The Dude Abides

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by Joseph Natoli

We forget that we share, at some deep level, the same dreams.
—President Barack Obama, speech at National Prayer Breakfast, February 4, 2010

Stoned slackers.
—Bill O’Reilly, on Jon Stewart’s audience

And this ain’t no place to fall behind
Pick up your crazy heart
And give it one more try

—Ryan Bingham, song “The Weary Kind”, in the movie Crazy Heart

[T]his dilapidated has-been often resembles a messy, guitar-twanging Dude Lebowski turned lonely and miserable
—Nick Schager, Slant Magazine

Why, in a culture so driven by the market rule of Winners and Losers, of the beauteous bounties of Darwinian capitalism, are we so fond of “dilapidated” Losers?

Nick Schager, in a review of Crazy Heart which registers the magnetic charm of the Jeff Bridges’s character, calls Bad Blake, Bridges’s character, “a jalopy of a man,” a “dilapidated has-been.” Andrew O’Hehir, writing about The Big Lebowski in Salon in 1998 calls the Dude, played by Jeff Bridges, “our addled Philip Marlowe figure, toking herb, swilling White Russians and, truth to tell, looking increasingly heroic relative to the dysfunctional world around him.” I agreed with that: relative to the frame, a hero. Stuart Klawans, writing in The Nation, thought the film itself was the empty frame. (March 30, 1998) Time proved him wrong as in subsequent years the film became a cult classic and admirers found enough in this “empty frame” to launch A Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies and publish The Lebowski Reader.

But how to answer the question? I answer relative to the frame, which is at the moment being filled by President Obama’s concerns, some of which the Dude rolls into in ways that might explain his abiding presence: Just War, enlightened self-interest, the erosion of civility in discourse, and the creation of a narrative of a “common dream.” Some ins and outs here, stretches, leaps, ellipses and what have you as I roll three cinematic incarnations at the real wood of the “No Spin” world Fox has built for us. A great many ins and outs and what have you as the Coen brothers’ cinematic creation, in The Big Lebowski, the Dude, would say. The Dude is a presence in this film rolling through disparate lives and events, a presence encircled and encircling. He literally incorporates into his own speech the speech, the phrases and locutions, of others. He adopts their representations and so finds a way into their realities. He enacts the Uroboric, mandala circle of yin and yang, of polar opposites, of bi-partisanship that President Obama presently seeks but cannot create. While the Dude remains the center of the film itself, which is a sort of picaresque detective tale, he has the capacity to displace any dominant, any force which would bring his circling to a halt. His friend Walter rests firmly on his Vietnam experiences, which become for him a dominating observational focus. Walter thus easily recognizes polar opposites: Bunny is a spoiled trophy wife who has set up her own kidnapping, the “Big” Lebowski is a wealthy fraud, the Nihilists lack a commendable ethos, Jesus the bowler is a pederast and so on. The Western motif of the movie, which begins with the cowboy voice-over and the rolling tumbleweed and continues with some scenes between the Dude and the cowboy narrator and a visit to the writer of the TV Western series Branded, is itself a reflection of the violence of the wild frontier, of the law of the gun, of a destiny fulfilled through aggression against the native population. It is the constant warfare that the West represents that the Coen brothers sample, bringing that home early in the film when the Dude stands at a grocery counter and watches Bush `41 avowing in the face of Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait that “this aggression will not stand.”

Lines are drawn in the sand by Walter as well as by the President. But not by the Dude. Every line setting up its polar opposites, every line drawn to divide and confront, every line drawn to exclude and not include, is elided as the Dude rolls into their space, occupies it and makes it part of what he is. His self-hood displaces itself in the presence of others, an act which the prophetic Romantic poet William Blake saw as the first step in the recognition and acceptance of others, of what is not “you.” Called “Mad Blake” for such talk, his derelict status is echoed in “Bad Blake” in Crazy Heart). Thus, the Dude exemplifies the uncorrupted definition of enlightened self-interest: a consideration of the interest of others first and a consequent benefit to yourself.

I do not call this pacifism, a mere refusal to respond with violence, but some kind of incorporation of what one did not previously possess and therefore a re-arrangement or redeployment of one’s identity. But how does the Dude role into evil? Obama testifies in his Noble Peace prize speech, “make no mistake, evil does exist in the world.” Many classic difficulties arise here which I am once again in no way disposed to consider in a timeless/placeless fashion. We can at this moment when Obama makes his speech attest to the definition of evil as what occurred on September 11, 2001. Perspective --that is whether in the view of a great many of those who see the event as a heroic achievement of bin Laden – matters not to Americans now. Time matters not, although time has made us friends with the Japanese and Germans of WWII and has, to the consternation of cultural conservatives, blurred moral categories and confounded moral compasses.

