I know when night has gone
That a new world’s born at dawn.
I’ll keep rolling along
Deep in my heart is a song
Here on the range I belong
Drifting along with the tumbling tumbleweeds.
— Sons Of The Pioneers
We live in frustrating times for anyone politically opposed to the relentless militarization and financialization of virtually every facet of life in America.
The idealism of the Sixties and Seventies was overwhelmed first by Reaganism, then by the tsunami of post-911 fear and, finally, by the momentum of two, now three, on-going foreign wars. We live in an enforced condition of permanent war and unfettered piracy.
The Left struggles doggedly to remain viable in this mess. It ranges from the Obama mode of accommodation with militarism and corporatism to, on the far left, a tired (and sometimes tiresome) protest movement that suffers from self-reinforced marginalization.
This is certainly an unfair reduction of the movement’s shortcomings, but my purpose is a provocative lead-in to a film that has matured into a hilarious homage to the Sixties antiwar movement.
The 1998 Coen Brothers cult movie The Big Lebowski was a sleeper that slowly grew on audiences and continues to grow in stature. For me it is the perfect movie antidote for our times. The movie is already famous for having generated a following akin to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Star Trek. I’ve now seen it four times. In earlier viewings, I didn’t realize the subtext that so wonderfully speaks to the frustrations of leftist antiwar activists. When my fellow peace-activist wife and I watched it together the other night we were laughing so hard we were in tears.
The film opens on a piece of tumbleweed rolling through scrub desert with the Sons Of The Pioneers singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” The legendary cowboy voice of Sam Elliot tells us about the film’s protagonist, a man known as The Dude. By this time the tumbleweed has reached the top of a hill to reveal the vast lights of Los Angeles at night. We begin to get it: We’re at the end of the trail of Manifest Destiny. From here westward, it’s Vietnam and all the rest.
The Cowboy says the story he’s about to tell took place “just about the time of our conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis. I only mention it because sometimes there’s a man. I won’t say a hero, ‘cause what’s a hero? Sometimes there’s a man — well, he’s the man for his time and place. He fits right in there.”
Jeff Bridges as The Dude is standing at the end of a long supermarket dairy case. He’s in sandals, ratty shorts, a torn dirty white t-shirt and a bathrobe. The camera moves in on him as he picks up a carton of half & half, opens the top and sniffs to see if it’s fresh. Then, with half & half in the hairs of his mustache, he’s in the check-out line writing a check for 69 cents. He looks up and on a nearby TV monitor President George Bush Senior is saying, “This aggression against Kuwait will not stand!”
The Tumbling Tumbleweed tune picks up again as The Dude scampers back to his apartment with his half & half to make himself one of his beloved white Russians. But, instead, he’s jumped by two thugs, one who repeatedly dunks his head into his toilet demanding information as the other urinates on his Persian rug. This sets up the movie’s plot: The thugs have beaten up the wrong Jeffrey Lebowski, the real one being a rich, wheel-chair-bound corporate magnate with a young nymphomaniac wife named Bunny who owes the thugs’ boss money.
The Big Lebowski is, of course, a parody of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep with The Dude standing in for LA tough guy Philip Marlowe. The movie unfolds as a Chandleresque plot full of eccentric characters.
That’s the skeletal structure; the film’s brilliance is in its deep and rich subtext. While The Dude is a lazy slacker who lives on weed and white Russians, he is also a veteran of the 1960s antiwar movement. “I spent most of my time occupying various administration buildings, smoking Thai stick and breaking into ROTC buildings,” he says. We learn he wrote part of the “uncompromised first-draft” of the famous SDS Port Huron statement. He was one of the Seattle Six.
When he goes to the rich Lebowski’s mansion seeking money to clean his pee-stained rug, he is upbraided for being a “bum” and regaled with tales how the disabled rich Lebowski, despite being shot by Chinese soldiers in Korea, had made something of himself. The Dude realizes there’s nothing for him here and, ready to leave, says, “Fuck it!” This sends the rich Lebowski into a tirade:
“That’s your answer to everything! Why don’t you tattoo it on your forehead?” The Dude is walking to the door. “Your revolution is over, Mister Lebowski. Condolences! The bums lost!”
Played by David Huddleston, the Big Lebowski is a satisfying, funny caricature for all those on the right inclined to diminish the Sixties and the antiwar ideals that drove the period and provoked young people – like The Dude — with visions of “revolution.” Likewise, the character of The Dude is a stand-in for a movement that, while it may have failed in its ambitions to check militarism, refuses to go away. The Dude has settled into a state of dormancy, a mode of pure survival. As Sam Elliot puts it at the end, “The Dude abides.”
The Dude’s best friend Walter is a PTSD-suffering Vietnam veteran played with comic brio by John Goodman. He pulls a loaded .45 on a man who refuses to agree that he crossed the line as he released his bowling ball. (Bowling plays a big part in the movie.) He also frequently gets worked up and exclaims, “I didn’t watch my buddies die face-down in the mud in ‘Nam for this to happen!” Throughout the movie, he makes one disastrous decision after another. After Walter has pulled the gun, he and The Dude flee to the car in the parking lot, where they have a discussion about pacifism as squad cars arrive lights and sirens blaring. Here, The Dude tells him: “Walter you’re not wrong; you’re an asshole.” Then there’s silent Donny, the foil played by Steve Buscemi, whose role in the movie is so the Walter character can say, “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”
Both The Dude and Walter were based on real people the Coen brothers had met. They decided to make their fictional versions inseparable friends, one a psychically numbed antiwar activist, the other a whacked out Vietnam vet. Several times in the movie, as Walter begins to flip out over something, The Dude pleads with him: “Walter, this has nothing to do with Vietnam!” It is an inspired pairing: two misfits from the Vietnam War era, each providing some equilibrium for the other as they struggle together against various bad guys and fools. There’s a team of slapstick nihilists, several bumbling street cops, a corrupt police chief, a Malibu pornographer, and finally a cold-as-steel feminist played by Julianne Moore who seduces The Dude into fulfilling her maternal desires. There’s even a Busby Berkley dream sequence with leggy cheerleaders that segues into the nihilists chasing The Dude with scissors to cut off his “Johnson.”
As a Vietnam veteran and antiwar activist I find myself engaged these days in regular discussions about why the antiwar movement has not succeeded. When I accidentally re-landed on the film a week ago on Turner Movies, ten years into the permanent war cycle set off by George Bush Junior, the film really hit close to home. It was certainly made with devilish joy and artistic love, and laughing with it — and at my own foibles — was a delightfully cathartic experience. If I had the time I’d watch it again.
Like a modern Jesus, The Dude is abiding for our sins. The Dude is like the black slave who learned to work slowly because the system he was trapped in was corrupt and overwhelming. Why strain yourself? Caught in a corrupt and overwhelming militarist and corporate culture, The Dude lives in a self-imposed dormant state, caring for his friends and enjoying the simple beauties of life. All the time, though, you know he’s just waiting for the right moment to break out of that dormancy and, again, make a run for a better world.
There’s a bit of The Dude in all of us in the antiwar-peace movement.
The famous two-word last line of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury comes to mind. It refers to the family of Dilsey, the black cook and servant who sustains the doomed white Compson family. Faulkner writes: “They endured.”
In a similar manner, the antiwar-peace movement and what it stands for may suffer indignities, a lack of respect and periods of dormancy. But, like Dilsey, we will endure.
The Dude abides.