Updated: Jan 17
The word “cult” is one that carries heavy connotation, one that can act as both a homophone and an abbreviation – considering “cult” as a shortened sequitur for “culture,” or for “occult.” Considering the latter in terms with a Western idea of hegemonic Christianity, here, cult as a reference to occult can be expanded as a terminology referring to what is cast aside; what is transgressive, dark, seedy, and evil beyond the implication of the taboo. This is where a lot of central questions from the larger subject matter of “cult and exploitation” live – how does one probe the relationship of the subversive in tandem with a definition of “culture” as a neutral thing, a thing that pertains to nuance and influence more than it suits an agenda? How does the particular field of reading cult films begin, how can they be read as a genre of influence, and is there an end to this line of questioning?
The Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998) can be used as a case study to poke at this relationship, to parse out the ways in which the cult film does not universally reflect a “chicken or the egg” argument where the debate surrounds whether audience participation or artist intention create the label of “cult.” A question that has no answer, the “chicken or the egg” colloquialism, in the case of The Big Lebowski, reveals a grey area of influence that implicates a notion of capital “C” Culture as a way to negotiate audience participation, through an analysis of narrative structure, subtext, and reception. Indeed, these circular ways of thinking lead to a stickiness that, while frustrating to navigate, defines the most valuable part of the cult film: its ability to transmute boundaries and transgress a solid “answer” or message.
Narratively speaking, The Big Lebowski (1998) reflects some of Pierre Bordieus ideas of taste; its ability to classify, and, in this film specifically, be classified by culture itself. The Big Lebowski is a film whose simple, even canonical, narrative style is complicated by a series of twists and turns which, by the end of the film, ends exactly where the title credits and introductory monologue first took us: mundane places that are no place, like the grocery store, or a bowling alley. Bordieu maintains that “…the manner in which culture has been acquired lies on in the manner of using it: the importance attached to manners can be understood once it is seen that it is these imponderables of practice which distinguish the different – and ranked – modes of culture acquisition, early or late, domestic of scholastic, and the classes of individuals which they characterize (such as ‘pedants’ and mondains),” (Bordieu, 1). This quote can be read through the film in the classic name game between Jeff Lebowski aka “The Dude,” and The Big Lebowski, an assumingly rich man in a wheelchair who’s missing a trophy wife named Bunny – in this way, the pedant (The Dude) is used as a proxy for a man with the same name, and more power. Not only does this name game present an integral funniness to the dialogue with the word “Dude” gratuitously used as a proper noun, but it reflects a larger part of the narrative structure of The Big Lebowski; it’s general pointlessness to the main plot. The twists and turns that The Dude has to navigate to accomplish his mission for The Big Lebowski function as a way to complicate the story, only as a means to unravel it. Filmically, the narrative uses these moments of conflict as aesthetics of complication designed to be read into, though, this proverbial book to read is actually filled with blank pages. It can be understood here that the intention of the film is to present itself as something it’s not. A prime example is in the way the two goons thrash The Dude and piss on his rug thinking that they’re collecting a bounty from the other Jeff Lebowski, the Big Lebowski who, by the end of the film, is exposed as a faux millionaire with a penchant for extortion. Audiences are drawn to read into The Big Lebowski’s plan to use The Dude to retrieve Bunny from her captors and earn a $20,000 tip in the process – there’s a latent desire for The Dude to end up successful, where the way the narrative seemingly follows a conventional three-act structure, placing the set-up of this central conflict within the first 20 minute of the movie, signifies that through a series of mishaps, some sort of resolution to this central conflict will be achieved by the end. This sort of ideological buy-in relates to Bordieu’s idea that “Consumption is, in this case, a process of communication, that is, an act of deciphering, decoding, which presupposes practical or explicit mastery of a cipher or code.. In a sense, one can know that the capacity to see (voir) is a function of the knowledge (savoir), or concepts, that is, the words, that are available to name visible things, and which are, as it were, programmes of perception,” (Bordieu 2). Based on this analysis of the way The Big Lebowski approaches narrative structure as a kind of ouroboros – how does its status as a cult film affect this perception of narrative, and how might the narrative affect the film’s perception? How might audiences intellectualize The Big Lebowski and, to be more sweeping and unanswerable – how might what some call a “cult sensibility” factor in?
