The first time I saw this movie, I didn't like it much. For a comedy it wasn't funny enough, for a mystery it wasn't satisfying. There was too much weirdness, not enough punch, couldn't figure out what any of it meant. The cowboy, the dream sequences, the dotty peripheral characters, it just didn't gel for me.
But all Coen movies are worth seeing more than once, so when it came out on video I watched it again.
It still didn't work for me as a comedy, although it worked better. It worked better for me as a mystery, but not that much better. It seemed to me that the movie worked best as a study of an unlikely friendship, between the foggy sixties liberal and the hothead throwback Vietnam vet. I still couldn't follow the mystery and of course it doesn't really matter. I shrugged and gave up on it.
But, you know, there's so much going on in it, so many details in it that stick out at weird angles. And a couple of years later I rented it again.
Suddenly, something clicked. What does the cowboy say at the beginning? "Every once in a while, there is a man who is the right man for his time." And the characters are constantly talking about how things were in the past, and judging current events based on how they feel about the past. Round about the moment where the Dude says to Walter "Man, you're living in the past" and Walter screams "3000 years of tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you're goddamn right I'm living in the past!" and suddenly my hair stood on end, because a whole other layer of meaning snapped into focus.
The Big Lebowski is a movie about how nothing means anything anymore.
The cowboy, the quintessential American icon, is our narrator. He appears to be a "real" cowboy who has somehow made it out of the mists of history and legend and kept going west until he came to Venice Beach in 1991, at the time of the Gulf War. He introduces the Dude with profound words of deep meaning, as we watch the Dude shuffle around a 24-hour supermarket and pay for a quart of milk with a check. Then, even in the midst of his well-worded, carefully-considered, eloquently spoken introduction, the cowboy loses his train of thought. It's like he can't keep up the pretense any more. Or the 20th century has suddenly caught up with him. The icon, perhaps the soul, of America is stuck here in the late 20th century and he's looking for something to hold on to. And here comes the Dude.
The Big Lebowski is, of course, a noir. And not just a noir, but an LA noir. The title is even a reference to one of the most famous LA noirs, The Big Sleep. As we quickly learn, however, the LA of Raymond Chandler, no longer exists. This LA is filled with bowling alleys, burnouts and punks, none of whom ever have the slightest idea of what the hell they're ever talking about.
There's a moment in the second act where the Dude goes over to Ben Gazzara's house, and Ben is talking to him about the money, and he suddenly gets a phone call. Ben takes the call and hurriedly jots something down on a notepad. He leaves the room and the Dude darts across the room, takes a pencil and shades the paper. Why does he do that? Because he saw it in a detective movie. The Dude, at that moment, is finally thinking like a detective. A movie detective, but a detective nonetheless. And he shades the paper and what does he find? Ben Gazzara has written down not a phone number, nor a safe-combination, nor a cryptic acronym; he has scrawled the image of a man with a big dick.
Because this is a movie about how nothing means anything anymore. LA still exists, but the LA of Raymond Chandler does not. Why does it not exist? Because the noirs of the 40s took place against the backdrop of World War II. The horror and agony and anxiety of that war, which could not be expressed in the actual war films of the day, were instead expressed in the noirs of the day, the darkness and duplicity and violence of detective stories. The Big Lebowski, by contrast, pointedly takes place against the background of the Gulf War, a war which meant nothing and acheived nothing (and, history has shown, did not have a happy ending).
The fact is, nothing in the movie means anything. The Dude is hired to be the courier for a ransom, but it turns out that there is no kidnapping, there is no hostage and there is no ransom money. The Dude is cynical enough to suggest that the kidnap victim "kidnapped herself," but he doesn't take it far enough. The fact is, the "kidnap victim" didn't even know any of this was happening. And who are the "real" kidnappers? Nihlists, whose cry is "We believe in nozzing!"
Why is the Dude the right man for his time? Because he is the only man who can solve the case. The Dude is a man for whom nothing already means anything. And not in some "nihlist" way, either. The Dude simply doesn't care. The Dude, as he says to the cowboy, "abides." The Dude takes it easy. Nothing affects him. The tumbling tumbleweed, at the beginning of the movie? We think it's a talking tumbleweed at first. But it's the Dude. The Dude is the one who is rootless, blowing on the breeze toward the beach.
That's not Walter. Walter clings to everything way too much, searches desperately for everything to have meaning. No wonder he converted to Judaism, it's the only religion that means anything to him. And the core of the movie is the scenes between, what's this, "the mismatched buddy detectives," Dude and Walter, one of whom skates along not paying attention and the other whom attaches far too much meaning to every new scrap of clue.
The rich man has no money. The kidnappers have no hostage. The hostage isn't even in town. Donny's death means nothing. No wonder Walter scrambles to find meaning, tries way too hard.
And now, tonight's viewing, my first of the movie since Katrina, reveals another level. The Big Lebowski's rant to the Dude about the rug, "Let me get this straight, every time a rug is urinated upon in this city, I am to pay compensation?" introduces a political thrust to the narrative. The Dude's rug has been ruined because of the Big Lebowski's chicanery, but he feels no responsibility. Instead, the Big Lebowski lectures the Dude about personal responsibility, thrift and hard work. Keep in mind, this movie was released two years before Bush II was elected.
Then, this leitmotif keeps coming around, "fucking you in the ass." People keep threatening to fuck the Dude and Walter in the ass. This always comes down to people of means using force and violence to make the lives of the poor worse, sending goons into the Dude's house, over and over, to wreck the place. Walter, for one, has had enough, and when it appears that a 15-year-old kid has "fucked him in the ass," he goes out into a street and demolishes what turns out to be an innocent stranger's car while screaming, over and over at the top of his lungs, "This is what happens when you fuck a stranger in the ass!" He's certainly angry at the kid, but in a way he's angry about the ass-fucking that he's getting every day from the Big Lebowskis of the world.
Finally, at Donny's funeral, he's had enough. He's not going to pay $182 for an urn. He's not going to get fucked in the ass again. He's going to put his friend's (okay, he wasn't that much of a friend) ashes into a Folger's coffee can and dump his ashes into the Pacific (although, of course, he misses) before he gets fucked in the ass again.
And the Dude and Walter go back to bowling. They are even, miraculously, still in the finals, despite the death of their partner. The Dude abides.
This movie, for me, went from being pale and unpersuasive to standing as the Coen's densest, most intricate, most interesting and, in a way, most profound movie.