When THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998) came out it had no attention or nominations from the Academy, and Roger Ebert initially criticised the film by writing that it was a “genial, shambling comedy about a human train wreck, and should come with a warning,” and to that the Dude would most likely respond, “Yeah, well that’s just your opinion, man.”
While the film is revered as a classic and must-see today, it was actually panned at the box office, earning a mere $17 million versus a $15 million budget. The film became the epitome of the term ‘cult classic,’ receiving success only after being released to home video, and surprising its very creators, the Coen Brothers, with its long- lasting acclaim and influence. After examination of its cinematography, soundtrack, and many philosophical meanings, however, it’s clear to understand the film’s impact throughout history.
Written and directed by the Coen brothers, the film follows the futile chase of deadbeat Jeffrey Lebowski (Jeff Bridges)- or “the Dude, Duder, or His Dudeness”- to seek compensation for his soiled rug after being mistaken for a wealthy businessman of the same name by ruthless, urinating thugs. As a rabbit hole of ransom threats, homemade smut films, German techno music, and the avant-garde art scene lead the Dude astray, ultimately the viewer is left with just as little understanding as the Dude himself.
While some critics found faults with the film, Janet Maslin, for The New York Times, however, wrote in 1998, “Roger Deakins, the Coens’ frequent cinematographer […] does his magic once again here. And no bowling alley has ever looked this good.” It’s true that the bowling alley scenes look better than in any bowling alley that exists, with its sharp ‘technicolor’ contrast, which would appeal to any viewer who identifies with the ultimate stoner, the Dude.
It’s hard to believe that the cinematography in this Coen Bros. classic would have no inspired predecessor, but Roger Deakins answered the age-old question himself, in his own forum, Rogerdeakins.com, stating in 2017 that the film “was an ‘homage’ to [an] LA full of parodies. That was about it.” His cinematic eye has clearly wrought the attention of viewers, and while it’s not exactly clear why, that, along with most of the film’s ponderings, doesn’t really seem to matter.
While some viewers will assert that the film’s intended cinematography and general feel is reminiscent of an acid flashback, it was specifically decided that “since the Dude was high all the time, he would have to have incredible taste in music,” as mentioned by the film’s “musical archivist,” T- Bone Burnett in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2012. In other words, he helped choose and procure music for the soundtrack– alongside Coen Bros. veteran Carter Burwell. The soundtrack has also remained one of the most beloved in film history, even utilizing Bob Dylan’s rare “The Man in Me,” as a gate-opener to the mellow world of the Dude. While the soundtrack reflects the musical taste of the Dude it must be noted that Burnett was unable to obtain the rights for Townes Van Zandt’s cover of the Rolling Stones “Dead Flowers” until Allen Klein (the song’s rights’ owner) had witnessed the Dude’s proclamation, “I hate the fuckin’ Eagles, man!” and subsequently was thrown out of a cab in the film. According to Burnett, this is when Klein excitedly handed the rights over, although the final buying price was not disclosed in the interview.
It’s also interesting to note Klein’s reaction, obviously drawing his own meanings from the line. That, however, is not unlike most THE BIG LEBOWSKI fans. The film is steeped in philosophical teachings, despite the creators’ ambiguity to the piece’s real message. Fans have pulled many meanings from the film, even some going so far as to assert that Donny (Steve Buscemi), a patient and all-too present springboard for Walter’s (John Goodman) aggressions (despite Walter’s ravings that unchecked “aggression cannot stand!”), does not exist. While this theory has been disproven by all those involved in production, it does stand as a testament to the fact that viewers are forever guessing the film’s actual intended meaning.
Another popular theory that has all been disproven is the fact that the Dude’s easy-going attitude and ability “to abide,” has been taken from Taoist culture and theory, with even a bible, “The Tao of the Dude,” published independently by Oliver Benjamin, Founder of The Church of the Latter-Day Dude (Dudeism). “The Tao of the Dude” asserts “that Dudeism’s oldest ancestor is probably Chinese Taoism,” and devotes its 241 page entirety to proving this thesis, as well as setting a guideline through many literary and pop- culture quotes, as to how the Dude’s methodology can become a lifestyle philosophy.
It is also imperative to note the ‘philosophy’ attributed to the German Nilihists: those who lead a life “that must be exhausting,” according to the Dude. It would seem so, as maintained by their desperate need to acquire the ransom money for Bunny’s (Tara Reid) recovery- an attempt and desperation that refutes the very rhetoric of Nihilist theory itself. These conjectures aside from the many possible assertions that can be made from Walter’s deranged and aggressive credo, it is all too unclear as to what the overall message of the cinematic masterpiece is.
While the Coen Bros. are all to happy to remain to remain silent on the subject, it would seem that reviews would change over time with cult opinion. Roger Ebert himself would go so far as changing his initial opinion with re-examination of the film in 2012, with now stating “it’s a film “about an attitude, not a story.” While the film’s viewers have pulled countless meanings from the piece, it would seem that maybe the most approved reaction of all would be “fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.”