The Big Lebowski’s image of the American Dream falls afar from its traditional associations. The movie’s commentary on American society centers on the American dream and its anti-hero, the Dude, providing a counter-dimensionality created through the interplay of events and characters.
The Dude has never tried to achieve the American dream since he is aware that the ideal is actually an illusion people struggle to achieve, yet usually end up in frustration. His situation appears as a conscious choice, and he enjoys his personal dream – a rather simplified life in his little close community in Los Angeles. He is usually seen bowling, driving around, drinking White Russians –also chasing his rug. Unemployed, he does not seem to be looking for a job either. Even though he gives the impression of a man who marginalized himself from society, or hypothetically that of a hedonist, as the movie flows his complex character unravels within a different frame. His past as an intellectual activist in the 1970s and his statements throughout the movie explain his appearance as a misfit of American society.
Within the postmodern as late capitalism (in the Jameson sense), the Dude introduces a different pursuit of happiness to the people who feel lost among permanently shifting idea(l)s and facts. His anti-heroism subverts both the mainstream and its supposedly counter-cultural opposition.
1) The Antihero
The Dude “slips the expectations of an emotionally deranged society” (Ashe 2009:56). The Big Lebowski sets this dread within the urban maze of Los Angeles, paradigm of the contemporary capitalist city. L.A. imperatives of city life, but also in the aspirations it manufactures through the film industry— aspirations which invisibly condition how so many of us live our lives […] The Dude, in Los Angeles, materializes through the film industry to embody the antithesis of this sort of aspiration. (Ashe, 2009: 56)
The dude’s character is mainly based on Jeff Dowd’s personality and past experiences by the 1970’s, who is currently a film producer and political activist. When he was a student at the university, Dowd got involved with SDS(Students for a Democratic Society) and became one of the authors of the Port Huron Statement in 1962 (cf Hayden, 1962). The statement’s aim was to debate and change the distorted perceptions of society, to bring along a consciousness against the apathy of the public; towards education, racism, (un)equality, “participatory” democracy, politics, the cold war and many other significant concerns of the time.
Dowd then joins the Seattle Seven in the early 70s, the leading group of the Seattle Liberation Front, which was an anti-war movement. The Seattle Seven was “charged with inciting one of the largest and angriest Vietnam War protests in Seattle” (Lippman 1990). Each seven of them was sentenced to six months in jail. Despite the remarkable effect they had, both the Port Huron statement and the Seattle Liberation Front trials ended in frustration.
Up to here, the fictional and historical Dudes share the same story. Afterwards, Jeff Dowd ends up being a film producer. However, the fictional Dude goes briefly into the music business and works as a roadie for Metallica, but he doesn’t appreciate the work ethics of the music sector. He figures out that nothing is ever going to change and he wouldn’t be satisfied with personal success or achievements either. He chooses his own way of life following his motto of ‘abiding’ and proudly appears as a non-achiever of the American dream; hence a misfit in American society.
Within the postmodern dynamics, the Dude’s fictional character inspires thousands of people today, especially the latest generations. As late capitalism has risen, “ an inverted millenarianism in which premonitions of the future, catastrophic or redemptive, have been replaced by the end of this and that (the end of ideology, art, or social class; the crises of Leninism, social democracy, or the welfare state, etc., etc.)” (Jameson, 1991: 1). The postmodern era has occurred as a loss of orientation where people don’t believe in master narratives, totalization or salvation any more and are fed up with the expectations of a capitalist society. In that frame, The Big Lebowski fans find relief in the Dudeness philosophy. They accept the things, as they are, -as nothing can be done to change them- and enjoy the Dude’s laid-back, relaxed approach towards life. Hundreds of clubs and festivals around the world celebrate the so-called Dudeism. The annual Lebowskifests, for example, are held in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, Austin, Seattle, London, Edinburgh and many other cities where people gather together for the sake of Dudeness (cf http://www.lebowskifest.com).
4) The “Big” Lebowski: Quality or Quantity?
