Why The Dude Abides: What Is It About The Big Lebowski That Makes It An American Cult Classic?

Last night I dined at a local upscale american restaurant owned by three local chefs.   It was Haute Cuisine with a comfort food twist.  Things like duck-fat fried brussel sprouts and a burger called “The McDowell” – after it’s namesake in the movie Coming To America, starring Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall.     There were several items on the menu with movie references names.  But the most common film homage throughout the place was artwork dedicated to “The Dude”:  the main character in The Big Lebowski.  I watched The Big Lebowski for the first time about a year or so ago, after Christmas shopping at a Barnes and Nobles and seeing an old van decorated in Missletoe and lights with the phrase “The Dude Abides” strung across the inside of the back window in party-banner letters.  Being a sucker for quirkiness and knowing that this meme related to the aforementioned movie, I decided I had protested getting roped into watching this cult classic for long enough….it had been out for almost a dozen years and I ought to go ahead and bite the bullet.

I found the film entertaining. I related to the mellow “go-with-the-flow-ness” that the Dude seemed to wallow in and appreciated all the crazy characters and overarching metaphor.   And I suppose letting go and letting “whatever” is a solid resonant message for helping to assuage our prevailing human anxiety.  But What does: “The Dude Abides” really mean to us as an American culture and to who specifically.

In the first steps of my research I found a web page discussing the vernacular of the tagline and what it means. http://english.stackexchange.com/questions/38213/the-dude-abides-what-does-abide-mean-in-that-context  The general consensus from a forum on reddit is that  “The Dude Abides” is an “Intentionally vague phrase hinting at the fact that The Dude Lives, in his imperturbable state of dudeness, somewhere”.  Like Elvis or Tupac.  Very helpful.

But I did manage to find a compelling argument here http://www.quora.com/The-Big-Lebowski-1998-movie/Why-is-The-Big-Lebowski-such-a-big-deal
, discussing the appeal to film buffs as well as its general intelligence and attention to detail.  The movie flopped in the box office because it was not the Epic, visual stimulus-fest or emotional rollercoaster that most blockbusters are.  However, in its ability to relate to the average-joe and intelligentsia alike it gained an underground following of those who just “get it” – from around the world.

Here is the most compelling explanation that one quora.com use had to offer in answering the question:  “Why is The Big Lebowski Such a Big Deal”:  (It’s long, so hunker down with your white russian and “whatever else”) –

tl;dr. The Big Lebowski is a big deal because it’s brilliant on multiple levels. First, it’s a whip-smart, deeply film-literate parody. Second, it’s really, really funny. Third, and most importantly, its virtues have  helped make it “cult,” which has kept it relevant years after its release. Many films can claim one, or even two of these qualities, but virtually none possess all three. WARNING: SPOILERS WITHIN.


1.   The Big Lebowski is a wildy creative parody of well-loved tropes. This explains a lot of its appeal to and legitimacy among film geeks.

The plot is modeled on The Big Sleep, a similarly convoluted detective story released in the late 1940s. In that film, Humphrey Bogart plays Philip Marlowe, the consummate private eye. After receiving an assignment from a former military man in a wheelchair, Marlowe deftly navigates LA’s seamy underworld, fighting and outwitting saps, mugs, goons, dames, etc. in dogged pursuit of the truth. It’s the pinnacle of Film Noir, and if, when watched now, it seems very genre-bound, that’s only because it defined that genre. [1]

The Big Lebowski takes a very similar starting situation and plot, but turns the concept on its head. Instead of a savvy detective, here the protagonist is the Dude, a loveable schlub high in the running for laziest worldwide. The Dude is the absolute opposite of Marlowe; it’s the equivalent of casting Jerry Seinfeld in an action movie. The Dude isn’t particularly smart, or tough, or badass, or capable. Hell, he doesn’t even want to be involved; all the Dude wanted was his rug back! He takes the opposite tack from a detective in practically every situation: he doesn’t get business from Mr. Lebowski, he goes there for compensation; he doesn’t track down the Germans, they track him down; he has no idea who anybody is or what they’re doing; he is followed and never follows anyone himself; he doesn’t interrogate reluctant henchmen, but instead fails to interrogate a 12-year-old kid (who’s flunking social studies). To drive the point home of just how wrong he is for this situation, he’s even visited by a “real” private detective who compliments the Dude on his work… but the Dude has no idea what he’s talking about. The Dude is lost in a confusing alien world in a way that reminds me of Tom Stoppard‘s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, another very funny piece.

Yet the Dude adapts. As the film progresses, he does act increasingly like a detective. Despite his limitations, he starts talking about the “case,” angling for information, putting two-and-two together (remember, he figures out Mr. Lebowski’s treachery on his own), and generally acting more like Marlowe than he did at the start. That such moves often end up backfiring hilariously (e.g. the scene at Jackie Treehorn’s place where the Dude attempts to pull a clever detective trick by rubbing a pencil against a pad to see what was last written… and discovers only a stick figure sporting a huge erection) only sharpens the parody.

