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The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies

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A massive underground sensation, The Big Lebowski has been hailed as the first cult film of the internet age. In this book, 21 fans and scholars address the film's influences—westerns, noir, grail legends, the 1960s, and Fluxus—and its historical connections to the first Iraq war, boomers, slackerdom, surrealism, college culture, and of course bowling. The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies contains neither arid analyses nor lectures for the late-night crowd, but new ways of thinking and writing about film culture.

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1 The Really Big Sleep: Jeffrey Lebowski as the Second Coming of Rip Van Winkle

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Fred Ashe

At the conclusion of the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, the tale’s frame narrator, the Stranger, asserts, “It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, the Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.” Most manifestly, Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski fits into the Jewish folk tradition of the schlemiel—the bumbling, charismatic character to whom things happen.1 Like the classical fool, the schlemiel’s “antirational bias,” as Ruth R. Wisse has written, “inverts the rational model underlying so much of English humor, substituting for it a messianic or idealist model instead” (51). The Dude’s bias is directed foremost against effort. Things happen to him because he is not the sort to make things happen, his priority being instead the stylish avoidance of societal expectations—employment, marriage, even hygiene—that might interfere with “takin’ her easy.” By placing this avoidance in the service of “all us sinners,” the Stranger explicitly figures the Dude as messianic. The Dude stands in for viewers who, on some level, would likewise like to forego responsibilities; he redeems our often-soulless bourgeois striving with his compelling, carefree sloth.

 

2 A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-Quest

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Andrew Rabin

Although medieval allegory might seem distant from Lebowski’s “parlance of the times,” references to the Middle Ages—and to the Grail-quest in particular—form a crucial component of the film’s narrative world.1 Like the Old French Queste del Saint Graal, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzifal, or Malory’s Morte Darthur, The Big Lebowski recounts the adventures of three companions seeking to restore a lost fetish-object. This quest leads them through a contemporary wasteland to the castle of a crippled king whose paraplegia marks him as both sexually and politically impotent. Here, the object is found and lost again, and the goal now becomes to restore the king’s potency, as well as to recover the original object of the search. On his journey, the principal Grail knight experiences allegorical visions and confronts the temptations of the flesh. He encounters both Jesus (Quintana) and Arthur (Digby Sellers) and receives dubious aid from an “Irish monk” (the “brother Seamus,” Da Fino). In perhaps the most obvious Grail allusion, the Dude’s second meeting with the “Big” Lebowski takes place in a neo-Gothic great hall with Wagner’s Lohengrin, an opera based on Wolfram’s Parzifal, playing in the background. The adventure finally ends with the death of the most innocent of the questers and the return of his two companions, sadder yet wiser men. However, despite such obvious similarities between the medieval and modern narratives, the inhabitants of the Dude’s world remain as ignorant of their Arthurian analogues as they seem to be of the Iraq War beginning around them. In this film, the voice of history is that of “a Stranger.” Like the child who wanders in in the middle of a movie, they have, as Walter tells Donny, “no frame of reference.”

 

3 Dudespeak: Or, How to Bowl like a Pornstar

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Justus Nieland

What condition is the Dude’s linguistic condition in? Obviously, it’s fucked. But how? We might start with the fact that the Dude’s language, more often than not, is not his own, but a stoned mimesis of the phrase making of others. Dudespeak is mimicry, a compulsive borrowing from the stylized tissue of verbiage whose repetitions, loopings, and displacements constitute the film’s linguistic world. Examples abound: “This aggression will not stand, man”; “Her life was in our hands, man”; “In the parlance of our times, you know”; “Johnson?”; “You mean, coitus?”; “Beaver? You mean vagina?” All are citations, increasingly absurd sound bites whose discrepant reappearance in other contexts becomes so much linguistic grist for the Coens’ comic mill. Even what has come to be the Dude’s signature phrase, the linguistic encapsulation of an ethos—“The Dude abides”—is a rescripting of the purported limits of Jeffrey “the Big” Lebowski’s tolerance, his refusal to “abide another toe.” So, while the Dude, “quite possibly the laziest man in Los Angeles County,” may be prone to such mimetic locutions, Dudespeak exemplifies the broader expressive world of the film: “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, in Los Angeles.”

