The Dude, Donny and Walter (photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine
It's 10 years since the release of The Big Lebowski, a film that split cinema audiences down the middle but created a strange cult. Is The Dude a slacker prince for our times?
Not everybody likes The Big Lebowski.
The Big Lebowski is a cult film. That is to say, not everybody likes it but those who do, in the main, have a special relationship with it.
One of the dream sequences (photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)
When it was released, as the follow-up to the Coen brothers' well-regarded and academy-impressing Fargo, many critics found themselves underwhelmed. Fargo was a film that hung together well - tightly paced and plotted, full of dark humour and moments of pathos.
The Big Lebowski, on the other hand, could be viewed as two hours of wild self-indulgence, packed to the gills with bowling, White Russian cocktails, and swearing.
Variety said it "doesn't seem to be about anything other than its own cleverness", while the LA Times moaned that the "story line is in truth disjointed, incoherent and even irritating".
Even its staunchest fan would have to say the plot, a pastiche of a Chandler or Hammett mystery, takes a little decoding.
The central character is Jeff Lebowski, aka The Dude, who has his rug urinated on by thugs, setting off a complicated chain of events.
Power of quotability
In 1998 the film failed, initially at least, to set the box office on fire.
Careful man, there's a beverage here
This aggression will not stand, man
That rug really tied the room together
This is not Nam, this is bowling, there are rules
You're entering a world of pain
I did not watch my buddies die face down in the mud...
Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature
You want a toe? I can get you a toe... hell, I can get you a toe by three o'clock this afternoon, with nail polish
The flicks were then being bestrode by Titanic, a big sentimental monster of a replica-ship melodrama. The ordinary cinemagoer preferred Celine Dion's heart going on, and Kate Winslet threatening to jump to a watery grave, to the antics of a bearded slacker in Los Angeles.
But while The Big Lebowski did not initially put bums on seats, it was not a total turkey and proved something of a very slow-burn hit, particularly on DVD.
It became a popular choice for midnight screenings. Fans liked to go along and quote the dialogue. It was perhaps not surprising when four years after its release, it spawned Lebowski Fest, a chain of conventions, centred on Louisville, Kentucky, celebrating the film. There have even been Lebowski celebrations in the UK.
"The first night we watch the movie, the second night we become the movie," says Will Russell, who describes himself as "co-founding dude" of the Lebowski Fest.
At the annual events, fans dress up as the Dude himself, or as crazed Vietnam veteran Walter Sobchak, German nihilists, purple-clad Jesus Quintana, bowling pins, Valkyries and even as the dancing landlord. Then they read quotations to each other, much as might be seen at a Monty Python convention.
Will Russell (right) with another co-founder, Bill Green
"It is fun to drink and bowl," says Mr Russell, co-author of I'm a Lebowski, You're a Lebowski. And they are all united into one temporarily tight-knit community by their love of the film.
"The characters are so loveable and it is a really quotable movie. Not everybody gets it. A lot of people see the movie and they don't like it. Other people fall in love with it."
It's a key element in cult appeal. Not just loving something, but also relishing the fact that not everybody does.
"It was considered a flop at the time. Titanic was in its 20th week and it still beat the Big Lebowski. US Marshals beat it."
But neither have the quotability of The Big Lebowski. At the festival the "achievers" - as the fanatics of the film call themselves, after the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers mentioned in the movie - shout "nice marmot" or "careful man, there's a beverage here".
John Goodman's character, Walter Sobchak, provides many of the most glorious lines with his preposterous ruminations on his experiences in Vietnam such as: "This is not Nam, this is bowling, there are rules."
The fans love the glorious level of deadpan wit. In one scene the two protagonists enter a house and see a famous TV writer ensconced in an iron lung, his laboured breathing audible across the room. "Does he still write?", they ask the woman who answers the door. "No, no, no, he has health problems," she replies.
Fans regard Jesus Quintana as one of the great movie cameos
And then there is the swearing. Mr Russell estimates the F-word is used 281 times.
Lou Harry, author of the as-yet-unpublished Behind the Screen: The Big Lebowski, says the film's appeal lies in its "compulsive rewatchability".
"It is in a line of Coen Brothers films - it has the same quirkiness and unexpected 180 degree turns until you have seen it 17 times. It does that in a way that is satisfying."
