(Published in Communication Studies. West Lafayette: Sep 2007. Vol. 58, Iss. 3; p. 299)
Paul “Pablo” Martin & Valerie Renegar
This essay explores the ability of carnivalesque rhetorical strategies to challenge hegemonic social hierarchies and the social order in general. Working through grotesque realism, the inversion of hierarchies, structural and grammatical experimentation and other tropes, the carnivalesque encourages audiences to achieve a critical distance through laughter and realize the constructed nature of the social world. In analyzing The Big Lebowski as a carnivalesque text, the film’s critical stance becomes clear—it proposes an alternative worldview contrary to that which dominated the political and social landscapes of the United States at the time of the first Gulf War in 1991. The film encourages receptive audiences to question both the nature and the values of that social world, as well as their place in it. A “person’s place” is thus revealed to be more of a malleable choice than a concrete dictate. However, because carnivalesque texts challenge the status quo (and are often offensive to dominant tastes and values), they tend to meet with denigration and derision. Such was the case with The Big Lebowski. By employing a carnivalesque lens and working against the grain of mainstream value systems, cultural critics can help to rescue such texts from pop culture oblivion (as Lebowski was by its cult-like following) and highlight their potential to help us realize more humane, more egalitarian, and more pacific ways of being and interacting in our communities.
The Man for His Time
The Big Lebowski as Carnivalesque Social Critique
When The Big Lebowski was released in 1998, it was paradoxically derided by critics for being both ostentatious and vapid. Nine years later, for at least one critic, it has become the cult film of our times (Palopoli, 2002). This claim is validated by the abundance of “Lebowskifests,” conventions where hundreds of fans come together to watch the film, bowl (this being the central motif of the film), and compete in costume and trivia contests (Buchanan, 2004; “Lebowskifest,” n.d.; Parks, 2004). The movie has attracted a broad following, from U.S. Marines to Wall Street moguls (Palopoli). Such steadily increasing popularity for a film originally regarded as a cinematic failure is intriguing.
When The Big Lebowski (TBL) entered theaters in the late 1990s, the United States was enjoying a period of economic and social prosperity (Easterbrook, 1999). Consequently, most Americans were not receptive to social critiques that TBL had to offer. However, in the intervening years, the cultural landscape has shifted in several important areas. With a flagging economy, an extended and bloody war with Iraq, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, the United States has increasingly become a place where the mainstream media tends to legitimate only official points of view and political dissent is unpopular. The latter tends to be “swallowed by the big official spin” (Griffen, 2002, p. 279), creating a void in popular critical discourse. With this void begging to be filled by those left voiceless and powerless, The Big Lebowski has become even more relevant today. TBL provides a critique of the dominant culture not only in the content of the film, but through the very cinematic and narrative techniques critics lambasted upon its release, all three of which are carnivalesque in nature. As described by Mikhail Bakhtin (1963/1984; 1965/1984), carnival “is the place for working out, in a concretely sensuous, half-real and half-play-acted form, a new mode of interrelating between individuals, counter-posed to the all-powerful socio-hierarchical relationships of non-carnival life” (Bakhtin, 1963/1984, p. 123, emphasis in original).
Carnival, then, is used as a vehicle of social critique. While scholars within the fields of linguistics, literary criticism, and communication in general have been intrigued by Bakhtin’s work since it was first translated into English in 1984, it is only recently that communication scholars have begun to look closely at Bakhtin’s analysis of carnivalesque rhetoric (Harold, 2004; Bruner, 2005). While this work focuses on the efficacy of carnivalesque tactics in generating social and political change, this article speaks to carnival’s ability to inspire such agency—encouraging audience members to recognize the constructed and thus changeable nature of society. Understanding the architecture of carnivalesque media forms and the implications they have for communication is also valuable because such critiques are particularly well suited to social environments where the dominant ideology functions to silence dissent.
In this essay, we demonstrate the ways in which TBL employs carnivalesque rhetorical strategies within such a discursively restricted setting in an effort to encourage audiences to see that the social world is not a predetermined and “natural” reality, but one that is shaped by powerful groups. Such a change in perspective is significant for it can embolden those who make this shift to realize that they can have agency working to re-form the social fabric. We begin by providing a brief synopsis of the film, then go on to describe the carnivalesque and delineate the debate concerning its capacity to encourage social change, after which we offer a detailed analysis of the film’s most salient carnivalesque qualities. Finally, we make the argument that rather than dismissing carnival as just another form of parody characterized by innocuous, prescriptive, and negative critique (Eco, 1984; Sobchack, 1996; Frank, 1998; Harold, 2004), carnival’s particularly ambivalent form of parody serves to reveal that established social structures are constructions that are open to debate, competition, and revision.
