The Big Lebowski is a 1998 film written and directed by the Coen brothers. The film follows the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, a laid-back, easygoing slacker whose aims in life are to avoid any trouble or exertion and to get compensated for the damage done to his carpet.
The Dude is presented as a man ‘for his time and place’ – Los Angeles, in the period directly before the First Gulf War. This setting evokes collision, conflict and indeterminacies. The 1980s are over, Thatcher and Reagan are gone, but the period remains under the long hangover from that decade. Culturally, the mid-to-late 80s and early 90s present us with a reaction against yuppie culture exemplified in slacker and counterculture movies like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Wayne’s World and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. These movies reject the values of conformity, hard work and wealth which animate the discourse of the eighties, but retain a frame of reference formed by these values. This is shown, for example, in Wayne’s World, whose plot shows the dangers of commercialism even as it celebrates ‘cool’ consumption, e.g. Wayne’s idolisation of a rare model Fender Stratocaster. Thus the purported anti-materialism and individuality of the slacker movement still finds its expression in consumer capitalism instead of any more durable or supposedly ‘authentic’ forms. The very idea of a counterculture therefore becomes reduced to a set of consumer preferences and fashion instead of the lifestyle which advocates of the slacker movement idealise – it is possible to be ‘laid-back’ and ‘easygoing’ but still essentially fulfil a role without in fact challenging the majority culture. We move, if you will, to an over-the-counter counterculture in which one’s professed commitments and attitudes matter more than actually putting any of them into practice. In this way, Clerks (1994) represents the true face of ‘slackerism’ better than the early examples of the genre: the main character, Dante, fulfils the slacker archetype whilst remaining a (relatively) conscientious worker, and the ‘true’ slackerism which his friend Randal embodies is presented as excessive and ambiguous in its effects.
The Big Lebowski, at first glance, fits easily into the slacker pantheon. The Dude, after all, is nothing if not an easygoing, self-defining man with little regard for the opinions of wider society. Unlike the slackers of the early 90s, however – the twenty-something college dropouts of lore – the Dude is presented as already middle-aged by the time the film begins. Crucially, his formative experiences were not Reagan-Thatcher excess but the social revolution of the 1960s, and the Dude refers to his participation in student radicalism and occupations. For the Dude, therefore, it is not a case of simply adopting a rebellious veneer by which to pursue an ultimately similar set of values. It is not a case, either, of the disaffection and anomie which are supposed to characterise ‘Generation X’. His rebellion fundamentally springs from his conviction that life ought to be lived in a different way, prioritising easygoing authenticity, pacifism and comfort over material success and prestige in the world. The Dude, that is, lives his values, and remains his calm poise in the face of everything which befalls him during the course of the movie. This does not mean that the Dude is a stoic, or entirely passive: his activist past and the conviction with which he accepts Walter’s suggestion that he seek recompense from the other Jeffrey Lebowski shows that he is willing to act when necessary. The Dude should not be seen as a merely passive victim of circumstance, then, but as an active creator of his own existence and its conditions of realisation. But the adoption of these principles leads the Dude into some uneasy situations and exchanges, notably the contrast between the ease with which he makes himself at home wherever he ends up and the uneasiness of his encounters with strangers, particularly those like the other Jeffrey Lebowski, who represents the uptight, conservative opposite of everything the Dude stands for, and Maude, who wears her principles on her sleeve and tries to reshape the world rather than fit herself into it. These situations are characterised by failures of communication between world and Dude, who struggles to articulate his viewpoint in the face of aggressive or assertive behaviour. In this way we see that the Dude, though presented as strongly self-reliant and self-constituting, still has a childlike core about him in his inability to stand up consistently for himself and his lack of articulation. This provides a clear contrast to the slackers of Gen X, whose standoffish, fuck-you attitude contrasts with their general failure to adopt or to even consider radically different forms of life. It also suggests that we ought not to over-idolise the Dude. Despite his success in forming an individual lifestyle, he remains at the mercy of wider society, and in particular to the whims of his friend Walter, whose belligerence and self-interestedness cause many of the problems and conflicts in the movie. We can see in here a critique of individualistic countercultural movements ranging from the hippies of the Dude’s youth to Gen X counterconsumerism: the individualism, nonconformity and pacifism, understood as passive-ism, of these movements fails to provide a cohesive and unified way in which to change society. It is therefore easy for such movements to ‘sell out’ or for capital to accommodate and absorb them. Here the Dude’s quest for a replacement carpet can be read, however tenuously, as exemplifying this move from authenticity to Gen X consumerism.
But it is too harsh to see the Dude as ultimately failing. To have carved out his niche is no small achievement, and he holds strong to his principles and lifestyle despite the manifold temptations and tumult of the film. The Dude abides. And this presents us with a path to successful rebellion. We might characterise Gen X ‘counterculture’ as a sort of homeless rebelliousness, which never feels entirely at ease and so seeks to assert and justify its own existence. The Dude, by contrast, is entirely at home in his own self and situation, and seeks to justify himself to no-one. Whilst we have seen that even this is ultimately no defence against capitalist appropriation – and we must not forget the numerous examples of student ‘radicals’ who cut their hair and earned their fortune during the 80s – the abiding of the Dude provides him with the resilience needed to mount a continuing, if individual, resistance.
The Big Lebowski can therefore be read as a commentary on post-Yuppie culture. The example of the Dude challenges the countercultural movements contemporary to the movie’s setting whilst reinforcing the general ineffectiveness of all such individual resistance. Ultimately, the film provides no solution to this ineffectiveness, merely choosing to remind us that the Dude abides. Perhaps, though, it is still worthwhile to abide with him.