Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) is one of the funniest and most quotable movies ever made with some of the most memorable characters and scenes in film history. Not only is it a cult film and the inspiration for a new cult (the mock religion of Dudeism), it is, surprisingly, an insightful film packed with fertility symbolism that would excite the likes of a Carl Jung or a Camille Paglia. As I see it, the film is a vital response to modern decadence, close to the lines of thought sketched out by the most influential thinker of our age, Friedrich Nietzsche. Limiting myself to this Nietzschean dimension of the film is difficult because there are just so many philosophical and religious dimensions to it—especially language games and certainty taken up by the later Wittgenstein.
The film bombed at the box office. And critics read it as simply a buddy film, a satire of ransom films so popular in the '90s (the directors’ own work included), or a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” And while there is truth to each of these interpretations, the key to the film may be in its oft-ignored sexual overtones.
Catholic philosopher Thomas Hibbs takes this line of thought in his excellent article “The Human Comedy Perpetuates Itself: Nihilism and Comedy in Coen Film Noir”, in which he reads the film as a comic take on nihilism, placing it with earlier Coen Brothers’ movies like Raising Arizona and Fargo that resist the usual noir story of the lust, domination, and decadence for a story of friendship and the hope of fertility, hence the comedy. The fertility motif that Hibbs points out will be further explored here but after a general introduction to the film.
The Coen Brothers are no strangers to film noir. The title “The Big Lebowski” is a riff on the classic detective noir film with “The Big ____” in their title. Raymond Chandler’s novels, particularly The Big Sleep, are the main inspiration in this genre. Like this novel, which was made into a 1946 movie starring Humphrey Bogart as famous detective Philip Marlowe, The Big Lebowski is an intentionally haphazard plot with an “irresolute resolution.” Both are absurd tales about a man helplessly entangled in the schemes of a wheel-chair-bound millionaire, his femme fatale daughter, and the seedy underworld of L.A.. But more like Robert Altmann’s take on the Chandler corpus with a loser Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, The Big Lebowski has a deadbeat Marlowe-like antihero with a comic twist to film noir.
To say the least, the plot is a labyrinth. Jeffrey Lebowski, “The Dude”, unintentionally plays a Marlowe-like role, but he’s the most unlikely person to be a private detective. Throughout the film, he’s thrown into situations he does not belong. By mistaken identity—mistaken identity pops up throughout the film because it really is all about masculine identity—the Dude gets shoved down a rabbit hole (in his case, a toilet bowl) and into a situation, he is least prepared for. He’s misidentified as the husband of Bunny, the porn star wife of a millionaire, the “Big Lebowski”. Bunny owes money to Hugh Hefner-Esque porn king Jackie Treehorn.
After realizing they got the wrong guy, one of Treehorn’s thugs urinates on the Dude’s valued rug— a rug that “really tied the room together”. This rug is the film’s main McGuffin (the other being the million-dollar ransom), igniting the whole comedy. In retribution for his soil rug, the Dude decides to ask the Big Lebowski for compensation. But this initiative casts the Dude down a bigger hole, i.e. being assigned as courier for the supposed ransom of Bunny who was supposedly kidnapped by a trio of German nihilists (the same nihilists who later threaten him with castration). But the Dude makes another mistake in taking a rug valued by the film’s femme fatale, the Big Lebowski’s feminist performance artist daughter, Maude, who literally and figuratively takes the rug from underneath him. Caught in her schemes, the Dude is ultimately used by her to conceive a child (maybe a reference to The Big Chill). Each scene in the movie is loosely related to each other, suggesting the absurdity of the situation the Dude is in. And although the Dude never gets paid or his rug back, all turns out well for him without succumbing to the typical noir trap. The movie ends with the Dude and his friend returning to normal by going bowling. But the movie ends on a happy note, a little Lebowski is on the way, thereby making the Dude, in a way, the Big Lebowski.