 

4 Metonymic Hats and Metaphoric Tumbleweeds: Noir Literary Aesthetics in Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski

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Christopher Raczkowski

In his important study of film noir More Than Night, James Naremore argues for a rethinking of noir in terms of discourse, as “an evolving system of arguments and readings that helps to shape commercial and aesthetic ideologies” and, as Naremore goes on to elaborate, political ideologies (11). In other words, noir is less a set of formalized cinematic gestures—visual styles and narrative procedures—than a cultural strategy that resonates across multiple artistic, commercial, and intellectual forms. Thinking noir as Naremore does, as discourse rather than genre, provides an answer for a question that has vexed me for some time about Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Big Lebowski: can this movie be meaningfully grouped with Miller’s Crossing (1990) as a noir text? Certainly, both draw inspiration from the well of classic Hollywood noir films; indeed, the movies are frequently referred to as the first two installments of the Coens’ “noir trilogy.” And, yet, they are jarringly antithetical in look and feel. It is this gap between the noir aesthetics of Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski that interests me the most and animates the analysis that follows. The virtue of Naremore’s definition is that it treats relations between noirish texts as dynamic rather than categorical and restrictive; only such a protean and yet tactical conception of noir will do for making sense of the complex relation of Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski. While commentators tend to ignore the aesthetic divide between these movies or reject the proposition that The Big Lebowski can be sensibly grouped with other noir films at all, I argue that the tension is fertile and productive of a noir dialectic evolved by the Coens in the two movies.

 

5 The Dude and the New Left

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Stacy Thompson

The Coen brothers are not, to my knowledge, communists. Yet they have maintained an interesting relationship with communism, the “Old Left,” throughout their work. It runs beneath the surface of their films as a counterpoint, sometimes referenced directly, sometimes obliquely. In the first five minutes of their 1984 film Blood Simple, private detective Loren Visser meditates on the differences between the Soviet Union and Texas, musing, in voice over, “Now, in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else . . . that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas. An’ down here . . . you’re on your own.” Later he contemplates how much someone will pay him to murder two people and comments wistfully, “In Russia they make only fifty cents a day.” A few years later, in Raising Arizona, H. I. McDonough, an ex-con and factory worker, thinks about how he and his wife can’t have children. He compares his situation with that of an Arizona millionaire’s wife who was treated for infertility and gave birth to quintuplets. He comments, “It seems unfair that some should have so many when others have so few.” There’s a whisper of Marx’s “From each according to his abilities to each according to his needs” in this maxim, and, in fact, the film eventually implies, not unlike Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, that the woman who most capably loves a child—who demonstrates that “ability”—deserves to be its parent more than a neglectful birth mother. But while Blood Simple invokes communism as a sadly unimaginable otherness, and Raising Arizona thinks of children as the product of socialized labor, and therefore the property of society and not the individual, in The Big Lebowski the Coens take a different tack in relation to communism.

 

6 The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism

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Joshua Kates

Let me begin by historicizing, not irony, but the Dude, though these two options may turn out to be closer than one suspects. The link between the Dude, the hero of the Coen brothers’ 1998 film The Big Lebowski, and the era of the 1960s has seemed to many incontestable. I propose, however, not the 1960s themselves, but a certain reception and interpretation of this era in the 1970s as Jeff’s actual socio-cultural reference point.

Indeed, at issue in the character and way of life of Jeff—as his homonym, the Big Lebowski, points out—is the fate of the already failed revolutionary hopes of the 1960s, as these have been taken up and “processed” by the 1970s. Jeff as we are shown him, in fact, has no living contact with that earlier era. The Dude cannot even be imagined actually doing any of the earlier deeds attributed to him, or to his supposed archetype Jeff “the Dude” Dowd: taking over campus buildings, writing the Port Huron Statement, etc. So, too, from the beginning of Lebowski, Lebowski little and big are distinguished along the axis of activity and quiescence, laziness and achievement (suited to the reference of the 1970s), not in terms of politics or political commitment (as would befit the 1960s). Big Lebowski is credited with being an achiever at least five times after the film’s opening, and even the doting cowboy narrator calls the Dude the laziest man in L.A. (Of course, by the end of the film, the attribute of achievement having been stripped from the putatively “larger” Lebowski, and Jeff having fathered a still smaller Lebowski, it is not clear who really is the big Lebowski: perhaps the larger-than-life, and about to become large with child, Maude Lebowski?)