The Big Lebowski
Loosely based on several films and corresponding techniques from the film noir and detective story genres (Robertson, 1998), TBL is a Los Angeles crime story at heart. The main character, Jeff Lebowski (known as “Dude”), is involved in a case of mistaken identity. Dude’s rug is urinated upon by thugs seeking to harm another Jeff Lebowski (known as “Mr. Lebowski”), a wheelchair bound millionaire whose “trophy wife” (Coen & Coen, 1998, 50:35), Bunny, has accrued a massive debt with a prominent producer of pornographic films. Dude seeks recompense for his soiled rug and becomes embroiled in a kidnapping plot full of double crosses. In the process of trying to save Bunny from her kidnappers, Dude meets Mr. Lebowski’s daughter Maude, a feminist avant-garde artist, who helps him unravel the crime. In the end, Dude exposes Mr. Lebowski as a devious and heartless fraud and makes time to conceive a child with Maude before happily returning to his simple life.
Due to the wandering structure of the narrative, TBL appears incoherent. Yet when viewed with less concern for narrative conventions, the film dissects mainstream American values and more specifically Americans’ diverse approaches to conflict resolution. The carnivalesque tropes in the film focus in part on United States’ foreign policy under Presidents Reagan and Bush. In the film’s first lines of dialogue, the narrator establishes the setting of the first Gulf War for the audience and then introduces the protagonist of the film, Dude, as “the man for his time and place” (2:10). The narrator’s monologue is interrupted shortly thereafter by then President (George Herbert Walker) Bush whom Dude sees speaking to reporters on television, telling them “this will not stand, this aggression, against, uh, Kuwait” (3:05; Friedman, 1990, p. A1). Shortly after this introduction, the viewer meets Mr. Lebowski, a man who happily employs violence to satisfy his desires, and who not coincidentally bears a striking resemblance to then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The film includes other direct and indirect references to the Gulf War and makes various critiques regarding the use of violence to resolve conflict. Characters such as Mr. Lebowski, the kidnappers, and Dude’s friend Walter rely on violence to satisfy their desires. In contrast, Dude, the protagonist and the touted “man” of the film, is a pacifist, something Walter sees as a psychological problem (19:01). Through both subtle and explicit commentary, TBL challenges the values and the dominant national policies of 1991 America and celebrates the qualities of the common, if pacificistic, citizen.1
The Carnivalesque and Social Transformation
Carnival is marked by the reversal of hierarchies, the abandoning of convention, and, most importantly, by what Bakhtin describes as grotesque realism wherein all that is high is brought down to earth (1965/1984). Within a rhetorical artifact, the symbolic inversion typical of carnivalesque humor helps liberate audiences from social norms (Stallybrass & White, 1986/1997) and encourages them to reflect on and ultimately reject their fears of power, law, and the sacred (Bakhtin, 1965/1984; Boje, Luhman, & Cunliffe, 2003). Yet the carnivalesque is not negative, rather it is ambivalent as it “contests and tests all aspects of society” (LaCapra, 1983/1999) and produces a regenerative, affirmative, healing, and politically progressive laughter (Booth, 1982/1986). Through carnival, audiences can be freed “from conventions and established truths, from clichés, from all that is humdrum and universally accepted” (Bakhtin, 1965/1984, p. 34). Carnivalesque texts thus provide a “route to knowledge” (Emerson, 2002, p. 6), not simply a negation of the status quo.
Caryl Emerson (2002) writes that “carnival-type laughter dissipates fear, encourages free inquiry…. [and] is in fact a rebuttal of power based etiologies” (pp. 6-7). This ambivalent laughter to which Emerson refers is rooted in parody, “the privileged mode of artistic carnivalization” (Stam, 1989, p. 173). Booker argues that pushing stereotypes to their “extreme in spectacle” (1991, p. 226) helps to destabilize them. Carnival also serves as “a theatrics of rant and madness seeking to repair felt separation and alienation… a release from corporate power” (Boje, 2003, p. 8). Booth (1986) suggests that the carnivalesque has the potential to regenerate, affirm, and heal individuals within their communities. One of the few communication scholars to study carnival, Bruner (2005) recognizes that carnival allows “subjects to enter a liminal realm of freedom and… create a space for critique that would otherwise not be possible in ‘normal’ society” (p. 140).2
Other scholars see carnivalesque tropes as working to question and thus alter the established meanings of signs within given social structures. Kristeva (1969/1980) finds the actual discourse within carnival to be structurally reformative, arguing that it “breaks through the laws of a language censored by grammar and semantics” (p. 65). Gardiner (1992/1999) also argues that carnival can be effective in generating semiotic disruption, suggesting that its capacity for “the ‘making strange’ of hegemonic genres, ideologies, and symbols” (p. 261) reveals new perspectives to its participants. Gardiner’s reference to the strange-making qualities of carnival highlights its similarities with other rhetorical strategies, namely Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, or alienation effect (1957/1964), but also Burke’s perspective by incongruity (1954), Moylan’s critical utopia (1986), and Nietzsche’s stance regarding Dionysian festivity (Stam, 1989).
