JTA — To a certain subclass of young American males, today is an anniversary on par with 4/20, 15 years since the debut of the cult classic that gave us such gloriously quotable lines as, “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax, you’re goddamn right I’m living in the past!”
It’s tempting to divide the world into eras before “The Big Lebowski” and after, so deeply has it influenced the movie quoting habits of people prone to quoting movies. A product of the twisted Jewish imagination of Joel and Ethan Coen, Lebowski has taught us many things, like how rugs can tie rooms together and how exhausting it is to be a nihilist and what happens when you f–k a stranger in the a–. It has introduced to our cultural lexicon such memorable locutions as “Shut the f–k up, Donny” and reassured us that “Nothing is f—-d here.” It has admonished us to take care when “there’s a beverage here man” and urged us not to f–k with “the Jesus” and not to take advantage of people just because they’re bereaved. We’ve been helpfully informed that “New sh-t has come to light” — even if we’re not privy to all that new sh-t. And it has made us ponder such unanswerables as, Who are the Knutsens? And what’s a pederast?
In short, it’s changed everything.
I first saw the film in college, the Saturday night after a sleepless camping trip, and promptly passed out before hearing the movie’s best Jewish line, when Walter Sobchak, the irascible Vietnam veteran and gun-toting bowling fanatic played to ludicrous perfection by John Goodman, angrily denounces those “f—s down at the league office” for scheduling the seminfinals on a Saturday.
“I told that kraut a f—–g thousand times that I don’t roll on Shabbos!” he huffs.
And then, as he is wont to do, he cranks it up even further. “Shomer shabbos,” he grunts. “Shomer f—–g shabbos.”
Fortunately, I’m calmer than you are and tried again. From there it was off to the races. I’ve seen “The Big Lebowski” more times than any other film. More times than I care to admit, actually. Truthfully, it’s almost embarassing how Talmudic is my knowledge of all the ins and all the outs. For a film hemorrhaging with profanity, it’s frightening the extent of cerebral real estate it occupies.
Happily, I’m not the only one so consumed. The film has inspired a following on par with “Star Trek” or “Star Wars,” both multi-episode franchises that spawned TV spinoffs and whole aisles of kitsch at Toys R Us. Lebowski was made for $15 million, flopped at the box office, and got mixed reviews. But its devotees, and they are legion, have given it life. There’s a traveling Lebowski festival each year in bowling alleys around the country, and the Dude and Walter make frequent appearances at Halloween parties each October. On assignment for JTA at the Burning Man festival a few years ago, I even met a Jewish filmmaker from Canada who had chosen the Dude as his playa identity for the week. Fittingly, we discovered we have the same birthday and had both adopted for a time the moniker “the wandering Jew.”
There is even an academic study of the film, though you could be forgiven for assuming the authors lacked the necessary means for a higher education. Among its many virtues, the film has apparently managed to historicize irony. And what I took for the Dude’s unrepentant slackerism is actually just his “Trotskian positionality.”
But if you must find some Jewish redemption in all this, consider Walter (with his girth and volubility, it’s impossible not to). A lapsed Polish Catholic with anger management issues and a Michael Scott-ish quality for leaving a trail of catastrophe in his wake, Walter, under his folds of cellulite and sedimentary layers of Vietnam trauma, has the softest of hearts. We see it in the film’s absurd finale (and by absurd, I mean absurdly hilarious) when Walter turns his eulogy for — spoiler alert for those who have spent the last 15 years enjoying the occasional acid flashback — the recently departed Donny into an elegy for his fallen war comrades. Then he empties a Folger’s can with Donny’s remains into the lip of the Pacific Ocean, where it promptly is blown back by the wind into the Dude’s face. Then he breaks down in tears.
“If you will it, it is no dream,” Walter informs us early in the film. A true sabra, Walter is aggressive to the point of self-destruction, responding to any hint of wrongdoing with muscle and (misplaced) resolve, nearly taking out a fellow veteran for a foot fault at the alley. He’s submissive to his ex-wife — OK, it’s not his Jewish mother, but still — and loyal to his tribe, routinely making their lives miserable in the process.
OK, so it’s not the Coen’s most Jewish of films. It’s hard to top “A Serious Man” in that category, though if they ever get around to making it, “The Yiddish Policemen’s Union” should probably trump it. But for sheer devotion, “The Big Lebowski” is their career high point.
And for that, we’ll rest a little easier. Knowing it’s out there. Taking it easy for the rest of us.
Watch the famous scene (NSFW language):