 

7 Lebowski and the Ends of Postmodern American Comedy

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Matthew Biberman

What kind of humor is Coen comedy?

The question is difficult in no small measure because comedy itself is difficult to explain. In this essay I offer a reading of The Big Lebowski that situates the film in a tradition of Jewish humor animated by social anxieties about nonconformity and collective psychotic behavior. My thesis is that Coen comedy ceaselessly dramatizes such anxieties and presents them as a kind of psychological training ground for surviving the future.

The standard argument about classifying Coen humor argues that it is best categorized as an instance of “postmodern parody” or “postmodern pastiche.” Clustering Lebowski with such “dark” 1990s comedies as The Cable Guy (1996), The Truman Show (1998), Serial Mom (1993), and Pulp Fiction (1993), Christopher Beach, for example, asserts that such films display “a mastery not only of the comic tradition but also of various other film and television genres, any of which are fair game for its postmodern pastiche” (205, emphasis mine). Similarly, Peter Körte and Georg Seesslen argue that “Coen films positively encourage us to use words like ‘post-modern’ or ‘manneristic’ to describe them” (260). The film is, they write, “a parody of plot twists of so many films noir or contemporary cop movies” (196) and, further, that “Coen country . . . has always been a pastiche,” and in this case, they produce a filmic landscape in which “the 1960s and 1970s almost simultaneously return as parodies of themselves” (200–201). Underscoring this point, R. Barton Palmer has a chapter in his study of the Coens simply called “The Coen Brothers: Postmodern Filmmakers,” where we again learn that “The postmodernist’s characteristic mode is pastiche, the so-called flat parody famously first identified by Fredric Jameson as one of the most distinguishing features of the aesthetic” (58).

 

8 Found Document: The Stranger’s Commentary and a Note on His Method

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Thomas B. Byers

The origins of the document reproduced in the following pages is shrouded in mystery. I will only say with certainty that it first came to the attention of the author of this commentary fully formed. Its narrator is, of course, a fictional character, derived from the Stranger (Sam Elliott) in the Coen brothers’ Big Lebowski. The document makes no secret of the artifice of this act of homage. The brief setup provides a decisive allusion to the almost identical language used to introduce the character in the screenplay: “We are floating up a steep scrubby slope. We hear male voices gently singing ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ and a deep, affable, Western-accented voice—Sam Elliot’s, perhaps.”1 The rest of the document is written in the sort of cowboy lingo that Joel and Ethan Coen employ.

Given that the author of the document seems himself to be agnostic regarding questions of reference, there is no reason for us to posit direct identity between this character and any other, including the character of the Stranger played by Sam Elliott. For purposes of convenience in this commentary, I only note a pronounced similarity between the two characters’ voices and refer to the “speaker” of this text as the Other Stranger. His antecedents, like those of the Coens’ Stranger, are to be found in the fictional genre of the Western, and particularly in that tradition’s Hollywood instantiations. Perhaps the text may provisionally be considered an example of that “blank” parody identified by Fredric Jameson in his well-known essay on postmodernism as “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism” (Postmodernism, 1). Jameson himself figures prominently in the mystery text, for there seems little doubt that he is the “fella from back east in Durham” referred to in the Other Stranger’s opening sentence. Jameson’s “blank parody” is ungrounded parody whose target is unspecified, or perhaps even non-existent. It is parody without a point, one in which whatever is parodied is appreciated as much as critiqued, and in which the primary end is the parodic performance itself. What we have here largely fits that description, but it may differ in certain interesting ways—ways consonant with the larger phenomenon of postmodernism that is Jameson’s subject. The Other Stranger’s discourse may be a form of what I would call “disseminated” parody, in which there is no single target, and the satiric and comic effects arise at any given moment from the juxtaposition of two equally appreciated and equally critiqued discourses. Thus, when the Other Stranger “does” a version of academic cultural studies in his Hollywood Western voice, the reader may smile both at the expense of and in appreciation of both discourses.

