The Dude as Modern Hero?:
Salvation and Jewish Storytelling in The Big Lebowski

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2010, Volume 9, Issue 1
http://www.americanpopularculture.com/journal/articles/spring_2010/kensky.htm

 

Eitan Kensky
Harvard University


Although A Serious Man is their first film to tackle the subject of Judaism directly, elements of Judaism and Jewishness have long permeated the work of the Coen Brothers. As Barton Fink's inner world grows increasingly nightmarish, the external nightmare of World War II becomes a greater presence in the movie, culminating in the Hotel Earle being engulfed in flames. The image recalls the primary meaning of "Holocaust" as a "sacrifice wholly consumed by fire; a whole burnt offering" and serves as a visual clue that the film's Judaic content is more integral than incidental. Barton Fink manages to be simultaneously explicit and oblique about its Jewish elements, an aesthetic perfected in The Big Lebowski where the superficial, almost sacrilegious humor of Walter Sobchak's Judaism masks the film's potent connections to specific works of modern Jewish literature and to the traditional techniques of Yiddish/Jewish storytelling. Indeed, one of the movie's most vibrant questions – whether or not the Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a Hero – is best answered by considering the Dude not as the archetypal western hero but as the latest iteration of the schlemiel, the Yiddish folk type that became a recognizable figure in mid-twentieth-century American fiction.

But beyond considering the Dude as a schlemiel, we need to consider the movie's questions in light of religion. The narrative of The Big Lebowski is puzzling, shifting from one genre to the next, moving almost haphazardly from event to event. At one point, a professional (though highly suspect) PI marvels over the Dude's "style," his ability to play every side. Todd A. Comer sees the film as an "interrupted narrative," pointing out "the intrusion of the pornographic and detective genres in what is framed as a Western film, and, moreover, shot through with western stylistic motifs" (99). Yet many of the film's digressions can be explained by considering them as linked meditations on the theme of salvation rather than as intrusions into a stable generic film. Indeed, the plot is premised on the idea that Bunny Lebowski (Tara Reid) has been kidnapped and in need of rescue, casting the Dude as a rather unlikely savior. The digressions become a means through which various social movements and their (messianic?) aims are evaluated and rejected. The schlemiel, a character whose humor derives from the discrepancy between the ideal of a moral or divine justice and its realization, is the perfect vehicle for navigating these conflicting claims. At the same time, by introducing the idea that Bunny kidnapped herself early in the film, The Big Lebowski questions whether or not there is anything to be saved, again casting doubt on the schlemiel's abilities to serve as a hero by adding a counter-narrative to the main story.

While Bunny's supposed kidnapping makes the Dude an immediate, physical savior, the film contains two other prospective saviors or, more accurately, types for Jesus. The first and most comical is Jesus Quintana, the flamboyant bowler played by John Turturro. We first encounter Quintana dressed in a regal shade of purple, moving with nimble grace; his bowling prowess inspires fear and awe in his opponents. When the Dude incredulously uses the exclamation "Jesus," in response to Quintana, Quintana counters with "you said it, man," making the connection with Christ explicit (Coen and Coen 40). At the same time, Quintana's divinity is negated by the revelation that he is a registered sex offender. In a flashback, we see a much more mundane (or profane) Quintana notifying his new neighbors of his status. Jesus's coarse language and movements already burlesqued the notion that he could be a redeemer, but the revelation that he is more directly a figure of sin than salvation is significant. Many parts of the film (most notably Donny's funeral) parody religion, but never quite so ruthlessly. Additionally, the scene serves the didactic purpose of teaching us to distrust anyone who would claim the role of messiah.

