August 11, 2004
A Man for his time 'n place
With the upcoming Lebowski Fest in New York, everyone's favorite movie is back in the news. The New York Times covers the upcoming gathering (I'd go, but I don't roll on Shabbos), with an article detailing the cult following around the film. Not much here, other than a probably unjustified comparison to Harold and Kumar Go to Whitecastle, and the story of a Wall Street guy who hires based on recognition of dropped Lebowski quotes. I don't know about you, but I take comfort in the fact that there's a guy out there who would hire me based on my Lebowski knowledge.
The real story, however, comes from none other than The Jerusalem Post. Calev Ben-David, in an article published today, focuses on the film's openly Jewish and Shomer Shabbos character, Walter Sobchak. After recounting some of Walter's more memorable lines, Ben-David suggests Walter's Jewishness holds the key to the film's deeper meaning:
Is it just because he doesn't "roll on Shabbes[sic]"? Or maybe because in contrast to the Dude, who takes nothing seriously except bowling, Walter takes everything too seriously – including bowling.
Walter is the ego to the Dude's id, the moral center of The Big Lebowski who insists there are "rules" in life, who declares "This aggression will not stand" and vows "to draw a line in the sand" when confronted with what he sees as injustice, as he rages against Nazis, nihilists, pacifists, Saddam Hussein, "fig eaters with towels on their heads trying to find reverse on a Soviet tank," and a rival bowler tellingly named Jesus "the Jesus Man" Quintana.
The Dude is the heart of The Big Lebowski, but Walter is its (Jewish) soul – and the reason you can count me among its cult of fans.
Ben-David is almost right. But to put Walter's Jewishness at the center of his character is a mistake; his Jewishness is an expression of his rationalism, not the other way around; because he insists on finding meaning in existence, he became a Jew (remeber, he converted). His association with the Jewish people, with the 3000 years of beautiful history from Moses to Sandy Koufax, is an explicit imputation of meaning into history and existence.
As a result of this outlook, Walter takes the world a little too seriously, searching out the meaning and rules in life and enforcing them with an unrivaled passion. After all, he did not watch his buddies die face down in the muck, in the meaningless theatre of war, to return to a world where rules are trampled on willy-nihily. His arch-enemies are nihilists; say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, at least it's an ethos. When confronted with this nothingness, Walter takes solace in bowling, his Tree of Life, where the rules are clearly defined and meaningful; advancing to the next round is a matter of abiding by the rules, and is just. If you're over the line, that's a foul, mark it zero. It's no surprise that Walter is set to square off against Jesus (whose flamboynat dress and sexual deviance flaunt the austere morals of the traditional bowler) and his Irish partner, Seamus; the adandoning of the Law, within the religious sphere (the bowling alley), is anathema to Walter. On Shabbos, no less.
As for the film itself, that's really just the tip of the Walter iceberg. While we would most closely identifty Walter as a rationalist, the Dude thinks of him in more concrete terms. The bottom line is that Walter is presented, as the film comes to a close, as holding no more answers to life's meaning than the rest of us. He is unable to make sense of Donny's death, other than by associating him with the meaninglessness he experienced in Vietnam* (there's isn't a literal connection). And let's not forget, let's NOT forget, The Dude only got involved in this whole mess because he listened to Walter's advice.
The Dude, on the other hand, who is still the main character of the film, is of a different nature altogether. He is a man trying to decide if the world has any meaning at all. As the film winds to a close, it seems not much has changed for The Dude. The Dude, as they say, abides. I suppose we'll talk more about The Dude later; suffice it to say, although he's still on the bowling team, The Dude remains quite skeptical of Walter's approach to life.
* - The real secret of Donny's death: God smote him for bad bowling performance.