Discover more from Big Quit Energy
Slacker Fest: The Big Lebowski
The fully-actualized slacker morality tale
Welcome to Slacker Fest, where we document our research and analysis of mass media’s “slacker” archetype, part of our effort to broaden the genre with a slacker film of our own. Find our master list of entries here. Previous entry: Slacker
(PROGRAMMING NOTE: Big Quit Energy is on hiatus from regular essays on work culture and workaholism until the end of November. Until then, enjoy our backlog of Slacker film analysis and “Friends With BQE” podcasts episodes!)
Like Office Space, this “carnivalesque critique of society” has achieved staying power in our culture—but while the former mostly lives on in memes, The Big Lebowski has gone on to inspire an honest-to-god religion. Today we take on the heavyweight of the genre, the film widely considered its masterpiece—and while that’s “just, like, [the critics’] opinion, man,” I have to say I agree. Let’s dive in!
Release year: 1998
Premise: When a case of mistaken identity leads to a wrongly-peed rug, a normally unmotivated slacker thrusts himself into a complicated kidnapping plot, to disastrous results.
Auteurs: The Coen Brothers (Raising Arizona, Fargo, Oh Brother Where Art Thou, No Country for Old Men) who are in the conversation for greatest American filmmakers since Stanley Kubrick, in no small part because of this film.
Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, the slacker
Jeff Lebowksi, the “big” one, a rich workhumper who shares names with our slacker
Bunny, big Lebowski’s wife, who owes money to powerful figures
Maude, big Lebowski’s estranged, calculating, artistic daughter
Walt, The Dude’s volatile and vindictive Vietnam vet friend
Donnie, The Dude’s other affable and somewhat dim friend
Jackie Treehorn, a powerful pornographer who Bunny owes her debt to
Jesus Quintanilla, who has no effect on the plot yet might be the most iconic minor character in film history
Meet the slacker: Jeff Lebowski, AKA “The Dude”
The beloved “slovenly Christ” introduced—as he pays for milk with a check—by the film’s narrator, as “possibly the laziest man in LA County.” A mellow guy “with no use for himself” who “abides” and is happy to let things happen. Except for the one time he becomes driven toward “compensation” for, of all things, an old rug that two goons ruined in a case of mistaken identity.
While this break from slacker form proves disastrous for him (and it doesn’t help to have his vindictive friend Walter egging him on), it does make The Dude an interesting variation on the archetype: a slighted slacker with a bone to pick.
His world: Los Angeles, Reaganized USA
This story unfolds with two wars in the backdrop: the first Gulf War and Reagan/Bush’s war of personal responsibility against the social safety net. This is a world led by (often fraudulently) rich White men with seething disdain for the the poor—especially those with full-on Gen X opt-out malaise, like the Dude. This disdain sometimes even crosses into harassment executed by cops and sheriffs (“stay out of Malibu, deadbeat!”). Of course, these same rich guys love to pat themselves on the back for helping a few select poor people.
No one embodies this better than the “big” Jeff Lebowski, an outwardly successful gentleman who lords his “achievements” over everyone (he has a literal wall for them) and plays the role of benefactor to a few inner city kids he calls his “children.”
What does our slacker want and what’s in the way?
On the surface, of course, he wants compensation for his dumb rug (and later, the reward for helping recover Bunny and/or “big” Lebowski’s money). This is the source of all his troubles, as he could’ve taken the L and have “just pee stains on my rug,” instead of his ever-escalating misfortunes.
More deeply, he wants love or at least female validation. This doesn’t only show up in his dream sequences, but also by how he tries to project his own status, bragging about his (probably over-exaggerated) past as an activist. Of course, most elements of society deny him validation on the daily. Maybe the rug pushes him over the boiling point to demand “compensation,” more broadly, for how society treats and beats him out toward the fringes.
What gets in the way are powerful people and the goons/cops they use to project their power. They, like the “big” Lebowski, deflect blame for how their fuck-ups have affected everyone else, including The Dude, and couch it behind an ideology of personal responsibility (“every bum’s lot in life is his own responsibility”).
How does the film define a “slacker” in broader terms?
As you’ll see below, I think the film distinguishes between half slackers and fully realized slackers. Fully-realized slackers are people like like The Dude on his good days: those happy to be and let be, not striving to achieve status or, really, participate in society.
Half slackers are a broader circle that includes any fraud (especially males) who flaunts wealth created by others (usually the women in their life). The “big” Lebowksi, as it turns out, is the most notable example—though the film is littered with them.
Could anyone other than a White dude pull off slacking in this story world?
Nope. Behind most of the film’s male slackers are competent and hard-working women: again, the genre-conventional feminine voices of reason. The film has a deeper theme of gender relations, of neurotic men worried about losing their manhood, pretending to be big shots while women prop them up. Keeping this in mind, this disparity is more excusable than in other slacker films.
One interesting break is Bunny, who unapologetically and hedonistically enjoys her husband’s riches. The bummer is that the film can’t help but add the typical label of “slut/goldigger” over her slacker identity, something they don’t burden The Dude with.
The only non-White characters I can think of offhand (beside the little achievers on Lebowski’s wall) are the goon who pees on the rug, a maid, an angry cab driver, and Saddam Hussein.
Does the film “approve” of slacking? Is it a broader anti-job statement?
I believe it does, and strongly. If there’s any moral in the story, is that half-hearted slacking won’t cut it.