This is especially true of the film's second savior, Jeffrey Lebowski or the Big Lebowski. Jeffrey Lebowski runs a charity, "The Little Lebowski Urban Achievers," that promises to rescue children from blighted urban neighborhoods and give them a "higher" education. His physical appearance, dominated by a disability that leaves him in a wheelchair, resembles that of FDR who "saved" Europe from fascism. This is tellingly not the only reference to US intervention in foreign affairs: Jeffrey Lebowski lost the use of his legs in Korea, Walter has been permanently affected by Vietnam, and the film's events unfold against the backdrop of the Iraq war and America's effort to liberate Kuwait. Given the importance of Vietnam, it's worth noting that the movie's preferred euphemism for the male member is "Johnson." One critic has suggested that the film is a critique of Fordism, the "growth of car culture in twentieth-century America and the nation's resultant involvement in overseas wars for oil" (Martin-Jones 204), yet the litany of wars suggests something less specific. On one level, US interventionism is simply one of the many social movements promising rescue and liberation challenged by The Big Lebowski, but on another level, the policy is a persistent focus, recurring over generations. Instead of a critique of a specific foreign policy, however, the film presents a general questioning of America's capability to intercede and rescue others. Interestingly, as with the movie's Jewish elements, the political nature of the film is simultaneously manifest and obscured.

Jeffrey Lebowski is also notably linked to another president, Ronald Reagan: he personifies Reagan-era social values with their heavy emphasis on personal accountability, he waits for the Dude in "the west wing" of his mansion, and even took a picture with Nancy Reagan when she was "first lady of the nation" (15). That President Reagan did not have time to take a picture with Lebowski despite meeting with him privately is the first clue that Lebowski is not what he seems. After all, what politician avoids a photo opportunity? Indeed, over time we learn that the Big Lebowski is embezzling from his charity, in effect stealing from the poor to give to the rich, and was perfectly willing to allow his kidnapped wife to be murdered since it aligned with his interests.

Which returns us to the Dude. Manohla Dargis writes that Jeff Bridges was physically "built to play heroes," a trait amplified in The Big Lebowski through suggestive hairstyling and costuming: with a full-beard and long hair, Bridges comes to resemble Jesus while a bathrobe gives the impression of a tunic. The visual connection to Jesus is magnified when the Dude looks into a mirror resembling an issue of Time magazine. Framed in this way, the Dude's face takes on the appearance of a religious icon. Significantly, the Time mirror bears the words "Man of the Year," introducing the notion of a religious calling. Later in the film, we see the Dude nailing a beam into his floor, making him (if only temporarily) a carpenter. The Dude never claims any sort of messianic role, but the absence of the claim, after the false pretenses of the Big Lebowski and Jesus Quintana, almost magnifies his eligibility.

And yet there is an important difference between the Dude and a savior: the role of messiah is fundamentally active whereas the Dude is shown to be a character largely without agency. In an initial scene, two henchman assault the Dude in his home, demanding money owed their boss (the known pornographer Jackie Treehorn), micturating on the Dude's carpet as a way of signifying their seriousness. The Dude lacks the physical strength to defend himself and turns to wit in order to defray the assault. The Dude eventually seeks restitution from the intended target, but only at Walter's behest. Though nonsensical and seemingly random, these events encapsulate the film's general narrative structure. The Dude, like Augie March before him, is the object of other peoples' schemes, caught up in the plans of those around him because of mistaken identity or because they believe him to be an easy mark.

It is partly this passivity that characterizes the Dude as schlemiel. Fred Ashe, making the connection, describes the schlemiel as "the bumbling, charismatic character to whom things happen" (41). Or as Thomas Pynchon writes of his hero in V., "Women had always happened to Profane the schlemihl [sic] like accidents: broken shoelaces, dropped dishes, pins in new shirts" (138). Ashe sees this aspect of schlemieldom visualized in the bowling alley setting: "the motif of pins scattering serves a symbolic function as well, as the Dude spends much of the movie in the schlemiel role, passively knocked about by external forces" (50). In fact, the visual connection between bowling and passivity is even stronger than Ashe's comments suggest. In two of the Dude's dreams/hallucinations, the Dude imagines himself as bowling ball, propelled by others. In the first dream, a miniature Dude is swallowed by a bowling ball and spins toward the pins; the second dream, the mock Busby Berkeley musical "Gutterballs," shows the Dude's entire body floating down the alley until he collides with the pins. Then the dream suddenly shifts, becoming a castration nightmare in which the Dude is menaced by a giant pair of scissors, permanently threatening his agency.

