Fan Phenomena: The Big Lebowski
Edited by. Zachary Ingle
Published April 2014
The Big Lebowski, as part of the Fan Phenomena series, explores how this box office flop became one of the most popular, and possibly the most quotable, cult film of all time. The legacy of it’s popularity has resulted in the creation of college-level courses, a multicity festival and even it’s own religion; Dudeism, of which the ‘Church of the Latter-Day Dude’ has confirmed more than 70,000 official adherents.
The extract below is taken from the chapter Nihilistic dudes: The masculine cult figure in fin de siècle American cinema where Keith Calvin draws parallels between Wes Anderson’s Rushmore and The Big Lebowski in examining representations of alternative masculinity.
“The Stranger (Sam Elliot) opens the film with an introduction of the Dude as a person ‘in the running’ for laziest in the world. While his description might be interpreted as less than complimentary, it ultimately reveals an admiration for someone who can live so fully as an outsider. This ability is what defines the masculine cult figure to a large extent and one that I would like to expand upon with the Dude and Max Fischer from Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. Although from disparate demographic backgrounds, Max and the Dude share a number of traits that help to define them as paradigms for the masculine cult figure. In particular, their relationship to standard western institutions is strained in a manner that coincides with their styles of masculinity. The clash of responses to the question posed by Mr Lebowski (‘the Big Lebowski’), ‘What makes a man?’ emphasizes the differences within each man’s gender ideology. Lebowski is a highly masculine movie on all fronts, and the question of manhood and productivity weighs heavily on that theme.
Perhaps the most often quoted line from Lebowski involves the Dude explaining to the elder Lebowski that he does not consider himself ‘Mr Lebowski’. ‘You’re Mr Lebowski. I’m the Dude. So that’s what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you’re not into the whole brevity thing’. Beyond the humour of the many nicknames, the exchange highlights an important distinction between official, formal language of business and productive society as spoken by Mr Lebowski and the Dude’s marginalized, unofficial titles as dubbed not by society but by himself. The difference expounds upon a contradiction that the Dude’s existence draws to the foreground. The audience is led to believe that Mr Lebowski is a self-made man, who has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps (despite not having the use of his legs), and constructed an empire of wealth and civic fame. As his wall of accomplishments proves, Mr Lebowski has been recognized for many accomplishments, not the least of which is meeting Nancy Reagan when she was ‘First Lady of the nation’. Mr Lebowski embodies the traditional liberal spirit where value is gauged through employment, wealth and public acknowledgement. The Dude, however, intentionally avoids all such determinations. He claims to have gone to college, although he spent more time in ‘administration buildings’ than any place else. He simultaneously partakes in mainstream society (he pays his rent, calls the police when robbed, plays in bowling leagues) and self-marginalizes himself within those structures. What I mean by this is that he purposefully allows himself to be pressed towards the margins of power structures in order to avoid their oppressive forces and expose the shallowness of their constructions. For instance, when Mr Lebowski references the Dude’s employment status (on several occasions) the responses he receives range from evasive to complete insensibility, ‘What day is this?’ The Dude’s reactions to this subject matter display an innate disapproval of the ‘manly man’ approach that Mr Lebowski espouses.
In Rushmore, we find a similar ideological dynamic between Max and Herman Blume (Bill Murray), a millionaire business tycoon whose obnoxious twin sons attend Rushmore. While Blume proves to be a sympathetic character, his approach to success is to ‘take dead aim at the rich kids’. But the real tension for Max derives from his relationship with Rushmore Academy, the school he has attended since first grade. He leads the French Club, edits the yearbook, captains the debate team, manages the lacrosse team, is a member of the Kung Fu Club, and participates in many other school associations. As he builds a portion of his resume through these activities he also fails out of the school due to a complete refusal to do actual schoolwork. On the one hand, he could be a model member of the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. He is the son of an uneducated barber, very social and seemingly intelligent. However, he disdains the standard process of schooling, manipulating the bylaws of the school’s regulations to avoid expulsion time after time. He shuns standard institutional learning and in the process creates his own, personal version of education. Self-learning through self-marginalization appears as a trend from the masculine cult figure. The method allows these cult characters to participate as non-participants, to be there without being an ingredient of the system of which they disapprove.
As the Stranger attempts to describe the Dude with the phrase ‘sometimes there’s a man …’ but trails off without finishing his thought, so does the masculine cult figure remain incomplete. The Dude himself demonstrates a similar lack of completion when, after he impregnates Maude and spits out his drink, declares, ‘Let me explain something about the Dude …’ but never does. Max Fischer and the Dude offer performances of masculinity that are dependent upon defining themselves against a set of norms that remains in flux. He can never be fully formed other than being an ‘other’ to the productive, hard-working middle-class models of men and their behaviours; therefore the cult figure evolves and reappears from one generation to the next not unlike the traditional trickster figure. Often contradictory and difficult to understand, the seemingly irrational aspects of these characters are the very traits that make them important and unique.”
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