"Your revolution is over! The bums lost!" images swiped from the excellent Coen resource "You Know, For Kids!".
NOTE: I have gone over (not to be confused with "micturated upon") the deeper meanings of The Big Lebowski once before -- you may read my previous analysis here.
THE LITTLE GUY: The Dude is unique in the Coen universe in being a protagonist who is perfectly happy with his social standing. He does not seek money, betterment, achievement, a child, a mate, clean clothes or, really, anything besides a state of blissful intoxication. Anything he does he does because someone else is forcing him to do it. As the Stranger describes him, "he's the laziest man in Los Angeles County, which would place him high in the running for laziest worldwide." He's not particularly interested in saving the kidnapped girl, recovering the stolen fortune or even defending himself from hoodlums. Even his desire to reclaim his soiled rug is something that his bellicose friend Walter puts him up to -- if it were up to The Dude, his peed-on rug would be worth it just for the story to tell his bowling buddies.
(It's also worth noting that, for all the time The Dude spends hanging out in a bowling alley, listening to bowling games of the past and fantasizing about bowling scenarios, we never actually see him bowl.)
The comic conceit of The Big Lebowski is that ambition-free Dude is pressed into service as a Chandleresque detective, a job to which he is spectacularly ill-suited and at which he repeatedly fails. (When Da Fino, the detective in the blue VW, addresses him as a "brother shamus," Dude recoils in horror.) It takes him a staggering 90 minutes to make a single coherent deduction and snap into action as a genuine active protagonist. Coen fanatics have often expressed mystification over Lebowski's relative commercial failure in its theatrical release -- how could a movie of such obvious, overflowing brilliance be a commercial failure? And yet, I think the answer may be right here -- the most famous commercial liability of all, the passive protagonist.
Many dismiss, or praise, The Big Lebowski as a "shaggy dog story." These are people with not enough time on their hands. Lebowski is a movie positively overstuffed with meanings, far too many meanings to be gleaned from a single viewing.
WHERE'S THE MONEY, LEBOWSKI? Let's start with Lebowski's brilliance as a detective story. Lebowski presents us with a Big Sleep-style mystery: What Happened To The Kidnapped Heiress? But the kidnapping plot, we eventually find, is a gigantic red herring. The real mystery in The Big Lebowski is Where's The Money? This is not an idle plot-point, it is a key subtext to understanding the importance of the movie. The kidnapped girl is a worthless idiot of importance to no one, but the money, ah, the money, as Mose in Hudsucker would say, "drives that ol' global economy and keeps big Daddy Earth a-spinnin' on 'roun'." The Big Lebowski is a social critique disguised as a mystery disguised as a stoner comedy.
The key to understanding the social dynamics of The Big Lebowski is to always follow the money. So where is "the money" in The Big Lebowski? ("Where's the money, Lebowski?" is, in fact, the movie's first line of dialogue.) The Dude doesn't have it -- he lives in a crappy Venice bungalow and is late on his rent. His friend Walter has his own business, but doesn't have any appreciable amount of it. Jeffrey Lebowski, despite appearances, doesn't have it, and his wife Bunny obviously doesn't have it. The Nihilists don't have it and neither does Larry Sellers, even though Walter is positive he has it.
The joke is, of course, that no one has it -- "the money" belonged to the first Mrs. Lebowski, who is long dead. We don't know how Mrs. Lebowski got her money -- "Capital," the source of "the money" in The Big Lebowski, is nebulous and taken for granted. "The Money" is like "The Gold" in Eric Von Stroheim's Greed -- it's not something to be earned, it's almost a natural resource, something that's just sitting around waiting for someone to figure out how to get it.
Who has any money in The Big Lebowski? Maud Lebowski, Jeffrey's daughter, the aggressively "feminist" artist, has some money, but even that is not hers, it's her mother's. She hasn't earned it and seems to be frittering it away on ugly art and an inane lifestyle (the other artist presented in Lebowski is The Dude's landlord, with his stupefying Greek Modern Dance routine -- art doesn't seem to count for much in the Lebowski universe). The only other wealthy personage in Lebowski is Jackie Treehorn, the pornographer. So: in the world of The Big Lebowski, "Money" is represented by an embezzler, an heir and a pornographer -- as harsh a critique of American capitalism as I've ever heard.
Everyone else is barely scraping by or actively losing money hand over fist. The indignities heaped upon The Dude in this narrative are great: his house is repeatedly broken into ("Hey, Man, this is a private residence" he lazily chides a trio of armed thugs), his possessions are smashed until nothing is left of them, his car is shot at, crashed, stolen, crashed again, peed in, bashed and finally set fire to. He is punched unconscious, drugged and hit with a coffee mug. The Rich in Lebowski get richer by soaking the Poor, and every transaction between social unequals is a heartbeat away from physical violence. Even Maud, who only wants her rug back, can't resist using force upon The Dude in order to get what she wants.
