A film critic faces the cinematic relationship trauma of her past.
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When I was on a quest to find the love of my 19-year-old life a couple of years ago, I ran into two candidates who, in the midst of all the typical first-date questioning, claimed their all-time favorite movie was the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998).
Much to the incredulousness of that first candidate sitting next to me in my dorm room, I’d never seen or heard of it. He paused his Roku search for Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010) to stare at me.
“No way,” he said (I may be paraphrasing). “I’m literally wearing the Dude’s [Jeff Bridges] cardigan right now.”
He was. After he’d left, I confirmed it with a quick Google search because, really, I’d never seen or heard of The Big Lebowski. I cringed when images of Bridges appeared in that hideous Pendleton sweater, and got the ick imagining Candidate One loving a movie so totally that he wanted to dress like the main character.
After that, I decided not to see him again. (I admit that I was wrongly judgemental: I bought a gold-plated “Alisyn” necklace and began exclusively and not coincidentally drinking cosmopolitans after watching Sex And The City for the first time this year.)
I met Candidate Two at a party a few months later. When he told me The Big Lebowski was his favorite, it didn’t phase me because I had heard this before, he didn’t own the cardigan, and I liked him too much.
To make a gruesome, messy, “hell-hath-no-fury-like-a-woman-scorned” story simple: I got my heart broken. For the next three years, The Big Lebowski, any mention or allusion to it, incited a palpable repulsion and vehement hatred in me; the imaginary form of my internal monologue writhed around and screeched like a chained animal. No, I had still not watched it, and I swore I never would.
During this turbulent period, I also discovered that I liked to write about movies and wanted to make it my career. So when the opportunity to delve into The Big Lebowski and its fandom arose—the Wisconsin Union Directorate Film Committee announced a showing of it on Monday, July 24, at 9 p.m. on the Memorial Union Terrace—I chose to nobly face my fears and my past for the sake of my craft.
It would be an anthropological study, I told myself. How do humans approach and come out of a film, or any work of art, when they come into it with such fatalistic, preconceived notions? If we can’t judge a book by its cover, can we judge it by who recommended it to us—and vice versa? What makes The Big Lebowski especially attractive to the average follower of its cult, the specific group of men I kept dating and hating: the straight, Gen Z twentysomething?
For all the fuss, it was pretty anticlimactic. No self-righteous hatred or begrudging love materialized. It was an okay movie.
It follows Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski, who comes home one night from buying half-and-half for a White Russian to find two strange men in his apartment. They mistake him for Jeffrey “The Big” Lebowski (David Huddleston), a rich businessman whose wife they are looking for; she owes them money. After the Dude is shaked down and his rug peed on by random thugs, he ends up tracking down the Big Lebowski for compensation, but instead leaves with a job as a bagman. Lebowski’s wife Bunny (Tara Reid) has been kidnapped, only to be returned in exchange for a one million dollar ransom.
In one sense, the experience provided closure. The Big Lebowski is a manifesto for nonchalance, a film that allows men to commiserate with one another about the plight of the world. It’s impossible to blossom into one’s own Dudeness when feminist, hyperbolically avant-garde artists (Julianne Moore as Maude Lebowski, the daughter of The Big Lebowski and proprietor of his money) keep bringing up labias. Or when “sluts,” “whores,” and “bitches” (the 20-year-old former porn star and wife of the much older Big Lebowski) keep getting fake-kidnapped for attention. Let the men bowl in peace!
Such sentiments are clothed in humor, too, to protect—from both themselves and the world—the men who subconsciously and inherently find them true. For me, it explained how Candidate Two could describe himself as progressive and open-minded, but still make derogatory, backhanded comments about an outfit I chose for a night out with friends without any personal culpability. The Big Lebowski must help in navigating the “sensitivity” of the current moment in a guilt-free, if hypocritical and regressive, way for those of the top caste.
Of course, as IndieWire‘s senior film critic David Ehrlich says, “It’s hard to dislike this movie with much of a passion, because… to actively hate on The Big Lebowski is to completely miss its point,” which left me with no way out. As a rule, I’ve never disliked anything that stars Philip Seymour Hoffman (who appears here as The Big Lebowski’s high-strung personal assistant). I appreciate Moore’s absurdist performance, though I had to engage in some mental gymnastics to co-opt the warped depiction for myself; and the Dude’s drug- and blunt force trauma-induced hallucinations serve as proof that Ethan and Joel Coen are veterans at handling the splashier techniques of filmmaking.
But even prepped with the emotion of my female hysteria, I couldn’t get myself to care about The Big Lebowski.
An indifference was sifted out, the residuals of an intense anticipation. Maybe neutrality was the inevitable conclusion for a film whose reputation precedes it, whose value is divined from the conversation around it and not the merits of its form and execution. Or maybe it just wasn’t meant for me, someone who’s never had the urge to have a White Russian in her entire life and who will likely avoid the next man she sees at the bar ordering one.
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