 

9 No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism; and the Oil Industry in The BigLebowski

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David Martin-Jones

DUDE: Walter, I don’t see any connection with Vietnam, man.

WALTER: Well, there isn’t a literal connection. Dude.

The majority of material written on the films of the Coen brothers has focused on their status as auteurs (Körte and Seesslen; Bergan; Woods; Romney). This trend has ensured that interpretations of their films as products of American national cinema (i.e., as expressions of American ideology, or national identity) are in the minority. It has also meant that, especially in the case of The Big Lebowski, political subtexts have been either missed or ignored by film studies academics and film critics. Somewhat typical of the conclusions reached by such an approach is William Preston Robertson’s assertion that the film is “nothing less than a pop cultural potpourri” (37). Similarly, Carolyn Russell labels the film—when viewed in relation to the rest of the Coen brothers’ oeuvre—“an exercise in overbranding” (166). While these writers come at the film from different viewpoints, they seem united in viewing its myriad popular influences and intertextual references as ultimately meaningless.

 

10 “I’ll Keep Rolling Along”: Some Notes on Singing Cowboys and Bowling Alleys in The Big Lebowski

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Edward P. Comentale

So what about that tumbleweed-cum-bowling ball that crosses the steep, scrubby slope and crests atop the smoggy panorama of Los Angeles? It flops digitally across the painted desert, carrying us through the rugged terrain of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and Jason McCord, leading us up up up, past even the starry sky, to the brighter vista of the Dream Factory itself. When it crests the hill, the tracking camera angle creates a vertiginous gap between the two landscapes, establishing an unsettling connection between the dreamy, if fraught, narratives of national expansion and the dream palaces of Hollywood itself—L.A. as natural extension of the American frontier, L.A. as bizarre alternative universe, a shimmering America beyond America. But the tumbleweed takes the leap, and it is tracked down the eerie, depopulated streets of the big city; it persists, abides (like the film’s hero), and makes its way to the shore, where, oddly, it does not fall into the sea, but veers to the side and follows the coastline, rotating sideways, perhaps endlessly, its forward progress now an inane recycling, the ceaseless revolution of a big nothing.

 

11 What Condition the Postmodern Condition Is In: Collecting Culture in The Big Lebowski

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Allan Smithee

In the spring of 1998, moviegoers had the chance to purchase a ticket to a magic carpet ride called The Big Lebowski, a strange new Coen brothers project that may never have gotten off the ground had it not been for the assured wizardry of its creators and its colorful cast of likable actors. In the end, it sank like a bowling ball after just a few short weeks, having racked up a paltry domestic gross of $17,451,873, a largely unsympathetic reaction from critics and indifference from a mass audience that seemed interested only in keeping the good ship Titanic afloat at the local multiplex (boxofficemojo.com). At that point, Lebowski might very well have settled into its designated slot in the home video graveyard, fondly remembered, perhaps, by the same clutch of diehard Coen brothers fans who continue to defend disappointments like The Hudsucker Proxy. What happened instead was a massive revival, one that has by now easily transcended the esoteric confines of the “cult movie” and settled into a strata of public awareness somewhere just this side of the American pantheon of immortal favorites like Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz, and The Blues Brothers. Of course, the belated adoration of Lebowski is not unique in and of itself, for there are plenty of other recent comedies such as Half-Baked or Office Space that have also turned into breakout hits only after their release on home video, thanks in no small part to that peculiarly imitative ritual whereby people recite memorable dialogue or recount favorite scenes. Though such vernacular mimicry has also contributed heavily to the Lebowski phenomenon, I want to begin my discussion by suggesting that what truly distinguishes The Big Lebowski as a film—what compels us to watch it repeatedly, what makes it a phenomenon worthy of study, and what swells its continually growing ranks of admirers—is its almost unrivalled capacity to act as an occasion for the collecting of culture.