While leaving these broad questions alone, Anne Jerslev’s ideas on cult film’s function as a process of signification bring up another take on the story of The Big Lebowski (1998) – an irreverent one directly reminiscent of Howard Hawk’s The Big Sleep (1946) with a nihilist overtone. To focus on cult films specifically, Jerslev first distinguishes cult events and cult culture – a clash with audiences she presents as a way to see the “cult film to come,” (Jerslev 181). On the cut event, Jerslev elucidates its intrigue “…because its discursive practice can to a certain extent be regarded as a symbolization of the structural codes of contemporary media reception, both in the cinema and in front of the TV set,” (Jerslev 182). This is a key function of The Big Lebowski, where the thing it symbolizes is The Big Sleep. To properly note the similarities in name, The Big Lebowski symbolizes The Big Sleep by toying with certain key elements such as the name; it symbolizes by subverting some encoded meaning of The Big Sleep, while also independently coding its own story network, if you will. A great example of this kind of humor in anti-symbolization happens through the devil-may-care German nihilists in The Big Lebowski. The German nihilists are always referred to as such, where The Dude and his cohorts frequently maintain the idea of “stay the fuck away from those guys they’re nihilists, they don’t believe in anything and don’t give a fuck about anyone!” Ironically, the film doesn’t believe in anything either, in that it references The Big Sleep, yet employs a narrative structure that deconstructs the central plot to draw attention to the asynchronous, random, mundane subplots.
This Reddit post from a fan best encapsulates this idea:
The Big Lebowski ends the exact way it starts: with a “man,” a “Dude,” if you will. All of the double crossing in The Big Sleep leads to its own narrative subversion, the change in structure from a film noir to a love story, while The Big Lebowski ends with the reminder that every element that felt like it was designed to signify a different end than the beginning ultimately means the same thing it meant when it started. There are arguments to be made that this concept in and of itself is nihilist. To messily butcher Nietzche’s discourse on nihilism: The Big Lebowski is nihilist in that it says: sometimes it’s not that deep, especially with the notion that the Coen brothers shot The Big Lebowski in a film noir style, which says, yet again, the film exists to reference prior forms and make them a comfortable nothingness, the same one that slacker Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski lives, with the same “nothing matters” attitude that the German nihilists make fun of (Crouch). With respect to the connection between The Big Sleep and The Big Lebowski, Jerslev proposes that “Because we know the story, we immerse ourselves in it. Rather, because we know the story, the pleasure of watching is derived from a position of sovereignty where hypothesis-making becomes a play-act, and the question ‘What happens next?’ is asked from a position of playful mastery, because we already know the answer,” (Jerslev 184). This is, unless we don’t know the answer, unless the film means nothing, and then, within that paradox, the film means something more because it means nothing and references a past thing by subverting it. This is what Jerslev defines as distinctly “cult” – “…the cult event calls for theoretical concepts that are able to account for and to emphasise the ambiguity of the setting and the circulation of meaning,” (Jerslev 184). This only complicated the original question of “which comes first – audience or label?” with another one: is this notion of accountability, or “proof,” in a sense, that The Big Lebowski was intentionally created as a cult film, because of its relationship to The Big Sleep? Is any cult film outside of the historical jurisdiction of the late 1960’s through 1970’s, a time which dually birthed and proliferated the “cult film” title, a psyop?
