By Alan Scherstuhl
By Amy Nicholson
By Charles Taylor
By Stephanie Zacharek
By Brian Feinzimer
By CAROLINA DEL BUSTO
By AMY NICHOLSON
By Amy Nicholson
"Sometimes there's a man—I won't say a hero because what's a hero?—but sometimes there's a man, and I'm talking about The Dude here . . . sometimes there's a man, well, he's the man for his time and place. He fits right in there. And that's The Dude."
—The Stranger in The Big Lebowski
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A bearded, long-haired, middle-aged man in plaid Bermuda shorts, white V-neck tee, brown bath robe, jelly sandals and dark shades walks up to a grocery store's refrigerated aisle, opens up a carton of milk and takes a swig before using a check for 59 cents to pay for the product in the checkout line.
Despite the Stranger's Old West-y praise and the lazy "Tumblin' Tumbleweeds" song being layered over those introductory visuals of The Dude, many believed they were watching a loser. The dim view would only change for some by the end credits of Joel and Ethan Coen's 1998 motion picture. But with that very first sequence, I was mesmerized and had begun to form my go-to answer when people ask what I think of The Dude:
"I want to be him when I grow up."
It was 15 years ago when I saw The Dude for the first time. I was 37.
The nickname of the fictional Jeffrey Lebowski played by the non-fictional Jeff Bridges, The Dude would prove over 117 minutes to be, as Jenny M. Jones writes in The Big Lebowski: An Illustrated, Annotated History of the Greatest Cult Film of All Time (Voyageur Press, 2012), "this disheveled, foul-mouthed, paunchy layabout." He smoked too much pot, drank too many White Russians (which he called Caucasians) and actually, when you think back on it, was a would-be thief because he got it in his head (thanks to John Goodman's earth scorcher Walter Sobchak) that stealing a $1 million ransom was legitimate compensation for thugs pissing on his rug.
Although, to be fair, the rug did tie the room together.
My undying love was not shared by others on March 6, 1998, when The Big Lebowski opened, finishing sixth at the box office. Chicago film critic Gene Siskel said in particular of The Dude, "The Jeff Bridges character wasn't worth my time. There's no heart to him."
But The Big Lebowski (Siskel: "The Big Lebowski? A big disappointment") would go on to amass a cult following long before live streaming, play in midnight movie slots previously occupied by The Rocky Horror Picture Show and spawn the Lebowski Fest, which originated in Louisville, Kentucky, 12 years ago and continues annually there and in cities around the globe. The blowout returns to Southern California this month, with a screening party March 22 at Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills, followed March 23 by a bowling celebration at Fountain Bowl in Fountain Valley. Hundreds of "Achievers," many dressed as characters in the flick, are expected.
That devotion is due in no small part to The Dude, whom I could personally praise for the next 3,204 words of this story were it not for a student at Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, having already done so much more succinctly. Asked by a professor what's so desirable about The Dude, the student wrote, "He doesn't stand for what everybody thinks he should stand for, but he has his values. He just does it. He lives in a very disjointed society, but he's gonna take things as they come, he's gonna care about his friends, he's gonna go to somebody's recital, and that's it. That's how you respond."
* * *
When I pitched this cover story to my editors, I said I wanted to explore my personal relationship with The Dude, what it was that made me fall hard for him. After all, despite my advanced age in Weekly years, I'm too young to have been from the hippie tribe that prompted Eric Cartman to complain that "all they do is smoke pot and smell bad." However, The Dude referring to a rich man as "human paraquat"—a reference to the pesticide the U.S. lobbied Mexico to spray on marijuana fields in the late 1970s and one of the few improvised lines in the flick—is in my life-experience wheelhouse.
While better understanding The Dude and me, the hope is to also get at why a bunch of drunks meet every year to raise their White Russians to someone who does not exist. As I would soon discover, understanding Dude devotion is a well-worn pursuit. That student assessment above is included in, no shit, academic research on The Big Lebowski.
Indiana University Press in 2009 released The Year's Work in Lebowski Studies, based on essays with such titles as "The Dude and the New Left," "A Once and Future Dude: The Big Lebowski as Medieval Grail Quest," "No Literal Connection: Mass Commodification, U.S. Militarism, and the Oil Industry in The Big Lebowski," and "Holding Out Hope for the Creedence: Music and the Search for the Real Thing in The Big Lebowski." Those essays and many, many more—including those that didn't make it into the book—were submitted to the university by professors around the country.
Meanwhile, you can find a Barnes & Noble shelf filled with books that aim to get at the essence of The Dude. These include The Dude De Ching, The Tao of The Dude, Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers, and even one by Jeff Bridges and co-author Bernie Glassman that came out in January from Blue Ridge Press titled The Dude and the Zen Master.
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