It is significant that Ashe refers to "the schlemiel role," suggesting a temporary condition, something to be adopted, or just as easily discarded; it is only a part of his character and not the essential element. For Ashe, the more significant archetype is Rip Van Winkle:

In their comic ineptitude, both serve a critical function, exposing the sickness of a straight society premised on a puritan work ethic – on the equation of self-realization with material accumulation and public accolade. More to the point, though, they address an underlying American concern as well, working to relieve our nagging fear that we are inextricably bound up in the system. To identify with the slacker hero is to deny, if only imaginatively, our complicity in the dehumanizing world of consumption and competition. (43)

The comparison with Rip Van Winkle is interesting if somewhat unsatisfactory. While it is true that the Dude exposes the sickness of straight society, his "critique," encompassing a wide variety of messianic figures and movements, extends far beyond the puritan work ethic. Nor is it strictly right to call the Dude inept as his instincts and reading of the case are proven correct. Ultimately, the idea that the Dude relieves our sense of being bound up in the system is most troubling. He spends the bulk of the movie becoming more and more ensnared in the system as he becomes exposed to layer after layer of corruption. Instead of relieving our fears, the Dude intensifies our tension.

According to Ruth Wisse, this ability to heighten our awareness of society's faults characterizes the schlemiel. In The Schlemiel As Modern Hero, Wisse contrasts the schlemiel and the familiar fool: "He is a fool, seriously – maybe even fatally – out of step with the actual march of events. Yet the impulse of the joke, and of schlemiel literature in general, is to use this comical stance as a stage from which to challenge the political and philosophic status quo" (3). While the schlemiel is fundamentally defined by his weakness or passivity, his peculiar type of passivity focuses us on the immorality of the world surrounding him. Verbal acuity and wit are transformed into weapons used to hold off his foes. As such, the "schlemiel is not a hero manqué, but a challenge to the whole accepted notion of heroism...The schlemiel is mighty in that he subdues his urge to be a hero" (Wisse 39). His strength comes from retreating from the accepted value system even as the world involves him in its machinations.

To describe the Dude, or any schlemiel, as a hero, then, is to intentionally misread the character – yet to call him an anti-hero is also incorrect given his role in the story, the challenges he makes to the world system. This difficulty finds expression in the enigmatic tone of the Stranger's voice-over:

Now this story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early nineties – just about the time of our conflict with Sad'm and the Eye-rackies. I only mention it 'cause sometimes there's a man – I won't say a hee-ro, 'cause what's a hee-ro? – but sometimes, there's a man – and I'm talkin' about the Dude here – sometimes, there's a man, wal, he's the man for his time'n place, he fits right in there – and that's the Dude. (Coen and Coen 4)

The language is unquestionably leading. The Stranger's words point toward heroism without embracing or rejecting the term. Instead, they leave the nature of heroism a question: only under the right definition would the Dude qualify.

The voice-over, however, is unambiguous in linking the Dude to the national drama, which he himself recognizes subconsciously. In his dreams, Saddam Hussein gives him bowling shoes while the Dude parrots George H.W. Bush's rationale for the Gulf War in a meeting with the Big Lebowski: "I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man" (18). Wisse links the emergence of the schlemiel in American literature with the growing sense that America was not an unambiguous victor. She writes, "The more America felt its age and the shrinking opportunities for renewal or even improvement, the more the Jewish Ghetto experience could provide the model for a new sensibility" (75). The Big Lebowski emerges at another moment of uncertainty when America's prospects for intervening and motivations – past and present – are under suspicion. The schlemiel again serves the critical role of questioning the prevailing wisdom – however, in the Coen brothers' version, he is also the one now tasked with being the savior. The end result gives the film a narrative/counter-narrative structure: we are unambiguously presented with a situation calling for heroism and a hero while simultaneously given information that subverts that narrative. The film seems to be asking us, if the schlemiel was once the modern hero, is he still?

