Feb. 9, 10:15 p.m., Spotlight Theatres Front Street, 39 Front St., Hartford, (860) 422-7713, spotlighttheatres.com
As a glorious paradox:
There are plenty of reasons for the enduring success of Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski, but the fascinating one for me has always been the disconnect between the creators and their creation. This 1998 cult classic may well be the only stoner movie that has ever been made by Kubrick-level control freaks, the minds behind movies as fearsomely precise as No Country for Old Men. Not to suggest that the Coens haven't smoked a few joints in their day, but their working method is anything but weed-influenced. Every shot in a film by these writer/director/producers is storyboarded before filming, every production choice is carefully calibrated from psycho-Beatle mop-topped head to lime-green polished toe, and any actor who dares to adlib a line is politely asked to repeat the scene exactly as written.
They'd seem to be a strange fit for the story of The Dude (Jeff Bridges), a pot-smoking former flower child who is introduced to us as "possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County." But it's the pair's lucidity that makes the Dude's lack thereof so entertaining as he rambles through the film's convoluted mystery. The film feels purposefully aimless, but there's a skillful comic rhythm to the Dude's every filler word (a Dude comeback: "Yeah, well, you know, that's just like, uh… your opinion, man"). And with due respect to Tommy Chong, more laid-back directors would lack the focus required to orchestrate a sequence as grand as the ornate musical hallucination here, which melds a Busby Berkeley showstopper with bowling, Wagner, and Saddam Hussein.
As a symbol of hope in a cruel, surreal world:
Lebowski newcomers may be wondering by now what exactly this movie is about, which is really the wrong question. The plot here, after all, is an Ouroborus that consumes itself along with a special brownie for good measure — Joel Coen himself has said that the goal was to make a plot that is both "hopelessly complex" and "ultimately unimportant." Basically, a case of mistaken identity entangles The Dude in a case involving a trophy wife who's been kidnapped (unless she hasn't been), a briefcase that's worth a fortune (unless it isn't), and a set of lowlifes who want to want to visit harm upon his private parts (unless they don't).
The important thing, to paraphrase Roger Ebert, is not what the movie is about but how it's about it. It's the way The Dude treats his noirish circumstances as primarily an obstacle to blissing out and bowling with Walter (John Goodman), a volatile Vietnam vet who dutifully observes the Jewish Sabbath, and Donny (Steve Buscemi), who exists mostly so Walter can tell him to shut up. It's the pleasure the Coens take in vividly portraying characters who have no real importance to the plot (like Jesus, the purple-suited pedophile bowler played by John Turturro) and crafting dialogue that can be at once incoherent and richly allusive ("It's like what Lenin said... you look for the person who will benefit, and, uh, uh... " "I am the walrus?").
And it's that director/directed clash again — if this embodiment of slackerdom can cling to some good vibes in a surreal nightmare as meticulous as the one concocted by the Coens, maybe there's hope for all of us in the real world to do the same.
As a path to enlightenment:
Some fans take that idea of hope more seriously than others. Consider Dudeism, the religion founded by a set of fans who find an entire spiritual guide to life amidst the severed toes and tumbleweeds. Headquartered at Dudeism.com, there's an obvious tongue-in-cheek aspect to it all (you can be ordained a Dudeist priest by filling out an online form — over 150,000 served!), but there's also too much work put into it for it to be entirely a joke. Take the Dude de Ching, which translates all 81 verses of Lao Tzu's holy Taoist text into Dude-speak:
Dudeness that can be known is not Dude
The substance of the World is only a name for what abides
The tumbling of tumbleweeds is all that exists and may exist
The rug is only a fabrication which ties the room together
The spiritual alignment goes the other way too – Zen master Bernie Glassman released a book co-written with Bridges this month entitled The Dude and the Zen Master. The book uses the film as a teaching tool to help readers unlock the Zen path to nirvana. This is sometimes done by translating quotes from the film into koans, or spiritual riddles. From Glassman's website:
Lebowski Koan: "Shut the f**k up Donny, You're out of your element!"
A Harvard student asks: "How do we reconcile not knowing with the need to know?"
Koryu Roshi says: "Why has the western barbarian no beard?"
Bridges, for his part, helped promote the book by appearing on "The Daily Show," where he placed a clown nose on Jon Stewart and generally appeared baked out of his mind (practicing what most would agree is a key tenet of any Dude-related theology).
As a Marxist feminist anti-militarist allegory for neo-conservative masculine post-modernism:
There's also a fair amount of searching for secular meaning in the film, and understandably enough: for all the protestations of the filmmakers, a film this packed with signifiers (prominently name-checked in the film: nihilism, the Gulf War, feminist art, pornography, the Port Huron Statement, Theodor Herzl, Vladimir Lenin, the Eagles, etc) must mean something, right? The academics whose essays form the delightfully titled collection The Year's Work In Lebowski Studies would seem to think so. Consider a few (admittedly very reductive) samplings of such cogitation:
•The Dude and the New Left (Stacy Thompson) — Considering former student radical Dude as both parody and utopian embodiment of Communism, since our hero avoids the exploitative capitalist relations of daily work, monthly rent, and paying for healthcare (provided to him here by "special lady friend" Maude).
•No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski (David Martin-Jones) — The film as critique of American foreign policy and consumerist car culture, given its setting during (and Walter's commentary on) an overseas war for oil, as well as the string of violence that is visited upon The Dude's car.
•On the White Russian (Craig Owens): Discussing the symbolism of The Dude's cocktail of choice, particularly as it relates to Leon Trotsky, who defeated the anti-Communist White Russian army in the Russian civil war and years later fled to the very country that invented Kahlua — Mexico.
As something taken far too seriously:
Of course, most fans (myself included — for the most part, anyway) prefer to just revel in the comic mystery of the film. That the Coens themselves probably feel the same way seems clear enough from their quotes on Lebowski and particularly from their 2009 film A Serious Man. That film follows a spiritually seeking schlemiel in Minnesota who, during a crisis of faith, isn't satisfied with his rabbi's admonition to "Accept the mystery." Instead, he continues seeking for meaning, which leads, directly or not, to an endless series of horrible things that happen to him. So, you know, be careful what you search for — you might not find it and incur divine wrath anyway.
As a reason to party:
One thing that pretty much every Lebowski fan can agree on, however, is the joy of getting together with other Lebowski fans to endlessly quote the movie and sip a beverage or two. That's why Lebowski Fests have sprouted up all across the country. Fans get together to dress up as their favorite characters (including the usual favorites and the incredibly obscure — if you can remember who Knox Harrington is without re-watching the film, you're a more devoted Dude-ologist than myself), swig Kahlua, and recite most of the movie from memory. Hartford's own Dude Fest, complete with a Dude Look-a-Like contest and the chance to win a rug that could really tie your room together, will be happening at Spotlight Theatres Front Street on Feb. 9th. If you've never seen the film, it's about the perfect way to be initiated into the cult, and if you have, well … aw, hell, I done introduced it enough.
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