(The other thing Maud wants, of course, is to conceive a child. This is a succinct reversal of the argument of Raising Arizona. In the earlier movie, Ed reasoned that the Arizonas [The Rich] deserved to lose a child so that she [The Poor] could have one. In Lebowski, Maud [The Rich] assumes that it is her right to use The Dude [The Poor] as a method to get her own child -- in both movies, children are merely another expression of capital [or, as the Dude complains about pornographer Jackie Treehorn, "he treats objects as people, man.")
THIS AGGRESSION WILL NOT STAND: "Aggression" is a big word in Lebowski. The Dude is, of course, the least aggressive person in the story, yet he invites aggression at every turn, from his friends, his bowling rivals, his various contacts in the mystery. The parallel is drawn to the Gulf War, and if there is a coherent critique of the Gulf War to be found in Lebowski (and I'm not sure there is) it could be better applied to our present situation in Iraq: in Lebowski, aggression is met with violent retribution -- but it always falls on the wrong person. Jackie Treehorn wants his money, but his goons beat up the wrong Lebowski. The Dude's rug is peed on, so he demands retribution from a complete stranger. Jeffrey Lebowski sends The Dude to identify the kidnappers as Jackie Treehorn's thugs (he won't take responsibility for The Dude's rug, but insists that The Dude take responsibility for his missing wife), but finds they are completely different people (and gets his car shot up for his trouble). The Nihilists demand a ransom for Bunny, but cut off the toes of one of their own to prove their seriousness. Walter exacts violent retribution on Little Larry Sellers, but ends up bashing the car of a complete stranger.
This, I think, is the meaning of poor Donny's death. In times of war, wealthy, powerful men make up their minds to be aggressive (Saddam against Kuwait, Bush against Saddam), but the people affected are always the poor and powerless, people who die without ever understanding what the true cause of the aggression was. In the case of the Gulf War, it was the Iraqi soldiers and civilians who sided with the US, only to be abandoned, in the case of Lebowski it's poor Donny, who's salient quality is that he never knows what the hell is going on and who dies, absurdly, of a heart attack during an attack by the Nihilists.
(This is also, I think why Walter compares Donny's death to the troops lost in Vietnam, although Walter, to be fair, tends to compare everything to Vietnam. He compares Bunny's kidnapping to Vietnam, he finds service in diners lacking due to his experiences in Vietnam. The Dude chides Walter for this habit, but Walter, I think, is on to something. Bunny's "kidnapping" can be compared to Vietnam, insofar as it's a mysterious act of aggression perpetrated by a wealthy man scheming to steal a ton of money and make a poor man pay for it.)
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: The Big Lebowski presents the widest view of law enforcement in the Coen canon. While not as warm or good as the police in Fargo, the police in Lebowski could at least be described as cheerfully unhelpful. They laugh at The Dude's problems for the most part, but they don't actively seek to harm him and they are not shown to be in direct employ of the forces of evil.
That's LA's cops, obviously. Malibu is a different story -- the sheriff in Malibu is a reactionary hothead, the fascist boot protecting the rights of a pornographer.
Jeffrey Lebowski lives, of course, in Pasadena -- but we manage to get in and out of his community without a run-in with the police.
THE MELTING POT: Race and national origin always plays a significant role in the Coens movies, and Lebowski emphasizes this more than ever. Oddly, all the main characters are Polish-American. Donny is Greek, Brandt I'm going to say is a WASP, Bunny is Swedish, the Nihilists are German (as is the administrator for The Dude's bowling league), Jesus Quintana is Hispanic (and a pedarast), the cops are racially mixed (as are Jackie Treehorn's goons, and the casts of his porn movies), Maud's friends are European (one might say "Eurotrash"), the poor owner of the Ferrari is Hispanic, the detective shadowing The Dude is Italian (as is Maud's chauffeur, although Jeffrey Lebowski's chauffeur is French). Maud's doctor is Iranian, and The Dude gets thrown out of a cab driven by an African-American man who likes the Eagles. The only Jew visible is, of course, Walter, who isn't really Jewish. I wonder if it means anything that the only character identified as Jewish (that is, Walter's ex-wife) is out of town for the duration of the narrative?
What is the point of this rainbow coalition of characters? Is it merely a comment on the diversity of LA, or is the city in Lebowski meant to symbolize something bigger, the whole of the US, or even the whole of the world? Is Jesus's florid aggression toward our heroes meant to be an analogue to Saddam's aggression against Kuwait?
PANCAKES: Nihilist Uli Kunkel favors pancakes for a meal, just as Gaere did in Fargo. I can see no significance here except that "pancake" is a funny word. In The Ladykillers the protagonist favors waffles, which I think explains that movie's miserable death at the box office.