Two of the main characters share the same name, which is actually the cause of the misunderstanding and misadventures that the Dude confronts during the movie. They are both called Jeffrey Lebowski, yet they have absolutely opposing personalities and statues in society. One of them is a millionaire and the other one is the unemployed Dude. The movie calls attention to the Dude’s anti-heroism by stressing this contradiction. Concerning the title, there is a hidden message in the meaning of bigness. As Comentale and Jaffe point out, The title of the movie, which, we admit, is a bit of a puzzle […] Through the course of the film, the “big” in The Big Lebowski slips back and forth between quality and quantity, spirit and matter. (Comentale, Jaffe 2009: 1)
Jeffrey Lebowski, the millionaire, symbolizes bigness in quantity. He is the achiever of the American dream and is marked with his superiority in matter. Reflected from various angles, he is a perfect representative of the American dream; a wealthy, respected businessman who lives in a tremendous mansion and presides a charity organization. Mr. Lebowski’s achievement is intentionally overexposed to the audience. Comentale and Jaffe argue that The original appropriation of the term (achievement), in fact, occurs in the scene where the Dude first visits Lebowski about compensation of his rug. […] In fact, the term appears on all the plaques in the Lebowski mansion: Variety Clubs International ACHIEVER OF THE YEAR; Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce Business Achiever; even in the Time cover-cam-mirror: ARE YOU A LEBOWSKI ACHIEVER? (Comentale, Jaffe 2009: 18)
Lebowski constantly brags about his achievements and his charity organization (later turns out to be not his, but his deceased wife’s), which sends children with inadequate financial sources to college. “The Little Lebowski Achievers” foundation places Lebowski in a firm, significant position in the “achievers” community. Relevantly, a striking scene from the movie projects this obsessive perception where his private assistant, Brant, underscores Lebowski’s importance whilst the Dude is forced to browse his wall of achievement with “commendations, awards, citations, honorary degrees and et cetara” (09:33). The status, names and titles have vital values for ‘Mr.’ Lebowski. The titles enrich his bigness. Following this statement, the bigness of the ‘big’ Lebowski could be interpreted as a self-title that Lebowski enjoys underlining, and at the same time, a cynically given-title for his material bigness. In contrast, the Dude doesn’t seem to care at all. As the wall of achievement is exposed by Brant, the Dude’s reaction to honorary degrees, awards, citations and et cetera, comes out as “hm.. very impressive” (09:34).
At this point, the Dude’s attitude towards the caste structure of society unfolds The Big Lebowski’s counter-critique. The bigness issue represents the achievement of the dream, or the will to achieve, the obsession to get ‘bigger’. The Dude Lebowski’s ‘bigness’, on the other hand, is marked with his quality and spirit. As Comentale and Jaffe point out ““the Dude”—reveals “bigness” of a different order. It’s not his brains, exactly, but his heart, an expansive tenderness of being” (Comentale, Jaffe 2009:2). Eventually, the ‘big’ Lebowski turns out to be big in quality, not in quantity.
Mr. Lebowski’s bigness is disgraced and criticized in terms of his materialistic understanding of the American dream, whereas the Dude’s bigness is praised for his ignorance of achieving the dream.
2) The Counter-Critique
In most works of art and literature, which criticize the American dream, the characters realize how they fail by becoming aware that the dream they have been trying to achieve is an illusion. This illusion leads people into a neo-materialistic dimension, makes them strive to be a “winner”, an “achiever”. Following an awakening, they start questioning themselves, which usually directs them into making a radical change in their lives (i.e. Willy’s suicide in Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller or Mr. Lapham’s sacrifice of his wealth in The Rise of Silas Lapham by W.D. Howells).
The Big Lebowski projects the phenomenon from a distinctive angle. It is not one of those stories about a man who tried to have the American Dream, failed and woke up one day. It is the story of a man who has never been asleep. The antihero Dude is already aware that the dream is a made-up illusion. His story starts from where other stories finish, where the character(s) finally accomplish the process and wake up. Being regarded as a bum or degraded as a non-achiever (or a loser), the movie projects the issue from the Dude’s eyes and unravels the aftermath of misfitting society.
The anti-heroic Dude is carefree and relaxed. His character is elevated by dignity, as he doesn’t care about materialist achievement. Conversely, the dream achiever Mr. Lebowski’s vanity and craftiness degrade his associated heroism.
The movie’s title questions the bigness in terms of quality and quantity, concerning the difference between the two Lebowskis. It brings an operative understanding towards the American dream and how achievement in life is conveyed. The Dude inspires the audience in finding a different pursuit in life. His followers enjoy the happiness with what they have, adapting his motto of abiding the materialistic expectations of society.
The Big Lebowski’s counter approach to the American dream sheds a light to the other side of the medallion. It shows how the achievement of the dream is perceived in society and how it pressures the individual to be successful, always get better and bigger. Unlike other movies, The Big Lebowski portrays the issue from a distinctive angle, starring an antihero and a non-achiever to reflect its critique.