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On Vince’s latest installment of Ricochet Movie Fight Club, this week’s question was posed by Brian Watt: “What is the worst movie ever made?” I passed this question along to my wife. This is not the first time that I’ve asked her opinion and instantly regretted it. She said, without pause for reflection, “The Big Lebowski.” Goodness. (Note: She corrects me now, that her first answer was “The Naked Gun.” But her second answer was “The Big Lebowski.” Hmph. Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like your opinion, man…)
The first time I watched The Big Lebowski, I instantly liked it, but I wasn’t sure why. When I showed it to my wife, I liked it even more on my second viewing, and she instantly disliked it. Now granted, she likes Monty Python, but still, her taste in movies is otherwise pretty good. She asked, “What was that even about?” I had come to suspect that it was about the author’s love for America. In fact, I was starting to view it as the most unabashedly patriotic movie I’d seen in a long time. She thought it was about drunks going bowling, I suppose. And I can understand that response.
It’s an odd movie to watch, because it’s based more on characters than on plot. The plot is almost a distraction, and is not the point of the movie. Sort of like how the music of JS Bach sounds odd to modern ears because it’s not based on melody, but instead on mathematical symmetry. But there were a few things in the movie that jumped out at me. I wonder if you noticed the same things.
First, let me qualify this by saying that my mother was an English teacher (and an extraordinary writer, and one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met), and after years of watching movies with her, I tend to overanalyze the unspoken messages in everything, including things as random and disjointed as shopping lists and Beatles lyrics. And anything as random and disjointed as The Big Lebowski might simply be random and disjointed. Entirely possible.
But to me, if the movie is about anything, it’s about the relationship between Dude (Jeff Bridges) and Walter (John Goodman). Dude is a burned-out hippie who seems to have lost interest in everything in life except bowling and drinking White Russians. Walter is a big, strong (but aging) military vet with strong opinions on everything, and a short temper. They would seem to have little in common, but they obviously truly care about one another. The movie never explains where they met, or how they came to have such a close relationship. They just find themselves together, and they’re both ok with that.
I saw Walter as the personification of the United States. Or rather, as the personification of a leftist’s view of the United States. Forceful, opinionated, prone to violence, unpredictable, and sometimes dangerous.
I saw Dude as the personification of the American left. Or rather, as the personification of a leftist’s view of the American left. Passive, reflexively avoids confrontation, disdains aggression, and completely harmless.
I thought that the underlying symbolism behind these characters was so blatant and overdone as to detract somewhat from the characters themselves, which led me to believe that the entire movie was not intended to be taken literally at all. The hidden symbolism was so obvious that it was no longer hidden, and no longer really symbolism anymore. The entire movie struck me as a series of supposedly hidden messages with spotlights shining on them. It was almost distracting. Sort of like “The Matrix” or “Avatar.” Which is one reason, I think, that the entire movie seems so odd at first glance. But it’s also why people tend to enjoy watching it over and over again.
I found myself happy after I watched it, I think because despite their obvious differences, Dude and Walter clearly care about each other, without feeling the need to attempt to change one another. They see the world differently, and argue from time to time, but they invariably move past their disagreements and support each other unequivocally in the end.
I can’t think of a more patriotic, American message. We love each other. We don’t need to have anything in common, except that we’re Americans. Beautiful.
Again, because these characters are such obvious personifications of America (Walter) and leftists (Dude), I think this is clearly more than a typical buddy movie. The creators of this movie, I think, had something to say about America.
The most interesting character in the movie, to me, was Donny (Steve Buscemi). The first time I watched it, I kept waiting for him to be revealed as a ghost – perhaps a war buddy of Walter’s who didn’t make it home from Vietnam. That seemed obvious to me, because it appeared that Walter was the only person in the movie who could see or interact with Donny. The big reveal never happened, so maybe I over-read that. But I found his different interactions with Dude and Walter to be interesting. I think I’m missing something there.
