By Chalupa (Lebowski Podcast) and The Dudely Lama
In the second episode of the Lebowski Podcast, we discussed what it means to be a man, a prominent theme in The Big Lebowski.
You might remember the greatroom conversation between The Dude and the Big Lebowski:
Funny–I can look back on a life of achievement, on challenges met, competitors bested, obstacles overcome. I’ve accomplished more than most men, and without the use of my legs. What?What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
Uh, I, I don’t know, sir.
Is it being prepared to do the right thing? Whatever the cost? Isn’t that that makes a man?
Ummm..sure. That and a pair of testicles.
You’re joking. But perhaps you’re right.
In this scene The Dude learns that Bunny has just been kidnapped. Mr. Lebowski is also trying to put on a show, feigning his sadness, and is asking The Dude for help. So what makes a man? Is it courage? Is it doing the right thing? Are male genitalia the only requirement? Well dude, we just don’t know. Let’s take a look at some of the common male archetypes the Coens have presented us with.
At first glance, we could break the male characters into three groups. The first would consist of those society has historically told us are “manly.” These characters are assertive, proud of what they do, and sure of who they are. These men take charge, they get what they want, and there is no apologizing for what they do. They are businessmen. They are entrepreneurs, they are athletes, and they seem to be men who are looked up to, even feared. This group would include Walter, The Big Lebowski, Jackie Treehorn, Jesus Quintana, and the Chief of Police of Malibu.
The second group of men are almost the opposite of group one. They are not assertive, they don’t always get their way nor do they always speak their mind. They are not always sure of themselves. They might be considered followers or even yes-men. They do what they’re told and they rely on others for direction and advice. This group would include Donny, Marty, Liam, and Brandt.
The third group doesn’t really qualify as group at all. In fact, it’s just one person — The Dude. Here and there, The Dude exhibits some qualities of both groups, but is distinguished from the other two groups by the fact that he is really a man unto himself. He’s not overly assertive or macho like the first group, nor is he a pushover like those in the second. Though some might disparage him as a slacker, a deadbeat, or a loser, he in fact commands the respect of most of his detractors. While he isn’t afraid to stand up to any of the hyper-alpha males, he generally does so in a relatively gentle, passive way.
Just because others might put you into one of these groups doesn’t mean that’s how you see yourself. This doesn’t even mean that’s where you want to be, or where you will be in the future. A wise person once pointed out to me that well respected people don’t just become that in a day, a week, or even a year. Character, personality, morals, and values are achieved over time.
Walter, The Big Lebowski, Jesus and Jackie are all people that tried to portray greatness and grandeur. Yet eventually, we all saw that they were, to borrow T.S. Eliot’s term, hollow men: Powerful Lebowski out of his wheelchair and helpless, weeping, on the floor; cocky Jesus fearfully informing his neighbor that he’s a sex offender; and idealistic Jackie showing he’s nothing more than a mercenary. Even hardnosed, implacable Walter turns out to be a big softie behind all the bluster, pining remorsefully for the loss of his wife and others close to him.
Neither are these men so capable as they claim: Walter tends to mess things up for the Dude more often than he helps. Jackie is really nothing without his thugs. Outside of the bowling alley Quintana is just a registered sex offender. And most of all, the titular Big Lebowski turns out to be a miserable old man estranged from his family who resorts to stealing money from a foundation for needy urban achievers.
In the shadow all this false bravado, we might reevaluate Donny, Marty, and Brandt and find three sincere men who were braver than we realized. Donny wasn’t afraid to stand up to the nihilists. He had eighteen dollars and was willing to take one for the team. Brandt showed up to work every day and did a pretty good job at whatever Mr. Lebowski needed — few people could have the fortitude and discipline to put up with Mr. Lebowski and Bunny. Finally, as noted in the last column, Marty worked up the courage to ask the Dude to come to his performance and take notes. If you’ve ever participated in anything art-related, you know how hard it is to bare your soul to others.
