The Coens for Lent – The Big Lebowski

The seventh of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]

by guest writer Elijah Davidson

To watch The Big Lebowski for Lent we should begin at the end, because Lent begins with the Imposition of Ashes and the end is when the Dude has ashes imposed upon him.

I am fond of the liturgical practice of the Imposition of Ashes. It is one of the most evocative Christian traditions.

We spend most of our lives avoiding our mortality. We deny it like ‘the other Lebowski,’ try to circumvent it like Maude, cynically embrace it like the Nihilists, or rail against it like Walter. Many of us numb ourselves to it with intoxicants like the Dude. But then on Ash Wednesday, our fate is imposed upon us. If anything, The Big Leboski’s imposition of ashes is even truer than our Ash Wednesday ceremonies, because the Dude’s receiving of ashes is truly an imposition, as if the rector threw a handful of ashes in our faces as we walked in the door.

Continuing backwards, we should look for signs of abstinence and almsgiving. In these, the Dude lets us down. If anything The Big Lebowski is an exhibition of indulgence and greed. Let’s call it a negative affirmation of abstinence and almsgiving, an exhibition of indulgence in order to demonstrate its shortcomings.

Lebowski is a riff on film noír after all, and the pitfalls of self-interest are the driving force behind the genre. The genre was codified in the wake of World War II as a kind of aesthetic psychic response to the existential fallout of the horrors people experienced in the war. The protagonist of a film noír, a veteran trying to fit back in, looks around at the world and sees nothing worth fitting back into, just self-interest. Morally, peacetime isn’t that different from war. Peacetime is simply devoid of any thought of the greater good.

The other genre that responded to WWII concurrently with film noír was the Western. Both genres are about men trained in violence trying to fit back into peaceful civilization. Whereas film noír put what good there is in the heart of the man in contrast to the depravity of society, the Western placed goodness in society and a damning, irremovable spot on the hands of those who have shed blood on society’s behalf. The Western hero is cast out in the end so that society can enjoy the spoils of war – the promise of unending peace and prosperity.

The Big Lebowski is the only film I know that couches a film noír within the mythological framework of a Western. Clever Coens. Perhaps their point is that evil is neither pervasive nor predestined. It’s what we do that matters. Let’s practice the Lenten goods of abstinence and almsgiving instead.

Continuing backwards, should we mention Jesus? John Turturro’s gyrating pedophile is difficult to avoid. Why do the Coens, a couple of Midwestern Jews, sprinkle Jesus throughout their films? My guess: they tell quintessentially American stories, and Christianity is essential to America’s understanding of itself, so flavoring their films with a little explicit Christ imagery is a good way of both piquing the audience’s interest and rooting their stories in the American identity. Let’s leave it there. Doing anything more with Jesus Quintana hazards blasphemy.

We ought to do something with that rug though. It really ties the room together. Let’s call it an invitation to repose, to stay in instead of going out, a good Lenten practice. It’s also a welcoming place to prostrate oneself, and Lent is a season of prayer. Perhaps if Jackie’s hooligans hadn’t ruined the Dude’s rug, he would have stayed in and devoted himself to penitence. You don’t think so? Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.

And so we find ourselves at the beginning of the movie and the end of the Lenten season, and, yep, wouldn’t you know it? There they are – palm branches constantly waving in the ocean breeze above the heads of all us sinners in Los Angeles, preparing the way for the coming of our Lord. Until Christ comes, we will have to do like the Dude and abide.

The Dude abides.

Come, Lord Jesus.

I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. Maybe that’s the best we can do for now. Abide, pray, give a little more than we take, accept the inevitability of death and hope for something bet– aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again. Well, I hope you folks enjoyed yourselves. I’ll catch ya’ later on down the trail.

Elijah Davidson is a writer and film scholar living in Los Angeles. He is the author of How to Talk to a Movie: Movie Watching as a Spiritual Exercise. His forthcoming book, as yet untitled, is a devotional journey through the greatest films in the history of cinema. Stay updated by signing up for his newsletter, Bearing Witness.

[See all entries in “The Coens for Lent” series]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s