And here’s the final joke; somehow, completely accidentally, shielded only by his own ignorance and incompetence, the Dude survives all the ridiculous encounters during the film. More than that, he ends up on top! Think about it. By the time the credits roll, the Dude is the only person who knows the entire story from beginning to end. He wins in exactly the same way Bogart’s Phillip Marlowe does! And what does the Dude do with this unique insight? He goes bowling. It’s the anti-ending, but in the Dude’s world, it’s the happiest possible.

The Coen Brothers managed simultaneously to pay homage to and parody one of America’s greatest film genres. It’s masterfully done.

2.   But more importantly, besides its serious qualities, the film is funny. Really, really funny. It’s always tough to define what makes “funny,” but three important factors stand out in The Big Lebowski: (a) quirky, interesting characters, (b) thrown or drawn into completely absurd situations, (c) who then reel off a memorable mix of snappy, “film noir” dialogue juxtaposed with lines that reveal they have no idea what they’re doing, thus completely undercutting the Noir aspect. [2]

Let’s start with the last point. Although we typically think of him as an clueless boob, the Dude actually spits a number of sharp, very Noir lines. For example:

Woman in pornographic film: “You must be here to fix the cable.”
Maude (to Lebowski): “Lord, you can imagine where it goes from here.”
Lebowski: “He fixes the cable?”

Very deadpan, sharp stuff. But Lebowski also reacts to Germans breaking into his house with a feeble, “Hey, this is a private residence, man!” Really? That’s what you’re going with, Dude? And when a goon grabs him and forces him into a limo, his only comment is “Careful, dude, there’s a beverage here!” That mix of the witty and the farcical is part of what gives the dialogue its charm. And you’ll note that when people quote the movie, it’s rarely the smart lines they quote, but rather the ones where the Dude or his buddies react completely inappropriately, or completely helplessly, to the situation.

Next, the characters are just amazing. The Dude is an institution: John Goodman’s Walter is completely unhinged, yet sympathetic; Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Brant steals every scene; and the interaction among the Dude, Steve Buscemi’s Donnie, and Walter is just priceless. Every character works, every character is totally memorable, and every character is himself completely ridiculous. Of course, everyone quotes John Turturro’s Jesus Quintana, but who could forget Mr. Lebowski gazing into the flames from his wheelchair while Mozart’s Requiem swells in the background? What about the landlord who performs a bizarre modern dance to Mahler in front of a completely empty auditorium (n.b. watch Donnie’s face in that scene)? And Brant’s obsessive-compulsive discomfort when the Dude starts touching the trophies on the wall? Even Tara Reid manages to do a good job as Bunny Lebowki. Give credit to both actors and writers; The Big Lebowski showcases flawless performances from a great ensemble cast, and solid writing throughout.

Last, the characters are written into some very, very strange places. By the end of the film, the Dude’s car has been broken into, pissed on, hit with a crowbar, shot with what appears to be an Uzi, and set on fire by Germans who complement their nihilistic intimidation with threatening techno music (and a cricket bat). In the pinnacle of the grotesque, Walter not only peppers his funeral oration for Donnie with inapt references to the ‘Nam, but manages to spray Donnie’s ashes directly into the Dude’s face. The Dude himself gets punched by one goon, manhandled by another, drugged by a pornographer, assaulted with a coffee cup by the Malibu Chief of Police, and used sexually by a maneating artist. Walter and the Dude together try (unsuccessfully) to coerce a 12-year-old into telling them who owns the car outside by showing him a piece of his homework in a plastic bag. It’s just amazing how many zany little vignettes comprise this film.

3.   But plenty of films are smart and funny; this isn’t the true reason why The Big Lebowski is A Big Deal. The real answer begins with two observations. First, because there is so much attention to detail in both the acting and writing, you find something new every time you see it. Second, because there is so much to like and so many little things to discover and enjoy, everyone has completely different favorite parts and details, some of which, inevitably, you will never have noticed. As a result, it’s an amazing film to watch with a group of any kind; you learn something new every time, and you feel a sense of fun and kinship in seeing it with another person and learning what she likes. You develop a vocabulary of favorite lines, of little moments you alone love, and inside jokes that only fellow Lebowski-lovers – called “Achievers,” short for “Little Lebowski Urban Achievers,” for those in the know – would get. And that makes it cult.

Moreover, this cult aspect stretches across cultures. I’ve chatted and laughed about The Big Lebowski with a 40-year-old Australian in a pub in Barcelona, with an 18-year-old Louisianan, and with an Oxford professor of film who was convinced that The Big Lebowski is the best film ever made (to be fair, that was 2003, so he may have switched to Transformers III since). I liked this film when I was 16, as did my parents; we still both like it now. I can’t think of any other film that inspires that kind of cross-border, cross-generation acclaim and affection, nor the same staying power over time.

The unity of these three factors – intelligence/film literacy, humor, and cult value –  makes The Big Lebowski a Big Deal even today.”




4 thoughts on “Why The Dude Abides: What Is It About The Big Lebowski That Makes It An American Cult Classic?

  1. As someone who has never liked The Eagles, I particularly like the scene where he asks the taxi driver to change the radio station when he hears “Peaceful Easy Feeling” filling the cab. The Dude has just been roughed up by a cop and feeling lowdown, but his dislike for the band is such that he takes a stand against bad music….and gets tossed from the taxi because of it! You’re right, it just keeps getting better the more you see it. Thanks.

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