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Uncovering the Meaning of the Film Big Lebowski

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Uncovering the Meaning of the Film Big Lebowski essay
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The opening scene of ‘The Big Lebowski’ (Coen Brothers, 1998) begins with a track shot over desert terrain, along with saloon-style credits and western themed non-diegetic intro music (Fig 1) (Sons of Pioneers- ‘Tumbling Tumble Weeds’), instantly making the viewer believe that they are being presented with a western film. This sense is heightened when the observer hears a narrator (Samuel Elliot), sounding like he is from the west himself, possibly a cowboy.

This track shot continues as the sky suddenly turns to night in a matter of seconds, with a shot of a tumbleweed across the landscape. This sudden change to darkness could provide the watcher with a new sense of anxiety due to an unforeseen drastic change in the skyline. It is then when we see the extra long shot of the city of Los Angeles. Furthermore, David-Martin Jones follows the argument of Eric Mottram in Blood on the Nash Ambassador (1983) as he states that the instant change from the skyline represents the ‘image of the gun-toting, masculine individualist of the nineteentch century frontier, to the automobile driving individualists of the newly emergent twentieth century America’. It would be plausible to think that the rumours of a western film we see in the first fifty seconds of the film would be dispelled by the Los Angeles skyline. However, the continued use of the tumbleweed and the western narrator means we can only speculate that ‘The Big Lebowski’ is not a western, not remove the possibility altogether. It is also key to notice that as the tumbleweed drifts across the hill, we hear the sound of a bowling ball rolling across a bowling lane. Thereby, this tumbleweed can be said to represent to the observer an aspect which is paramount to the life of ‘the Dude’ (Jeff Lebowski- Jeff Bridges), bowling.

The scene moves on to another track shot of the tumbleweed rolling across the busy streets of Los Angeles. The tumbleweed then drifts on in the middle of the road, providing the viewer another relation to the significant bowling aspect of the film which was seen earlier, as the tumbleweed moves across the middle of two lanes in the road. This continuous bowling reference may also have a deeper meaning, as it is plausible that it can portray ‘the dude’ himself. It can be argued that this tumbleweed is his life drifting across the city of Los Angeles, without any real purpose. This lack of purpose is shown by that he is unemployed, living a seemingly lacklustre lifestyle without any real prospects, but he seems to be content with this. The Dude finds solace and tranquillity in bowling (although we never see the dude bowl in the film). At the end of the film the dude says to the cowboy that his life is “Y’know, strikes and gutters, ups and downs”, showing the viewer that bowling represents his life-cycle. Strikes represent when life is going well, and gutters when life is not too well. This is evidenced in Donny’s (Steve Buscemi) last bowl, as he was previously seen getting strikes (Fig 2) and shortly before his heart-attack he bowls a nine (Fig 3), not a strike as previously shown.

The tumbleweed then is seen moving across the beach towards the horizon. It can also be said that this is symbolic; the use of the frontier can represent escapism and individuality through finding-oneself, as identity is a key theme to the film. The narrator touches upon this during his opening narration as he comments “Sometimes, there’s a man, well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that’s the Dude”. From this, the viewer gets the sense that this character known as ‘the dude’ personifies the West, in keeping with his desire for individuality and distancing himself from the Big Lebowski. This is evidenced in a later scene (Fig 4) where he states to the Big Lebowski at his mansion that “I’m not Mr. Lebowski, you’re Mr. Lebowski, I’m ‘the dude’, that’s what you call me”. Despite ‘the dude’s’ unconventional messy and lazy way of life, he appears to be content with his lifestyle, and does not seem to want to emulate a similar lifestyle to the more successful Mr. Lebowski.

As the scene moves on to a view of well-lit supermarket aisle, there is an instant reassertion of the notion of a more modern film, further removing the notion that the main theme of the film is a western. Our first shot of ‘the dude’ makes the observer believe that this man will be the central actor to the film, especially given the narrator’s description of a character as ‘the dude’- and this character instantly seems to fit the name. This is due to that ‘the dude’ is dressed in a robe, t-shirt, shorts and sandals, showing his lack of smart apparel, instantly signaling to the observer a lazy figure who is comfortable in himself and his laid-back attire. This can also be said to reflect the city of Los Angeles, as Los Angeles itself is considered to be a cool, relaxed city- as shown in previously through the city streets. His casual walk and stance also signifies his care-free persona.