The reception of carnivalesque strategies has not always been positive or without qualification. The humorous and crass tropes of carnival have been largely denigrated by scholars from the Middle Ages to the present day (Bakhtin, 1965/1984; Stam, 1989). Morson and Emerson (1992) argue that while Bakhtin’s carnival can be advantageous to the oppressed, they suggest that without a positive and directed liberating force, carnival can simply be a celebration of nihilism. For Harold (2004), the parody of carnival serves only to present a different social binary and thus provides no meaningful avenue for social transformation. While Ladurie disagrees, finding that “a binary system does not always apply” in carnival (1979, p. 314), he nonetheless maintains that carnival offers only the possibility to move “society as a whole in the direction of social change” (p. 316). He states, “anti-Semitic Carnivals (Montpellier, Rome) can hardly be deemed progressive” (p. 316, emphasis in original). Stallybrass and White (1986/1997) share this position, arguing that carnival effectively reinforces the social hierarchy, demonizes the weaker members of society, while Russo (1995) adds that it can actually encourage brutal violence against the powerless. La Capra goes further, arguing that Bakhtin fails to address certain aspects of carnival, namely “victimization, repressive social control, and the manifestation of ordinary social grievances or conflicts” (1983/1999, pp. 240-241). Still others argue that carnival is an activity, licensed by the powerful, without any real ability to effect change (Eco, 1984; Sobchack, 1996). Both Eco and Sobchack suggest that the carnivalized content ubiquitous in mass media proves its innocuous nature.3
Simply because a text employs a selection of carnivalesque tropes does not necessarily qualify it as being carnivalesque. A closer assessment of such texts suggests that many of them tend toward those carnivalesque tropes that provide shock and spectacle rather than employing those devices, such as grotesque degradation or structural experimentation, that also encourage social awareness and critical distance (Bakhtin, 1965/1984; Suarez, 1993; Stam, 1989). Bakhtin observes that while grotesque laughter prevails throughout humorous texts from the Middle Ages on, it devolved into mere “erotic frivolity” (p.103) and ephemeral “festive luxury” (p. 95) bereft of the inversions and degradations it once had. This trend has continued through today in texts that otherwise borrow heavily from carnival’s traditions (Stam). Without the critical elements, such texts are greatly hampered in their ability to carry carnival’s central purpose. Rather than seeking to direct the perspective of audiences to question the social structure, these ersatz and pseudo-carnivalesque forms deliver only diversionary entertainment and “distorted versions of carnival’s utopian promise” (Stam, p. 226). The popular program Jackass, aired on MTV, depends entirely on the disgusting and the absurd for its content4 and seems geared to do nothing more than draw the eyeballs of a coveted marketing demographic to advertisers. This and other spectacular texts should not be confused with those that are true to the carnivalesque spirit.
Moreover, carnival does not operate through negation, but ambiguity. The hierarchical inversion of carnival, itself only one of its defining elements, does not aim to supplant other hierarchies with its own, as Harold (2004) contends in her discussion of pranking rhetoric. Rather, in its parodic inversions, carnival reveals that the established social hierarchy, indeed all of social reality, is a human construct. Viewed thus, pranking can be understood as being largely carnivalesque in nature. Butler (1999) reinforces this position. Speaking to gender, she argues that the proliferation of parody works to disrupt “naturalized or essentialist” (p. 120) claims and binaries. Furthermore, throughout his argument Bakhtin asserts that carnivalesque humor is ambivalent humor (1965/1984). The laughter it engenders “becomes the form of a free and critical consciousness that mocks dogmatism and fanaticism” (Stam, 1989, p. 87), but does not establish an alternate version of truth. Booker (1991) emphasizes this point, noting that the ambivalent parody within carnival disrupts “the Aristotelian ‘either-or’ principle of noncontradiction” (p. 236). Given this, we hold that carnival does not seek to reinforce binaries and hierarchies, but interrogate them.
