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Books / March 27, 2010

lebowski

Lotta books on The Big Lebowski have come out recently, and I’ve slogged through them so you don’t have to:

I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski by Bill Green, Ben Peskoe, Will Russell, and Scott Shuffitt

The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers by Cathleen Falsani

BFI Film Classics: The Big Lebowski by J. M. Tyree and Ben Walters

The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe

Presumably they’re cashing in on the Lebowski cult phenomenon—Lebowski Fest and all that—mobs of fans getting together annually to bowl, drink Caucasians, dress in character, watch the movie for the hundredth time, yell “You’re out of your element!” “I will not abide another toe!” “Nobody fucks with the Jesus!” “Nice marmot!” “Who the fuck are the Knudsons?” etc.

I’m a Lebowski, You’re a Lebowski is by the actual guys who started Lebowski Fest in Louisville, Kentucky, and it’s the most endurable of the books. It’s even endearing. Inspired by a fervent love for the film that allowed them to see how it applies to every single situation in contemporary life, these guys discovered that they could create a communal bond simply by saying “Shomer Shabbos!” in public and waiting for the call-and-response cry of “Shomer fucking Shabbos!” (Though apparently “Shut the fuck up, Donny!” is the more typical conversational pass-phrase for discovering a fellow Lebowski-phile.)

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It’s a nice book, smooth matte cover, pleasantly laid out, loaded with dumb filler (“How to Dude-ify Your Car”) and interviews with cast members from Jeff Bridges on down to Robin Jones, who played the Ralphs Checkout Girl. The Coen Brothers, of course, maintained their magnificent reserve about the whole project, contributing only a fiercely non-committal line regarding the authors that’s featured on the book’s dedication page: “They have neither our blessing nor our curse.”

If you want to know lots of trivia about the film, there are some enlightening interviews with people who supposedly inspired the lead characters. The Dude is a loose riff off of Jeff Dowd (independent film producer/“Pope of Dope”/member of the Seattle Seven, him and six other guys). Walter = Pete Exline (USC film professor/Viet Nam vet/owner of a rug that really tied the room together) + John Milius (right-wing film writer-director/gun nut) + “Big” Lew Abernathy (private detective/screenwriter/actor/blowhard).

You also get the back-story on key incidents in the film that the Coens took from anecdotes about real-life L.A. experiences. That scene with Little Larry Sellars featuring the homework in a baggie kinda actually happened, though no Corvettes were destroyed in the process.

Goofy fandom, that’s okay. Makes sense. I don’t personally want to attend Lebowski Fest, but I’m happy the kids seem to like it.

Much more irritating is crap like The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, because it’s got no business approaching The Big Lebowski if it’s not going to make an effort to be worthy. The cover art is a hideous tarted-up image of the Dude in a halo, and it turns out the book deals with all the Coen films to date and only uses the Lebowski come-ons to push some product.

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Crack the cover and you find it’s all plot summaries, plus a few lazy notes gathered under short chapter conclusions called “The Moral of the Story.” For The Big Lebowski, “the moral” includes “treat others as you want to be treated yourself” and piffle like that. Fucking amateurs! Author Cathleen Falsani, may she rot in Hell, is a “religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times” who calls herself “God girl.” She’d’ve been fired the minute this pathetic book hit the shelves if there were any justice in the world. Which there ain’t.

The British Film Institute puts out a “Film Classics” series of high-toned monographs, and imagine my surprise to find out The Big Lebowski got BFI-ed way back in 2007. Again, nice-looking book, handsome color photos and all the fixings. But reading the text itself is a schizo experience, featuring blandly informative commentary battling it out with rank stupidity. This leads to a semi-diverting game of Who’s-the-Idiot? as you try to guess which of the two authors is irredeemably thick. Is it Ben Walters, Deputy Film Editor at Time Out London and author of books on Orson Welles and The Office, or J.M. Tyree, a Wallace Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University? Tough call! My money’s on Tyree.

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Just so you’re prepared for the rhythm of the experience, reading it goes like this: “Okay…okay…ouch…okay…ouch…ouch…ouch-ouch-ouchouchouchOUCH!!” As long as the book sticks to the more obvious analysis, it doesn’t hurt. For instance, it tracks the influence of Raymond Chandler’s famous L.A.-centered detective fiction from Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Chandler’s The Big Sleep through Robert Altman’s revisionist update of Chandler’s The Long Good-bye to the Coens’ easy sweep of them all in The Big Lebowski. It’s a straightforward lineage if you know American noir, and reading this part is fine as long as you don’t get hung up on actual wording or anything. Just glide along keeping your eyes slightly out of focus. You don’t want to settle on a wince-inducing line like, “[The Coens] are teasing Hawks the way Hawks teased Chandler.”

But then there’s the really painful stuff you can’t avoid. The conclusion is a mass of sick statements comparing the Coens’ work to the novels of David Foster Wallace and Dave Eggers and the films of Wes Anderson in one big po-mo jamboree that invalidates any of the non-stupid things the authors might’ve written before. Skip pages 104-106, for sure, and sort of tiptoe through the rest, picking around the landmines, if you want to read it.