The Dude, meanwhile, has risen above the whole macho/milquetoast dichotomy. And like a modern-day Buddha, that release of the ego has allowed him to exude a profound compassion for everyone. Have you noticed all the crap he has to deal with from Walter? While trying to deliver the money to the nihilists do you remember his concern for “that poor woman?” The Dude may not be living the high life. He doesn’t have a lot of possessions, his home seems easily broken into, and he also gets roughed up often. All of this crap in life and he still has a forgiving, accommodating attitude. Life goes on. The Dude abides.
So next time you’re pondering life and thinking about how you want to be remembered, maybe look back at the characters from The Big Lebowski. What makes a man or woman? Is it a pair of testicles or the lack thereof? Is it what they do and say? Is it how they deal with life?
What makes a man — by which we should mean human? If the lessons of The Big Lebowski are anything to go by, it should not be about aggression and the ability to achieve but about compassion and the ability to abide.
Of course, many important characters have been left out of this essay, such as the Nihilists, the Corvette owner, Da Fino, Arthur Digby Sellers and little Larry, the Stranger, Saddam, Knox Harrington, the cab driver, the limo drivers, Francis Donelly, various thugs, and so on. How do you think they fit into all this? This is your homework, Larry.
The Arch Dudeship says
Fabulous stuff, Chalupa. In the scene you quote, I’ve always liked how the Dude, once he sees the Big Lebowski crying (or possibly pretending), immediately shifts from a cool, detached facade to expressing real concern for Lebowski.
But then I’ve always been a little bothered by how he sort of shrugs off Donnie’s death when Gary expresses condolences at the end. Of course, he was genuinely concerned for Donnie as he lay dying, so maybe it’s a matter of him responding to what’s real as opposed to what’s surface plesantry.
Excellent collaboration if I do say so myself.
Thanks for the notes, Mr. dudeship, man. I echo those feelings on the Dude and Donny’s untimely demise. Part of me still believes that Donny was mostly Walter’s friend. Even though the Dude cared about him as a person, they weren’t extremely close. The Dude even ignores Donny most of the movie. You will notice that the Dude is wearing a black armband though in the last scene. I’ve always assumed that is in remembrance.
Lone dude says
I would pose that Dude being the Budah that he is, at Donnys passing may have seemed detached. However if you look at the teachings of the Budah (I myself once dabbled in it) Attachments lead to suffering. So Dude as the stranger points out knows that there is a little Lebowski on the way and Abides in the knowledge or belief that life goes on. Yeah uh,, I gotta finish my homework later be back soon.
Lone dude says
Okay I’m back,
As far as the others,well… The Nihlist as a group rely heavily on the power of fear. The way they dress and their behavior prove this and they lose their aggressive composure when they realize they wil not be recieving the money. They too could be considered hollow men.
The corvette owner, well, I like to think that it is just one example of how materialism breeds suffering. Dude really didn’t freak out after he broke his car he was just frustrated with Walter.
Ah Dafino, he just wanted to fit in. He really loved Dudes work. But obviously was mistaken about his motives, Dude did’nt sleep around, he certainly did’nt play one side against the other. Dafino had his own personal problems to work out but we did’nt get to see them.
Arthur and Larry, Really what can I say about them that they did’nt say for themselves. However Arthur Definatley not a Light weight did’nt have to say a word to almost bring Walter to tears, obviously a true source of inspiration. And yet Larry moves Walter to violence without uttering a single word.
The Stranger I would have to disagree with Chalupa. The stranger fits in the third group, he stand up to Dude, has his own style not really macho but not really a pushover either.
Smoky is also I think in the third grou with Dude he stood up to Walter, backed down when needed then appoligized to Dude later for going to the league.
The thugs also hollow, their confidence came from Jackies leadership or authority, why did they do it? Maybe because they wanted to stay in the smut business. They have to tell Dude they’re not morons.
But hey you know this is just like you know uh, my opinion man.
Nice work Lone Dude. I believe you out-scored Larry on this assignment.
One thought I have about the Stranger is that we don’t really know much about him as a person. That was one of the criteria for leaving some of the characters out of my analysis. I’m not disagreeing with you, I’m just asking for some more justification for his classification.
Lone dude says
The first time the stranger interacts with Dude amongst other things he does ask Dude if he has to use so many curse words. I take that as standing up (sorta) to Dude, the stranger is making a stand on behalf of his, morals, character, style or what have you.