Evil does exist in the world in a steady fashion but it changes shape and location and therefore to know what it represents you need to observe time and place. The word, like all words, is a shape shifter. Having said this I must also say that there is never a time or place when we humans have not been able to not only distinguish what evil is but fight and possibly lose our lives to eradicate it. We can all -- given the right time and place -- be warriors against evil.

The Dude however is no such warrior, which means to me that he is of no time and no place, that what he represents – a line of confrontation and aggression drawn into a circle of reconciliation and acceptance – is fictional. But it is interesting, more interesting than the rote analysis of President Obama’s rationale of Just War.

What increases my interest is the Dude’s reappearance in the 2009 film, Men Who Stare at Goats. It’s not exactly the Dude but Jeff Bridges who played the Dude in the Coen brothers movie. Here he is Bill Django, an Army officer whose assigned mission is to make Jedi Warriors of his soldiers, warriors who employ all manner of New Age doctrines and practices in order to subdue the enemy. Violence, warfare, confrontation, aggression are all to be replaced, or more precisely, surmounted by the development of psychic powers dormant and latent in all humans. The link with the Dude is obvious, not only in the hippie countercultural style of both the Dude and Bill Django, but in their natural disposition toward a harmonic convergence (you can easily picture both characters attending the 1987 Harmonic Convergence event) and not antipodal confrontation.

While the Dude, however, remains fictional and what he symbolizes as an alternative to Just War or any kind of war remains opaque, Bill Django represents a real life leader of a paranormal military program which explored “New Age concepts and the potential military applications of the paranormal.” (Wikipedia “The Men Who Stare at Goats”) The film, The Men Who Stare at Goats, 2009, is based on Jon Ronson’s book of the same name, which itself is based on a TV series broadcast in Britain, Crazy Rulers of the World: “The idea of the project was to explore `the apparent madness at the heart of U.S. military intelligence.’” (Wikipedia The Men Who Stare at Goats (film)). One wonders what sort of madness the film reveals: either the madness that led the U.S. into Iraq or the madness of its intelligence system hoping to create soldiers who ‘were trained to develop a range of parapsychological skills including invisibility, remote viewing, cloud bursting, walking through walls, and intuition.” And killing goats by staring at them.

This last is a “dark side” achievement, one that Bill Django does not at first pursue but then older, alcoholic and depressed, he succumbs to working for a private contractor in developing this psychic dark side. The so-called New Earth Army which the “sunny side” Django inaugurates adopts the New Age belief that a certain convergence when the “Sun, Moon and six out of nine planets formed part of the grand trine, that is, they were aligned at the apexes of an equilateral triangle when viewed from the Earth.” [Wikipedia “Harmonic Convergence”] Corresponding to his planetary shift is a shift in the Earth’s energy from warlike to peaceful. Thus, in this reincarnation of a Dude-like prophet the line of confrontation and war is drawn into a circle of peace by a planetary convergence. The future of warfare will not be violence but a harmonious convergence of opposing sides. Django is not the Westerner who will exterminate the Red Man but a Jedi Warrior who studies the cosmology and traditions of Native Americans in order to achieve their mutualist relationship with Nature.

The only way to represent any of this is as comedy; the only understanding we can achieve is limited by the irrational nature of what is represented. And yet the Dude, presented in a 1998 film, at a time when the Dow Jones is kicking at record levels of profit, haunts us as a progressively heroic figure. His reincarnation as Bill Django in the 2009 film Men Who Stare at Goats has the power to make us take seriously the notion that the circle of harmony can be achieved, that there is urgency in this as we find our rationality buttressing what we are doing in the Middle East as just. It seems transparently clear that our reasoning ponders what is just and that both are initiated by our self-interest.

