older vernacular seemingly arbitrarily, savouring the delicious incongruity of the words themselves, contemplating the absurd. It’s not the usual “key” of American comedy, although there are elements of French and British comedy all throughout the Coens, particularly the French approach towards absurdist irony.
Another odd thing about this film (there are so many) is that it’s a period piece, set only a few years in the past. The film was produced in 1997-1998 yet it’s set quite specifically in 1991, during the lead up to the first Iraq war. (One phrase that gets repeated is “This will not stand,” lifted from a speech by then-President George H.W. Bush, seen on a TV in the first scene.) But as the narrator (Sam Elliott, acting as if the whole thing were a Republic serial from the 1930s) points out, Jeff Lebowski was “The Man” for his time and place. “He just fits right in there,” drawls Elliott. It’s not just the time, it’s the place. Among many other things, this film is a loving homage to the weird and wonderful characters and character types populating Los Angeles in the 1980s and 1990s, including a psychotic Latino bowler named “Jesus”, a pompous wealthy heiress and a group of German ex-patriots who were once in a techno band and now work as hitmen and porn actors.
Small forests have been fell discussing this film academically (I recommend The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, edited by Comentale and Jaffe), and the odd specificity of time and place is one of the oft-discussed topics. (Academic types will recognize the term “Chronotope” applied liberally to this film.) It’s also been discussed philosophically, posited as a Holy Grail text, spun as a Zen metaphor for bowling and numerous other readings. The generic flexibility is also something oft-discussed, as the film ostensibly has a classic “Film noir” structure, borrowed whole from a hardboiled Sam Spade story, but wanders off into tangents about Vietnam films and Tarantino violence, all the while being a comedy at heart. At the most basic level, the film is a Detective film noir piece, but one with a breathtakingly inert protagonist, Jeff Lebowski, “The Dude”.
The Dude spends the whole movie trying not to be in the movie. All he wants to do is relax and chill out – the very first scene shows this. But forces beyond his understanding or control (at least, that’s how he sees them) keep intruding, literally and figuratively, upon his leisure time. That doesn’t stop him from trying to extricate himself from each and every situation and get back either to his apartment or the bowling alley, the two places he loves the most.
The Dude’s two closest friends are Walter and Donny, two characters who hang out down at the bowling alley. Walter Sobchak, an abrasive Vietnam veteran, is the sort who loves to “hold court” and proclaim liberally on the state of the world to anyone who will listen. The Dude listens and occasionally contributes, as does Donny, whose questions and suggestions are really no less logical and reasonable than those posited by The Dude, but they nevertheless are constantly swatted down by Walter with the invective, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”
While The Dude might be “The Man for his time and place”, Walter is most certainly not. From his camo shorts to his headband to his constant references to Vietnam, Walter is living in the past. The characters even have a conversation in which that subject is directly addressed, pointing out that Walter’s conversion to Judaism (for his ex-wife) and his insistence on taking care of her dog are just two of the many examples of how he’s not in the present moment. And Walter admits it freely, “You’re damn right I’m living in the past!” The only thing about the present he takes absolutely seriously, besides his nonsensical adherence to certain tenants of Jewish law, is his bowling.
Both The Dude and Walter are fully realized characters, wonderfully played by Jeff Bridges and John Goodman. They have internal lives and pasts and attitudes that are recognizable and comprehensible. The third member of the triumvirate, Donny, played by Steve Buscemi (hot from the success of Fargo) is more difficult to comprehend. As a character, he seems to have no function other than to irritate Walter. He provides no useful information and his only memorable lines stem from the way in which Walter cuts him off. (The classic example is when The Dude attempts to quote Lenin’s maxim qui bono, and Walter keeps trying to jog the memory by repeated, “I am the walrus”.)
When we really examine the character of Donny, in fact, some other interesting considerations come to the fore. Donny is only seen outside of the bowling alley once in the entire film. (And in that sequence, his presence is internally inconsistent.) He never specifically addresses anyone except Walter, and sometimes the Dude, but the Dude rarely acknowledges him, essentially in only one scene, for two lines of dialogue. Other than Walter and, on that one occasion, the Dude, no other character specifically acknowledges the existence of Donny. By the surrealistic and magical fantasy world of The Big Lebowski, we can postulate any number of outlandish-sounding theories, including the one that Donny doesn’t exist.
Yes, one interesting way to read this film is to contemplate the idea that Donny is an external manifestation of Walter’s tragically fractured psyche. It’s clear that Walter’s character is, at least in part, an amalgam of several types of Vietnam veteran, blended with the persona of writer/director John Milius. It’s equally clear that the Vietnam war will never be over, in Walter’s mind. He makes every single issue about Vietnam to the point where it becomes a running joke. The Dude has to remind Walter on several occasions that their situation has nothing to do with Vietnam (to which Walter usually replies, “Well, not directly”).
