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.)
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.
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.
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.
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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