With a marijuana-smoking burned out hippie as the protagonist, it's easy to place The Big Lebowski as one of the forerunners of today's wave of slacker comedies like Knocked Up, Pineapple Express and The Wackness.
But its place is really in the line of under-appreciated-at-time-of-release cult films - a list featuring everything from Tod Browning's Freaks to Russ Meyer's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
The Big Lebowski is of an era where fanatics find it easier to discover the shared nature of their fanaticism thanks to the internet and now, to social networking.
The result is the continuance of the concept of "cult".
Below is a selection of your comments.
You could say that the movie is still a relevant social commentary. The two main characters are polar opposite of each other: the Dude, a liberal, slacker, anti-establishment guy; Walter a conservative, war veteran, law-and-order guy. This is juxtaposed against Donny the ill-informed and out of touch middle ground. All three coexist in a fragile harmony that is in conflict with the issues of the day of uncheck aggression, under the table deals and moral debauchery. With the death of Donny, they realise their personal angst is just not that important and what matters is having civility and pursuing what makes you happy. I still will not bowl on the Sabbath.
Maude, Jacksonville, Florida
The Big Lebowski is a good film. No more and certainly no less. That alone makes it interesting and somewhat of a rarity. Is it a cult film? Well, it certainly provides fuel for one of the most irritating manifestations of cult status - that of quotability. This basically means a few people shouting lines from a film at each other in sad displays of one-up-manship and "insider" knowledge [aka elitism]. The fact that one of the fans seems to revel in the idea of other people not liking the film is very revealing and not in a good way. This kind of behaviour is actually a bad advert for a decent film. The bottom line is we could all join in but most choose not to.
The soundtrack alone puts this film up there as one of the greats.
Having Sam Elliott as the narrator pushes it into the top 10.
Jesus threatening to pull the trigger until it goes click eases it into the top 5.
But Steve Buschemi as the thing you only appreciate when it's gone nails it firmly at number 1.
Is it bad form to wish for Lebowski 2: Abide Harder?
It is one of the funniest and most charming films ever. Can you think of another movie where the Barry White-voiced narrator loses his train of thought in the opening two minutes, and lets the viewer just work it out himself? Or where even the most miniscule character - such as Brandt the secretary - is drawn in loving detail? You could make a whole movie about ANYBODY in this film, and it would be wonderful. It's a joy.
Russell Jones, Manchester, UK
Repeated watchings of The Big Lebowski have just got me through a difficult four-day labour... I just hope my son will like the film as much as I do!
At last, the BBC has lent its unique authority to my quest to convince non-believers of the importance of this film (or at very least justify my white-Russian-soaked annual home Lebowski Fest with fellow achievers to my wife). I like your style, dudes.
Mike, Chicago Dude Living in London
It may just be the Coen brothers' most overrated film. It's not bad, far from it, it's just NOT as funny as Raising Arizona, and there's not nearly enough John Turturro for my liking. Oh and any film featuring Julianne Moore just isn't going to get my vote.
My best man organised a Big Lebowski themed stag night consisting of dressing up as The Dude, bowling and drinking copious amounts of White Russians. It dawned on me whilst I was there that maybe not everybody had seen this classic movie when a fellow bowler asked why we were all dressed in pyjamas (even though we had Bermuda shorts, shades and dressing gowns on - who sleeps in that?). I felt like saying "Obviously you're not a golfer" but thought the quote may be lost on them.
Andy Robinson, Manchester
I admit to being distinctly underwhelmed by The Big Lebowski. Considering myself to be fairly savvy when it comes to cinema, I'm always wary of watching a film, such as this, that carries a certain weight of expectation along with it. For this reason, I consciously stayed away from The Big Lebowski. Generally speaking, I would consider myself to be a fan of "cult" films, though not really a fan of the phrase "cult films". I can quote Withnail & I with the best of them. I would also consider myself to be a very culturally aware person. There are many reasons why I should have fitted the model for somebody who would have "got" this film. But I just didn't...
David Berry, Wirral, UK
Without parallel my favourite film of all time. The Dude typifies someone we all want to be associated with. A carefree relaxed person, who speaks his mind and does what he likes to. We need to revive the UK Lebowski Fest which I missed in Edinburgh two years ago.
