The Big Lebowski is a film that contains many meanings, some credible and intended, and others simply attributed by keen viewers that used the films rich variety of content to form their own opinions. But from all these tangents of analysis, a few notable subjects are made clear, The Big Lebowski is a film that cooly comments on religion, war and masculinity, comfortably dressed in the social bathrobe of good ‘ol America.
To start off, in this Coen Brothers film, clothing is the window into the character, major or minor. The Dude’s t-shirts, and his sleazy attire immediately hints to his lifestyle and outlook, as does Walter’s kaki and Vietnam threads, and Donny’s plaid shirts, noticeably changing color constantly throughout. Even minor characters like Big Lebowski, Jeffery his assistant, Jesus, the German Nihilists and Maude, pushing the metaphorical meaning attached to their attire beyond the usual level.
Apart from the direct symbolism in clothing and set design, there is clearly many comments made on war, perhaps not visual symbolism in a strict sense, but definitely the cause of many visual cues. Most concern the oriental, and throughout we see references like when the ‘chinaman’ urinates on his rug (a reference to the Vietnam war), he replaces it with a rug from the Middle East, perhaps referring to the Gulf war, Americas next big strike after Vietnam. Lebowski lost his legs to a ‘chinaman’, Walter also constantly refers to ‘Nam, yet also mentions Iraq (at that stage a point of debate in American war rooms). And finally the Dude’s attempts to steer away from war, like when he said ‘Walter this is not Vietnam’.
There are also instances where the Dude simply doesn’t like something that is seen by others as being ‘American’ and where he is then seen as being anti-establishment, subsequently pushed away because of it. For example even though the dude listens to CCR, he doesn’t like the Eagles. Yet because of his refusal to change he maintains his resolve, and applies his inherent ‘positivity’ onto every situation.
Religion also plays a large role in the social comment part of the film. The symbolism we see when the German Nihilists attack but Walter (now a follower of Judaism) bites of a ear, calling him an anti-semite is clear. And also in the champion bowler, Jesus challenging Walter (the embodiment of America) in the bowling alley.
Seeing as many parts of the film converge on Bowling it might be worthwhile to consider the significance. Bowling, initially was considered a predominantly male sport, and a sport with a lot of pride attached. The film starts, returns and ends in the alley, although all the real world action takes place away from it. The alley is like the third person vantage to the world in the film and the place where decisions on further real world actions are made. Our Narrator is also seen there for the first time, putting the alley separate from the outside. Perhaps the Alley is a metaphor for the place in our minds where we debate with ourselves to who we are, to which the film says, don’t try to beat your own choices, just be yourself.
So even though the film comments on various topics such as war, religion and poses the underlying question of ‘what is masculinity?’, the Dude’s consistency in costume, attitude and resolve shows us his refusal to change. He may look like a loser, but these things show me the sincerity in the most memorable line, and the most prominent statement that is made by this film; ‘The Dude abides’.