But if the film is set during the first Iraq war, its specific politics are those of the late sixties, a time of much greater uncertainty and upheaval. Indeed, most of the social movements whose flaws the Dude reveals fit within a Vietnam-era context. Maude Lebowski comically stands in for radical feminism. She embraces nudity and tries to uses language to discomfit the Dude to little success. Yet her particular type of feminism has left her incapable of forming meaningful interpersonal relationships with men. With no one else to turn to, she tricks the Dude into impregnating her in order to raise a child without the help of anyone in her social caste. Maude also stands in for the failure of modernist art to bring about meaningful social change. Rather than elevating the Dude spiritually or relieving his sense of unpleasure, the painting of a giant scissors against a red background hanging in her apartment helps develop his deep-seated castration psychosis (the aforementioned "Gutterballs" dream) while her friend from the art world inspires disgust and hatred. These two movements find a synthesis in the pornographer Jackie Treehorn. The image of the nude woman bouncing on a trampoline that greets us when we meet Treehorn is similar to the nude Maude repelling across her apartment. Treehorn tries to define his work in societal terms, "I deal in publishing, entertainment, political advocacy" (99), but the Dude cuts him off by pointing to the low quality of his actual work. Treehorn holds out the hope that technology will save pornography, promising "interactive erotic software. Wave of the future, Dude," but the Dude rejects this idealism by describing the physicality and coarseness of Treehorn's world. In the end, Treehorn's presence amounts to a perversion of the idea of free love, and the comedy results from the discrepancy between the ideal and the reality.

Political movements are similarly dismissed by the film. The Dude has an unfortunate run-in with the Chief of Police of Malibu whom he labels as a reactionary and a fascist, more interested in upholding the existing social order than in pursuing justice, while a group of Germans are labeled Nazis by Walter because they threatened castration. Other political movements appear as the punchline to jokes, or the impetus for a joke. Walter nonsensically congratulates the Dude on a good roll by shouting "If you will it, it is no dream," debasing the accomplishments of Zionism. Later, Donny dismisses V. I. Lenin by responding with "I am the Walrus" to every mention of his name. And there is, of course, the Dude himself whose college experience consisted of "occupying various...administration buildings" and breaking into the ROTC. Later he refers to himself as one of the authors of "the original Port Huron statement...Not the compromised second draft" (107-108). This second admission comes during a moment of extreme intimacy when the Dude, lying in bed with Maude, begins to show self-consciousness. The Dude essentially reveals his own failure to redeem society.

Exposing the failure of these messianic movements would seem to point in the direction of nihilism, yet the film treats the nihilists with unmatched scorn. At one point Walter remarks that the nihilists are worse than Nazis: "Say what you like about the tenets of national socialism, Dude, at least its an ethos," and the film generally turns them into self-parodies, comically repeating "we believe in nothing." But it is during the final battle that the depths of nihilism's failure is exposed. While the nihilists are handily defeated, Donny, despite abstaining from the fight, dies of a heart attack. Crudely, nihilism is heartless, and a world based around nihilism is one not worth living in.

Of course, one other "messianic" movement figures prominently in the film: Judaism. Expertly played by John Goodman, Walter Sobchak's Jewishness is one of the film's greatest and most persistent jokes. Walter, regularly costumed in hunting jacket, sunglasses, and a bandanna, incongruously pontificates on the minutia of Jewish law. Before the final battle with the nihilists, he quotes the Rambam on " – whole concept of aish," Hebrew for "fire." It is at this point that Walter and the Dude discover the Dude's car on fire. Walter's tendency to quibble over definitions can also be taken as a parody of Talmudic speech. Early in the film he argues with the Dude over what it means to take someone bowling, favoring a narrow definition. "What do you mean 'brought it bowling'? I didn't rent it shoes. I'm not buying it a...beer. He's not gonna take your...turn, Dude" (24). Later, Walter argues for an expansive definition of the word Nazi: "Come on Donny, they were threatening castration!...Are you gonna split hairs?" (76). Not exactly consistent, Walter's logic nonetheless comports to the popular understanding of rabbinic debate. Finally, Walter is also overburdened by his sense of morality, an attitude that defined much of post-War Jewish literature, especially the Yiddish influenced work of Bernard Malamud and Cynthia Ozick. We can't forget that it is Walter who convinces the Dude to demand restitution from the Big Lebowski, and Walter who fights for his rights to free speech. Walter is loud about being Jewish and, paradoxically, it is the overt, over-the-top nature of Walter's Jewishness that masks the film's deeper connections to Yiddish and Jewish storytelling. Walter's actions are so comical that we dismiss the content as incidental (a Jewish joke is just another joke, after all) or consider his religion only as way to build up the character's eccentricity.