As the camera slowly zooms in on ‘the dude’, the narrator comments “there’s a man… I won’t say a hero, ’cause, what’s a hero?” This shows the narrator pondering whether ‘the Dude’ is in fact a hero or not, showing him to somewhat have a hero status given that he is questioning it. This would certainly catch the viewer by surprise, as he is very much the challenging the hero stereotype, as he is not muscular, well-dressed or well-groomed. The narrator may perhaps be biased in his view of ‘the Dude’, in that he is praising ‘the dude’ for keeping the spirit of individuality (closely associated with the western) alive. This reversal of the hero stereotype may just be a personal reflection from the cowboy narrator, as he is not necessarily seen as a hero by anyone else in the film, so this notion of ‘the dude’ being a hero must be something to due to his “casualness” (Coen Screenplay, 3). This notion of a biased perception as he ‘seems to genuinely like the Dude and his posture in life’ (Fosl, 2012: 68) exacerbates the idea that ‘the dude’ personifies the west and their individuality.

The narrator has been described by director Joel Coen as “a little bit of an audience substitute … It’s as if someone was commenting on the plot from an all-seeing point of view”. This use of an omniscient narrator is interesting as the viewer listens to him and relies upon him for information as to what the film will be about. From the narration, there is essentially nothing useful to withdraw from it, as the only real information we take from the narrator is that the main character is ‘the dude’, and the occasional reference to the ‘I-raqis’, relating to the Gulf War.

‘The dude’ then proceeds to open a carton of ‘half and half cream’ not only does this show the viewer his nature of being laid back and care-free given that he is opening this before purchase, but it is evident later on in the film that this will be used for him to make a ‘White Russian’ cocktail, a drink he has which we see the main character have nine times in the film. It can be argued that the whiteness of the cocktail van somewhat resemble a bowling pin, hence providing another reference to bowling. He then proceeds to pay for this at checkout, but using the rather unconventional method of writing a cheque for $0.69. This close up shot can, once again, show his poor lifestyle, given that he does not have this small amount of disposable income. As he is writing this cheque, his attention wanders towards to the television screen, as we see President George Bush speaking about the current war state between Kuwait and Iraq in the Gulf War. What is key is that George Bush uses the phrase “This aggression will not stand”, a phrase which ‘the dude’ replicates when he meets the ‘Big Lebowski’ about his rug (“this aggression will not stand, man”). With close observation to cheque (Fig 5), we can see that it is dated ‘Sept 11’. It is key to understand that this is not a conspiracy to 9/11, but it is simply that George Bush’s speech on a ‘new world order’ in which he proclaimed “this aggression will not stand” was given on that date in 1991.

There are several references to the Gulf War seen in this film. In the scene where Walter (John Goodman) loses his temper with Smokey for stepping over the line in a bowling match (Fig 6), Walter proceeds to furiously pull a gun out on Smokey. ‘The dude’s’ pacifism is emphasized here by telling Walter to “put the piece away (referring to the pistol)”. Afterwards, ‘the dude’ reiterates Walter to “take it easy”, Walter responds by saying “Pacifism is not… look at our current situation with that camel-fucker in Iraq. Pacifism is not something to hide behind”. This is not only a reference to the Gulf War, as with the line being crossed in the bowling match, ‘a border has been crossed, rules have been violated, and violence results’ (Comer, 2005: 99). In particular, this scene is also associated with the gulf war in the theme of ‘taking a stand’. This is evidenced straight away, as the phrase “this aggression will not stand” (as aforementioned) is reiterated by ‘the dude’ when he is meeting Mr. Lebowski about his rug that is urinated on.

Moving on, we see ‘the dude’ walking towards his house. There are several aspects of this which are worthy of note. First of all, the darkness descending over the household makes the viewer believe something bad is about to happen, given that darkness is often associated with evil and peril. Furthermore, it is shown that the area which ‘the dude’ lives in has dirty walls, overgrown plants and an old bike protruding out of a bush. This symbolizes that that this neighbourhood is not well-kept and there is little care about its appearance. This is certainly applicable to ‘the dude’ upon observing his house, his car and also his lifestyle. However, this also reflects his care-free nature and his ability to not ‘sweat the small stuff’. Moreover, it can be stated that his walk to the house may be another reference to bowling. The shape of the path that goes his house is surprisingly similar to the bowling ball dispensers we see in the bowling alley in the film (Fig 7), he’s even carrying his bowling ball as he walks through this path.

