When we meet The Dude, he’s paying for a carton of milk with a check for 67 cents. A TV behind the cashier shows George W. Bush declaring that Iraq’s aggression toward Kuwait won’t be tolerated. The Dude glances at the President setting the moral ground for a new war, makes a vague expression of disillusionment, and returns to the business of buying milk so he can drink more White Russians.
This is a man who once helped write the Port Huron statement, a manifesto of student activism; who describes his college experience as “occupying various administration buildings and heckling the ROTC.”
In the 1960s, he was a member of the Seattle Seven, a radical group that protested the Vietnam War. In 1991, his greatest political statement is his extreme laziness and apathy. He drinks and smokes weed in his grungy apartment. He bowls with his friends in a league tournament, but he doesn’t even seem to care much about that.
I love The Dude as much as any other fan of The Big Lebowski, but I find it strange that his “philosophy” is celebrated so much these days at the Lebowski Festivals that have sprouted all over the United States and Europe, and by fans who quote him incessantly. The Dude’s decrepit, aimless lifestyle is a tragedy, not an ideal. He represents the sad fate of the spirit of the ’60s.
I used to wonder why the Coen brothers set The Big Lebowski in the early 1990s, a time that isn’t particularly memorable or meaningful, but upon reflection, it’s the perfect setting for The Dude’s troubles. The cultural upheaval of the 1960s that The Dude participated in has become a distant memory after the disillusionment of the 1970s and the conservative Reagan era of the 1980s. Even Reagan’s movement is fading, with George W. Bush as its last, weak figurehead. The Dude is about to watch America settle into the moderate Bill Clinton era. No wonder he spends so much time fogging his brain with weed and White Russians.
It isn’t enough that The Dude’s ideals have been crushed. He is still under attack by the forces of conservatism, greed, nihilism, and yuppieism.
At the beginning of the movie, a pair of toadies invade his humble apartment to collect money they mistakenly believe he has, and piss on the cheap rug that The Dude earnestly insists “really tied the room together.” The man these guys were looking for, the titular “Big Lebowski”, a pompous, patriotic, patrician over-achiever, tricks The Dude into becoming his sucker in a scheme to get rid of his wife. “Your revolution is over, Mr. Lebowski! The bums lost!” he tells The Dude after screwing him over.
Later, he’s abused and manipulated by Big Lebowski’s yuppie artist daughter, who even steals his seed. Her nihilist friends get their turn at him too, setting his rust bucket car aflame and killing his friend. He can’t even smoke a joint in his bathtub in peace – they break into his apartment, drop an agitated marmot into the tub with him, and rough him up.
Indeed, each of these parties forces their way into The Dude’s apartment at some point, destroys his crappy stuff, and beats him up. He’s defenseless against them. The revolution of the ’60s that once seemed so formidable and terrifying is now as weak and vulnerable as a stoned man in a bathtub. He can’t even get these guys to call him “The Dude”, the name he has chosen for himself because it embodies his hippie philosophy.
Instead of fighting these evil forces, The Dude is content to let them have their way as long as he can keep bowling and mixing his White Russians. If it weren’t for his crazy Vietnam vet buddy Walter, who forces him to try to take advantage of The Big Lebowski, The Dude would have willfully acted as a pawn in their schemes in the hopes that he could return to his comfortable spot at the periphery of society after the dust settled.
I like The Dude, but is he the role model many consider him to be? I don’t think so. The Dude is a rotting leftover of the failed revolution of the 1960s. A once passionate man turned into a chump by conservative America. The Big Lebowski is a dark comedy that, instead of celebrating The Dude, makes fun of him, albeit affectionately. Quote him with caution.