Yet both the number and content of the Jewish jokes point to something integral. One particular joke is extremely telling. Challenged by the Dude about his religiosity, Walter shouts: "I'm as Jewish as f------ Tevye " (118). The joke can be read in two ways: on the one hand, there is Tevye the hero of Fiddler on the Roof, a character who plays an outsized role in the popular imagination of American Jews, almost mythically standing in for the loss of an authentic Jewish past; on the other hand, there is the Tevye of Sholem-Aleichem's stories, a character struggling to hang on to his family and religious convictions against a changing socio-economic world, a person with an extremely complex relationship with God. More importantly, however, the Tevye stories are narratologically complex: they purport to be first person monologues, but they are all mediated through a character Sholem-Aleichem who Tevye meets in every episode; the events are all narrated at a distance, yet Tevye often describes details with a vivid immediacy; and Tevye's speech superficially looks extemporaneous, but gradually reveals itself to be a finely crafted story waiting for an audience.

The narrative style of The Big Lebowski is not too dissimilar from Tevye. Although the Stranger makes his presence known on multiple occasions, it's easy to lose sight of his role in the story. We appear to be watching events as they take place, but we are actually being told a story by a narrator at a much later date. As he says in the opening voice-over, "Now this story I'm about to unfold took place back in the early nineties" (emphasis added) situating the telling as closer to the late-90's than to the film's setting. At a moment of confusion, the Stranger directly narrates the events, saying "darkness washed over the Dude" (101) Words and phrases drift from character to character: the Dude and the Big Lebowski both misuse the word "chinaman"; the question "Where's the Money, Lebowski?" travels from character to character as the plot becomes more and more complicated; and, while the Dude abides, the word is first used by the Big Lebowski to describe his displeasure at being mailed a toe. The last example is particularly interesting as the Dude and the Big Lebowski appear to use different definitions of the word. The Big Lebowski clearly uses the word to mean, "suffer" or "tolerate," while the Dude's usage is ambiguous, possibly meaning "to wait, expect," though just as likely meaning "to remain, endure." All of this, however, suggests one narrator standing behind the speakers, directly influencing speech. Also like the Sholem-Aleichem of the Tevye stories, the Stranger interacts with both the protagonist and the audience, serving as active character and storyteller. One of many effects of this device is to create a sense of intimacy and affiliation with the Dude. We are not coolly watching the events as they transpire but being told them by a trusted friend. When we consider the Stranger's presence, what first appears to be a loose, disorganized story turns out to be an artfully constructed narrative whose digressions are chosen to increase our thematic understanding.

Another clue, this one visual, connects The Big Lebowski to the world of Yiddish culture. When the Dude rifles through Maude Lebowski's record collection to look for the Autobahn LP, the first record he sees is by the Barry Sisters, a pair of Yiddish Jazz singers popular from the 1940s-1960s. Maude's scissor painting and the Time mirror show the importance of mise-en-scene and the Barry Sister's record is no less significant, visually demonstrating a connection (if "only" superficial) to the world of American Yiddish culture; it is the type of record that the family in A Serious Man would listen to. Crucially, the record Maude Lebowski owns is "At Home With the Barry Sisters." The record, then, is like Walter's exclamation: "Jewish as f------ Tevye": we can read both as signs of surface Judaism or chose to read them as a sign of a deeper connection. In that case, the Coen brothers are telling us that they are at home with the Barry Sisters, at home with American Yiddish culture.

