Notes for an essay on symbols in The Big Lebowski
It’s no secret that The Big Lebowski is a film loaded with second meanings. I’ll admit that the first few times I saw it I was dense enough to think it was just a simple comedy (something at which it is pretty successful). However, given how blatant most of the message is, I’m slightly ashamed that I didn’t notice it (I was young and much less aware of global politics). Quite obviously it is a film about America’s involvement in war (it is set during the first Gulf War) and the America’s position in the global environment.
I could be completely wrong, but the nation of America is represented by four figures in the film: The (real) Big Lebowski (success, religion, the upper class), Walter (the average citizen, religion, war), the Cowboy (wisdom, the big brother to the world) and Jackie Treehorn (religion, excess). When each one of these characters speaks, they are expressing a common view held in the country.
Note: some of my quotes are probably wrong.
There are many references, some subtle and some unsubtle, to war throughout the movie. Here are some.
- A “Chinaman” invading the Dude’s home and urinating on his rug, obviously a comparison to Gulf War. The Dude replaces the rug with one that appears to be of Middle Eastern origin. He’s later seen practicing TaiChi (or some Dude variant of it) on the new rug.
- The Big Lebowski lost his legs “to some Chinaman in Korea”.
- Walter: “This is not ‘Nam, this is bowling. There are rules. Smokey, my friend. You’re entering a world of pain.” as he pulls a gun on the conscientious objector.
- Dude, about Smokey: “You know he has emotion problems?”. Walter: “Beyond pacifism?”
- Walter: “Look at the current situation with that camel fucker in Iraq. Pacifism is not something to hide behind.”
- Walter: “I did not watch my buddies die face down in the mud so this fucking whore…” Dude: “Walter this is not Vietnam!”. Walter: “Well, there is a literal connection.”
America and its values
Beyond war, a large amount of the movie is commenting on American society in general, xenophobia and the value it places on success and achievement.
- The Big Lebowski: ”I’ve accomplished more than most men, without the use of my legs. What, what makes a man? Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost?”
- The Big Lebowksi has an obsession with bums and their lack of contribution to society: “Get a job sir. The bums will always lose.”
- Walter: “There are basic freedoms!”
- Walter: “Fucking Germans! Fucking Nazis!” Donnie: “They were Nazis dude?” Walter: “Oh c’mon Donnie. They were threatening castration. Are we gonna split hairs here?”
- Walter, on the Nihilists (who believe in nothing): “Say what you will about the tenets of national socialism, at least it’s an ethos.”
- The Cowboy representing the wisdom of the big brother (USA in this case), as he drinks sarsaparilla. It’s also interesting that The Dude drinks White Russians and Caucasians.
- Dude: “Is that some kind of eastern thing?” The Cowboy: “Far from it.”
- The Dude listens to Credence, and is followed by VW (a German car). Later in the movie (as his journey is coming to a close) he is kicked out of a cab for hating the Eagles (about as American a band as you can get).
- Walter, the representation of the US armed forces, throws the unprotected cripple onto the floor, while shouting “Actung, baby!”.
The third angle on Lebowski’s comment on America is religion (not surprising considering the links to the Gulf War).
- Walter finds religion (Judaism).
- The best bowler in the league is named Jesus. While he is supernaturally skilled as a bowler, he is also flawed (for “exposing himself”). At my favourite moment in the film, Jesus (God?) asks Walter (the USA?) “Are you ready to be fucked man?”.
- Walter bites the ear of the nihilist while calling him an anti-Semite.
- The Dude represents the average American and their apathetic nature. Despite caring about things, the Dude never really attempts to influence anything. In some respects, the scene that I examined is commenting on what happens when the American public get engaged - the system beats them down.
To be finished, maybe.