Whether a carnivalesque text communicates a progressive message to its audiences or one that serves to reinforce existing power structures can also be explained by looking at the decoding practices of audiences. According to Hall (1980/2006), the alternating celebration and denigration of a text by audience members, including the divergent responses elicited by TBL, can be credited to the various ways, from dominant to resistant, that individuals decode it.5 Rather than seeing parodic inversions as challenging the norm, they may in fact see them as reinforcing and promoting it. While we acknowledge the validity of such varied interpretations, we argue that the overwhelming number and nature of the carnivalesque elements within TBL merit its being identified as a progressive carnivalesque film.
Carnival in The Big Lebowski
Through an analysis of Bakhtin’s work, critics can identify a litany of qualities that characterize the carnivalesque theoretical perspective. Working from Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963/1984)6 and Rabelais and His World (1965/1984), in addition to Stam’s reading of the latter, we discern three tropes that are central to both the carnivalesque and TBL: 1) grotesque realism, 2) inversion of hierarchies, and 3) structural and grammatical experimentation. Of these elements, the first two are key to providing the socially critical elements of carnival, while the third complements them by encouraging audiences to achieve a critical distance from viewing the film as pure entertainment.
Among all of the carnivalesque qualities outlined by Bakhtin and elaborated by Stam, grotesque imagery is the most salient. TBL is rife with grotesque details in all of their manifestations, each of which encourages viewers to remember the fact that all of them are earth bound animals, linked to it and one another by those very vibrant, if “dirty,” biological processes that this truth entails. In general, the grotesque is degradation, a “lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract… to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body” (Bakhtin, 1965/1984, pp. 19-20). Specifically, grotesque imagery includes references to and examples of “copulation, pregnancy, birth, growth, old age, disintegration, [and] dismemberment” (Bakhtin, p. 25) as well as defecation, the use of billingsgate, or abusive language, and profanity. In the West, after the Renaissance, the body was “isolated, alone, fenced off from all other bodies” (Bakhtin, p. 29), and biological functions were viewed as dirty and base. Grotesque realism strives to break these molds and promotes the idea that everyone’s body, not just those of the privileged classes, is a deeply positive, even heavenly entity. As such, audiences exposed to the grotesqueries in TBL are encouraged to see the imposed limitations and divisions of the established order and can thus wonder about the possibility of existing within other modes of social organization.
The Big Lebowski demonstrates a preoccupation with the “lower stratum of the body, the life of the belly and the reproductive organs” (Bakhtin, 1965/1984, p. 20)—critical components of the grotesque. When the Coen brothers introduce the viewer to a character named Jesus, he is wearing skin-tight jeans with a clearly discernible bulge in his crotch, an effect intentionally created by the filmmakers (Robertson, 1998). There are many other minor inclusions of grotesque body imagery. In the aforementioned scene, Jesus encounters a man with a large “beer-belly” with a thoroughly food-stained shirt draping over it. Throughout the film, the Coens also include shots and angles that reveal Dude’s somewhat large gut and Walter’s greatly distended stomach. In addition to these shots, the opening credits are full of images of heavy-set bowlers. Though not dramatic as isolated instances, the preponderance of imagery focused on excessive bodies throughout the film grounds audiences in an awareness of the biological body.
The film’s preoccupation with grotesque imagery continues with its focus on bodily processes which provide often humorous stand-ins for death, fertility, and rebirth, concepts that are central to carnival in that they encourage an awareness of the similarity among all human beings. The plot’s central motif, for example, is a rug that is soiled with urine. Such “drenching in urine [represents] the gay funeral of [the] old world” (Bakhtin, 1965/1984, p. 176) and prepares the way for the birth of a new world and new perspectives, given audiences read it from the “proper” position (Hall, 1980/2006). Other such references to bodily functions and their related body parts occur throughout the film. For example, when Dude’s stolen car is recovered, it smells like it was “used as a toilet” (56:15). For Bakhtin, the degradation of all that is high to the earthly plane is captured in such “acts of defecation” and concerns with “the lower stratum of the body” (1965/1984, p. 20).
