Michael Dirda reviews 'The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies'

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, December 31, 2009


Edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe

Indiana Univ. 491 pp. Paperback, $24.95

I don't know about you, but come the end of yet another dismal year, I think it generally advisable to pause, take stock of the sorry state of just about everything and then sit back and rewatch "The Big Lebowski." Either that, or go bowling.

The filmmakers Ethan and Joel Coen have long been known for making highly original movies, among them "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," which re-situated events from Homer's "Odyssey" to 1930s Mississippi, and "Fargo," whose chief character was a pregnant police officer in Minnesota. Yet while many people admire these and other works from the Coen brothers, only "The Big Lebowski" -- a comedic film noir loosely based on Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" -- has struck some deep chord in the 21st-century zeitgeist. In the past decade, this 1998 movie has gone from college dorm favorite to cult obsession, with thousands of devotees attending an annual convention called Lebowski Fest. There, the "Achievers" dress as characters from this anthem to slackerdom, quote its famous lines -- "I can get you a toe. Hell, I can get you a toe by 3 p.m. this afternoon, with nail polish" -- and bowl and drink White Russians and generally have a very good time.

But as Trekkers, fans of "The Simpsons" and members of the Baker Street Irregulars all know, where fandom leads, the academy will soon follow.

According to novelist Percival Everett's blurb, "The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies," edited by Edward P. Comentale and Aaron Jaffe, shows "that academics can be very funny and even sometimes smart." Alas, if you believe this, as I naively did, you would be wrong. Oh, there's no doubt about the critical sophistication revealed by these 21 essays, many first given as papers at the 2006 Lebowski Fest in Louisville. But aside from some occasional and generally lame efforts to employ the film's obscenities and hippie diction, the book lacks the engaging zest of such classics of scholarly tongue-in-cheek as Frederick Crews's "The Pooh Perplex" or "A Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown," edited by Robert A. Baker.

In fact, many of these pages require real familiarity with the work of Fredric Jameson (on postmodernism) or of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard, Luce Irgaray and other French cultural theorists. Be prepared, in other words, for sentences such as this one: "Just as the film undermines the preoccupation with the phallus and with castration, so it undermines the link between normative heterosexuality and reproduction on which patriarchal hegemony normally sustains itself." One also finds undefined terms like the Hegelian "Aufhebung" -- which means to both cancel and preserve -- and in-crowd nods such as "The Lebowski family tree . . . is decidedly not arborescent in the sense Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari criticize in A Thousand Plateaus." Still, could at least some of this volume's apparent excesses actually be intended as humor? Is the irony so finely cut that those in the know are rolling in the aisles? Quite possibly. But the ordinary reader sure isn't laughing. As the late and much missed critic Marvin Mudrick once said about deconstruction, "When the French get heavy, they make the Germans look like ballerinas."

In case you've never seen the film, a précis is probably in order. "The Big Lebowski" is set in Los Angeles in the early 1990s and focuses on a middle-aged pothead known as the Dude, who spends much of his time either bowling or getting high. After a couple of goons beat him up and urinate on his rug, the Dude seeks redress. As his friend Walter Sobchak, a Vietnam vet, reminds him: That rug "really tied the room together." In due course, the Dude finds himself dealing with the apparent kidnapping of a trophy wife and a host of oddball characters, including a crippled millionaire, a feminist artist, a wistful pornographer and a group of Nazi-like nihilists. He's also knocked unconscious several times, twice leading to surreal dream sequences packed with sexual imagery (bowling balls and pins). Nearly all the film's conversations consist of obscenities, non sequiturs and yelling.

However, every scene is also wildly funny. No one ever forgets Bunny Lebowski's first word to the Dude, "Blow," as the Lolita-like sexpot points to her freshly painted green toenails. This command is immediately succeeded -- perhaps by unconscious association -- by an even more memorable sexual offer and the Dude's remark that he's off to find an ATM. Above all, though, every character in the film is perfectly cast, starting with Jeff Bridges as the Dude and John Goodman as Walter, and two minor parts are perfection itself: Philip Seymour Hoffman as an unctuous toady and John Turturro as Jesus Quintana, a lascivious and perverted bowler in a gaudy purple jumpsuit. The latter appears for at most a minute or two, and yet he practically steals the movie: "Nobody [messes] with the Jesus."

"The Big Lebowski" can be viewed as a buddy picture, a Western, a private-eye movie, a political satire on the Reagan-Bush era, a lament for the 1960s and, as these essays show, almost anything else you'd like. Fred Ashe compares the dropout Dude with the original American slacker, Rip Van Winkle, and notes how they both loved bowling. Andrew Rabin likens the movie to a medieval Grail quest. Other contributors discuss the theme of threatened masculinity, the symbolic implications of Persian rugs, "the cultural meaning of 'wood,' " Dudespeak, tiki bar decor, the TV show "Branded," the nature of pastiche and the "quotation" of earlier films such as "Bringing Up Baby" and "The Night of the Hunter." One essayist neatly compares Bunny's supposedly amputated toe to a lucky rabbit's foot. Another scholar explains that the Corvette destroyed by Walter is "a proximate object that is less a car than a simulacrum of a car, with its shiny, reflective chassis perfectly encapsulating the meaningless reflective surfaces of postmodernism." Is this said tongue-in-cheek or with a straight face? You tell me.

In sum, "The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies" floats somewhere between the earnest and the ironic, its contributors making serious points about the film but also overplaying, whether deliberately or not, the critical mumbo jumbo. Moreover, it would seem that everyone these days is a performance artist. In an endnote by William Preston Robertson, we learn that one contributor gave his talk entirely in the voice of actor Sam Elliott, the film's mustachioed cowboy narrator known only as the Stranger. Another, a woman whose paper focused on the symbolism of bodily fluids, actually dressed up as Walter, "complete with camouflage pants, headband, and graying brush cut." Oh, those crrrazy college professors!

If you're a "Big Lebowski" collector -- and there is, by the way, an essay here on the very notion of collecting -- you may want to acquire this generally frustrating, if intermittently illuminating book. Most of us, however, would have more fun just rolling a few games at the local bowling alley.

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