Dude: What the fuck are you talking about?
Stranger: Fine, have it your way Dude.
The stranger accepts Dudes lifestyle entirely here not just “parts”. He tried to dispense advise to Dude and true to his fashion and maybe for the first time in the story regurgitated it in an approprate situation or hit the nail on the head rather.
I like to think that the stranger is looking in on Dude telling his story, a kindred spirit running a parralell (whateve) path. I mean what is a cowboy doing in Los Angeles? How does an ex hippie end up in in so many limos?
I am reminded of a book I read a long time a go. “The Cowboys Guide to Life” the author escapes me now and No it’s not the short list you find on the internet but the saying went something like “Always be nicer than what is called for but don’t take too much guff.” Does’nt that kind a sound like Dude? Does’nt it sound like the stranger?
I guess that the stranger is not overly assertive or a a push over is really the point I am trying to make. And he tells a darn good story to boot.
Aww heck I’m ramblin again.
And I am really loving this engaging conversation as well.
The Arch Dudeship says
One of my interpretations of the Stranger is that he’s telling a modern-day tall tale of the Old West (Pecos Bill, et al.). The Dude is the contemporary manifestation of the Wild West embodied in those old tall tales.
Just my opinion, man. One of them, anyway.
Lone dude says
Finally the Lone dude is not so lonely.
If The Dude is a manifestation of the Wild West, what classic film or films would you compare him to? Does he embody a classic actor? character? Personally, I was never a big fan of the musicals and I enjoyed Eastwood and Bronson more than Wayne.
The Arch Dudeship says
I was thinking of the tall tales that embody the spirit of the Wild West…such as Pecos Bill or other larger than life legendary characters from the time before the West was tamed. IMO, the Westerns of the 20th century were kind of pale imitations of that spirit.
That’s what I always saw as the dynamic between the Stranger and the Dude…The Dude’s like a tall tale character the Stranger would tell his buddies about around the campfire.
Lone dude says
I can see your point. Dude has a personality similar to some western characters. Not a lawman or villan but perhaps a trail hand or cookie (wagon cook). He like may characters set out on an adventure he may not have been looking for or really wanted. I really think that It would have been awsome to be out on a trail with the stranger and have him tell that story over the campfire. It is definatley the type of yarn that would be spun around a campfire. The stranger is definatley the type of person to tell it. There are few other movies that I have seen whose story can compare to The Big Lebowski maybe thats why I find it so dern interesting.
Lone dude says
Dude definatley has a place in American folklore. I heard a radio bit about him once placeing him on a pedestal as an American Icon
This is psuedo on topic, but have you seen Sam Elliott in “The Quick and The Dead”? I’m talking about the TV version here. There was also a movie by the same name. In the TV version, Elliott’s character goes by the moniker “Stranger.”
Dirt Dude says
Anyone ever notice how Walter flashes a quick peace sign at the Corvette guy when he goes after Walter with the crow bar??
He’s out of his element. It’s the only thing Walter can think of to calm the guy down. He’s most likely witnessed The Dude do it.
I heard Sam Elliot had no idea what he was doing on that set, other than to read a few lines in a widely cowboy fashion.
There is the ultimate question of what the hell he is doing in L.A. anyhow. It is likely he does not drive (at least an automobile, ha). He is more outsider than the Dude is, and that makes him the most mysterious character of all. But that is his function, perhaps. He is the narrator, and the narrator in anything but a narrative is generally here and gone. Maybe it is an Eastern thing…..
He doesn’t seem to know an awful lot about everything despite only meeting the Dude in person twice. The Dude doesn’t question how he knows so much about him. The Dude isn’t even unnerved by it. He trusts the Stranger, feels that he is not a threat or perhaps even an otherly-world entity posing as a cowboy in earthly form?
But then again, he’s never been to France, and he’s never seen no queen and her damned undies, as a fellah says…
wisely cowboy fashion.
He DOES seem to know an awful lot about everything despite….
I’ve always seen The Stranger as the narrator, or the classic Greek chorus. And as far as The Dude not being weirded out because someone knew a lot about him – wouldn’t that be his normal response? He seems to take most things in stride.
