The Big Lebowski is an American cult film by Coen brothers made in a genre of comedy. The scenario is based on the novel "Deep Sleep" by Raymond Chandler. However, the film is not an exact adaptation of it. It brings many new scenes and moves of the plot to the story. The premiere took place at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998. The film tells the story of an unemployed pacifist Jeffrey Lebowski, nicknamed "Dude", who suddenly finds himself embroiled in a tangle of adventurous events. At first, The Big Lebowski was perceived negatively by a wide number of the professional critics, who gave the film very low scores. It has not had much commercial success. In addition, some online ratings called it almost the worst Coens’ work. However, despite all these factors the film has gathered a huge number of fans, and due to the abundance of humor became "the first iconic film of the Internet age." A huge amount of the books were written on it, the thematic websites were created, and the annual festival named Lebowski is holding. Moreover, a whole philosophical doctrine based on the image of the protagonist extends widely. Many replicas of the characters became common saying. The Big Lebowski reveals plenty of aspects that characterize the modern American society from different angles. Facts about the culture, religion, and history of the last thirty years are reflected in it. This paper considers several important issues revealed in The Big Lebowski describing the current American society in various contexts.
The Common Features in the Coen Brothers Films That Are Reflected in The Big Lebowski
Coen brothers made 25 films and got 4 Oscars. They have their own unique and inimitable approach for filmmaking. It is characterized by the several common features that are reflected in The Big Lebowski as well as in other films by these directors. As it often happens with the Coen brothers’ films, it is almost impossible to determine exactly the genre of The Big Lebowski. The plots usually have signs of a detective story. The Coen company’s style often refers to the "black film" and the films in the genre “noire”. In The Big Lebowski it is clearly reflected in the episode, where Dude is absent: the scene, where the nihilists buy the blueberry pancakes is a traditional reception for the films of the genre “noire”. Moreover, as in the other Coen brothers’ films, in The Big Lebowski relationship between the main characters are reminiscent of the "buddy-movies" that are dedicated to male friendship. A huge part of the main characters’ lives is spent in the bowling club with "meaningless talks, away from the women and the great human problems”. In addition, Coen brothers often use an off-screen speech to reach the immersive effect in their films. In The Big Lebowski an unknown narrator – The Stranger - plays this role. This method ironically reminds to the viewers the traditions of the Western films. The narrator tells a monologue trying to create a mythological aura around the main character, but soon loses its mind and the thread of reasoning and suddenly stops. The opening confusion sets the tone for the whole film, in which all the plot lines are cut off in an unexpected and illogical way, the riddles do not contain secrets and the main villains suffer a setback at the end of the film. Many professional movie critics consider the plot of the Coen brothers’ film as the one that “rushes in all directions, never getting anywhere”. The others argue that “it is not a disadvantage of the film, but its style”. To a certain extend both these statements can be applied to The Big Lebowski.
The Main Characters as Personifications of the Social and Cultural Events
The film outlines clearly that each of the three protagonists is the impersonation of the certain social group or the cultural phenomenon. Walter presents a problem of Vietnam War’s disappointed veterans, Dude is a representative of Flower Сhildren era, and Donny’s character definitely refers to the concept of a useless man. The action takes place in the early 90's, but all the characters refer to the culture of thirty years ago. They are its consequences and its reflection. The protagonist, Jeff Lebowski, asks everyone to call him “Dude”. He is a character, who is summing up the contradictory results of total freedom and sexual revolution of the 60-70s. Apparently, at that time he took his nickname as well as the other postulates of hippie subculture, which twenty years later turned into total laziness that became a part of the character, and complete indifference to the American dream with its cult of success. He is not looking for the meaning of existence. Dude just lives in the way he likes, without unnecessary worries and stress. This fact is able to cause respect of the audience which is burdened by daily labor conscription.
Dude’s best friends are “superfluous people”. A former Vietnam War veteran Walter represents several American archetypes such as the army memories, propensity for violence, attitude towards women, categorical statements. Dude and Walter are the total opposites by their temperaments, political beliefs and attitudes towards issues. However, they have more common features than it seems. In fact, both of them are socially disabled people who had stopped in their development in 60-70 years and now can not find a place in the new world of the 90s, which is ruled by political correctness, consumer ideology, feminism and other "isms." With the third participant of this circle of friends, a former surfer Donnie, they present an international archetypal trio. Donny is a typical impersonal representative of the mass. It seems that he is not very clever, but it is difficult to conclude exactly because he is never allowed to complete his replicas. Donnie is the same "empty space" as he was during his lifetime even after his death.
