Analysis Of The Political Commentary Of The Movie The Big Lebowski

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A tumbleweed rolls on through in the opening sequence of the film as the Stranger narrates about the film’s main protagonist, Jeffrey Lebowski, who is otherwise exclusively referred to as The Dude. The Stranger describes The Dude as a man who is “quite possibly the laziest in Los Angeles County,” which like the rolling tumbleweed, draws parallels with The Dude whose lifestyle revolves around lazily going with the flow of things.

Despite the unsuspecting intro, The Big Lebowski is a movie steeped in political and cultural commentary. At the very beginning of the film, just after the Stranger’s monologue, we see The Dude in a grocery store with President George Bush Sr. on the television saying that 'this aggression will not stand' against Kuwait which sets the movie in the early ‘90s, around the time of the first Gulf War and a time of high political and cultural tension.

Kickstarting the events of the film, The Dude is assaulted by two thugs in his apartment while they demand money and upon realizing they have the wrong person, urinate on The Dude’s rug before leaving. Later on, The Dude meets up with his bowling team of friends and tells them of his encounter with the thugs. Walter Sobchak, a stereotypical Vietnam War veteran and friend of The Dude, reacts with anger and ultimately, in no part through his righteous and violent rhetoric, convinces The Dude to seek retribution for his soiled rug. Though the movie is set in the early ‘90s, both The Dude and Walter are products of their past experiences in the ‘60s, that being The Dude’s political activism and Walter’s time spent in Vietnam. This correlates with the film’s interweaving of political and ideological stances of the time.

Though his behaviour seemingly comes off as the film’s comic relief, Walter’s personality is a reflection of the then budding neo-conservative political movement at the time. A movement born during the 1960s out of Americans who were disillusioned by the pacifist foreign policies enacted by the Democratic Part and the political movement on the opposite spectrum, the New Left. With his experiences in the Vietnam War instilling a deep righteous and militaristic attitude, Walter further strengthens his neo-conservative image through his pro-American military rhetoric and support for aggressive foreign policy. This is exemplified through his opinion on how the Gulf War “is gonna be a piece of cake.” These neo-conservative political beliefs are also apparent in the beginning of the film when George Bush Sr. makes his threatening 'this aggression will not stand' statement regarding the invasion of Kuwait.

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On the other hand, while The Dude practices a more carefree, almost nihilistic lifestyle, his past activities directly contrast with his friend Walter. According to The Dude, he was a member of the Seattle Seven, a radical anti-Vietnam War movement and co-author of the original Port Huron a Statement that declared for a radically new democratic political movement in the United States. This essentially places The Dude as a member, albeit former, of the New Left which was a movement in which young students protested the aggressive imperialist policies of America in the 1960s. This seats him on the opposite end of Walter’s neo-conservative outlook and directly places The Dude and Walter on opposite sides of an ideological schism that opened between Americans during the 1960s.

Throughout the Dude’s journey to find recompense for his rug, he is taken and forced to interact with a society that isolates The Dude for his old worn-out philosophy. Characters such as the Big Lebowski, a multi-millionaire businessman; and Maude Lebowski, a feminist and avant-garde artist, both representing mainstream and counterculture respectively, reject him and treat him with contempt as a hippy stuck in the past. This rejection and highlighting of societal norms at the time can be seen when the Big Lebowski judges The Dude with contemporary cultural norms by calling him a bum and telling him to get a job.

Of course, on the opposite end is Walter, who like The Dude, is a relic of the past. The Dude may represent the pacifist counterculture that arose during the 1960s, but coinciding with the night-day difference between their political and ideological beliefs, Walter, as a Vietnam War veteran, represents the aggressively righteous culture that utilized aggression as a means of conflict resolution in the ‘60s. This is bountifully evident when he pulls a gun whilst bowling when an opposing team’s player breaks the rules by stepping over the lane line or when he smashes a car in response to failing an interrogation.

What The Big Lebowski seems to seek to accomplish is to criticize contemporary norms and concepts of hegemony. The film appears to do so in a way that can be characterized as ‘carnivalesque’, a literary mode first discussed by Russian philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin. The carnivalesque utilises both humour, grotesque depictions, and chaos to subvert beliefs regarding dominant ideas and positions.

A certain part in The Big Lebowski that see the use of the carnivalesque is when the Big Lebowski, bizarrely enough, is found to be a phony millionaire who was embezzling money from his deceased wife’s charity to cover his debts. And in a chaotic scene where Walter throws him out of his wheelchair, we see a quite literal subversion and reversal of the hierarchy the Big Lebowski had over The Dude-Walter duo as he lay crying below them.

Outside of the film, its historical significance is undeniable though it wasn’t immediate. Upon release, The Big Lebowski was considered a box office bomb, making only $5 million during its opening weekend. However, years later, the film saw a huge emergence in popularity which later on saw it being labelled a cult classic. This sudden resurgence can be attributed to the shift in the American cultural attitude towards a wanting to live a more passive lifestyle which saw the narrative of the film being more agreeable with American audiences after the events of 9/11 and the early 2000s economic recession.

“The man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's the Dude, in Los Angeles,” The Big Lebowski represents the beginning of a time where society wanted to move away from the norm.

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