Irish Monk says
Fabulous stuff! I like your insights, dudes.
I’ve always thought that Tony, Maude’s limo driver was one of the film’s great unsung dudes. He was the only one (other than Walter, but Walter caused most of the Dude’s stress so he doesn’t count) who reminded the Dude to take it easy and was calmer than he was. Am I wrong?
Tony’s son couldn’t hold a job, his daughter’s married to a fuckin’ loser, and he had a rash on his ass so bad he couldn’t hardly siddown. But you know him. He can’t complain. And neither should we
Just to add my five penneth worth (thats British for five cents).
I thought the Stranger was you (me) as the viewer, he was the vehicle by which we enter the narrative.
Just my opinion of course.
I agree with you there, but what do you have to say about the “insider” information that he gave. Were we as viewers supposed to inherently know that?
“The Cowboys Guide to Life”
Don’t Squat with Yer Spurs on: A Cowboy’s Guide to Life: Bk.1
Written by Texas Bix Bender. Published 21 June 1993.. Published by Gibbs M Smith Inc. rrp £4.99. 138 pages Paperback.
ISBN: 0879054700. ISBN-13: 9780879054700
chalupa I have a feeling everyone is getting to wrapped up in the Strangers “Cowboyness”. I do side with your allusion to the Greek tragedy chorus function. I’m beginning to go with a mixture of both the key to access, but the chorus to give enough information for us to proceed into the story.
Ed Churchman says
Hmm, I guess I might have been the only one equating The Stranger as a god-like figure. In many mythologies gods guise themselves as men and roam the earth to observe and test their creations. It struck me that his perspective and point of view as the narrator, story-teller and interactive character lend a lot of creedence (small C, man) to this theory, he seems to know everything, despite not being there, and adds a philosophical slant (“whole darned human comedy”) to the story. He comes, he comments, he observes, he talks to the dude and then comments again and leaves it all as pretty much as he left it, as far as he was concerned.
He’s a stranger, a man with no name, a wanderer. He fits nicely into the role of a God in human guise, or Caine, cursed to forever wander the earth amongst the children of his brothers and sisters. Or maybe something else superhuman, who knows. It’s a very ungrounded theory, I’ll grant you, takes the concept to a metaphysical level, but it was, after all, just my opinion, man.
Apart from that, I like all the above explainations of The Stranger, a mysterious character and one of my personal favourites. Great article Chal, great series.
I wonder if The Stranger is portrayed as a cowboy because cowboys tell good stories and are considered to be honest. I also agree with some other dudes that perhaps The Stranger is God like.
As far as what makes a man? I think this quote from what was written in the article above hits the nail on the head,
“All of this crap in life and he still has a forgiving, accommodating attitude. Life goes on. The Dude abides.”
Fuckin A man!
That’s pretty interesting, dudeski, man. I’ve never really thought about cowboys as storytellers. I can see the connection though.
Personally, I always see Sam Elliott as a cowboy. He just fits the role so well.
I just read this for the first time and Chalupa, Dudely Lama, I have to say, you nailed it right on the head in your analysis here. What you’re talking about is in my opinion the main theme of the movie: what it means to be a man for this time and place. Despite the stereotypical macho bullshit we’re fed about “being a man”, The Big Lebowski completely turns on its head this traditional walterish vision of manliness, and shows via The Dude what it means to be a man in today’s world. There’s definitely a follow-up essay on all the characters you didn’t talk about to be written, but I would also add that The Dude, with his laidback attitude, is actually the only one who gets laid in the movie!
Brandon J Caulkins says
Hmmm… I think it’s time I see this movie hahah </3 <3
Bill Taphorn says
Sam Elliot (the Stranger) I believe is a well known persona just as he is depicted sitting at the bar. Most folks are familiar with Sam’s work as the cowboy type in addition to his face, voice, mustache and hat. Sam, as the story teller, kind of Frames the Story Front & Back and lends a certain settling to the LA-ness of this fanciful tail. I think it is interesting that Sam at some point apparently asked the Brothers what he was doing in this film — though he was happy to be involved.
There are so many things I’d love to ask the Brothers about TBL in stead of settling for various 3rd party interpretations & opinions about what this or that was intended to depict.