President Obama’s claim that the “United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades” and “has done so out of enlightened self-interest” is an assertion that serves self-interest. Whether it is enlightened – by which I mean whether the purpose it serves in this speech to justify a surge in the Afghanistan war is of greater assistance to the Afghans than ourselves – remains to be seen. The Dude presents a more intriguing though baffling notion of self-interest. The Dude’s selfhood is porous and therefore allows others to enter the space of self and change it. In this absorption of what lies outside himself the Dude in fact hollows the notion of enlightened self-interest by collapsing the distance between self and others. He rolls through the separating space. He cannot be at war with what has become him, or, to put it another way, otherness, whether benign or evil, terrorist or patriot, has no time or place to be alienated. But because all of this remains irrational, or, in the character of Bill Django, parapsychological, neither the Dude nor Bill Django demonstrate enlightened self-interest, which by definition must be communicable, adoptable, rational. If there are ways other than war to resolve the dilemmas that President Obama faces in regard to Afghanistan, if there are other paths an enlightened self-interest can take beside war, the path of the Dude and Bill Django cannot be brought to that table. They represent more than pacifism but pacifism is all that survives translation.

If you give the Dude a guitar, put fifteen or so more years of hard drinking White Russians into him and imagine that he once had achieved something in the world but now had lost it, you’d get Bad Blake, Jeff Bridges' character in Crazy Heart. All that is needed with Bill Django is the guitar. But what doesn’t abide in Bad Blake is enlightened self-interest or any interest in rolling into the lives of others. Interest is confined to rolling into a bottle until he has a head to toe Grand Mal-like ontological wake-up call and chooses to give up the bottle. Such conversion isn’t enough to get the special lady back into this life or forgiven by the son he abandoned, but he’s cool with that because he knows he’s been bad for too long to be rewarded. He now calls himself Otis and not Bad but a signifier change doesn’t go deep enough as reparation. It’s Tough Love not ten Hail Marys and you are forgiven. You want to think that he’s finally come aboard the “common dream that we share” train that all of American culture is on, that he’s fallen behind but is now catching up, that he’s given up membership in the Weary Kind and joined the Entrepreneurial Kind, that his crazy heart will mend its ways and now follow a regimen of flax, exercise and soy milk. That’s all in the script. It’s in the novel. Bridges' performance transcends that, or, more precisely, ignores, subverts and gestures past that. Would you hold this, please, and he hands us his whiskey, drops his cigarette butt in it and walks away. He gives Jean, the special lady he lost, a final interview but we are not privy to that for the film ends at that point. Consider that the Dude of the Big Lebowski is not the progenitor of Bad Blake but the opposite: Bad’s freedom from self-destructiveness doesn’t bring him to that deep level of shared dreams, some world in which he fears being left behind, but rather into a world of whale song, toking and soaking, the occasional acid flash-back and bowling.

This is a fictive ending I’m pitching that we can’t be civil about. If there is a Dude trilogy, a stoned slacker kind, that ends with the Dude assuming personal responsibility, accepting the rules of Tough Love, and finding Jesus in his life and attending the President’s Prayer Breakfast, about half of the U.S. population would have something they could be civil about, would have what their deep level dreams required. This portion of the population would have no reason to question each other’s motives. The Dude could abide here among the competitive and not slacker kind, among the energetic, entrepreneurial, prayerful kind and not the weary kind if he left his crazy heart at the door. If President Obama joined this populace he could surely find the bi-partisanship he seeks, as well as civility in opposition. But then again, partisanship would be precluded and opposition would vanish. And, truth to tell, the President lives in a world of Tea Party signs: “Barack Hussein Obama: the new face of Hitler”, “We will not go quietly into the Socialist Night.” You can only fathom the nature of the Tea Partiers reaction to President Obama by recognizing their utter incapacity to conceive of any real opposition to their own “shared dreams,” by recognizing that now, in the cultural frame we are in, the American cultural imaginary does not share any dream in its deep recesses. The Dude abides is not to say that the Dude is commonly shared or recognized across the mass cultural psyche. Abide means to persist in being in an unwelcoming environment, to somehow barely and miraculously survive, to get by and somehow endure on the edges, on the fringe, to stay with it against a troubling turn in the cultural tide, to remain radical and crazy at heart, or, as David Lynch would have it, wild at heart, but quietly and persistently out of the limelight, celebrating not the selfhood but the quieter and gentler flows of being in the world.

Joseph Natoli is the former series editor of POSTMODERN CULTURE for the SUNY Press (1990-2009) where he tried to arrange an early edited collection of Bad Subjects pieces. His piece on Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds is on the Senses of Cinema website.

Copyright © Joseph Natoli. All rights reserved.

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