The most ambitious of the books is The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, as the title suggests. It was inspired by a symposium where the essays in the book were originally presented as papers, and which pulled together the Lebowski Fest guys and academic types in an attempt to bridge the gap between pop and high culture. It’s kind of a gruesome read, featuring academics trying to be funny in scholarly form.

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Scholarship doesn’t tend toward comedy much. If you’re inclined toward hilarity you pick another mode of expression. And scholars themselves often fulfill the stereotype: sniffy, pompous, and humor-impaired. Example: a film studies pedant at a conference once told me that he didn’t see The Big Lebowski as a comedy at all; he said it was a meditation on male mourning and castration anxiety.

To be fair, there’s no easy way for a scholar to approach the Coen brothers’ films. They’ve already barred the way, already pre-mocked those who would intellectualize them. If you ignore that and proceed in a traditional, self-serious manner to analyze The Big Lebowski, you rightly fear you’ll seem almost as ludicrous as Assistant Professor Joshua Kates of Indiana U., who titled his essay “The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism.”

On the other hand, attempts at humor are generally worse. Something about interpreting the Coens often flusters scholars into trying to write like them. For example, Justus Nieland, Assistant Professor of English at Michigan State University, starts his essay “Dudespeak: Or How to Bowl Like a Pornstar” with a gust of nervous hipsterese:

What condition is the Dude’s linguistic condition in? Obviously, it’s fucked.

And here’s Professor Thomas B. Byer’s attempt to write funny scholarship about The Big Lebowski in his essay, “Found Document: The Stranger’s Commentary and a Note on His Method.” Byer’s trying to imitate the narrating voice of the Stranger, played by Sam Elliott:

And then, there’s another fella I want to tell you about, fella from back East in Durham. Lotta powerful smart idears, this’un. Some say he’s a pinko, too. But I don’t know. Cause what’s a pinko, anyway? And, I hear tell he drives a purty fancy car. Now, this here Fred fella said somewheres that one of them shortcuts we use nowadays fer thinkin’ is sortin’ folks into decades…

This drools on for pages. Laborious footnotes don’t help: it seems that the fella from back East in Durham with the fancy car is a reference to Fredric Jameson, the guy who wrote the endlessly referenced essay about postmodernism and the po-mo filmic traits of blank parody and pastiche and all that guff the Coen are accused of doing, and if I explain any further it will not get one iota more entertaining, I assure you.

Still, if you think you’d like a book made for “the slacker as well as the scholar,” as a cover blurb enthuses, this one’s for you. There’s an essay solely contemplating the significance of the Dude’s drink of choice, the White Russian; another one on “The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail-quest”; still another taking up “the political subtext of The Big Lebowski, which critiques the growth of car culture in twentieth-century America and the nation’s resultant involvement in overseas wars for oil.”

They’ve managed to attack every aspect of The Big Lebowski without ever laying a glove on it, so the book’s kind of fascinating if you look at it that way.

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61 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. gildas  |  April 16th, 2010 at 12:27 am

    Oh the hate, the hate…
    You read my response, fucked up a totally wrong and not even amusing ball of hatred dumb arse answer with your little brain and you are now all bouhou in denial.

    I still rate this movie in my top ten.

    And we still don’t know who you are… Because you are nothing, you don’t count, you have no influence on this world, you don’t exist. Here on the interweb, like in real life. You create nothing, you bring nothing, you are nothing. You will pass throu this world like piss throw a gutter, leaving nothing.

    I gave you insight into who I am, just to show you how far of the mark you are. And I am proud of who i am (not like your insecure self) and guess what: you’re a insignificant troll. I, and most people here “do stuff” and will leave some sort of legacy, be it only a good memory to their friends.

    Now, go get a life little troll. I have things to do, people to see, deadlines to meet and beer to drink, real good Enamer.

  • 2. online arguing means you're smart IRL  |  April 16th, 2010 at 12:31 am

    Congrats EJ, once again you’ve got these little internet dipshits to pointlessly bicker back and forth thinking that the childish BS they type to eachother actually matters. Oooh…I sure hope they do me next so I can feel involved!

  • 3. gildas  |  April 16th, 2010 at 12:31 am

    And by the way, the wooden shoes, that’s Holland, country next door. I recommend you use Wiki next time.

    And try to be funny.

  • 4. gildas  |  April 16th, 2010 at 11:14 am

    Yeah, you are right “online arguing means you’re smart IRL”… It’s like punching air, easy but pointless.

    And I’m violating the basic principles of Dudeism: “An ancient philosophy that preaches non-preachiness, practices as little as possible.” Dude, I have sinned.

    So i’m “Just taking it easy, man.” And i’ve got to respect respect everyone’s point of view: “It’s just, like, their opinion, man.”

  • 5. RecoverylessRecovery  |  April 16th, 2010 at 11:37 am

    “Because you are nothing, you don’t count, you have no influence on this world, you don’t exist. Here on the interweb, like in real life. You create nothing, you bring nothing, you are nothing. You will pass throu this world like piss throw a gutter, leaving nothing.”