A closer look into The Big Lebowski (1998) fans points to an intellectualization of the film that address Jerslev’s original ideas that cult events are an amalgam of the cult event and its audience. Here she references proximity, in that “The historical distance between film and audience even prolongs the intertextual references prospectively: not only is the spectator familiar with The Big Sleep, but this film points towards other and more recent films: other Marlowe interpretations, film noir remakes, other and more recent secondary texts: extratextual media gossip about the characters who were also lovers in real life, and so on,” (Jerslev 184). This reflects the ‘radical bricolage’ of The Big Lebowski: it is original, and it is a referential film that is also a complete departure from the thing it represents. (Corrigan as cited by Jerslev, 186). Perhaps this is why there are such delineations of the film, like this interactive map designed to triangulate the exact subversions the plot takes within the three-act structure. This map is a prime example of audience meaning-making via a signifier: in this case, the signifier is the way the movie doesn’t follow the rules it presents itself to. In addition to maps like these, there is an annual Lebowski festival, along with several vibrant subreddits where audiences from the likes of everywhere share their theories, insights, loves, hates, and points of confusion. These events support Jerslev’s take that “Cult film is fundamentally an event. A cult film is only brought into existence in so far as one talks of a certain interaction between a text and an audience. On the other hand, this specific relationship is made possible by certain textual arrangements and historical circumstances,” (Jerslev 186). So, the text and the history are dually the very material of The Big Lebowski as a cult film. In referencing The Big Sleep, The Big Lebowski references its history, in addition to Jerslev’s piece itself, rather ironically as, according to her, the textuality of the cult film is applied by outside resources such as her writing about The Big Sleep as a case study for cult film relationships.
Bordieu’s previous ideas of taste get complicated with the acknowledgement of history and reference as a cornerstone of Jerslev’s idea of a cult event. With reference to the idea that taste is a classifier that operates as a social distinction more than as an objective truth, what about an anti-taste; a “sub-taste,” so to speak? In terms of gleaning understanding from references, “Nevertheless, if as a spectator one is not able to catch the more or less evident references…one can at least address and be addressed by the archetypical characters of the film: the Good and the Bad, the Child and the Adult, the Law and the Outlaw, and so on,” (Jerslev 190). Considering The Big Lebowski as a cut event, this recognition of “at least” does not imply a lack – from the beginning monologue, that very surface, the boredom, is what the movie preoccupies itself with. In this way, The Big Lebowski undoes any overintellectualization to come, but doesn’t disavow it – there’s no buy in to this cult evet, it just is.
This essay is not to make the argument that any cult event that is referential to a history exists in a vacuum, and is therefore untouched by the hands of “film buff” or “fanboy/girl/them” culture, but it is to make a point that these class structures Bordieu implicates within culture, addressed at the beginning of this piece and now at the end (taking a page from the Coen brothers, here), can disguise themselves. With credence to Bordieu, Jerslev, The Big Lebowski (1998), Howard Hawk and The Big Sleep (1946), white Russians, bowling alleys, the genera form of film noir – the list goes on – could there possibly be a cult formula? Beyond any laundry list of references, filmic elements, ploy symbols, or subreddits, the answer lies in the mundanity for the cult film: it is what it is, and it can be more than what it is – sometimes allowing the gum on the bottom of the proverbial shoe stick to the pavement before seeking to uncomplicate it.
Bourdieu, Pierre, et al. Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015, pp. 1–7.
Crouch, Joe. “‘The Big Lebowski’ (1998) - Act Structure - A Review.” The Art of Joe Crouch, 19 Oct. 2016, theartofjoecrouch.blogspot.com/2016/10/the-big-lebowski-1998-act-structure.html.
Jerslev, Anne. “Semiotics by Instinct: 'Cult Film' as a Signifying Practice between Audience and Film.” Media Cultures: Reappraising Transnational Media, vol. 3, Routledge , 1992, pp. 181–198. Routledge Library Editions: Cultural Studies.
u/JacksonHeightsOwn. “r/Lebowski - The Big Lebowski / The Big Sleep.” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/lebowski/comments/7dq8sl/the_big_lebowski_the_big_sleep/.