As ‘the dude’ enters his house, momentarily there is complete darkness in his house, which again would give the observer some anxiety as to what will happen when the light come back on. When the lights do come back on, several things are noticeable. The lifeless colour of the door and the walls once again reflects ‘the dude’s’ disregard to the appearance of his house, keeping with the appearance of the neighbourhood as seen earlier. Also, we see a bowling award which is apparently nailed to the wall, reiterating to the viewer the importance of bowling to ‘the dude’s life.

Conclusively, although the opening scene of ‘The Big Lebowski’ does show obvious elements of being a western, it is key to understand that it is not. The opening scene clearly depicts a “deadbeat” who drifts through life, much like the tumbleweed we see in the introduction. However, ‘the dude’ is contempt with this, as his relaxed lifestyle suits him as well as it can. Perception is key, as to Mr. Lebowski (and admittedly ‘the dude’ himself) he is a “deadbeat”. However, it is clear that the narrator views him as a hero, given his individuality and western appeal as aforementioned.

Furthermore, there are aspects of this opening scene which relate to other genres of film- film noir certainly being a key one. The character of ‘the dude’ is instantly shown to be extremely care-free and lazy, depicting that he has not matured and that, to some extent, he is stuck in the past. This is key as what is often seen in film noir is characters who are plagued by their past. This is evidenced by several characters in the film, such as Maude (Julianne Moore), who can be seen to be stuck in the fluxes art movement, as shown by her many unconventional art-pieces and makings of art throughout the film. This is also evidenced through Walter, who is still holding on to the memories of the Vietnam War and his ex-wife, proclaiming on several occasions that he is shomer shabbas. ‘The dude’ rejects Walter’s identity by proclaiming he’s “fucking living in the past”. This is ironic, as ‘the dude’s hippie identity is anchored in its own references to the past’ (Fosl, 2012: 269). ‘The dude’ is apparently still in the flower-power movement; shown by his marijuana and his desire for peace in his debacle with his rug, as shown previously by his quote “this aggression will not stand, man”, along with his pacifism throughout the film. This quote also implies another relation to film noir, in that many of the films in film noir are set to the backdrop of war namely World War II), however in ‘The Big Lebowski’ the film is set clearly in the backdrop of the Gulf War. The Coen brothers in the have admitted the relations between ‘The Big Lebowski’ and the Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ (1946) (Fig 8). When asked as to what extent ‘The Big Sleep’ influenced ‘The Big Lebowski’, Joel Coen stated how he wanted to do a story similar, “how it moves episodically, and deals with the characters trying to unravel a mystery”. Due to these factors, ‘The Big Lebowski’ has been referred to as a ‘bowling noir’ (Mottram, 2000: 136), given its unconventional stylings in relation to film noir.

As the film comes full circle to another narration, the closing narration is much like the opening narration, void of any real information or relevance. This lack of a climax however is encapsulated not only in the opening scene, but across the film. The closing narration is essentially just the cowboy talking about the story and what has already been shown, there is no grand message, epiphany or finale that comes out of it. ‘The dude’ is as he was before, bowling in hope to get to the finals, before ‘the stranger’ stops and explains how he’s “rambling again” as he was in the opening scene.

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Uncovering the Meaning of the Film Big Lebowski. (2019, January 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved January 12, 2021, from https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/uncovering-the-meaning-of-the-film-big-lebowski/
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Uncovering the Meaning of the Film Big Lebowski. [online]. Available at: <https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/uncovering-the-meaning-of-the-film-big-lebowski/> [Accessed 12 Jan. 2021].
Uncovering the Meaning of the Film Big Lebowski [Internet]. GradesFixer. 2019 Jan 28 [cited 2021 Jan 12]. Available from: https://gradesfixer.com/free-essay-examples/uncovering-the-meaning-of-the-film-big-lebowski/
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