In addition to a focus on the body itself, TBL is rife with visual and narrative references to dismembered body parts, another common trope of the grotesque. For example, Mr. Lebowski informs Dude that he lost the use of his legs during the Korean war; the kidnappers try to coerce Mr. Lebowski by sending him what appears to be Bunny’s toe; and Walter bites off one of the kidnappers’ ears and spits it into the sky as the camera follows the ear’s arc in slow motion. While none of these three dismemberments necessarily moves the plot forward, they do situate the film within the carnivalesque. The trope is employed most effectively, however, through Maude, who has adorned her studio with art pieces composed from a variety of mannequin body parts. Most of her sculptures are of bare women’s torsos, one of which is a pregnant mannequin whose hinged belly opens to reveal the head of another mannequin. With these details, the film combines several grotesque tropes: the naked body, the dismembered body, and the pregnant body. By situating this and the other art pieces in the art studio of a feminist, the film parodies the hegemonic codes that dictate women’s roles in traditional United States society and, in turn, may encourage viewers to question these roles. This challenge to women’s alienation from their bodies is echoed for men in that the threat to cut off Dude’s penis is a recurring motif. All of the references to the body and its parts seek to establish that the world within the film is a space outside of the norm, a deviant space that challenges the status quo. Orchestrated with countless other challenges throughout the film, these dismemberments serve to refract the world through a lens that encourages the audience members’ critical engagement with it. However, should some audiences embrace established social norms to the point where they find such degradations offensive or inappropriate, it is unlikely that they will be able to find humor in them or be compelled to take a critical and potentially challenging perspective on their own social reality.
Grotesque realism is evident within the dialogue as well, marked as it is by an overwhelming preponderance of sexual verbiage, both implied and explicit.7 Many of the interactions between characters are intensely sexualized, especially during initial encounters. By doing so, the film may promote audiences to look differently at the nature of human interaction and human relationships. When Dude first meets Mrs. Bunny Lebowski, she coquettishly asks him to blow on her freshly painted toenails, simpering “I can’t blow that far” (15:45). Abruptly, she adopts a husky, business-like tone, and tells him, “I’ll suck your cock for a thousand dollars” (15:59). Positioned as a “trophy wife” here and throughout the film, she would seem relatively powerless. Yet through her sexual advances and blatantly open speech, she subverts the expectations one might have of a woman in her position, especially as constructed in mainstream American cinema and television. As Stam argues, carnival “promotes the subversive use of language by those who otherwise lack social power” (1989, p. 18). The subversive use of language can also be seen in the conversations between Maude and Dude. In their first meeting, Maude opens with a comment about her art, telling Dude, “my art has been commended as being strongly vaginal” (43:49). In this and the rest of her conversations with Dude she also employs various euphemisms for male and female genitalia. This is a prime example of “the linguistic corollary of carnivalization [for the scene] entails the liberation of language from the norms of good sense and etiquette” (Stam, 1989, p. 99). Grotesque language, as all grotesque devices, seeks to encourage audiences to be mindful of their physicality, inviting them to revel in the body and its processes in the hope of inspiring an interrogation into the conservative and hierarchical constraints society imposes upon and between them.
Inversion of Hierarchies
The inversion of the hierarchical structuring of society represents another focused rejection of social standards. Similar to the grotesque, which brings the cosmos down to the earthly plane, the inversion of hierarchies within carnival results in the dethroning of rulers while the lowly take their places. Through carnival, a suspension of all “hierarchical structure… and everything resulting from sociohierarchical inequality” occurs (Bakhtin, pp. 122-123). This suspension and inversion highlights the existence of often accepted if not invisible social hierarchies, thus encouraging a rethinking of such a system of values and potentially opening the way for social structures that are less elitist and more popular in scope. From the beginning of the film to its end, TBL celebrates many such crownings and uncrownings.
In the opening sequence of the film, Dude is hailed as the man for his time and place. One might therefore expect Dude to look the part of the typical Hollywood studio hero. Standing slightly hunched, wearing slippers, a bathrobe, a threadbare undershirt, and Bermuda shorts, peering intently through his sunglasses at the dairy section in a grocery store, it is clear he is quite the opposite. To punctuate the dissonance the protagonist embodies, the audience is told that Dude may be the laziest human being on the planet. Thus, from the outset, the filmmakers place a self-admitted “deadbeat” (1:38:08) in the role of hero, thereby inverting the standards of the American, capitalist ideal of success by placing this “bum” at the top of the social ladder. Of course, because TBL is a carnivalesque film, Dude is himself a target for degradation. When Dude returns from his errand at the grocery store, thugs have broken into his apartment and attack him, repeatedly dunking his head in the toilet and literally bringing his crown down to the muck of the earth and into the realm of the grotesque. Such thronings and dethronings of fools and kings is a common trope of carnivalized rhetoric (Bakhtin, 1965/1984; Stam, 1989; Suarez, 1993), and one with the potential to encourage a critique of established social structure.
