By Pat Muir
“The Big Lebowski” is arguably more popular than it was in 1998. Aside from maybe “Rocky Horror” and a few others, that seems unique. To what do you attribute that?
It is rare for movies to grow in popularity over the years, but I think The Big Lebowski is so much more than a movie. In fact, it’s more like fine literature in that sense. And the greatest works of literature just got bigger and bigger as people came to understand their depth of meaning. People love The Big Lebowski because it provides a way of making sense of our modern lives, and allows us to see how we fit into the whole durn human comedy. That doesn’t just happen in a month. Like the Bible, or James Joyce, or Herman Melville, it takes time to make sense of the message, to let it get under your skin. The Big Lebowski is such a profound work of art that it seems that more books have been written about it than any other film ever made. I could be mistaken. I’ll have to check that with my accountant.
It’s not just the surface popularity either. Fans seem to engage with the film in greater depth than they do with other movies — especially those that are ostensibly light comedies. What is it about the film that inspires that level of engagement and enthusiasm.
I think there are several reasons. First of all, ever since the late 1990s, nearly every film has followed the same structural points as laid out by screenwriting teachers. That’s why they all feel like the same regurgitated experience. The Big Lebowski does follow the universal tenets of dramatic structure, but it also subverts their expectations at every turn. It’s probably the best critique of “heroic” film narrative that ever existed, far better than the nihilism of postmodernist filmmakers, who tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s this hilarious subversion that we find thrilling, a giant thumbs up to not only the expectations of Hollywood, but the expectations of civilization itself. The more obvious reason that people continue to be engaged and enthused by the film is simply that it is so dense with ideas that one never feels that they’ve “come to the end” of the Lebowski experience. I still see things in the film that I’ve never noticed before, even after many, many viewings. And moreover, they’re not just eye candy or gratuitous jokes, the elements of the film all seem to “mean” something, and fit together in a crystalline fashion. It’s an absolutely astonishing accomplishment. One wonders if The Coens weren’t touched by angels when they wrote it. Not that I believe in angels, however. Maybe it was an acid flashback?
I understand the underlying principles of Dudeism, and I get that it’s intellectually on solid footing. But how serious an endeavor was it at the beginning? Did it start with an “on shit, this makes sense” epiphany or was it kind of a goof that developed over time into something more?
Actually it was sort of the reverse. I had been searching for a metaphysics with which to make sense of the world for ten years before I stumbled upon the film and realized it could provide a basis for a spiritual, philosophical and psychological “Theory of Everything.” So I was really pretty serious when I decided to develop a religion around it. When everything began to crystallize and I discovered how all of civilized human history could be examined and evaluated through its lens, I was pretty overwhelmed and amazed. But it’s been about 13 years now, and I’ve mellowed. If anything, I’ve been taking it less seriously than I used to. It’s not that I’m disenchanted, but rather perhaps I’m becoming more “Dude” about the whole thing.
Any idea how many adherents there are? What do you hope they get out of it?
We have nearly half a million ordained Dudeist Priests all over the world. But of course, it’s very easy to ordain so most of them are probably not terribly serious about it. However, a surprising number of people do take Dudeism very much to heart. Our Facebook pages and groups are huge and involve a lot of spirited discussion. I’m regularly humbled by how many people give us notes and tell us what Dudeism means to them, how it’s changed their lives and want to know how they can help spread the Dude word. Mainly, I think that Dudeism provides an easy and immediate way in which to feel more “at home” in the world and to defend against the aggressions and expectations of others. We are not designed to live the way we do — evolutionary psychology has shown that most of our problems are the result of a stone age mind living in a silicon-age environment. The Dude is someone who has figured out how to overcome those challenges. And it’s not just by comporting himself like a caveman! It’s not his laziness or casual dress that makes him an icon, rather it’s his attitude and his ability to abide.
One of the best things about “The Big Lebowski” is that my favorite quotes and favorite gags have changed so much over time. (Recently, “I got a rash, man. Fuckin’ A,” has killed me.) What do you remember from the first time you saw “Lebowski”? How has your understanding of it changed over time?
Well certainly at the beginning I just couldn’t get over how funny it was. The timing, the language, the situations, the characters all brought tears to my eyes repeatedly. Then as I started to get more philosophical about it I began to concentrate on its meaning. Now I think I’m back to laughing at it once more. There’s a Zen saying: Before Zen training, mountains are mountains, during Zen training, mountains are no longer mountains, and after Zen training, mountains are once again mountains. And Taoism suggests that deep spiritual messages need to be laughed at or they will turn into dogma. So maybe that’s where I am. Who knows? Lebowski is like life itself. Lotta ins and outs. lotta strands. What have you. It might not be such a…a…a…you know? It’s just good knowing it’s out there. I take comfort in that. Makes me feel all warm inside.