Indeed, while the schlemiel had become a recognizable type in mid-century American literature, it's in American Yiddish culture, rather than Pynchon's Benny Profane or even the stories of Bernard Malamud, that we find a strong analogue to the Dude. In Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Gimpel the Fool," Gimpel suffers many personal tragedies, a result of foolishly believing other people. But Gimpel eventually realizes his condition and achieves a kind of moral victory. The Dude, too, achieves self-consciousness. After admitting his own failed place in sixties radicalism, the Dude understands the case. He calls Walter and forces Walter to pick him up (thereby violating the Sabbath) in order to confront the Big Lebowski: "You thought Bunny'd been kidnapped and you could use it as a pretext to make some money disappear. All you needed was a sap to pin it on, and you'd just me, you human paraquat! You thought, hey, a deadbeat, a loser, someone the square community won't give a shit about!" (122). Lebowski responds, "Well? Aren't you?" and the Dude has to admit he's right. The scene is significant, proving the inadequacy of the schlemiel as hero. The Dude had begun to take on the role of savior. He acted on his own and confronted the Big Lebowski, but the confrontation has the inverse effect of proving his powerlessness and revealing the depths of the immorality of the world around him. Things are significantly worse off at the end of the film: a girl has lost a toe, a nihilist has lost an ear, the Dude has had his rug ruined, Donny is dead, and the Big Lebowski has effectively stolen a million dollars from poor children. The only victory the Dude is capable of is a moral victory, and it's entirely unclear whether or not the Dude has even achieved that at the end of the film. Has self-awareness improved the Dude's lot? Perhaps "The Dude abides," does refer to suffering after all.

Faced with relieving the tension of the Dude's material loss, the Coens end the film with another device similar to Isaac Bashevis Singer. In Satan in Goray, Singer constantly elevates the depravity and horrors of a town riven by false messianism. In a tour-de-force, Singer ends the novel with an abrupt shift in narrative style. The last chapter relates the denouement in the form of a seventeenth century Hebrew chronicle. Just when it had seemed that the events that had transpired had permanently destroyed the town and left its community hopeless, the novel turns to history. The town somehow survives, assimilates the events, and returns to normalcy. Similarly, at the end of The Big Lebowski, the narrator handles Donny's death by an appeal to the comedy of life. Donny's death is somehow mitigated by the fact that there's "a little Lebowski on the way. I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself" (140). We're also not far removed from the Tevye stories, where the person of Sholem-Aleichem offers us reassurance despite Tevye's travails. The return of the narrator gives the film a fundamentally different tone than the Coens' later film Burn After Reading (2008) which ends with a group of CIA agents trying – and failing – to make sense of the events that have just transpired. Everything is determined to be arbitrary and nonsensical, and we are alienated from the film rather than drawn in. In The Big Lebowski, however, the trusted presence of the Stranger allows us to continue to see the film as a comedy and to ignore the material, moral, and ideological defeat.

In The Big Lebowski, the Coen brothers adopted a style of indeterminacy, one that turns the manifest into the latent. Walter's Judaism detracts from the embedded narrative devices and character types drawn from Jewish and Yiddish literature rather than enhance it. Yet these devices gave the Coen brothers a framework through which they could pursue questions of morality, social progress, national politics, and salvation, both secular and religious. The Dude may not emerge from the film as a modern hero, but the schlemiel type gave the Coen brothers a means to evaluate heroism and messianism, and the Dude ultimately comes across as more likable and relatable for his experiences. Judaism the religion may be debased or ridiculed by Walter, but the film asserts the place of secular Jewish literature as a space to engage in theological and moral questions without demanding or ascribing to a level of practice. Finally, looking at The Big Lebowski through an approach that emphasizes thematic and cultural content produces a film far more unified than it initially appears.


Works Cited

Ashe, Fred. "The Really Big Sleep: Jeffrey Lebowski as the Second Coming of Rip Van Winkle." The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies. Eds. Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffee. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Coen, Ethan and Joel Coen. The Big Lebowski. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.

Coen, Joel, dir. The Big Lebowski. Working Title Films, 1998. Film.

Comer, Todd A. "This Aggression Will Not Stand: Myth, War, and Ethics in The Big Lebowski." SubStance 34.2 (2005): 98-117. Print.

Dargis, Manohla. "The Dude Plumbs His Weary Soul." The New York Times. 28 February 2010: AR1. nytimes.com 27 April 2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/movies/awardsseason/28dargis.html

Martin-Jones, David. "No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski." The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies. Eds. Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffee. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2009.

Pynchon, Thomas. V. First Perennial Classics Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1999.

Wisse, Ruth R. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1971.

 
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