This article was written by George Francis. It was Edited and Researched by Liam Brake.
The 1960s, as many historians have attempted to argue, was a period of immense social change. It has become extremely easy to stereotype the entire generation as drug-addled hippies whose only contribution to our society was the widespread use of marijuana and some excellent music. However, the era represents an immense shift in attitudes and beliefs, from our understanding of politics, race and gender to our personal behaviour. As a result, it has been portrayed in a variety of ways through the media, from an idealised image of an age of endless hedonism, to a period when America’s unity and morality was corrupted. The 1998 Coen brothers film ‘The Big Lebowski’, set in the early 1990s, aside from becoming a cult classic, explores the impact the 1960s had on both the individual and society thirty years later, for better or worse. Often obscured by the film’s surrealism and the absurdity of the plot, Lebowski is a fascinating commentary on how a tumultuous decade ultimately transformed America.
Firstly there is the tycoon, Jeffrey Lebowski, ‘The Big Lebowski’. He represents everything America was before the social revolution of the 1960s. A Korean war veteran and millionaire, he measures his self-worth by the financial success he has achieved, and the material tokens in his possession, from fine paintings and rugs to his trophy wife. However, he proves to be a fraud and entirely morally corrupt: lying, stealing from charity and showing little compassion to any other characters in the film. America in the 1950s was extremely similar: whilst apparently powerful and with a booming economy, it produced a materialistic population with little regard for social equality or justice.
Then we have our fine protagonist, ‘The Dude’, Jeff Lebowski. He encapsulates nearly every stereotype of an American who grew up in the 1960s. A jobless, long-haired, pot-smoking former political activist based on radical anti-Vietnam protester Jeff Dowd. Lebowski allegedly wrote ‘the original Port Huron statement’ which, in 1962, became the document calling for an end to discrimination and instigated a new wave of student activism. Despite initially appearing a lazy, sarcastic and apathetic, and derided by his namesake as a ‘bum’ and ‘deadbeat’, The Dude is the film’s most likeable and moralistic character. No matter what improbable and surreal troubles he faces (being repeatedly assaulted, having his car stolen then set on fire, being drugged by a notorious gangster), The Dude seems unfazed by what life throws at him, harbouring no grand ambitions aside from going bowling and getting high. Even with the ‘occasional acid flashback’, the 1960s had produced a generation that rejected the selfish materialism of their elders and replaced it with a moral desire to improve society, whilst also now seeking very individualised ways of achieving self-fulfilment and pleasure. Like The Dude, American society had burnt their metaphorical draft card and rejected the authority and expectations of their elders and their government.
Perhaps the most interesting character in the film is The Dude’s best friend, and comic relief, Walter. A frustrated, lonely, confrontational bowler, Walter is still accepted and loved by The Dude. Yet many of his problems stem from another important legacy of the 1960s: the Vietnam War. Walter, aside from exhibiting all the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, finds it very difficult to trust anyone, from fellow bowlers to a young child, much like how, after the failures and deceptions created by Vietnam, Americans could no longer trust their government. He inadvertently relates every event in his life to the tragedies of Vietnam, which in turn only increases his frustration. Again, even twenty-five years after its conclusion, neither Walter nor America can forget the events of Vietnam, or find a way of coming to terms with their country’s defeat. Walter therefore is not just a textbook example of the psychological scars Vietnam inflicted on one soldier, but his gun-toting, aggressive nature is a useful metaphor for the mentality of America in its current state.
An array of the supporting cast also reflect other developments that occurred in the 1960s. Maude, The Big Lebowski’s daughter and The Dude’s lover, is a very abstract artist and feminist, whose work has been described as ‘very vaginal’. A three-piece German band who repeatedly attacks The Dude are questioned about their actions but dismiss criticism because ‘we’re nihilists. We don’t care about anything’. Whilst these are obviously absurd characters, they are caricatures of how post-modernist thought, that developed in the arts in the 1960s, created an era of very individual thinkers and artists who expressed themselves in unconventional ways. Even the Big Lebowski’s trophy wife, the vapid nymphomaniac Bunny, is a criticism of how in the 1970s and 80s, society lost the political consciousness of the hippie generation retained the search for instant gratification.
‘The Big Lebowski’ is primarily a film about a mistaken identity leading to a bizarre series of events, including drugs, violence, bowling, surreal dream sequences and nihilistic musicians. However, beneath this is a very poignant commentary on how American society has changed. From a wealthy but immoral conservative to a laid-back, lethargic but ultimately content hippie, the social changes of the 1960s created a generation who were entirely unique in the outlook on society. Their personal behaviours – fashion, music, drugs and sex, have permeated culture universally and their ethos of individual self-fulfilment, like the film, continues to inspire. The Dude Abides.
– The Big Lebowski was directed by the Coen brothers and released in 1998.
– Interestingly the film is considered to have been a disappointment at the U.S. Box office and critical reaction was mixed.
– Since however it has become a cult classic and it is currently voted as the 130th best film of all time on IMDB’s top 250.
– Including the issues the articles mentions, The Big Lebowski is used as a tool for analysis on a number of issues; people have written on The Big Lebowski and neo-conservatism, sexual fetishism, commodity fetishism, analysis of war and ethics, mass communication and US militarism.