    You sound JUST LIKE a Goldman Sachs exec speaking to the average American taxpayer.

  • 6. RecoverylessRecovery  |  April 16th, 2010 at 11:56 am

    “…you’ve got these little internet dipshits to pointlessly bicker back and forth thinking that the childish BS they type to each other actually matters.”

    Bicker: 1.To engage in a petty, bad-tempered quarrel; squabble.

    As you can see, Gildas is ‘bickering’. *I’m* just making him look stupid. BIG difference.

    Wanna join?

  • 7. Funonymous  |  April 18th, 2010 at 7:50 pm

    While, yes, the country (US), and most countries, past and present have at some point been run by thieving self interested crooks who devote any cleverness in their minds to finding ways to take things from others, regardless of political party, ideology, creed, color, industrial capacity, or communications structure, I would have to disagree that TBL is completely retarded. People have been talking alot about books, culture, and movies, and I would say that the Cohen brothers are fairly well read, especially in some of the literary corners they base their movies on. One cannot have written O Brother Where Art Thou without an intimate knowledge of The Odyssey, and from the Odyssey the jump to James Joyce’s Ulysses is short but profound.
    Ulysses was written as an antithetical mirror to the Odyssey; Odysseus was a king stuck far from home, who loved his land and family, and fought for years to get back to them. Leopold Bloom was a Jew in Ireland in the 1900’s, meaning he was a practical social outcast and foreigner in the land he lived in. Telemachus had a deal of philialpiety and was beloved of the Gods. Stephen Daedalus has no respect for his father, hated his homeland yet was obsessed with it, and forsook the Catholicism he spent his youth devoted to as his mother begged him on her death bed to come back to the church. Penelope spend a chaste 20 years devoted to the return of her husband, Molly Bloom had already, and was planning that day, to cuckold her husband again. Odysseus had to sail around the world, Poldy and Stephen spent the day walking around a city….

    For writers who have already written in this literary tradition, it is not a hard press to convince me they were using Ulysses esqe techniques while writing the antithetical LA movie, which is why it matters that The Dude is just a lazy stoner, because by being that he is also his opposite. Why hate on a whole culture of generally harmless people and write them off as worthy of no empathy anyway?

  • 8. RecoverylessRecovery  |  April 18th, 2010 at 11:28 pm

    “One cannot have written O Brother Where Art Thou without an intimate knowledge of The Odyssey, and from the Odyssey the jump to James Joyce’s Ulysses is short but profound.”

    No my friend, that jump is ‘long and IMPOSSIBLE’.
    I fail to see ANY connection whatsoever between The Odyssey and TBL to justify your parting assumption that the Cohen Brothers must possess an ‘intimate knowledge’ of the former. That renders all the rest of your otherwise VERY erudite analysis as baseless.

    The Odyssey is an EPIC, timeless and magnificent piece of literary drama containing a subtly complex and intricately interwoven storyline that ranges across the entire spectrum of human endeavors and emotions ranging from outright comedy to profound tales of conflicts, loves, lusts, intrigues and gods that openly meddle and participate in human affairs. And Odysseus, the main character, possesses the heroic trait of Mētis, or “cunning intelligence”.

    TBL contains the story of a semi-dazed slacker who sluggishly sets-out to find those responsible for peeing on his carpet and who possesses the torpid trait of Apathy, or “baffling dumbassedness”.

  • 9. Funonymous  |  April 19th, 2010 at 10:19 am

    The Odyssey = O Brother Where Art Thou, not The Big Lebowski

    The Big Lebowski uses antithetical comparison like Ulysses, which is patterned after The Odyssey. The Cohen brothers must have read The Odyssey to write O Brother Where Art Thou, James Joyce had to have read the Odyssey to write Ulysses. Anyone who wants to write a story about an ‘antihero’ pretty much has to read about Stephen Daedalus. Several people have made comparisons to noir and hardboiled LA movies, and the inverted comparisons in Lebowski in relation to those movies, I see the same techniques at work in Ulysses as I do in Lebowski. I’ll cede that vast portions of US culture are vapid and beyond dumb, but the Cohen brothers seem to be far more well read than your average American.

  • 10. RecoverylessRecovery  |  April 19th, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    “The Odyssey = O Brother Where Art Thou, not The Big Lebowski”

    Sorry I completely misread your original post. Half a liter of Sauvignon Blanc coupled with a solidly-rolled spliff of Mother Nature’s finest cannabis DOES tend to cloud-up the mind a wee bit.

    Back on track now; although OBWAT admittedly weaves a MUCH richer cinematic tapestry than TBL, I STILL fail to see any correlation between OBWAT’s Ulysses and TO’s Odysseus ..beyond a few superficial narrative similarities (or counter-propositions).

    Nonetheless, GREAT review!. Thanks.

  • 11. Vendetta  |  October 11th, 2011 at 12:49 am

    Ames, I bet it’s fucking you who’s RecoveryRetard. I don’t think Dolan would have the patience to pretend to be so retarded for so long.


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