The Big Lebowski: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN

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Was the writing on the wall? I’m not a numerologist, nor do I necessarily believe in signs. But I noticed a few years back that there was a strange convergence of political, social, and tragic factors in the opening scene of the greatest of all films from the 1990s, The Big Lebowski (1998). The opening scene frames the dude as the man for his time and place, which is Los Angeles in 1991. Throughout this scene in the supermarket we are continually reminded of the first war in Iraq. The Stranger’s voice over frames the moment by mentioning the “conflict with Saddam and the Iraqis” purely as a way of introducing the character of Lebowski, not as a hero, but as a man who perfectly suits his time and place. The importance of time and place is essential to this film, and I think Lebowski’s persistent place in the popular imagination (well, at least my popular imagination) has so much to do with a vision of an antediluvian nation. An outer body look at a time and a place before the devastating losses of the twin towers. A lazy instant before Bush compounded this international tragedy with a phantom war.

I don’t know precisely why The Big Lebowski has always struck me as the most profound statement upon the events of September 11th, 2001 -intentional or not. This is not to suggest that Bush senior’s stilted declaration that “This aggression will not stand” or the bizarre coincidence that the Dude dates his check for 0.69 cents Sept. 11, 1991 (precisely one decade prior) marks some occult foreshadowing. Rather, more importantly, this scene represents a moment that I lived through (in Los Angeles no less) marking that strange passage of time that movies always do for me. Yet, unlike so many other movies, this movie (well, actually, this scene) has been branded on my mind whenever I think about the even more recent history of New York City during September 11th -and the ongoing political maneuvering for geo-political power that was this government’s feeble attempt towards national solace. Where are we as a culture? Are we capable of dealing with tragedy or loss? What are we doing in Iraq once again? And why, for god’s sakes, are our super markets so shiny while our foreign policy is so messy?

Lebowski Check

In Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, Murray Jay Siskind points out that a supermarket “is sealed off, self-contained. It is timeless.” This moment in The Big Lebowski captures this vision, at least for me, of a nation that is endlessly self-referring and finds it almost impossible to position itself in the world in some meaningful relationship to others as well as its citizens. The writing is on the wall -mene, mene…

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6 Responses to The Big Lebowski: MENE, MENE, TEKEL, PARSIN

  1. Gardner says:

    I guess this makes you Daniel, my friend. Keep up the good work with the exegesis and translation.

  2. jimgroom says:

    You rule Gardner -I was hoping the Old testament would appeal to you! I just hope I can just stay out of the lion’s den -for Brian’s indirect reference to the Book of Daniel is completely apropos on all kinds of levels. I think the other movie worth mentioning here, although it is a more direct (yet extremely thoughtful, hopeful, and poetic) examination of September 11th is Spike Lee’s brilliant 25th Hour.

  3. Brian says:

    Well, you know a Lebowski post from Reverend Jim, so well versed in the Book of Duderonomy will have me reading with attention bordering on shame. Even here on a wet west coast morning, before the first jolt of coffee has had a chance to take hold…

    I think you’ve talked through the main elements of this post with me in conversation before. Or perhaps I’m caught up in this same recursive loop of associations in way that melts my distinctions between subconscious knowing and conscious perception of memory. I can only hope so.

    In any event, I am yet again reminded of Lawrence Weschler’s recent book Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences which is a very smart exploration of when images, symbols and moments in history come together like this… I haven’t read the book yet (UBC still hasn’t acquired it, guess I’ll need to shell out some bucks), but I really dug this interview on Radio Open Source:

    http://www.radioopensource.org/convergences/

    And your post would fit right in to the McSweeney’s companion contest: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/books/everythingthatrises.contest.html

    Finally, though I recognise you are burning brighter than magnesium these days, I will humbly suggest again that you give that Weschler essay on the Museum of Jurassic Technology a read. It will be an hour of your time very well spent.

    Not that you need advice on how to spend your time. Keep on TBCing Duder…

  4. jimgroom says:

    Brian,

    Ah, nothing like Walter, well, no, maybe you’re the dude, commenting on this post. I actually was thinking through the idea for this in your car on the way home from day one of Northern Voice, heading irreversibly towards a transformative series of evenings at Casa de Lamb. I, apologetically, have not read that article just yet, but this evening its on the plate, and its funny how often I start writing from and with that formative weekend in Vancouver in mind these days. As for Duderonomy -damn you’re good! I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoy the unmatched wit, intellect, and general light-hearted subversion you always send my way. And, more importantly, for a distributed friendship that is re-framing the brilliance of these connections for me on a daily basis.

  5. “The importance of time and place is essential to this film, and I think Lebowski’s persistent place in the popular imagination (well, at least my popular imagination) has so much to do with a vision of an antediluvian nation. ”

    You’ve absolutely nailed it.

    Disclosure: in 1991, I was an unrepentant 21 yr old slacker. So my perspective is highly colored.

    But there were a couple years there, sandwiched in between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start Iraq War I where everything was just strangely quiet.

    Of course, for people on my timeline (b. 1969), it wasn’t only geopolitical. It was the complete cultural package. I spent 1991 living outside, playing guitar and working 12 hours a week as a public bathroom attendant. Eight years later I’d have a Masters in linguistics and be working 70 hour weeks for an e-learning dot com.

    So even before 9/11 TBL spoke to me and reminded me of that brief interlude where the world seemed in a comfortable autopilot, and all we were expected to do was find something to occupy the time while we waited in that peculiarly silent place.

    In other words, it was enough just to abide….

  6. Rick Swerve says:

    As someone who has tired to model his work ethic and drug intake after that of ‘The Dude,’ I always enjoy delving into the subject of Duderonomy.

    The last time I watched the film, the date on that check really jumped out at me. I don’t think I had noticed it before. And it was strange hearing the references to Bush and Saddam, when we were right back in the same situation a decade later.

    I get the same feeling listening to the awesome stand up comedy of Bill Hicks. His material was highly critical of the US involvement in Iraq in 1991, and listening to it a few years ago — again with the same names of Bush and Saddam — is really strange.

    Nothing had changed. The same jokes were still funny. And we were right back at square one.

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