 

12 Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski

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Diane Pecknold

Midway through The Big Lebowski, a hapless Dude—having substituted Walter’s phony “ringer” (a bag full of underwear) for Lebowski’s briefcase full of money in delivering ransom to a group of apparent kidnappers—contacts the police to report that his car, with the briefcase and his Creedence Clearwater Revival tapes inside, has been stolen. When he wanly asks whether the police often recover such stolen cars, one of the cops replies, “Sometimes. Wouldn’t hold out much hope for the tape deck, though.” “Or the Creedence,” adds a second cop derisively, suspiciously twiddling the Dude’s bowling-pin-shaped one-hitter between his fingers.

The scene aptly summarizes the pervasive flux between ersatz and authentic that underpins the narrative of the film. The real briefcase, of course, turns out to have been a fake itself. The lost Bunny turns out not to have been lost to the kidnappers at all, and in fact not even to be named Bunny Lebowski, but Fawn Knutsen. And maybe she has been lost after all, since her parents are looking for her. The accumulation of real objects that turn out to be fake, and fake ones that turn out to be real, though never in the way we are led to expect, is the central device of the film’s noir plot. Appropriately, it is within this dizzying array of inauthentic objects of yearning that “the Creedence” is introduced, not just as the music we have heard playing in the car during the ransom payoff, but as a recurring point of identification for the Dude.

 

13 “Fuck It, Let’s Go Bowling”: The Cultural Connotations of Bowling in The Big Lebowski

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Bradley D. Clissold

In The Big Lebowski: The Making of a Coen Brothers Film, William Preston Robertson reads bowling in The Big Lebowski not only as an important social activity and a serious lifestyle commitment, but also as a highly stylized aesthetic and part of an allusive tradition in classic film noirs. The back cover copy for Robertson’s book describes Lebowski as “classic Coen noir,” “a razor-sharp comedy-thriller of mistaken identity, gangsters, bowling, kidnapping, and money gone astray.” This synoptic blurb identifies the film’s stylized participation in the cinematic traditions of film noir and provides a list of generically recognizable noir motifs as proof of this participation: “mistaken identity,” “gangsters,” “kidnapping,” and “money gone astray.” This list, however, also includes “bowling” as one of the film’s governing motifs. Buried, as it is in the middle of this list, “bowling” becomes at once the odd term out in this list of conventional noir thematics and the syntactic centering term around which these other more identifiably noir descriptors ironically pivot. More to the point, this list of filmic motifs directly follows the labeling of Lebowski as a “comedy-thriller” and, in effect, serves rhetorically as evidence of such generic hybridity: the distinctively noir subjects support its generic designation as a “thriller,” and, by (cultural) default, the filmic motif of “bowling” (in 1997) marks its status as “comedy.”

 

14 LebowskIcons: The Rug, The Iron Lung, The Tiki Bar, and Busby Berkeley

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Dennis Hall & Susan Grove Hall

The Big Lebowski is full of the kinds of images that are popularly called icons. The film not only places these in our view, but also shows them in dimensions and relationships that are new to us. What are these icons? The term is now used so commonly, especially for celebrities, that it might seem without meaning. In several years of studying icons in popular culture, though, we have found the term difficult to define because it has deep and pervasive influences beyond our usual perceptions. In preparing American Icons: An Encyclopedia of the People, Places, and Things That Have Shaped Our Culture, we identified several common features of icons.

An icon often generates strong responses; people identify with it, or against it; and the differences often reflect generational differences. Marilyn Monroe, for instance, carries meanings distinctly different for people who are in their teens and twenties than for people in their sixties and older. An icon stands for a group of related things and values. John Wayne, for example, images the cowboy and traditional masculinity, among many other associations, including conservative politics. An icon commonly has roots in historical sources, as various as folk culture, science, and commerce, often changing over time and reflecting present events or forces. The log cabin, for example, has endured as an influential American icon, with meanings and associations evolving from our colonial past through the present.

 

15 On the White Russian

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Craig N. Owens

Palm trees finger the sky, and there’s enough sunshine to lay some off on Pittsburgh. But that’s all on top. L.A., truth to tell, is not much different than a pretty girl with the clap.

