Bowling for Buddha
Jeff Bridges stars as the Buddha in a film that’s all about enlightenment.
Great piece. I think it holds up, although the Nixon reference may be a stretch. The Dude mentioned that he was involved in the writing of SDS’s Port Huron statement (I believe he mentions that it was a version other than the one that became public). This was in 1962. Long before Vietnam became Nixon’s War. I think the Nixon reference, Vietnam, the Sixties, the Louisiana Purchase (the kid’s paper stuck in the crease of the seat in the Dude’s car), the first Iraq war, etc. are part of the ongoing references the Coen Brother’s films make about America and American History. I have pieces in Bright Lights Film Journal that discuss this, in part, in the films Fargo and Raising Arizona. Anyway, I think your piece is dead on. The Big Lebowski is one of the most underrated films by the Coen Brothers. It seems sharper than Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers (I think the latter was largely trashed by critics and underservedly so). Thanks for the article.
Thanks for your comments. It was a fun piece to work on.
Aside from the parting comment (“Apparently, once you get your priorities right and achieve enlightenment, you too can get laid without having to worry about responsibility.”), which doesn’t make sense since the Buddha achieved enlightenment only after leaving his wife (and never subsequently returning), the insights, though framed as jokes, certainly add depth to the movie. I look forward to reading your other articles.
I had always thought the film was more of a clash between nihilism and rationalism, and the insistence in finding meaning in existence. The Dude is constantly confronted with varying systems of philosophy, all of which oppose his laid-back existential mode of being. In particular the bowling alley, at least for Walter the classical rationalist, represents the encapsulated rational rules where the rules are concrete and unquestionable, where all makes sense if you follow the rules (unlike Nam, where there are no rules). For more deatil, see my blog: http://presence.baltiblogs.com/2004/08/11/a_man_for_his_time_n_place.html and http://presence.baltiblogs.com/2004/03/11/all_the_dude_ever_wanted_was_his_rug_back.html
One line you missed, when The Dude is talking to The Stranger at the bar, The Stranger says, “Sometimes you eat bear, and sometimes, well, the bear eats you.” The Dude replies, “Is that some sort of Eastern thing?” The Stranger: “Far from it.”
Terrific piece. Very entertaining.
I found this earlier today :
“Canada’s attitude toward America’s war in Vietnam was extremely critical under several governments of our neighbor to the north. For example, when Prime Minister Lester Pearson—who’d won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defusing the ‘50s Suez crisis—gave an April 2, 1965 speech at Temple University calling for a pause in U.S. bombing of Vietnam, he was the subject of rather notorious treatment by Lyndon Johnson at their subsequent meeting: LBJ grabbed the much smaller Canadian by the lapels, lifted him off the floor, and hollered, “You pissed on my rug!”
Can anyone find a way to crowbar that reference into the analysis ?
Buddhism’s core-precepts are based upon the theory of duality: the uneasy juxtaposition of the objective and the subjective. Man is meaning maker; nothing has intrinsic value or meaning. Meaning is conferred upon the object by the spectator and is ultimately nothing.
You’ll find similar philosophy in the study of Semiotics and existentialism. Postmodernism refutes grand-narratives and underlines multiplicity. In other words, all is a void; all competing ideas cancel out. Any social structures or prevailing ideas ‘exist’ only because they are allowed to by the dominant cache. It’s all about power.
The Dude’s apathy, rather than representing Buddhist enlightenment, seems to offer a critique of pacifism and procrastination. Indeed, the Dude is something of an “anti-protagonist”, he does little to progress the narrative; things happen TO him, or are carried out on his behalf. He lies in stark contrast to Walter’s misplaced and ill-considered bellicosity.
The Nihilists represent the extreme of this approach; they exist and operate in the centre of the ‘void’, and- refuting subserviency (after all, there is no ‘superior’ as s/he only occupy this position through force/power)- make meaning for themselves. [NB: it is totally, utterly wrong to describe them as “Nazis”; this misses the point entirely. Describing them as such is an exercise in irony on the Coen’s part].
Like everybody else, they attempt to impose their will through force. No approach, however, is championed- they are shown to be what they are: innapropriate extremes. Donny, far from being a “dullard”, is the most Buddhist of the bunch; he occupies the ‘middle way’- he is at equilibrium. His attitude manifests the ‘no-mind’ or “Buddah-nature” to use correct terminology; he acts: he is.
In summary, the article tends to white-wash the politics of The Big Lebowski, which- above all else- seems to be about freedom and action, the power of ideas, relating these always back to American foreign policy.
Checkout Fellini’s Amacord, Dali’s Un Chien Adalou and Wickerman for a similar exploration of multiplicity.
Star Wars is interesting as although it refutes grand-narratives (for example, its emphasis on ‘point-of-view’ and the power to naturalize it through imposition), it paradoxically offers a grand-narrative as the foundation for this argument.
I enjoyed reading your article and feel that it offers an interesting angle on the film I really hadn’t considered before.
Your article makes me want to watch it again with my shirt off. What? Who said that? What are we talking about?
Premise: The Big Lebowski is my favorite movie, no contest. I’ve watched it over 100 times; more than Star Wars. I have spent hours and hours thinking to myself about perspectives on this story. It took me years to even understand why I liked it so much. I have a lot of…ideas, but this one had never occurred to me as a unified and well parsed thought.
Question: Do you think that if if I had been exposed to this satisfying and articulated analysis I would have continued to ponder this movie as much as I have? Would I have been more prone to conclude this is the most apt analysis I can expect and actively reduced the amount of “play” this topic received and therefore my affections?
I think Walter represented one side of Nam, and the Dude reps the hippie side. I find it extremely interesting that Lydon Johsnon said “You pissed on my rug” and Nixon (the face of Vietnam war) was on the Dudes wall.
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