Moreover, Walter’s rants about Vietnam focus on “the man in the black pyjamas” as a worth adversary, or the many American boys who were killed on various battlefields that he likes to name. There’s more than a little nostalgia for that war, mixed of course with that all-pervasive American sense of “lost cause” that’s hung around Vietnam since the fall of Saigon. But Walter clearly yearns, in some way, for those days or at least those people and that situation, where he could take direct action to prove his courage. (Prove it to himself, probably, most of all.) That’s one reason why he gets so directly involved in The Dude’s criminal escapades. It gives him a chance to strategize and take quasi-military action. (When Walter and The Dude convene for one late-night handoff of money for a hostage, Walter yells, “Let’s take this hill!”)
Walter is such a caricature, so emotionally fragile, that it often seems as if The Dude is acting as part of his therapeutic support system. The Dude is infinitely patient with Walter, even allowing him to destroy a stranger’s car and emotionally abuse a 10-year-old (“Is this your homework, Larry?”) and still forgiving him. In one scene, where Walter raises his voice in a coffee shop and is asked to calm down, The Dude finally does leave the shop, but their friendship is hardly over, and both know it.
Donny, on the other hand, is a simpering shadow, cringing in the background. Notice how the shot composition and staging often deliberately separates him from the other two characters, placing The Dude and Walter in the front seat of a car and Donny in the back, or The Dude and Walter sitting facing forward at the bowling alley, but Donny in the adjacent booth, leaning over the seats. When the three walk together, Donny is often shown struggling to keep up. Donny is the ultimate “third wheel” in the relationship.
(L to R): The Dude, Donny, and Walter. Note how Donny is separated from the other two, AND he’s positioned closer to Walter. (He’s always closer to Walter than to any other character.)
As we mentioned above, further evidence of Donny’s non-existence come from the fact that just about everything he says to a character who isn’t Walter could have been said by Walter. It could be argued that The Dude knows that Walter has these two personalities, and indulges him with infinite, if sometimes exaggerated patience. Even when The Dude specifically addresses Donny, it’s because Donny is reminding him that his mobile phone (owned by the “other “ Jeffery Lebowski and tied to a complex crime plot) is ringing and The Dude sarcastically calls back as he walks away, “Thank you, Donny!” The line could easily have been directed towards Walter himself, with The Dude, angry and frustrated, simply and momentarily validating Walter’s alternate persona.
Walter’s expression of fear and rage (his stance resembles a charging Gorilla) contrasts with The Dude’s calm, and once again Donny is in the background, closer to Walter than anyone else.
The relationship between Walter and The Dude is problematic to begin with: what does this ageing hippie stoner, co-author of the Port Huron statement and one of the Seattle Seven, have in common with this angry right-wing Vietnam vet? Bowling is their common bond, but one intriguing take on it would be to posit that The Dude is actually Walter’s psychiatric case-worker, and Walter is under heavy supervision and possibly medication for PTSD. It would explain how The Dude is patient with Walter when no one else is, and most of Walter’s suddenly violent and aggressive behavior.
This behavior reaches is logical climax in the final fight scene, where Donny has a heart attack and dies. Walter reacts to this as if he were losing a comrade in arms (“The medics are on their way, buddy!”), and later, in the funeral home, he argues testily with the Undertaker, testing The Dude’s patience. Donny’s funeral scene, in which Walter goes on a rant about Vietnam and then tosses some “ashes” from a coffee can into the ocean, is interesting because The Dude himself says nothing about Donny in it. He only criticizes Walter for making it about Vietnam. His look is one of disappointment, of a caregiver who sees their charge not making the hoped-for progress.
Hypotheses like this are lots of fun to postulate. It’s interesting to watch The Big Lebowski and consider that Donny is never really there. The wonderful thing about movies like Lebowski is that they survive and even thrive on such interpretations. The Coens created a flexible magical fantasy world, deeply embedded in psychology (we didn’t even mention the rats’ nest of Freudian metaphors that is Maude Lebowski) and managed to make Los Angeles, 1991 into the equivalent of Arthurian England or The Wild West (both referenced). They took the same approach with the South in the 1930s for O Brother, Where Art Thou and more recently added layers of surrealism to 1960s Greenwich Village in Inside Llewyn Davis. Their whole artistic approach, like that of Kubrick, leaves ample ambiguity lying around. Film analysts and film enthusiasts can’t be blamed for picking up on some of it.
Whatever a viewer wishes to find in The Big Lebowski, and whether Donny is really there or not, it’s a great piece of cinema, and especially with April 20th approaching, it’s a good time to revisit its strange mythic landscape.