I was recently sent a lot of music to listen to, and I'm really looking forward to diving into it. I've also got my copy of The Hobbit in the mail. And today, apparently, I'm going to be experiencing an Excellent Adventure. Really hoping that the combined forces of those things will be enough to scrub the dust of this movie out of my brain. Time to help out the cleaning process with a big old thought dump.
The title's wrong. It should be called Walter the Asshole. Or maybe Walter the Asshole Goes to Town, and there can be a sequel eventually with a different appended title. Now if I were the movie titles guy it would be Walter the Rectum because I'm polite like that, but let's be straight here, the man is an asshole. He's also, dare I say, the only active force in a world of reactive and passive ones. Bunny sort of passively falls off the earth (you might call going to Vegas active, but her actual, reasonable motive for doing so IS NOT her motive for doing so, she just kind of up and says "Vegas is where I will be" for a week or so and doesn't tell anyone). Everyone else reacts to this fact, which then cycles back on a perfectly passive man whose rug gets pissed on.
Seriously, everyone in this movie is essentially reacting to a set of really stupid combined circumstances. It's a domino effect of ridiculous, and the only one who's not reactive is the pointless human wrecking ball/Vietnam War documentary that is Walter. Walter knocks the Dude into Lebowski's path, Walter inserts his mania into situations that propel the Dude's circumstances even further south as a direct result, Walter goes to antagonize a kid, wrecks a nice car, and gets the Dude's car summarily wailed upon in short order. Walter starts the fight that gets Donny dead - REACTIVELY, I might add, he wasn't even a participant. The man is a festival of short temper and poor judgment and the only truly active character in the entire film.
Surely there must be a statement somewhere in there. Even if that statement is "you're a schmuck for expecting deep things out of this movie," there's something driving the writer to put this on the screen. Let me try and break down a few ideas here.
There's an obvious political dimension to all of this, I think. Walter is the definition of a conservative; he's literally all about the past, he dwells on war and is extremely faithful to a religion that he married into, because he's divorced and has nothing else. He's a fringe conservative, too, a gun nut who believes in being a Real Man and has a new conspiracy theory for every circumstance. Even when he's right about something, it's with no evidence to support it and he is right in essentially the wrong way. The Dude, by contrast, is the liberal, the hippie pot-smoking laid-back free love stereotype that's basically the only thing I know about 60s culture. He's on a fringe of his own; jobless, subsisting as a crazy individualist in a world that would just like to ask him "why?" and thoroughly post-relevance, an ex-stick-it-to-the-manner who came out of his birthing era with nothing and nobody. The third man on this bowling team is Donny. What is there to say about Donny, besides shut the fuck up Donny? He's quiet, only really talking to try and understand and clarify various points. He doesn't have the whole picture, and he'd like it, but nobody's really talking to him. His role is to fill in the team of three, to get told to shut the fuck up by someone who has a big picture, and to otherwise just be there. In the end he dies for a cause he didn't particularly believe in and certainly didn't stand up for, just because a human wrecking ball got pissy.
A metaphor, perhaps, for the rest of us. Looking for the big picture, being told we're too dumb to get it so just shut up and go along. Or maybe for the audience, since I was looking for the big picture and by the end was definitely just going along with it all.
So if the movie's supposed to identify these political ideologies, fringe though they are, in these people, what point is it making out of them? I could go on a high-minded tear through the events of the film, trying to put them in this column or that column and add them to a big political allegory, but looking at how it ends, and really looking back at the whole film, that would be pointless. It would be pointless because the point that's really being made is that these people don't matter. The extent of Walter's ridiculous antics is two destroyed cars and a dead guy. The extent of the Dude's foray into the mixed up world of Lebowski boils down to a pregnancy and a handful of people getting their preexisting beliefs confirmed. They don't accomplish anything. Given how fucked-up the journey is I'm inclined to say Donny probably accomplished more in life simply by being offscreen more frequently. While the Dudes of the world do nothing but philosophize until they're forced to take a stand for some issue or other, the Walters are these active human fireballs looking for something to go off on and finding out the world just doesn't care. There's no real outlet for their rage, which is why it never goes away. They're looking to demand something of the world that boils down to eight points vs. zero points for the round and the league's just going to step in and tell you off anyway, you know. Meanwhile, the Dude gets nothing. Literally nothing. He goes on a quest for no payoff (so did I by extension), ending up without his $20000, without the girl (probably better off), down one friend and one clean rug, and with a great many bruises for his trouble. What did he get during his quest? A lot of limo rides, a lot of free drinks, and a lot of people offering him things. The Dudes of the world are right there, ready to be placated back into their lives by the notion that people reacting to them at all seems like an accomplishment. Drinks are had, expensive services provided, commitments made, and it all materializes to zero in the end.
That's the sort of political read on it. There's of course more to get into, a conversation about men detached from women and how sexual morality and gender stereotypes are held up by increasingly powerless and isolated men. Lebowski has a trophy wife, but she's ultimately his only "accomplishment" in a world where the truth of him is his lack of wealth and tremendous powerlessness inside a facade of success. And he can't stand her! He can't stand her because it doesn't work anymore. There was an era where the wife would impress or be a status symbol, but she's her own person rather than an object and, whatever the merits of her own life or lack thereof, that lies outside the frame of reference of an old-school view of men and women. Lebowski's own success and wealth, such as it is, is in the hands of his daughter, who never appears on screen with him or even talks to him and by all accounts can't stand him. And those are the female characters in the movie. Maud's decision to get pregnant by the Dude is hugely subversive to gender norms, even for a hippie like him - he's surprised to have been used, uninformed, for conception, and immediately starts thinking in terms of parental involvement and worries about child support. Of course he does; whether or not he knows it, he accepts a certain paradigm of the world that has been dictated to him. Walter's relationship with a woman is to be exploited for obnoxious favors by his ex-wife. He's lost sight of the end of the relationship and puts a significant piece of his identity in what hers was because it's implied that she's the one who sought the divorce. I still want that, is Walter's sort of thought zone. I can get that back with favors, with holding on to that identity, with keeping in touch with her, I can get it back. Somehow. Man's all guns and crowbars and rage, tell me that's not at least partly sexual frustration.
Ultimately, though, I don't think deep levels of analysis are relevant. The movie's about a drop of water hitting a still pond (or a stream of urine, as the case may be) and all the fish reacting to the ripples, when all the pond really wants is to be still again. Nothing happens, ultimately, nothing changes, nothing fantastical or of great substance is spoken of. A man dies of a heart attack. People continue with their lives. The quest, the mission, it didn't change anyone at all. Embezzlement happened. A lady got pregnant off a one-night stand. Police threw a guy out of their town. The rich remain rich, the poor remain poor. In this acceptance of "shit goes down, same as it ever was" it's almost zen.
I don't think it's a great movie. Parts of it are way too self-indulgent, and parts of it are filled with what Nan would call "whittering" or "nattering," people just going on about things like their focus on them and the amount of words that they can say on a topic make them deeper and more interesting rather than one-note and annoying. There was probably one layer too many to the would-be "mystery," one too many episodic side-trips to meet whoever for whatever reason. I got lost because the movie figured I could miss this particular bit and still generally get it all at the end, and that's not a positive thing. I can appreciate what all is on the screen, but everyone's a flat character being walked along a convoluted trail because we're supposed to appreciate the trail more for being unencumbered by any idea that it's going places. It's surprisingly real and true to life; a lot of people really are flat characters. In the end though, the movie, like the room of its would-be protagonist, is left with nothing to tie it together.