Amit Aggarwal, Cambridge, England
It's a pastiche - rubbish and not even original rubbish. It's a cult success - my family and friends and some sad types with nothing to do that night saw it. If this baloney ever becomes popular, i.e. redone with class, characterisation and acting involved, the underwhelmed critics of before will explain their comments were a pastiche. Arts are just a pastiche on themselves.
Confusus Theytry, South Wales
I discovered this film on VHS when it went to rental. At 16 years old, bits probably went over my head, but I instantly took to dressing gowns and White Russians (milk, Kaluha and vodka went down far easier than those baby steps into cheap larger). The habit only gathered pace when I started university as I rejoiced in the 'bum' lifestyle. This film is a stonewall classic and I've been saying it for years. When you come across someone who agrees with you, it's instant respect. You can entertain yourselves for a wonderful 15 minutes as you exchange quotes and then, like waking up next to a stranger, there's an awkward silence as nothing else seems half as funny afterwards. Jesus... you said it man.
Ben Williams, Manchester
One of the funniest movies of all time, and a criminally overlooked performance by Jeff Bridges. Coen quirkiness at its best.
Stephen Lerche, Johannesburg, South Africa
I experienced my first underwhelming viewing of The Big Lebowski at the cinema upon its release. I can't remember being particularly impressed, thinking "it's no Fargo/Hudsucker Proxy/Blood Simple" etc. Ten years on, I'm not quite sure how it happened, but it has now beaten the likes of Apocalypse Now, Empire Strikes Back, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane as my favourite all-time film. I've no idea when I first noticed the genius of Walter and Donny's love/hate relationship, or the timeless strut of Jesus, or the hilarious subtlety of the script that just grows on you like your favourite album. The Coen Brothers have worked some magic in their time, rarely missing the spot. But I don't think they ever hit the spot so perfectly as they did with The Big Lebowski. They got career-best performances from the two leads, combined it with perfect pace, direction, cinematography, soundtrack and made the perfect film in my opinion.
David Harrison, Birmingham
Quite simply one of the best films ever:
"He's a nihilist"
"Oh, really. That must be exhausting."
What makes the dude so appealing is his attitude towards life. Yes, he is a slacker, but he also is a Zen master. He takes things as they come, simply trying to move through life with as little friction as possible. He doesn't accept society's version of what life is supposed to be. That makes him my hero.
I have a copy that I watch every now and then as I do with Nacho Libre. It's a simple plot with very real people in it. It's not about superheroes or super-fighters or aliens but about ordinary, stupid every day kind of people. It's also about friendships maintained with disparate people in a world that changes too fast, is dark, threatening and frightening. The Dude, Donny and Walter couldn't be more different from each other yet they meet in the seemingly serene environs of the bowling hall. We don't see their homes or families. Their friendship exists in a kind of limbo. Behind them are experiences that they probably don't want to repeat or remember and they find solace in each others' company and the quiet distraction of bowling.
Matt Lees, Milton Keynes
It's a pity that no one can see that this is the Coen's take on As You Like it. Watch the movie (tens of times) and then re-read the famous quote:
"All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts, His acts being seven ages..."
Nick, London, UK
Comparing The Big Lebowski with Titanic is a tad unfair. Titanic was created as a spectacle, called a "must-see" movie and generally liked up to the the grand scale of it's title. The Big Lebowski was created from a love of the story, from fantastic writing talent and a sense of humour and the obscure that appeals to people who prefer to go to movies to be stimulated, not just wowed. Cult movies will always be created and always be worshipped by legions of fans who like their entertainment to need a little effort from the viewing audience.
Brilliant film, I think of it every time I paint my toenails green.
Sarah, Bristol, UK
Love of The Big Lebowski is one of those rare things upon which whole wonderful friendships can be built. In addition to its eternal quotability is the fascination that comes from the fact that many of the events in the film came from real life and many of the characters - Little Larry, Walter - are real people. And The Dude? Sometimes, there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place and maybe if we were all a bit less un-Dude we wouldn't have the problems we have at the moment.
Jackie Treehorn, Malibu Beach
Great piece although you could have ended it perfectly with -
The Dude abides. I don't know about you but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.