But I like how Donny was always in the background, watching things. You could get a sense of what was happening in the scene not just by watching the characters, but by watching Donnie’s face. And his passive oversight seemed to really annoy Walter, while Dude never seemed to notice.
While I thought that Donny’s character in the movie was a ghost from Walter’s past, I thought that his character was written to represent the rest of the world. Watching America, judging, looking on with interest. And America (Walter) chafes under the scrutiny. I thought Walter responding to Donnie at the bowling alley and Nikki Haley responding to the Chinese at the UN had a lot in common. And when Donnie died (despite Walter’s efforts to protect him), Walter was extremely upset, even though Donnie drove him crazy while alive.
I thought the least interesting character in the movie was the title character – The Big Lebowski (David Huddleston). He seems to be the personification of capitalism. Or rather, the personification of a leftist’s view of capitalism. Thus, he is predictably the only major character in the movie with no positive attributes. He is arrogant, infatuated with money and power, and claims to have earned his riches through hard work, when in fact his money was given to him by his wealthy daughter. He cares nothing for people, and will hurt even those close to him to make a buck. Despite his appearance of power, he is actually impotent, and lives in a wheelchair – unable to care for himself. But yet he somehow inspires slavish devotion from the amoral Aryan character Brant (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Why oh why are those white people so infatuated with capitalism?
I think Mr. Huddleston’s character is valuable, though, as a reminder of how bad this movie could have been. The writers could have been just as derogatory about America, and everything else. And they weren’t. This was a positive, happy movie, unlike many of its cousins.
What makes “Groundhog Day” such a brilliant movie is that it stands alone as a movie very well. Even if you miss the underlying religious themes, it’s very entertaining. But many other “message” movies are oppressively preachy with the message they’re trying to shove down your throat. Think of a few of them, and what the creators of those movies were saying. Or rather, what the creators of those movies were screaming in your face:
Avatar: “I hate Western Civilization! And if you don’t hate Western Civilization as much as I do, then you’re a horrible person!“
Titanic: “I hate rich people! And if you don’t hate rich people as much as I do, then you’re a horrible person!“
The Green Mile: “I hate capital punishment! And if you don’t hate capital punishment as much as I do, then you’re a horrible person!“
But not “The Big Lebowski.” It emphasizes the different points of view of various types of people, but they all seem to get along. Pretty much. And that’s ok. What an American message.
Even the movie’s narrator was a cowboy (Sam Elliott) who I think was intended to represent a personification of the history of America itself. Or rather, the personification of a leftist’s view of American history. And he’s presented as old, out-of-date, and somewhat out of place in modern times. But he is not viewed negatively. In fact, at the end of the movie, Dude has a pleasant, friendly conversation with him. A leftist’s love for America. Beautiful.
So I think the reason that I reflexively liked the movie was due at least in part to the fact that I viewed the movie as a love song, written by leftists (the Coen brothers), from a leftist’s point of view, in tribute to their homeland – America – which they clearly love very much, despite all her perceived flaws.
Just like Dude and Walter.
It doesn’t matter how we found ourselves together. We don’t have to agree with one another about everything, and we don’t have to convince one another of anything. We just care about each other. No matter what crazy stuff happens (like the insane plot of this goofy movie), we’re in this together. It doesn’t have to make sense. We’re in this together. If something crazy happens, we’ll do the best we can with it. Things will work themselves out. And heck, maybe we’ll all go bowling afterward.
What an American message. What an unabashedly patriotic American message.
I thought it was beautiful.
Or maybe I’m reading too much into this. Maybe it was just about drunks going bowling. What do I know? Maybe you think I’m projecting my thoughts onto a Rorschach drawing of a movie. Those of you who think I’m way off base here can probably anticipate my response:
“Yeah, well, you know, that’s just like your opinion, man…”
Which is fine. I’ll acknowledge your opinion, and I’ll not try to shove mine down your throat.
But I thought “The Big Lebowski” was beautiful.Published in