Bowling as a Fragment of the Old World and Outdated System of Values
According to Coen brothers, the appearance of this game in the movie was important due to several reasons. It reflected the certain time period, the end of the 50s - early 60s. It was combined with the vintage elements of the film, with the light anachronisms, which bring the viewer back to the past. Walter is the last adherent of the old world, who continues to cling to its fragments and follow the laws that lose their meaning in the eyes of the rest. "It is not Vietnam, it is bowling, it has rules," - he shouts shaking the gun in front of the face of a player who crossed the line. Individuals try to find and identify themselves with the group of people for which the rules are more important than the views of the secular world. Reaching in this self-identification a surreal grandeur they imagine themselves protected from the suffering. Later, when the illusion of participation in some community disappears with its established rules and forms of behavior, the participators feel themselves abandoned and frustrated, as they lose their vital reference.
The Nihilism of the Consumer-Capitalist Culture in The Big Lebowski
When critics call The Big Lebowski a nihilist film, the Coen brothers object actively. "The nihilists are the villains, and if there is a preferred moral position, it is a vague position of Dude". The collision of the opposing worlds and positions occurs. The vulgar rich man is a character which often can be found in many Coen brothers’ films. However, in The Big Lebowski he plays a special role of visual parody of the capitalism and its fake myths: self-made man is a braggart. It is a dominant, omnipotent figure which becomes the catalyst of the story. This character is standing on top of the ladder of all the social classes. He represents money. Big Lebowski symbolizes the old order, which is completely fake, as one will find out in the end. It is a bright example of the model that acts in the consumer-capitalist society. The same position was ironically presented in the works of an American conceptual artist Barbara Kruger, in which she argues that modern individuals can self-identify and assert themselves only using purchasing power. On the opposite side, there is the nihilistic approach to the consumer-capitalist culture, which rejects the values of the consumer system. The statement “I believe in nothing” reflects the attitude of the certain groups of individuals who do not accept the need for the Western/American comfort, which according to Badiou, is the system that involves greediness as the main motion power for the modern people.
Feminism and Its Emasculating Effect on Men in The Big Lebowski
A secondary character, a millionaire's daughter Maude is an avant-garde artist and feminist. She is another character who brings the audience to the idea of meaninglessness and emptiness of the modern popular culture. In her case, the art is replaced by the naked artistic technique, a peculiar imitation of art, human communication - laughing over the phone, and sex - the need to get pregnant. However, all male characters of the film are presented as total nothingness against Maud. Using the classic story scheme of Hollywood movies, the Coen brothers answer the question of what means to be a man in today’s world. In the light of increasing feminist practices, any self-sufficient man is perceived only as a tool to continue a sort and have a child. The feminist Maude does not want to live or have regular sex with men. Her gay boyfriend is used for disinterested friendship. Such an unnatural approach definitely humiliates man, discredits him as a leader and protector and emasculates his nature.
The Vietnam War and Its Impact on American Society
Vietnam occupied the first place among the most important issues that worried the public in the 60s and 70s. Increased interest on a mass level to the foreign policy problems, in turn, affects the growth of the role of public opinion in the process of formation and implementation of foreign policy. However, Vietnam War had the great impact on the human mind and the worldview of the US population. Mistrust of American society to the highest power structures increased. The new movement named the hippies emerged from the young people protesting against the war. Furthermore, one of the consequences of the US involvement in the Vietnam War was the emergence of the Vietnam Syndrome. Some manifestations of the Vietnam syndrome are observed at the level of mass consciousness of Americans. The increased desire of the American people not to participate in their country's military operations abroad became a concrete expression of the Vietnam syndrome. It was often accompanied by a demand to eliminate a war from the arsenal of the national policy of the government as a method of solving the foreign policy crises. The slogan “No more Vietnams!” was formed as setting to avoid situations that might lead a "second Vietnam"
The Legacy of the Left-Wing Radical Youth Movement in 60s-70s and the Turn toward Conservatism in the 1980s
The sixties and seventies are characterized by the changes in public consciousness. Internal discords and deep contradiction of the public mood are the most characteristic features of the spiritual situation in the country at the end of the 70s. The search for alternatives to the value of bourgeois society begun in the 60s by the left-wing radical youth movement. At the end of the 70s it affected the general population in one or another way. The spiritual search in the 60s and 70s is a complex and contradictory process. First of all, an internal ambiguity of "new values" should be noted. The left-wing radical youth movement of the 60s and 70s expressed dissatisfaction with the content of labor, staging educational and social role of the individual and the suppression of their rights, the functioning of dissatisfaction in social and political institutions at all levels. For many Americans, material consumption has ceased to be the predominant value orientation. A big part of Americans were focused on the personal destiny and individual interests. However, by the early 80s the number of supporters of the "new morality", self-identity, women's equality, the liberalization of family relationships has increased. The situation of instability and the ideological vacuum enhanced the attraction of ordinary Americans to the certainty and conservative order.
The Big Lebowski has gathered and reflected certain aspects of American cultural and historical processes. The film reveals some ideas about modern American society in the ironical way. It gives the opportunity to rethink the mental patterns. Without a doubt, The Big Lebowski presents magnificent example of the work of gifted filmmakers with independent and progressive philosophy.