While counting the “big” Lebowski and other male characters as slacker-like would cast the term in a negative light, note that The Dude (a fully-realized slacker) typically displays a positive and life-affirming attitude. It’s straying from this attitude that brings him trouble. The rich frauds, of course, do not practice this attitude—they limit themselves to flaunting success while still buying into the artifices of work-humping.
So you may say that the film approves of fully-realized slacking (when you really live it) and disapproves of closet slackers that cling to the status trappings of “success” without the work.
What does the film see as “the enemy” in broader terms?
What’s fun about a film of this impact is that there are a million different, thoughtful interpretations of if out there, and at least a few say the film’s main concern is mourning the “decline of masculinity.” There’s a lot of evidence to this effect— from all the ineffectual male characters clinging to their past (and fabricated) identities, to The Dude facing threats of literal castration.
I sense the opposite, however. Instead of mourning these past strands of masculinity, the film parodies and ridicules them as narrow and toxic definitions of the male gender, vanities and insecurities that drive men to engage in petty-to-violent pissing contests (pun intended). The Dude himself falls prey to these, and only seems to achieve emotional balance after he finds that his “successful alter ego” was never any worthier than him—that he was silly to play the same type of achievement game.
Too bad that the forces already set in motion end up killing Donnie anyway.
Walt Wiltman’s favorite line
Jocko Willink’s take
“I’ll give Walt this: he does NOT give up on the mission. If it wasn’t for him, you’re damn right small Lebowski would have nothing more than pee on his rug. Pee on his rug and a life of cowardice. Now he can walk around, head held high, knowing his sperm is INSIDE a woman.
And who pushed him out of his comfort zone to do it? Who was willing to DIE and to KILL for him to do it? Walt! Oh, and who DID die for him to do it? Donnie! Lebowski’s got these TRUE SEALS for friends, and he’s pissy because he had to get a little bit of his friend’s ashes in his hair in exchange? Makes me sick to my stomach.”
Any slacker-like innovations in the film?
Plot / Setting / Character design
I love how The Big Lebowski subverts at least two genres (Film Noir, Westerns) by infusing them with Slacker film conventions as it lampoons old Hollywood.
While other slacker classics mastered minimal and passive plots, the Coen Brothers built the complicated twists and turns of classic Hollywood whodunits into Lebowski to make it “hopelessly complex, [yet] ultimately unimportant”—a nihilistic joke with a hilariously limp and empty resolution, where everyone ends up going bowling as if nothing ever happened.
Speaking of bowling, there’s the prominent role it plays in giving The Dude a mundane activity (with no bearing on the plot) to return to at the end of each major story point. In the words of The Importance of a Rug, a great analysis that points this out, putting this in the film “tunes…the complex [plot] rhythm of the noir” to fit the “casual rhythm of Dude.”
As if that wasn’t enough plot meandering, the story also takes “dreamspace” detours where Lebowski interacts with the anachronistic cowboy narrator or plunges into highly psychedelic dream sequences.
The characters themselves also make a mockery of traditionally manly noir and western heroes by embodying weak, incompetent, unmotivated versions of the archetypes. Even the omnipresent narrator loses his train of thought two minutes into the movie.
Finally, the dialogue can be meandering and aimless, yet remains captivating. Lebowksi shows how you can build amazing dialogue with characters repeating the same lines over and over, creating a fugue-like effect. Or by having them go off on their own tangents, talking at each other but not having a conversation. (Honestly, both of these are closer to how people realistically talk…pay attention next time you hear a group bickering.)
Cinematography / Camera / Color / Mise-en-scéne
The Dude’s color palette, dirty earth tones, evokes an earthy-crunchy stoner, something we noted with Cheech. (By the way, him burning his dick with a roach also seems to be an homage to Cheech).
Editing / Pacing
Lebowski displays some wonderful use of slow motion—most notably in the bowling scenes, but also in the dream sequences and Jackie Treehorn’s party. Slow motion (as anarchist filmmaker Jean Vigo first discovered when making Zéro de Conduite) often works to heighten a sense of freedom and expansiveness, and the Coen brother’s use it beautifully to show slackers in their full flow.
Sound / Music
I haven’t mentioned sound or music much in these breakdowns, but I should shout out that Lebowski has some recurring songs whose lyrics and old-timey slow melodies memorably tie to the film’s themes and sequences. My favorite is Bob Dylan’s The Man in Me in the opening credits and in the first dream sequence.
What would I keep for our slacker film? What do I want to leave or improve?
I could keep everything from this movie if I could, but what’s most realistic to my budget and skill level is striving to emulate:
The creativity with the rhythm of the dialogue (not to mention that I’d be thrilled to have even half the amount of iconic lines)
Giving all characters, including minor ones, memorable mannerisms and visual details. It really enriches the experience of the story
A coded but seemingly coherent moral framework/organizing principle (maybe the rest of this blog can help me articulate it for myself)
Above all, the cutting, witty, effective subversion of tired cultural (and film) tropes, but without being too overt about it
Some films manage to meaningfully comment on their societal context. Others manage to innovate on cinema and genre forms. Others manage to be entertaining for their audiences. This is a rare movie that manages to do all three at once, going on 25 years after its release. While it may be trapped in the parameters and prejudices of its genre, it goes all out within them.
Next entry: Actual People