The film takes place in L.A. in 1991, near the end of the twentieth century which was overwhelmingly influenced by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). Nietzsche saw that the modern project was exhausted and a new postmodern age was arriving. The nihilism of this new age did not signify a belief in nothing—for no one is a nihilist because everyone cares about something—but a shift in values and the end of all metanarratives. Unlike previous eras that had a universalized worldview, the postmodern delights in contingency and the lack of foundations (especially moral and epistemological foundations), encouraging the powerful to find new vitality in the response to the decadence of a previous era. Such was the concern of Nietzsche, which I see the Coen taking up in this film.
The most significant American “philosopher” in the late twentieth century was Richard Rorty who Ethan Coen must have been influenced by while he studied philosophy at Princeton. For many, he represents the endpoint of American ideas. Like Nietzsche, Rorty stood against all “systematic” philosophies that continue what he took to be the Greek legacy of seeking the Truth. Ironically, his pragmatist revival led him to abandon philosophy in favor of practical affairs. Following Hume, he turned from helpless Reason to the everyday things of life, like drinking White Russians, games, friendship, and the begetting of children — what the Dude’s about! I can imagine Rorty finding the Dude’s rug representing the foundationalism he and Nietzsche stood against.
More than just a Mcguffin, the rug symbolizes a valued foundation on which the Dude rests secure. Yet, it is soiled and taken away, never to return. But the Dude happens to still abide without the rug. Of all the characters in the film, the Dude is the nihilist. He can still abide without the former values that used to ground him, making him the man of this new age heralded by Nietzsche. He’s valued because of his virility of which Maude takes advantage.
Maude is an immensely important character in him. When the Dude first meets her he passes into a dream in which he floats above LA following her on a magic carpet ride. His initial overarching, panoramic view (perhaps that archimedean point modernity strove for) ends with him diving to the ground to be taken up by a bowling ball cast by Maude who, in noir fashion, makes him a pawn in her game. Like the depiction of women in film noir, Maude is strong and secure whereas the men are weak phonies. The name Maude means “battle warrior” and in the Gutterball dream sequence, she is fittingly dressed as a Viking warrior, determined to get what she wants.
The movie’s theme song, Bob Dylan’s “Man in Me”, plays with her appearance. She is an earthy figure, clothed in green and interested in sex who paints the feminine form, eliciting out of the Dude his true identity as a father. Notice that she never calls him ‘the Dude’. Dylan’s line “Took a woman like you...to get through to the man in me”, is a theme at the heart of the film. Women are closer to nature than men and when men are removed from her who points him to procreation beyond all his willing and striving they go insane. Along these lines, Hibbs cites Pascal: “Nature backs up helpless reason and stops it from going wildly astray.” Substitute Maude for “nature” and the Dude for “helpless reason”, the meaning of the film comes into relief.
In this light, the film’s fertility motif becomes apparent: Bunny, tumbleweeds (while a Western theme of the loner, in this case, out of place rolling in LA— tumbleweeds can be fertility symbols who in their dying spread their seed), the bowling pins and balls, the Dude’s answer to “what makes a man”, checkbook cent amount, the association of the color green with the women of the film, the burlesque dream sequence with suggestive dance formations, the Priapus sketch by Jackie Treehorn, the threat of castration, and all the various provisions of sexuality, especially in bowling king Jesus.
Fertility is the new rug deeper than all striving and ideology up in the head, perpetuating the human comedy through the ages. Pregnancy is a sacred state. The promise of life beyond decadence. And in this respect, I find the Coen Brothers haloing the promise of a Little Lebowski as the answer to the late modern nihilism found in LA. Perhaps Nietzsche would have given a similar response.
In his notebook Daybreak, Nietzsche wrote, “Is there a more holy condition than that of pregnancy?....’What is growing here is something greater than we are’ is our most secret hope..It is in this state of consecration that one should live! It is a state one can live in!...a fruitfulness [that] we shall come to a happy fulfillment...to the benefit of all” (552). Such a fruitful promise would, to quote Dylan, set the heart of any man, including the Dude's, reeling from his toes up to his ears. And perhaps if Maude let the Dude socially interact with the little Lebowski, he’d be less of a bum and more like a big Lebowski. At least that is what I see in the film. But, heck, that just might be my opinion, man.