The prescient politics of The Big Lebowski.

Deleted scenes, commentary, and more.
Sept. 11 2008 6:58 AM

Walter Sobchak, Neocon

The prescient politics of The Big Lebowski.

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When Larry says nothing, Walter proceeds to Plan B: destroying the new Corvette parked outside—purchased, he assumes, using the money left in the car—with a crowbar. Actually, though, the Corvette belongs to a neighbor. Neocons everywhere can sympathize.

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Is this eerie foreshadowing of the second Iraq war coincidental? Not entirely. The Coen brothers created a character with traits that run deep in American culture: unflinching righteousness and a tendency to violence. (He was largely based on John Milius, who wrote and directed Red Dawn, the Cold War-paranoia film that later gave its name to the military operation that captured Saddam.) This character confronts a situation that combines both injustice and the opportunity for material gain. He responds more or less as one would imagine. The Dude's pacifist leanings are no match for Walter's assertiveness: While the Dude's disposition may be admirable, he has little effect on the tide of world events. (Refugees from the 1960s can also sympathize.)

Within the world of the movie, though, the destruction of the bystander's Corvette is a fairly minor incident. Immediately afterward, we see Walter, the Dude, and Donnie—the third and least conspicuous member of the bowling team, played by Steve Buscemi—on their way home in the Dude's car, eating hamburgers and listening to "Oye Como Va." Watching The Big Lebowski today, one notices its insight into basic American attitudes but also the lightheartedness with which it's able to treat these attitudes. Donnie does die of a heart attack during a climactic showdown with those German nihilists, and one might call his death a casualty of Walter's aggression and the Dude's inability to reign it in. But his death quickly gives way to Walter and the Dude's reconciliation, at a makeshift funeral they hold for Donnie by the Pacific Ocean:

This gentle, comic conclusion came to mind while I watched the Coen brothers' new farce, Burn After Reading, which revolves around the misplaced memoirs of an ex-CIA analyst. The new film is a similarly sharp satire of American life, and there are parallels with the Lebowski plot: a greedy attempt at extortion, multiple schemes incompetently botched. The contrast in tone, though, is stark. There's no real friendship in the world of Burn After Reading, there's even less heroism, and paranoia abounds. No one mentions 9/11 or the war in Iraq, but these characters, like their audience, are living in a darker world. The cult of Lebowski, I've begun to suspect, has more than a little nostalgia in it—for a decade when one could poke brilliant fun at the national disposition and the stakes didn't feel so high.