Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Tao Of The Dude (Or: Where Cult Films Go, Academics Are Sure To Follow)

Let me explain something to you. Um, I am not "Mr. Lebowski". You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. You know, that or, uh, His Dudeness, or uh, Duder, or El Duderino if you're not into the whole brevity thing.
If you don't immediately recognize the image above, where the heck have you been, dude?

Since its release to some acclaim but not much of a box office in 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen's The Big Lebowski has become the first huge cult film of the Internet era, and as someone who has seen it perhaps a dozen times (most recently this past weekend) deservedly so.

I offer no special insight on why The Big Lebowski has become more popular with every passing year except perhaps to note that the Coen brothers movies that preceded and followed it -- Fargo and Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? -- were nominated for nine Academy Awards between them while The Big Lebowski got zip despite brilliantly unselfconscious performances by Jeff Bridges (The Dude) and John Goodman (Walter Sobchack), and a ripping fine screenplay, as well. So it began life well back in the pack.

(Casablanca also did only so-so at the box office as one of dozens of World War II-themed movies churned out in 1942 and was rushed into theaters to take advantage of the Allied invasion of North Africa, but it too became a cult favorite before it was embraced by a wider audience and eventually critics as one of the all-time great movies.)

This bring us rather unceremoniously -- or perhaps abruptly -- to the cottage industry in academic navel gazing that The Big Lebowski has fostered.

Despite the silliness of some of the books and papers that professors hither and yon are churning out ("On the White Russian," "'Fuck It, Let's Go Bowling': The Cultural Connotations of Bowling in The Big Lebowski," and my fave, "The Big Lebowski and Paul de Man: Historicizing Irony and Ironizing Historicism") this cottage industry apparently is keeping a fair number of people from becoming slackers like The Dude, if not exactly fast-tracking them to tenure.

Why silliness?

A tome titled The Year's Work In Lebowski Studies is hailed as being chockablock with essays that are "complex, evocative, approachable, and attentive to the film's ironies and nuances," and that to me is just plain silly. It's just a movie, dammit, and to keep going buckets in hand to the Coen brothers' well for stuff that they never intended (the Bridges character was merely based on an old friend who called himself The Dude and, yes, drank White Russians) is wacky, if no threat to the public order.

Will this wackiness continue? You can bet your marmot on it.
Top photograph by Merrick Morton/Gramercy Pictures

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