Dude is not unaware of his important, if volatile status. He introduces himself to Mr. Lebowski, apparently a very powerful and wealthy business man, as “the Dude, or His Dudeness or… El Duderino” (13:00, emphasis added). As for Mr. Lebowski, his wealth and status are mere illusion. As the film progresses, the viewer learns that Mr. Lebowski is a total failure in business and actually subsists on an allowance from the trust of his deceased spouse. Thus the narrative of the film literally reveals the “unvarnished truth under the veil of false claims and arbitrary ranks” (Pomorska, 1984, p. x), enabling audiences to wonder, “which character really is the big Lebowski?” The inversion of social hierarchies in TBL not only works to question the idea that wealth goes to those who work hard or that success is only measured out in dollar signs; a major component is that it can function to assuage fear of enemies, monsters, and the unknown.
As “the acute awareness of victory over fear is an essential element” of carnival (Bakhtin, 1965/1984, p. 91), in carnivalized media one can see the degradation of enemies of the people to servile, ridiculous, and laughable positions (Gardiner, 1992/1999). Set in 1991, the film plays on the tensions between Iraq and the United States that eventually led to war with Saddam Hussein. In the film, when Dude’s second dream takes him to a bowling alley, Saddam is there working as a bowling shoe attendant. He offers Dude a unique pair of silver and gold bowling shoes thereby reinforcing Dude’s kingly position against Hussein’s own lowly status. By placing characters into such grossly inverted roles, receptive audiences are enabled to see social reality as a construct and are thus encouraged to question it (La Capra, 1983/1999; Rockler, 2002).
Structural and Grammatical Experimentation
In addition to content, narrative structure is also an effective vehicle for carnivalesque influences. While the literary carnivalesque seeks to destabilize normative forms in its use of language (Stam, 1989), cinematic carnivalesque devices strive to reveal the constructedness of social norms by disrupting established cinematic styles. Applied to film structure, carnival can be a particularly effective tool to resist hegemonic domination “because it deploys the force of dominant discourse against itself” (Stam, p. 173). By breaking “through the laws of a language censored by grammar and semantics… [carnivalesque discourse] is a social and political protest” (Kristeva, 1969/1980, p. 65). Disrupting expectations and guidelines in the language of film—through the application of “asymmetry, heterogeneity, [and] the oxymoron” (Stam, p. 94) in its narrative, visual, and aural structure—establishes antigrammaticality in form that encourage a critical distance from the content of the film and an awareness and curiosity regarding the nature of its construction. The opening scene of TBL is an exceptional demonstration of these techniques. The film begins with the sounds of a twangy, country music guitar and the image of a tumbleweed blowing through the desert as a thickly drawled narrator sets the stage. Suddenly, the tumbleweed crests a ridge and the audience realizes this desert is actually just outside of the urbanized city of Los Angeles, California. The Stranger (as identified in the credits) tells the audience the story is set here in 1991, and the incongruity of his voice to this setting is compounded as the camera pursues the tumbleweed down the dark city streets of nighttime L.A. to its final destination—the beaches of Malibu. In a manner similar to Burke’s perspective by incongruity (1954), these disjointed and thus carnivalesque elements “jar viewers out of their willing suspension of disbelief through the incongruous juxtaposition of the musical soundtrack and the narrative action” (Vande Berg, 1989/1996, p. 252).
Similar incongruities can be observed through the role of the film’s narrator in that he breaks with structural standards on at least three occasions. As he is concluding the opening scene with a description of Dude and why he is “the man,” he loses his train of thought. Halfway through the film and again at its conclusion, the Stranger physically enters the action—sitting at the bowling alley bar, he talks with Dude and offers him some advice—a device reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht (1957/1964). Subverting the familiar role of the narrator helps shift the viewer’s attention away from the content to focus “our attention to our assumptions and expectations about … film itself” (Nichols, 2001, p. 128). Indeed, carnival is “the ‘making strange’ of hegemonic genres, ideologies, and symbols” (Gardiner, 1992/1999, p. 261). Forcing the disruption of a viewer’s expectations thus enables viewers to break away from conventional ways of perceiving a narrative, empowering them to “see fresh generic features and expectations” (Vande Berg, 1989/1996, p. 239). If genre norms can be viewed as a form of hegemony (Stam, 1989; Vande Berg), then such mixing can be seen as establishing a “critical relation to the structures of discursive authority” (Stam, p. 105).
