Tuesday, February 7, 2012

"The Big Lebowski" Analysis of Themes.

The Big Lebowski was released in 1998. The movie was written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen. These two brothers had released Fargo to widespread acclaim just 2 years prior, but The Big Lebowski failed to achieve success in the theaters. Afterwards the movie slowly grew more and more popular as word of mouth spread about how great the movie truly was.

The movie had an all star cast, Jeff Bridges as Jeffrey Lebowski AKA The Dude, John Goodman as Walter Sobchak, Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski, Steve Buscemi as 'Donny' Kerabatsos, David Huddleston as Jeffrey Lebowski AKA The Big Lebowski, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Brandt, and Tara Reid as Bunny Lebowski. (Internet Movie Database, tt0118715)

1998 was a strange time in America. The Internet bubble was still inflating but many people were warning of a coming collapse. Bill Clinton denied that he had sexual relations with “that woman.” Later that year he admits to having had relations. Europe agreed on the Euro as their single currency. In Yugoslavia a civil war was starting that would lead to tragic acts of genocide. Apple was coming back, releasing the iMac. Nasa probes were reaching out to the moons of Jupiter. (The People History, 1998)

The movie starts like a western. Sam Elliot is the narrator, an almost stereotypical western mentor. Later in the movie Elliot plays “The Stranger” during a couple mystical interludes. The Dude is independent and a wanderer, never settling down in one place. This lack of commitment is just like the cowboy in many westerns. The Dude only has a few treasured possessions, and one of those treasured possessions is his rug. That rug really tied the room together. The Dude is forced into action when the Nihilists defiles the rug, his only valuable possession. This is very similar to many westerns where the protagonist is forced into action by their own most cherished possessions being destroyed by Indians.

The movie is a hero's quest, with Dude trying to just get a new rug and go on with his life. The way that each reward in an act leads to ever increasing complications is comically exaggerated. The bowling alley is the central location in the quest. After nearly every major scene in the movie the three friends return to the bowling alley. Bowling is seen as a metaphor for life and death. The repetition of a bowling frame contrasted with the endless variation in outcome, along with the scoring of every roll is very similar to the day to day repetition and the scoring of all the important aspects of a person’s life; financial, social, scholastic.

The plot of the Big Leboswki quickly switches from a western to Film Noir after the first couple of scenes, becoming a detective story about violence, kidnapping, triple dealings, and a couple of Femme Fateles. The easy going, non violent, brightly attired Dude is in stark contrast to a Mickey Spillane. The sun drenched bright colored locations in LA are the complete opposite of the dark, dismal mood prevalent in Film Noir. Overall the situations in the movie and the clever dialog makes the movie a comedy. There are even a couple of musical scenes where the Dude flies and dances when he is unconscious and having some kind of out of body experiences.

The first person that acts as a mentor to the Dude is his best friend, Walter Sobchak, a burned out Vietnam Vet. The fact that a hippie like the Dude is best friends with a Vietnam Vet is another stark contrast in the movie. The only thing the Dude ever stood up against in his entire life was the Vietnam conflict and now his best friend is someone that can’t let that war go. Walter mentors the Dude about his rug, telling him that the real Lebowski should replace the Dude’s rug.

This quickly leads to the Dude meeting the “The Big Lebowski.” The rich person is a facade of a real person. Someone that pretends to be rich and, but the money that he appears to own is not his own. Much of the plot of the movie revolves around the Big Lebowski trying to own the money that people assume he owns. He doesn’t even really care that his young wife is kidnapped or not. She is just a status symbol that he uses to make himself appear more powerful than he really is.

Donnie is the third friend that hangs out with the Dude and Walter. He never seems to know what is going on and Walter repeatedly tells Donnie to shut up. What is strange is that Donnie only seems to exist at the bowling alley.  It is almost like he lives at there.  He is the only one of the three that is ever shown bowling. Later in the movie Donnie dies at the Bowling alley after being scared by Nihilists. Walter and the Dude are Donnie’s only friends, he doesn’t even have family to take care of his remains. His death allows Walter to let go of some of the horrible things that happened to him during war time and eventually brings Walter and the Dude closer as friends.

Another layer in the film is the time period the movie itself is set in. The movie is set just after Bush Senior’s invasion of the Middle East. The Hippie and the Vet are both now seemingly unconcerned about the larger events happening while they go about their day to day lives. During Vietnam both were deeply involved at the most basic levels of their life; the Dude to try to stop the war, and Walter to just survive it. Neither does anything to either help or hinder the current war that is happening in a desolate battle field on the other side of the world. This is almost a surrender to political realities and at a meta level is a demonstration of the surrender of Hollywood to corporate forces.

It is very difficult to choose just two scenes from The Big Lebowski to describe the movie. Every scene is almost iconic of the movies themes, visually appealing, and memorable. This results in an overload that takes a while to process after you watch the movie. The confusion of genres ( Comedy, Western, Film Noir, Musical, Action, and so on) in the movie disorients an audience, not allowing them to find a comfort zone of expectation in which to take refuge. This is why the movie failed at the box office. A single viewing of the movie just confuses most people. The same reason that caused the movie to fail in the box office is what is making it an underground cult classic as more and more people have time to watch it a few times and figure out the deeper meanings behind the film. To me the two scenes that best define the movie are the gun in the bowling alley scene and the scene where the Dude meets the powerful woman at her art studio.

The scene with the gun in the bowling alley is a metaphor for how society enforces the most trivial rules of the game of life. This self referential scene demonstrates how the bowling alley is used as a metaphor for life and death in the film. It is a recursive definition of life and death alternating between layers of reality and the movie, with no end and no beginning. Walter demands that his interpretation of the rules of bowling be followed exactly. When the other person disputes this interpretation Walter draws out a loaded handgun and threatens to end the life of the person opposing him stating, “This isn’t Vietnam, bowling has rules.” This is reminiscent of how easy it is to face the threat of gun violence from police or government forces if you have a valid disagreement with any aspect of modern government.

The power dynamic between men and women is represented in the interaction between the Dude and the two women in the movie. The first woman invites the Dude to have sex in exchange for money. The Dude refuses the offer, joking that he is going to look for an ATM. The other woman that the Dude meets is the daughter of the Big Lebowski. She is the real power in the movie, controlling a vast fortune. She wants nothing from the Dude except for his child, which the godlike narrator assures us is on the way in the last scene of the movie. The scene where this powerful woman is flying though the air naked over the Dude’s head, throwing paint on a canvas to make art is very much like their relationship. She flies past, each getting what they want from the encounter.


Internet Movie Database. “The Big Lebowski.” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0118715/ Online. 1998.

The People History. “The Year 1998 From The People History” http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1998.html Online. 2004 - 2012.


  1. Well done! Very thoughtful and pointed out some things I hadn't caught. Thank you.