Coleman and Zippel, City of Angels

Thanks to James Bond’s filmic popularity, the two rival mixologies of the vodka Martini are well known: the shaken and the stirred. Indeed, one might easily imagine a Levi-Straussian work of cultural anthropology, along the lines of The Raw and the Cooked, exploring how these two mixing methods have come to encapsulate whole attitudes toward life, love, and libations. The mixological niceties of the White Russian, by contrast, remain relatively unremarked upon, even among libationists familiar with the Dude. For, while it’s conceivable that the Martini is to James Bond what the White Russian—or to use the preferred dudism, the Caucasian—is to the fortuitously eponymous protagonist of the Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski, it is not so clear what impact his Belarusian leanings have had on his favorite collation’s cultural place, beyond the cult of Lebowski enthusiasts.

 

16 Professor Dude: An Inquiry into the Appeal of His Dudeness for Contemporary College Students

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Richard Gaughran

On the first day of classes in the fall of 2006, I walked into a James Madison University class of fifteen students, none of whom I’d met before. I had the usual plan for the first day: a short welcome and introductions, the distribution of a syllabus, followed by explanations and answering of questions. Before any of this, however, I planned to distribute a questionnaire to anyone who has seen the Coen brothers’ film The Big Lebowski. But I had left the surveys in my office, so I placed my other books and papers on a table and mumbled something about having to return to my office to retrieve some forms I wanted the students to complete. When I returned about two minutes later, I asked, “How many of you have seen The Big Lebowski?” For some reason the room erupted in laughter. I didn’t think much of that until some weeks later, when one of these students, in my office for a conference, told me what occurred when I was gone from the classroom. After I had dropped my belongings on the table and left for my office, she asked the rest of the students if they had seen The Big Lebowski, and didn’t I remind them of the Dude? No wonder they thought my question to them, moments later, was funny.

 

17 Abiding (as) Animal: Marmot, Pomeranian, Whale, Dude

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David Pagano

Non-human animals do not get much screen time in The Big Lebowski. We do see two domestic, misnamed mammals, one that Walter calls a Pomeranian and another that the Dude calls a marmot, but they are onscreen for only seconds. Other animals appear even less prominently, but before the film is over we hear the songs of humpback whales and the cries of seagulls, encounter a woman named Bunny, and apprehend references to bears, camels, walruses, steers, and pigs (in a blanket). It seems, then, that though they are not often visible in the film, animals manage to leave their tracks or traces in the possibilities of meaning that the movie generates. The question is, can we follow those tracks, master these traces, or do they constitute too many strands to keep in our heads? A little of both, I suggest: animals are an essential component of the Dude’s journey or anti-journey, but because they speak insistently to the question of language in the film—more specifically, the question of how or whether language can cross boundaries and establish communication—they must to a certain extent escape our snares. In a word, in this film, animals abide, both with and within the Dude and his friends. Although I do not have time to address all of the species cited in the film, I show that animality, if there is such a thing, is a central concern for the Dude and for the human comedy he inhabits.

 

18 Logjammin’ and Gutterballs: Masculinities in The Big Lebowski

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Dennis Allen

To be honest, I’ll admit that I’m a bit embarrassed by the topic of this chapter—masculinity in The Big Lebowski—simply because it is so obviously thematized, so omnipresently there in the film. It’s embedded in the film’s generic allusions—most notably film noir but also the Western—those stories of heroic masculinity, which the film, of course, proceeds to rewrite and undo.1 It plays directly across the surface of the text: for example, when the Big Lebowski, asking the Dude to help him find Bunny, wonders rhetorically, “What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski? Is it being prepared to do the right thing whatever the cost?” (to which the Dude replies, “That and a pair of testicles”). And if, following the Dude, we want to reduce the definition of masculinity to a more biological level, then the film certainly provides some moments in which to ponder the phallic, from Uli’s performance as Karl Hungus in Logjammin’ to the Dude’s Gutterballs dream sequence, which may very well be the definitive statement of the link between bowling and sex.

 

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