In addition to their haphazard combination of generic forms, the Coens’ narrative structure is equally chaotic, a move that elicited derision in most early criticism of the film. Critics compared the film’s structure to a “convoluted funhouse ride” (Glieberman, 1998, ¶ 1) and its plot to a “rubberized freak at a circus sideshow” (“The Big Lebowski,” n.d.). While the critics’ complaints that the Coens wallow in “meaningless diversion” (Shargel, 1998, ¶ 12) seek to penalize it for going against standard Hollywood convention, they unwittingly highlight the film’s carnivalesque qualities. The critics fail to recognize that the plot is intentionally confused. Despite the film’s apparent narrative anarchy, the Coens are meticulous in how they plan their films (Horowitz, 1991). One could argue that their disruption of this most fundamental and hegemonic of narrative conventions is purposefully done to create an entirely new art form—a notion supported by a semi-autobiographical character in another of their films who claims he wants to create a “new cinema, of, for, and about the common man” (Coen & Coen, 1991, 6:30). If this is indeed the case, such an endeavor seems geared to revolutionize how people perceive their worlds. To quote Bakhtin, “a new type of communication always creates new forms of speech or a new meaning given to the old forms” (1965/1984, p. 16).
Conclusions and Implications
In both form and content, TBL typifies carnival in that it encourages the viewer to see the world through a different system of evaluation. From the disjointed opening scenes through its anticlimactic dénouement, the film pushes viewers to be aware of the constructed nature of society. The filmmakers constantly remind us that they have utter freedom in how they construct the universe of their film and in doing so, demonstrate that a film need not be confined to generic limitations to be successful. This parallels the story the filmmakers tell about Dude. He is a man without a job, much less a career, and is even ignorant as to what day it is. In a lifestyle appalling to button-down conservatives like Mr. Lebowski, Dude is at peace living by his own ethics in a world that does its very best to make him conform. At the conclusion of the film, he has not become wealthy, gained any social status, found true love, nor has he saved the day. Instead, as he casually prepares for the upcoming bowling tournament, he tells us, “‘the Dude abides’” (1:50:25). TBL thus encourages viewers to question the norms upon which we base our lives and positions us to follow Dude’s lead.
Dedicated Lebowski fans have done just this, realizing the film’s carnivalesque qualities within a festival of their own. Itself “a pageant without footlights” (Stam, 1989, p. 93), Lebowskifest (www.lebowskifest.com) has become an annual event where the action takes place on screen and off. Held in bowling alleys, bars, and conference halls, participants come dressed in costume to exchange witty dialogue, discuss the film’s minutiae, and revel in debauchery with Dude’s favorite drink. Reminiscent of the midnight costume parties held at showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the boundary between screen and seat, and even between participants, is erased as everyone engages in the world of TBL. The film thus generates a tripartite carnival through its content, structure, and audience participation. Unlike earlier carnivals that may have had diminished social impact as they were sanctioned by the church, state, or both (Eco, 1984; Averintsev, 1993/1999), a Lebowskifest can take place wherever and whenever a group decides to host one. Moreover, this and other carnivalized texts can be viewed by anyone, anywhere, at anytime without the license of the powerful, making them even more effective tools for spurring the questioning of authority. Ultimately, how effective such media are at challenging social norms is, of course, dependent on the audience and how receptive they are to such carnivalizations (Hall, 1980/2006).
In general, carnivalesque art forms can reveal to their audiences that they have the liberty to choose the perspective through which they understand their own realities.8 Audiences need not see the social world through a lens entrenched over time and propped up by an established power elite. Instead, they may recognize that the nature of social reality is malleable, as is their place within it. This, in turn, allows audience members to substitute alternative codes for those that may have unconsciously dictated their actions and perspectives before.
This study has enhanced the understanding of the potential for carnival to liberate people from the confines of rigid, hierarchical ideology and points to the ways in which a carnivalesque perspective enables scholars to evaluate rhetorical artifacts in new and enlightening ways. Humorous, popular culture texts need not be dismissed as trivial. Instead, this research provides scholars with new tools to evaluate this and other popular texts as cultural critiques. In searching for other carnivalesque texts, scholars may identify those in which multiple carnivalesque tropes are at work, especially those texts in which hierarchical inversion and grotesque imagery play a significant role. Should patterns of cultural criticism be discerned, the text should be revisited in order to identify when and where carnivalesque devices occur. Scholars can then highlight the socially critical enthymemes woven within the carnivalesque layers.
Still, more work needs to be done evaluating carnivalesque rhetoric and its impact in a media saturated world. We wonder, is there a point at which there is too much carnival in media, so much so that audiences become inured to its ability to encourage critical distance? Or, instead of desensitizing viewers, is it possible that a flood of such strategies could actually revolutionize how we engage with media and encourage a relatively constant level of critical distance? Beyond these questions, another avenue of inquiry could explore whether audiences who are receptive to carnivalesque tropes are moved to act based on their new perspectives, and if so, whether these actions will in fact be progressive in scope. A related line of questioning would involve comparing the different impact carnivalesque media has on audiences against the effect of physically participating in a true carnival. While the latter is likely to be a more potent, the opportunity for repeat exposures and the inherent liberties that media affords suggests the former can have powerful effects as well.
The carnivalesque perspective offers a rich and liberating tool for the critical/cultural scholar. It reveals, underneath the apparent nihilism of a carnivalesque text, clear social criticism. One of carnival’s detractors, Umberto Eco (1979), argued “a democratic civilization will save itself only if it makes the language of the image into a stimulus for critical reflection, not an invitation to hypnosis” (p. 15). While some aspects of carnival can serve as a tool of distraction, scholars must recognize that it can also be used as a tool to foment a critical perspective as well. Within a mediascape well populated with the spectacular, there exist texts that employ a range of carnivalesque devices with the hope of breaking viewers out of their established ways of seeing the world, encouraging them to revel in something totally new to their experience. To say that all carnivalesque texts are simply spectacles that seek to either lull us into political apathy or give us another push toward reckless consumerism is to deny the long tradition of carnival’s challenge against authority and to oversimplify its potential to encourage social progress.
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 The Coens’ body of work tends to focus on the plight and perspective of the common, working-class citizen. This is a major theme common to carnivalesque texts (Bakhtin, 1965/1984). Moreover, in Barton Fink, the semi-autobiographical namesake of the film is a screenwriter who tries to “‘make a difference’” (Coen & Coen, 1991).
2 Analyzing the efficacy of carnivalesque tactics in social protests, Bruner (2005) suggests that their results differ greatly depending on the setting. Such protest strategies are most effective given such protests operate within a liberal (social) democracy where “checks and balances to state power” (p. 143) exist. These tactics can also be moderately effective when the control mechanisms in an otherwise totalitarian state are temporarily relaxed to allow for limited public protest. Bruner goes on to propose that “carnivalesque protest is simply not possible if the state is so oppressively humorless that it utterly eliminates all public opposition” (p. 149). Finally, within conservative (market) democracies, carnivalesque protests are endured, though they are not very effective given the populace tends to “crave certainty and discourage dissensus” (p. 137).
3 Yet if spectacular media is common and popularly appreciated, why was TBL so reviled? We suggest that viewers did not find humor in the Coens’ carnivalizations, if they perceived them at all. Nor is it surprising that the pundits of mainstream media condemned a film that challenges the status quo on so many fronts.
4 One episode involved “poo-diving,” where a member of the Jackass crew donned a diving-mask and snorkel and attempted to skin-dive at a sewage treatment plant.
5 Hall specifies three different positions from which a text can be decoded: 1) dominant/hegemonic, 2) negotiated, and 3) oppositional. Those who interpret a text from the first position see the text as its creators intended. Those who negotiate the meaning of the text may see some of the carnivalesque tropes as challenging the status quo, but only those that speak to their experience—thus they might see a gross generalization as an accurate portrayal. Those who read TBL and other carnivalesque texts from the oppositional position would not see its hierarchical inversions and its parodies as socially transformative but as representations that reinforce stereotypes and the status quo.
6 While Dostoevsky’s Poetics focuses on Menippean satire rather than carnival per se, we turn to this work given Menippea is a genre that is “profoundly” carnivalesque (Bakhtin, 1963/1984, p. 156). For Stam, Menippean satire is “intimately linked to a carnivalesque vision of the world” (1989, p. 9) and paves the way for the carnivalization of literature in general.
7 For example, the word “fuck” and its variants are employed 281 times in the film.
8 However, carnivalesque strategies are not bound solely to the arts or limited to the analysis of academics. See Harold’s work on pranking rhetoric (2004), Bruner’s analysis of carnivalesque protests (2005), Oring’s discussion of humor as an organizational tool (2003), and Stam’s carnivalized election-campaign strategies (1989) for examples. Moreover, the introduction of relatively inexpensive digital media production and the abundance of Internet forums allows laypeople to produce and distribute their own carnivalesque media.